As BookExpo and New York Rights Fair Open: Warnings for Publishers

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From Publishing Perspectives:

‘Your competitors like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Audible,’ publishers will hear this year at BookExpo and the rival rights fair, ‘are more than willing to fill the gap.’

. . . .

The reality, he says, is that “big data” is not really the stuff of most publishers’ future traction in a digital world. Something that may well seem like “little data” is, because it’s more available, readable, and actionable than the “big data” operations of major tech forces in the marketplace.

And the “invitation to a wild ride” he’s talking about is one that some will not accept gladly. It requires studying and analyzing many available “tracks” and trends at once, right down to what’s in a publisher’s “own backyard,” as we might say. “Who on your staff and around your own house reports back, in some structured way,” he asks, “on what they read, or how their kids operate their smartphones?”

What Wischenbart says he’s seeing is that even in the largest houses, such as Penguin Random House with its armada of imprints “acting like little companies,” the corporation can certainly engage in larger data activities, “but they don’t have the tool set,” he says, “to listen to what their employees are doing.”

. . . .

“[E]ven traditional readers—a majority of them urban, well-educated and older than 40—have seen their ‘mobile time’ rising from a modest 26 minutes in 2012 to more than one hour in 2017.”

Among Millennials, he says, “mobile time” may be expanding to as much as three hours per day.

But look at corresponding numbers in publishing markets that Wischenbart cites in his new article.

In Germany, data in Wischenbart’s report shows more than 6 million book buyers disappearing in the past five years . . . . Today, publishers there, he says, see a maximum audience of some 30 million in a total population of 80 million.

. . . .

Wischenbart has his fictitious publisher say to herself, “We need to stick to our bread and butter, to the rare books that hit the top of the charts, the well-established authors. Well, we even need the copy-cat income, or other cheap thrills, to simply secure a continuous income.”

But is that true? Wischenbart agrees in an interview with Publishing Perspectives that the blockbuster isn’t where publishers can afford to focus today, and not only because we’re in a largely blockbuster-less drought in the US market.

Wischenbart agrees that the buyer of the biggest blockbuster may do no more for the industry and for reading than pay for her or his one copy: these are generally not habitual readers. They’re novelty readers, readers drawn to the occasional breakthrough phenomenon, entertainment patrons who drop in on the world of books to catch a peak moment, then sail off to cinema, video, games, and music.

“I would phrase it this way,” Wischenbart says from his office in Austria. “First, the transformation that has been predicted now is here. It has arrived. We’re not talking about the future.

“And the transformation is much deeper” than many who became fixated on ebooks and perhaps today are transfixed by audiobooks’ uptake might think. “It’s a transformation of consumer behavior and habits.

“Second, such rough waters of transformation are creating higher risk” than publishers may have realized, not least because they’ve thought of “digital” as being about formats and largely now accomplished.”

. . . .

“I do see a difference in the US and UK markets and the rest of the world,” he says, in terms of how in the big US and UK markets, publishing has an upbeat sense that it knows where it’s going. “Hardly anyone in the industry in continental Europe or elsewhere feels so comfortable.”

The sense of greater comfort, command, and solidity in the UK and American markets, he agrees, may come from a plethora of self-congratulatory awards programs and morale-boosting coverage. “They’re always winning,” he says about such trends, which can lead a market to believe that all is going better than may be the reality.

. . . .

“Right now, my inkling is that a lot of truly critical information sits in drawers and on hard disks, underused, if noticed at all.

“We see, day by day, how publishing is getting ever more segmented. From formerly three distinct sectors, trade or consumer versus educational versus professional or academic, we have moved into an ever-thinner slicing of the cake that used to be served in the business of books.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG has long noted that the traditional book business lacks even rudimentary data skills.

Its reliance on Neilson and other data sources that do not include data from Amazon, by far the world’s largest bookstore, is Exhibit A.

Exhibit B is Big Publishing’s schizoid frienemies attitude toward Amazon, its largest customer.

For those who are newcomers to the recent history of Big Publishing’s strategies for dealing with ebooks and Amazon, in 2012, the United States Department of Justice charged Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan with illegally conspiring with Apple to fix ebook prices in the United States.

This group was conspiring to keep ebook prices high to prop up sales of printed books. Amazon, which was selling ebooks at low prices to help sell Kindle devices and expand the ebook market, was the target of this conspiracy.

In 2013, after each of these large publishers had admitted to acting in violation of antitrust laws, a trial judge found Apple guilty of participating in this same illegal price-fixing conspiracy. Apple appealed and the trial court’s decision was affirmed in 2015.

Exhibit C is Author Earnings, a small organization that does have people with good data skills.

Beginning in 2014, Author Earnings began to release a series of reports that detailed ebook sales on Amazon by both traditional publishers and by individual self-publishers working through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. This series of reports demonstrated that ebook sales indie authors were a large and growing segment of the overall ebook market.

As additional Author Earnings reports were released periodically, they reflected the continuing growth in the market for indie-published ebooks. Indie authors came to dominate ebook sales in the romance, fantasy and science fiction genres.

Had Big Publishing been willing to hire employees with any sort of data skills, it could have duplicated the work of Author Earnings and developed even more sophisticated analyses because of access to its own ebook sales data (which was not made available to Author Earnings).

Big Publishing has consistently elected to base its business decisions on hunches generated by a small group of former English majors running its businesses in Manhattan. The “golden gut” school of publishing management has resulted in Big Publishing missing the ebook train and failing to treat Amazon as a potential window into the rapidly-changing and ever-growing ebook market.

Another disadvantage Big Publishing has is that, by New York City standards, it doesn’t pay very well. A twenty-something with data skills can receive a much larger salary from any number of other employers who are not in the publishing business.

PG will restrain himself from commenting on the blinkered view of the world common in the large European holding companies that own all but one of the largest US publishers. Suffice to say, New York publishing executives are not receiving a lot of phone calls and emails from Europe urging them to invest more in technologies and people that will position the publisher favorably for a new and different future.

10 thoughts on “As BookExpo and New York Rights Fair Open: Warnings for Publishers”

  1. I think PG just hit the nail with the hammer: English majors have always been resentful that math skills are useful, and by pretending that ‘artistic intuition’ is more important than statistics, have worked themselves into this deep hole.

    To be rescued by the depised math people is not an option they will consider, because ART!

    They resent Amazon even more because algorithms and MATH!

    Too bad; they have competition they are simply not prepared for.

  2. I do enjoy when PG lets the restrained snark flow… 😀 Succumb to temptation more often, PG!

    Reading that latest missive from BigPub, I was suddenly reminded of some poorly-informed wartime radio propaganda. “American GI, while you are away Donald Duck is kissing your girl, Micky Mouse is seducing your wife!”

  3. “Had Big Publishing been willing to hire employees with any sort of data skills, it could have duplicated the work of Author Earnings and developed even more sophisticated analyses because of access to its own ebook sales data (which was not made available to Author Earnings).”

    Keep up, PG. Data Guy’s BookStat, as Author Earnings morphed into, has been working with Big Pub data for over a year now.

    One reliable source tells me Data Guy is claiming NO indie data is being used in BookStat.

    That, though, is at odds with Data Guy still asking indies to send him data, as per a request by Data Guy in comments in the January 2018 Author Earnings Report.

    • So, Data Guy is asking indies to send him data, but your reliable source says he’s not using data from indies?

      Interesting definition of ‘reliable’ you have there.

      • To be clear, Data Guy in the January 2018 AE Report comments thread asked authors to send indie data to help remedy some of the many inaccuracies in the BookStat / Author Earnings Report data.

        In an email exchange with Data Guy in the last few days Data Guy told the source, as reliable as they come, that data guy said NO indie data was being used by BookStat.

        The issue of reliability therefore turns on whether Data Guy is telling some parties one thing while telling other parties another.

        I’ll seek permission to quote directly.

        • Perhaps he’s using Indie date to keep info accurate, but he’s not using it in work for Bookstat customers?

      • Hi Tom,

        AE no longer collects sales data from indies. We have access to far more comprehensive sources of data now, which we are — for NDA reasons — unable to elaborate upon.

  4. Big Publishers are still running their businesses as though they’re back in the last century. Yeah, sure, they’re putting ebooks out there, but that’s a purely token effort because they’re trying to prop up print, which they think is going to save them (because that’s always been the way it worked before). They aren’t thinking like competitive businesses any longer, and they don’t want to admit that they’re making a mistake.

  5. Another little ‘warning for publishers’ is this little question:

    Do you want people – especially the young/teens – to read?

    If that answer is even remotely ‘yes’ then you’d want to make it cheap (for them to get hooked) and easy for them to be able to read.

    Look around you then. Those youth are carrying around smartphones – not books. When it’s cheaper for them to buy a month of Netflix or Amazon Prime than it is an ebook you’re helping them decide ‘not’ to read – and that’s how ‘habits’ start.

    Another plus people of all ages find is that with an ebook there’s no big cover/art telling others ‘what’ they are reading, they can read without being judged, which means some will be willing to ‘check things out’ that might have drawn a raised eyebrow or ridicule from others.

    Amazon showed you how well properly priced ebooks could sell. Scared the heck out of you publishers didn’t it? Even scarier was those self-publishers with ebooks sitting right next to yours, and some of them were every bit as good as the ones you were publishing – and those authors are making money you aren’t getting a cut of.

    Adapt or die. And that means stop screwing over your authors – they aren’t all stupid and what now is a thin stream will soon become a flood as the sheep in your pens stop trying to get through your gate and simply go around it …

  6. A good read, if only for the various admissions of the BPH failings, most notably the “Blockbuster drought”. A term that needs remembering.

    So the front list is still underperforming in 2018…
    Seems more like a new normal than a temporary “drought”.

    BTW, PG, it’s not just Amazon that the BPHs are Shizoid about; Apple, Google, Microsoft, Ingram, and Kobo are targets, too, and can’t be too happy about the BPHs trying to deprecate their ebook investments.

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