One of the most significant pieces of news to come out of Tools of Change is that O’Reilly is going into the distribution business for ebooks. This is indeed, a “tool” of change. It is also a harbinger of times to come that threaten a lot of big companies: major publishers; the big distributors like Perseus, NBN, and IPG; the digital asset distributors including Ingram, LibreDigital, North Point codeMantra, and the fledgling operation at Bookmasters; as well as the digital wholesaling operations at Ingram, Content Reserve, and Baker & Taylor.
The O’Reilly offer is to do whatever conversion is necessary to deliver files to a wide range of ebook channels for free and then to make the ebooks available through that retailing network for a charge of 25% of the dollars received. One prospective client told me that O’Reilly is willing to do a one-year contract.
This both an object lesson and a serious shot across the bow of the legacy giants of the print book business.
We’ve made the point here before that big publishers have a competitive advantage built on print-world capabilities, among them being the ability to get fast printings and reprints; the ability to quickly move books in and out of a distribution center; the ability to ship books according to the receiving requirements of many intermediaries, large and small; and a strong sales network with accounts, mostly brick-and-mortar, that sell printed books. All of these things require pretty massive scale. You couldn’t consider doing them well yourself for a $1 million (in sales) company or a $10 million company and it would be challenging to be competitive doing them with a $50 million company.
The scale required to do effective print book distribution affects both the supply and the demand in the distribution business. It means there are a lot of companies too small to do it well for themselves (creating lots of demand) and very few companies with the scale to do it well (creating a limited supply of providers.) Even so, as the need for scale along with declining overall sales have driven the big publishers deeper and deeper into the distribution business (pushing up the supply of distributors), prices for distribution have fallen steadily for at least the past decade.
Of course, anything that requires expertise benefits from some scale to develop it. And that’s what O’Reilly has in digital distribution. Partly because of the nature of the company’s audience, but largely because they have been aggressive and innovative about exploring every conceivable avenue for ebook distribution and developing a tool set that makes it possible for them to try new channels and opportunities quickly, O’Reilly has more scale, and therefore more expertise, than anybody else in consumer ebook distribution (except, arguably, some publishers in the romance space.) It is quite believeable that they can put ebooks into more channels with more efficiency than anybody else. And that’s an expertise that is largely (but not completely) topic-agnostic.
So we have a real Man Bites Dog story here. In the print world, O’Reilly is distributed by Ingram, which has invested heavily in ebook distribution. But not only does Ingram not get to be the distributor of their client’s ebooks, O’Reilly is issuing what amounts to an open invitation for all other publishers, including their fellow distributees at Ingram, to use them for ebook distribution.
(In his wrap-up talk at Tools of Change, Tim O’Reilly referenced a remark John Ingram had made to him at dinner the night before. On reflection, one wonders how the part of the the dinner conversation about ebook distribution went.)
This new challenge is playing itself out all across the distribution landscape. In the past week I have had two conversations with smaller publishers who have distributors on the print side. One is repped by one of the big independent distributors and the other by one of the Big Six. Both are planning their ebook distribution strategies, and neither of them intends to use their print distributor to help in any way.
The one distributed by an indie distributor is seriously tempted by the O’Reilly offer. This well-established company is quite comfortable taking responsibility for its own sales if they don’t need scale to handle it, so they have already pulled Amazon out of their print distribution deal. They planned to do digital on their own. They’ve had a digital workflow for a while, so their current books are in XML documents that make ebook conversion pretty straightforward. (If the offer of totally free content conversion is correct, then O’Reilly may have developed some tools helping them automate the way to from PDF or epub to XML. And they solve the problem of getting from XML to anything else that comes along for all their books.) But this publisher still have an extensive backlist that needs conversion to XML. This company sees a 1-year contract with O’Reilly as a possible way to get the conversion done and to get a line on a large number of points of ebook merchandising that they might otherwise not have known. In any case, the big print book distributor — with all its sunk costs and infrastructure and years of performance and relationship — isn’t even getting consideration.
The other company, distributed by a Big Six publisher, has also decided that digital distribution through its print distributor is a non-starter. They have been looking at the many Digital Asset Distributors to handle their conversion and distribution and have been close to settling on one. This company also has a legacy conversion challenge. Might they now want to put the deal they’re close to on hold and explore O’Reilly?
I would if I were in their shoes.
Cader wrote Wednesday (behind his pay wall) about the smaller trade publishers who have been slow to enter the ebook marketplace. He springboards from the results of a survey Perseus did of its clients and which formed the basis of a presentation they did at Tools of Change. Cader observes that 2/3 of Perseus’s 300 clients don’t use their Constellation service, their digital publishing assistance program (book distributor as DAD), at all. And, of those that do, he says:
Making ebooks available at all though looks to remain the biggest challenge for the survey group. The largest segment, 33 percent, said that fewer than 10 percent of their titles would be available as ebooks in 2010. Another 26 percent said half or fewer would be available, with just 30 percent expecting to have 75 percent to 100 percent of their titles available.
As ebook sales climb to very desireable levels, publishers of all sizes will pursue the revenue opportunities they represent. Trade book distributors have always lived on the reality that they provide the necessary scale to enable publishers to do what they do well that needs no scale: pick, develop, and deliver books people want. What requires a bit more scale but less to the publisher that specializes, and most small publishers do, is marketing. Distributors have never been much help there, frankly.
This perspective of the distributor was made very clear by the best-delivered presentation at Tools of Change, the one from Skip Prichard, the CEO of the Ingram Content Group. Skip was basically saying to the publishers: you do the content, we’ll do the rest. I know that Ingram’s perspective on a problem I’ve written about before — that publishers will have increasing trouble supporting the big infrastructures they have built for print — is that the publishers’ challenge creates opportunity for them.
And on the print side — the diminishing side — that is definitely true. What is not nearly as clear is whether on the ebook side — the growing side — they will face new, smaller competitors who have built a strongly competitive infrastructure without needing to be nearly as big. If that’s also true, then, one suspects, O’Reilly is not the only relative upstart that will be taking real business away from established players in the very near future.
There is actually a nice extension to this post that ties in nicely with my prior one on title P&Ls and the Motoko Rich piece in the Times about ebook pricing, but I’m going to leave that as a teaser for another one I may write someday because I’ve gone on long enough for now.
While I’m in Florida watching baseball games, as I am now and will be for the next few days, take a few minutes to respond the BISG survey supporting the “Points of No Return” Making Information Pay conference we’re organizing for May 6.