The very nice people of Tata Consulting Services entertained a group of publishing executives at Yankee Stadium on Friday night in a luxury box behind first base. This was an ideal way to see an historic evening at the ballpark on a very hot night (the box is air conditioned and opening the big window in it actually leaked cold air on the two rows of great seats below) but it also gave rise to some very stimulating conversation with some smart and knowledgable publishers.
Because this was a private evening (and because this is not a muckraking blog; we traffic in insight here, not news), nobody gets identified and no quotes are attributed. But that doesn’t mean that very interesting observations about where publishing is and where it is going have to be kept secret.
There were a variety of publishers and industry leaders in the group. One of the most interesting between-innings conversations picked up from the post on this blog last week about the threat that the rapid uptake of ereading poses to brick-and-mortar stores.
One big publisher observed that he saw clearly that display in bookstores moved the needle on ebook sales. His fear, and a thought we didn’t cover in the post, is that the decline in brick-and-mortar exposure will lead to a decline in the overall sales for many titles. The several of us involved who were in this dialogue agreed that brick-and-mortar simply presented more opportunities to grab impulse sales; you can’t “promote” as many titles in the real estate available on a screen than you can in a well-merchandised physical surrounding. The online advantage is targeting, of course; the store can’t customize its impulse presentations to each individual customer, and that opportunity exists online. But except for the opening screen, we couldn’t think of any online retailer that really takes advantage of that.
Another big publisher wondered if there might be a plateau point below which the print book erosion won’t go. “Will it level off at 50-50, say, or maybe at 70-30?” It does seem intuitively correct that there’s a hard core of paper book readers that could keep print alive.
But, of course, keeping print alive for any number of people is only half the equation for bookstores. Print can be bought online. In our post on the threat to brick-and-mortar, we posited a 2/3 drop in store sales from current levels will have occurred when we reach 50% ebooks and 50% of the print being sold online. There is a vicious cycle at work here: fewer store purchases lead to fewer stores, which will further fuel online purchasing for those readers who don’t want to give up print. And that still leaves a big problem for the remaining stores.
One publisher had some interesting observations about “ebook first” publishing, a term I think we’re going to hear more and more. To me, “ebook first” means two things. First, it means that the ebook is the primary product being considered as the project is put together. And second it means that the ebook hits the market before the print book. That second point is tactical and practical, not strategic. It takes time to print and bind and ship books, so the presumption is that, when the book development is completed, it is just faster to get the ebook into the marketplace. That wouldn’t be true if you had a “print book first” workflow and had to then do an ebook conversion from your print PDF, but “ebook first”, ending up with an XML document that will deliver all your formats, should eliminate the need to do that.
But a publisher in our group at the game who is working with a blog on publishing reported “it ain’t necessarily so.” The final QA steps with an ebook, particularly if there is any complexity at all to the design or layout, can take longer than delivering the print from the PDF. That’s not theory; that’s this publisher’s actual experience. There is nearly 100% certainty that the PDF will print what you want when you deliver it. But the epub file you deliver might not give you what you want through every ebook delivery system and for every display environment without some further tweaking.
One conversation that made me really want to learn more was a discussion of what big publishers do to prepare for the erosion of brick-and-mortar. Executives from two big trade houses agreed with the point we’ve made here that harvesting consumer names is a key. If most of the market is available online and can be reached without deploying a large-scale organization, publishers will need to raise the switching costs for major authors beyond the cash flow shuffle that the author would suffer if they lost their advance. At the game, I heard two major houses agreeing that emailable names that the house owns will be a key author retention tool going forward; one wonders if there is a sophisticated consumer name gathering and managing process taking place in the big houses that is beneath the radar; or, at least, beneath my radar! Of course, getting into the details of “what exactly do you do” would not have been an appropriate question with a curious competitor listening in so it will have to wait for some other time.
Thinking about the Digital Book World Conference program I’m planning for January, though, this seems like a really important topic. And it also seems like one agents ought to know a lot about. Gathering the names of an author’s fans is a place for publishers and agents both to cooperate and to look for a negotiating advantage. It is very tricky ground.
Several of us also had a bit of conversation about Google and Apple as retailers. One of the publishers expressed skepticism about how well Google Editions would sell ebooks. “Google has never sold things successfully,” he said. I pointed out that “never” for Google was not a very long time; the company is barely more than a decade old. But it is true that whether Google sells three times as many ebooks as they expect or one-third as many, it won’t move the needle for them financially. (More than 95% of Google’s revenue is from advertising.) The same is true of Apple, which seems to put only the most minimal effort into merchandising at the iBooks store.
One TCS executive, with a strong background in the telecom industry, was pretty sure the publishers are underestimating the speed with which the online component of their business will grow. He says the coming G4 installations — the next generation of cell phone signal technology — will mean a four-fold increase in bandwidth and speed. The new “free wifi” offer from Starbucks is a leading indicator, he said. Free wifi will be just about everywhere very soon.
I had been thinking that the only significant advantage of an app store app on the iPhone versus a web-based app was that the “true” app would hold content resident in the phone that would require connectivity to be delivered through the web. But that’s a distinction without much of a difference if wifi is ubiquitously available (or if the app itself has to access an online database to be effective.) And delivering a web app steers clear of the whole Apple approval and vetting process and is, at least today, a lot cheaper to develop. The new Google Android app tool kit apparently presents another cheaper alternative to deliver value than delivering through the Apple app framework. TCS has been responsible for a large number of the apps developed for the iPad but, nonetheless, my new friend from TCS agreed with my observation. “When do apps make commercial sense” is another topic we’ll have to explore at Digital Book World.
As a serious fan, I can assure you that my involvement in all these conversations was between pitches and between innings. There was a helluva ballgame going on. The evening began with tributes to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and longtime public address announcer Bob Sheppard, both of whom died in the past week. The Yankees’ new primary rival, the Tampa Bay Rays, took an early 3-0 lead, but the Yanks came back with a couple of home runs in the 6th inning to tie the game. The Rays broke the tie in the 7th but the Yankees answered with another solo homer in the 8th. After the greatest player of the Steinbrenner era, relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, preserved the tie in the top of the 9th, the Yankees won in the bottom half on a 2-out single by Nick Swisher. The TCS box exploded with cheers along with the rest of the Stadium. It was a perfect night at the ballpark.