Monday, July 4, was supposed to be a quiet day in the publishing business. It turns out it wasn’t. Three developments reported as special holiday bulletins by Publishers Lunch have strategic implications worth pondering that will have trade publishing people all over the world conferring with their friends and colleagues as soon as they shake the sand off their shoes and settle in to read the weekend email.
First of all: Amazon.com bought The Book Depository. What? You’ve never heard of The Book Depository? Well, then you’re almost certainly one of my US-based readers (about 60-70 percent of you.) The Book Depository is really the other global bookstore. They don’t do ebooks, but they’ve bult their global book business to more than $150 million. No, that’s not as big as BN.com, but they have built a sophisticated many-to-many supply chain (they don’t do it holding stock in distributed warehouses like Amazon), have been growing by something like 30-40% per year for several years, and might even make money.
They’ve even invested heavily in untangling the metadata challenges of global book sales, with a large team in the Middle East tackling the problem.
If anybody were going to mount a global challenge to Amazon as a single consolidated book (and content) distribution business worldwide, The Book Depository was the platform to do it from.
This move by Amazon reminds me of when they acquired Mobi-pocket early in the last decade. In the dawn of the ebook-on-devices era, there were two formats competing as pawns of a hardware competition. Microsoft pushed MS Reader, Palm pushed their own format. Mobi had the clever idea of being able to play on either.
So Amazon acquired Mobi. That meant that they owned the only single-file solution; any other retailer trying to serve the market would have to offer both Microsoft and Palm as a choice to reach all the devices. Palm quickly took that option off the table by insisting it would serve all its files itself. That’s when B&N went out of the ebook business, not to return in a serious way until after Kindle launched in late 2007.
It sure looks to me like The Book Depository would have been a great launch platform for Barnes & Noble to go global.
Second: Pearson, owner of Penguin, became a book and ebook retailer by the purchase of the relevant assets from the bankrupt REDGroup. It appears they will run the business, web sites under the Borders and Angus & Robertson brands, with a minimal staff.
Pearson is a big company whose interests go far beyond Penguin, but it is the trade implications of this that catch my trade-centric eye. Big trade publishers are caught between a rock and a hard place on direct selling and customer ownership. Whatever the future may hold or require, trade publishers today are highly dependent on their intermediaries’ good will. It would likely cause untold grief with Amazon and Barnes & Noble if a major US trade house set up a direct selling operation, despite the fact that niche publishers often have them as adjuncts to community or professional publishing efforts (Wiley, O’Reilly, McGraw-Hill, F+W Media, Interweave. In fact, Pearson owns half of Safari, a direct-to-reader subscription service pioneered and co-owned by O’Reilly. They also own part of CourseSmart, but they’re now selling books and ebooks direct to consumers, not just content-by-subscription to geeks and textbooks to students.)
It might be well down the list of reasons why Pearson Australia is now running online trade selling operations, but it will be interesting to see how Penguin Australia benefits from the association.
Third: J.K. Rowling and the agent that actually handled her business, Neil Blair, have left the Christopher Little Agency which formerly employed Blair and was the agent of record for Rowling. Lawsuits may ensue, but this is another lesson in what disintermediation can mean and it recalls to me something I learned long ago from a lawyer in the music business.
My mother, Eleanor Shatzkin, had a chunk of her consulting career when she designed billing systems for law firms. (This was in the days before personal computers; “data processing” back then was done on punch cards sent to job shops for print-outs to be created.) So she made friends with a lot of lawyers. One of them, a very nice man named Don Engel, left the large New York firm where he’d been a litigator and moved out to California and set up a practice in the music business.
What Don told me (this was in the early 1980s) was that he found a phenomenon out there that didn’t exist in New York because people could start a law firm with just one client, and they often did. (As he said, you can’t take a piece of the AT&T business and set up shop, but you can take one big recording artist.) That meant these firms had no broad capabilities, and if any real legal challenges arose, the little firm with the big client would need savvier outside counsel. Don built a substantial business suing record companies over royalties on behalf of artists, getting cases referred by these tiny “firms” with one star client because he developed a reputation for being an honest guy who wouldn’t poach the client in turn!
I don’t want to suggest that what Rowling and Blair are doing is likely to become a trend. In fact, the prevailing industry conditions at the moment would, I think, mitigate against it. Agencies are more likely to consolidate than to splinter because the capabilities they need to serve their clients effectively are growing with digital change. Whatever threat there is to publishers from disintermediation would require that agents do more and have greater organizational capabilities, not less.
On the other hand, new services being offered by agents that other agents could employ might allow unbundling of the direct client contact from the rest of the agency functions.
I hope you had a really restful 4th of July weekend. The second half of the year begins with plenty to think about.