One of the recurring characteristics of “change” is that the first iteration of something new looks a lot like what it is replacing. So it has been with ebooks and ebook retailing. The ebooks themselves have, for the most part, been the same as the print books except rendered on a screen instead of on paper. And when we say “the same”, we mean right down to duplicating meaningless blank pages and the legend often found in print books that tells you how many printings the book has had. (This still happens frequently; I’ve just experienced it on The Big Short which I’m now reading in B&N’s reader.)
And ebook retailing has also imitated print book retailing in that the emphasis has been on the assembling the largest possible aggregation of book title choices in one place. This is a paradigm that makes intuitive sense in the physical world; once I’ve driven to my local superstore, I don’t want to find the mysteries are here but the cookbooks are in a store down the block.
It has been a long-established “fact” (although I question if it is still true, as we’ll explain later) that the larger is the selection of books available in a single location, the more powerful is the magnet to attract customers. My father found this out when he was in charge of the Brentano’s chain in the 1960s. Their Short Hills, New Jersey store was the worse-performing store in the chain until they doubled its title selection. And then, like magic, it became the best-performing store in the chain.
Amazon dot com reproved the point when they went into business in the mid-1990s. Although they were not the first online bookstore, they were the first to really attempt to carry everything. In fact, they went beyond carrying everything by providing a database (obtained from Baker & Taylor, in which there is another story) that not only showed just about all the books in print but also books that were no longer in print! Conventional publishing and retailing theory at the time would have said it was a bad move to return suggestions in search results that were books not available for sale. But, of course, it built their competitive advantage. They rapidly became the best place to search because of the completeness of their database and, actually, confirming to a customer that “what you want is a book that was indeed published but is not now readily available” made it easier to sell the customer a substitute. Whereas the the store (online or off) that didn’t have the unavailable book but didn’t also provide that information found it harder to close the alternate sale.
The point about the importance of selection was proven again by Amazon when they launched the Kindle in November, 2007 and lit the fire for what is still a spreading conflagration of ebook reading. Before Kindle, there were perhaps 100,000 ebook titles available as PDFs that could be read on a full-function computer, but not nearly as many in formats that could work on smaller devices (Palm, Mobi, Dotlit). Amazon launched Kindle with about 150,000 titles and used their market power to get big publishers to put more and more of the newest, hottest books into their format closer and closer to publication date.
There were other features of the Kindle (the ability to load books wirelessly and instantly without going through an intermediary device; its easy-to-read e-ink; its built in dictionary; Amazon’s deep relationship with very large numbers of online book buyers; and, of course, eye-catching prices relative to the print edition prices of the hottest new books) that fueled its near instantaneous success, but the robust title selection was a critical element.
So to that point — one could say to this point — the largest possible selection in one place has been as important to the success of an ebook retailer (obviously: online) as it was historically to a print book retailer with a physical store.
Early in the decade, it occurred to me that the magnetic power of the large selection in one physical store had sharply diminished. When Dad doubled the inventory of the Short Hills Brentano’s, he delivered a selection that the consumer couldn’t match for many miles around. When Barnes & Noble and Borders got Wall Street money to replicate the Bookstop model of 100,000+ title superstores in the early 1990s, they were enabling consumers to find conveniently books which had previously been obtainable only with great effort. But the limitless shelf space of online bookselling undercut that advantage and by the early part of this decade, it seemed to me that the consumer was finding the unlimited availability of titles online which could be delivered in a day or two so powerful that the large selection in a store that might be available immediately had really diminished appeal.
But there’s another thread of bookselling history on- and offline that I believe will soon become the dominant paradigm for ebook retailing. And, of course (just so you are reminded what blog you’re reading), it fits into the concept of “verticality”.
Publishers have known for a long time that good deals can be made and large sales can be registered through what we call “specialty retailers”. (The label for these sales in a publishing house, and others such as sales to catalogers or premium sales, is “Special Sales.”) The store that sells the tools and materials to refinish your floors can sell you a book to explain how to do it. The store that sells computers and paper and ink can also effectively sell resume or how-to computer books. The garden supply store can sell books on how to make your roses bloom.
Amazon and other online merchants (and not just of books) have long operated “affiliate” programs by which a web site can earn a commission on sales made at the primary merchant by referring a customer. This generally works by having the affiliate site promote a particular book title; when the site visitor clicks on the link, s/he is delivered to Amazon or BN.com’s page for that title. If the customer buys, the referring site gets a commission. These revenues don’t often amount to big money for the referring sites (although they sometimes do), but it is believed (but as with All Things Amazon, we don’t have the critical data to confirm) that, cumulatively, referrals from perhaps millions of affiliates deliver significant volume and customers to Amazon (and others.)
This is as far as “special sales” have gone in the ebook world. But the guess from here is that this is about to change and that the change we’ll see in the next few years will obliterate the notion that “all subjects in one place” is a significant marketing advantage, online or in a store. Many book sales, and particularly ebook sales, will move to “contextual” resellers. Your accountant’s web site will sell you the book(s) that help you understand a new tax law or how to ready your business for sale. Your favorite sports web site will sell you the new biography of Alex Rodriguez. And your favorite “Literary Review” newsletter and website will take care of your needs to acquire fiction directly and without your having to shop the vaster stacks of an online superstore.
That is: curated ebook offerings (a click away from the ability to buy lots more content beyond the curated selection) will be featured on every web site with any significant traffic. Delivering purchaseable content — books right now, but ulimately magazines, shorter articles, and relevant audio- and video-content as well — will become a standard expectation of any site (or web community) that aspires to a true mutual embrace with its site visitors. “What I’ve read lately and liked, and why” is a legitimate offering to anticipate from every blogger or commentator with a following.
Last week, Barnes & Noble held its regular call to announce financial results and future expectations. In that call, B&N expressed the expectation that the ebook world would ultimately settle down to about five players and that they’d be one of them. With that perspective, they saw for themselves a reasonable proportion — say 20% — of the ebook market.
My first reaction to that was “what are they thinking? There won’t be five online booksellers; there will be five million.” A day or two later I had a conversation with one of my personal tech gurus who saw it the way B&N’s statement suggested they did (“it will consolidate, just like the music business did…”) He also asked a lot of practical questions. On what devices will these ebooks be read? How will all these individual sites deal with the format issues, the DRM issues, the customer service? In other words, “great vision, Mike, but how can it possibly work?”
I think it will work like affiliate sites worked, but in a more sophisticated way. A strong central operator providing scale facilitates the commercial offering of the niche player. The harbinger of the future is the deal announced last week between F+W Media and Ingram Digital. Ingram is setting up all F+W specialist web sites (and they have them for many different vertical interest groups) with the ability to sell both ebooks and print of all publishers to their site traffic. (Although we have working relationships with both companies, we weren’t involved in that deal and don’t know any of the details.)
I believe that the Ingram-F+W deal is the start of something new and big. Both companies are going to find ways to improve on whatever is the starting point. F+W is going to have to learn how to merchandise what Ingram can give them into a unique shopping and content consumption experience for the consumer. And Ingram is going to have to learn how to deliver what they can offer to F+W in a way that enables F+W to curate and enhance the selection to deliver something uniquely customized to its own community.
If that view of the future is right, the competition among the players who can provide the ebook selection and transaction services Ingram does — those in the game already like Amazon, B&N, iBooks, and Kobo and those saying they’re about to come in like Google, B&T’s Blio, and Copia — is going to take place in a whole new arena. B&N has announced deals like this, where they “power” somebody else’s bookstore. Kobo hasn’t yet, but I’d expect them to; it just seems to me like an opportunity they’d see. This is a bit odd; it puts “wholesaler” Ingram in competition with retailers to create the next round of niche retailers. Ingram obviously has the built-in capability to offer print and electronic book delivery but, of course, B&N has the internal resources to do that too, and B&T can do it too. There are anomalies to rationalize about margin, but, in the end, customer acquisition through this strategy will be far cheaper than it is most other ways, even if a fixed margin from the publisher is shared with the niche player.
This business hasn’t really begun to happen yet; we’re just seeing the outlines of it. Initially, the competition appears to be about how each retailer delivers its vast set of content choices to the online consumer in a consolidated way. (And usually it has been the same for Ingram. Most of their business has come from large “sell everything” ebook stores.) But over time it will evolve into a competition for niche resellers. Winning is always about delivering the best consumer experience but the challenge will be to deliver the best consumer experience to somebody else’s consumers. White label is the key to the ebook (and book) retailing future.