Mike Shatzkin

The Sale of B&N Again Calls the Question of the Future of America’s Bookstores

18 June 2019

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

The most important question in the world of trade publishing is “what will happen to the book trade”, meaning, primarily, the bookstores (but also the other retailers that sell books, the libraries and the wholesalers that supply them).

. . . .

[I]t was announced that Barnes & Noble was being sold to Elliott Management, which also owns and has reconditioned the Waterstones chain in the UK. That acquisition caught everybody’s attention and made two reporters call me as part of the research for their stories. (ReaderLink emerged as a late possible alternative acquirer of B&N, but that did not come to fruition.)

They wanted to know, “will Elliott save B&N?” The announced strategy, by James Daunt who will run both chains and who engineered the changes at Waterstone’s, is to repeat what appears to have worked in Britain. Diversify the stores from each other. Give more local autonomy for title selection and merchandising. Make them as different from each other as independents are different from each other.

My hunch is that it will take much more profound change to make the “big chain bookstore” model commercially viable in the US anytime in the future. What surprises me a bit is that this conversation about the future of bookstores, and just about every one I’ve seen, just doesn’t acknowledge the history of how we got to where we are.

The Barnes & Noble store network that exists today was spawned by investor enthusiasm in the late 1980s, which also financed the growth of B&N’s longtime competitors, Borders, which closed in 2009. When the book consumer of that time either wanted a specific book, particularly one that was not a current bestseller, or wanted to “shop” a category or topic to see what was available, it was a natural instinct to go to the store with the biggest selection, the most titles.

The fact that selection was a magnet became the driving reality the superstores were built on. The biggest independents had long carried a very large number of titles and now the chains, which had previously specialized in 20-25,000-title stores in malls, started building freestanding destination stores that carried 100-125,000 titles. The national wholesaler Ingram also kept expanding their title base, so both the chain stores and the independents could get rapid resupply support for most of what they carried.

The situation started to change when Amazon arrived in 1995 with the ability to deliver just any available book to any customer in as much time “as it took” (varied by the book and publisher, of course), with a “promise date” to tell the customer when to expect it. Since most needs for most books by most people are not immediate, over time online shopping, rather than looking for the biggest in-store selection, became the logical default for anything you weren’t sure you’d find. And in a multi-million title world of books (to which we have evolved over the past 20 years from the quarter-million title world we lived in before Amazon), that’s by far most of the shopping and has become most of the purchasing.

In addition to the shopping reality, the marketing reality has also changed. It used to be that word of mouth was a slow thing, taking the time it did to travel from person to person through conversation and personal interaction. The internet changed that; social media changed it on steroids. Now word of mouth can spread like lightning, and stop nearly as quickly as it starts. Social media can make a book, or a meme, very ubiquitous for a week or a month, and then disappear.

That means that there is a high premium on having a book available in as many places as possible for the period of its great fame, but it also means those books need to be rotated quickly. To maximize sales, they need to show up right away when they’re hot, and they have to relinquish their place of prominence to make room for the next thing that comes along.

What that all added up to is that the retail sector that is needed in the area of rising online sales is very different from the one we needed before. A massive selection is not an effective magnet anymore.

. . . .

[I]t will take more than diversification of the title selections and merchandising emphases to make the pretty large B&N stores thrive again. They need more smaller stores, not so many very large ones. Making the title selections more local is well and good, but the information that drives that has to be deep, sophisticated, digital, and reacted to very quickly.

. . . .

Britain is culturally and physically different enough from the States that it is hard to know whether a strategy that worked for Waterstones there can work for Barnes & Noble here.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG is familiar with the incoming CEO of Barnes & Noble, James Daunt, only through a variety of articles written about him that include quotes from Daunt.

PG’s general impression is that Daunt is British in a way that can lead to parochial views of the world and the United States in particular. From a brief scan of biographical information, Daunt’s father was a British diplomat and Daunt was educated at a 1300-year-old private (in the US sense) boarding school prior to completing his education at Cambridge. One profile mentioned that he presently owns three different homes.

Daunt’s only extended exposure to the United States that PG could discover was when he worked as an investment banker in New York City for four years in the 1980’s right after he graduated from college.

PG has no doubts that Daunt’s business instincts are well-attuned to the sensibilities of a typical British book purchaser, particularly in the upscale locations where he sited Daunt Books stores prior to being named CEO of Waterstones.

PG has his doubts about whether Daunt’s instincts will work as well for a Barnes & Noble in Omaha or Mobile as they do for a Daunt Books in Marylebone however.

At present and in most locations, working in a Barnes & Noble store is pretty close to a dead-end job. It’s a half-step above flipping hamburgers for working conditions, but Shake Shack isn’t on anyone’s list of public companies most likely to show up in bankruptcy court either. PG suggests that a Shake Shack manager is more likely to have his/her job five years from now than a manager of a Barnes & Noble is. And a Shake Shack manager may be earning more money as well.

PG suggests Daunt’s most important task will be to make the employees of Barnes & Noble’s retail stores feel like they are part of a business that is worth caring about and isn’t likely to lead to unemployment during the next few years.

Customers sense when the store staff feels like they’re in dead-end jobs.

The best ways to use Lightning are not widely employed yet 20 years in

29 November 2018

From The Shatzkin Files:

The 20th anniversary of Lightning Source, the digital service provided by Ingram that supplies both printed-on-demand books and ebook file distribution services for publishers, was recently noted in a tribute piece in Publishers Weekly. The growth of the file repository at Lightning was reported to have reached 15 million titles.

Those represent books that might not have copies for sale in anybody’s inventory but which can be delivered in the next 24-48 hours by Ingram to any bookstore, library, or consumer in the country (and many more around the world).

John Ingram was quoted suggesting that publishers would only get the full benefits that Lightning has to offer them if they have every title they own archived with the service and ready for delivery. The story doesn’t unpack that idea, but it is a very powerful one.

The value that almost all publishers now recognize in Lightning was summed up very well by Steve Zacharius of Kensington Books.

“We use it for short runs to cover books temporarily out of stock or to keep the book available when there’s not enough demand to do a full offset printing. We also, of course, use it for ARCs.” (ARCs are “advance reader copies”, sometimes called “bound galleys”, which are usually pre-publication samples of a printed book.)

But there is another way to use Lightning which only a few publishers have employed so far but which could become one of its most valuable capabilities in these times. Ingram now has what they estimate is “several tens of thousands” of titles within the catalog that sell thousands a year, so they wouldn’t be obvious candidates. But they are set up “Just in Case” (as opposed to for “Just in Time”) and they make use of Lightning in ways most publishers still don’t.

Because, more than ever before the Internet changed communication, our collective attention is briefly grabbed and we see a “spike”. A sudden and unpredicted surge in interest in a topic (which often means a book) is suddenly driven by an event in the news or public sphere. These surges can be extremely brief but the boost in demand they can deliver for any book can also be extremely powerful. And, of course, the body of thought contained in a book could actually further sustain the interest, if the book is available for media exposure and public consumption at the moment of opportunity.

. . . .

Because if there’s a news break on a Monday morning that could promote interest in a book, even a publisher with ample inventory in its own warehouse is unlikely to be able to get copies to Ingram to place on sale any earlier than Wednesday. Those two days could be two major days for sales, perpetuating a chain of interest into the book-buying public.

Turning on Lightning printing for that book could mean thousands of copies in stores and libraries by Wednesday. This is the potential magic of the Lightning-Ingram connection. Ingram is shipping books to just about every bookstore and library that matters just about every single day. The newly hot book could be in all the shipments to stores that want it almost from the moment of the news break by employing Lightning. In our times, delaying the book’s real distribution into the marketplace by even 48 hours could be the difference between a book that catches fire and one that misses its opportunity.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG will note that an agreement between a publisher and Ingram for Lightning service could arguably provide a basis for the publisher to claim none of its books would never go out of print. Under language commonly used in publishing contracts all rights revert to an author if the author’s book goes out of print, but most publishers don’t do much to clarify when a book will go out of print.

For those authors who wish to enter into publishing contracts with traditional publishers, PG suggests that out-of-print provisions be triggered at the author’s election whenever royalties paid to the author for a particular book drop below a specified dollar amount. For example, if the publisher fails to pay the author at least $1,000 in royalties for a book during any royalty reporting period, the author can cause rights to the book to be reverted because the book is selling so few copies, it is effectively out of print.

As far as the OP is concerned, it’s hard to believe that anyone with an internet connection will be interested in waiting two days to go to a bookstore to buy a hardcopy book instead of reviewing all the online information on the topic that would appear much sooner  (which online info could easily include excerpts from the book).

Much of the value of Lightning also assumes that the publisher doesn’t already have an ebook for sale on Amazon.

Imprint consolidation at big houses is a sign of changed times

26 October 2018

From veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin:

I had reason to learn recently that Ingram has 16 million individual titles loaded in their Lightning Source database ready to be delivered as a bound book to you within 24 hours, if not sooner. So every book coming into the world today is competing against 16 million other books that you might buy.

That number — the number of individual book titles available to any consumer, bookstore, or library — has exploded in my working lifetime. As recently as 25 years ago, the potential titles  available — in print and on a warehouse shelf ready to be ordered, or even to be backordered until a next printing — was numbered in the hundreds of thousands. So it has grown by 20 or 30 or 40 times. That’s between 2000 percent and 4000 percent in the last quarter century.

This has, like the Internet or CO2 in the atmosphere, changed everything. And it seems like the organizing structure of the major publishers is also changing in response.

On Monday morning, Simon & Schuster became the second major house in a week to announce that it was consolidating two imprints, effectively reducing by one the number of discrete publishing units within the conglomerate empowered to decide what to publish and how to promote it. They folded the Touchstone imprint into Atria and Gallery; last week Penguin Random House collapsed their Crown imprint into Random House (sometimes referred to as “Little Random”.)

The title explosion is part of a sea change in the world of book publishing that has taken place over the past quarter century. At the same time, sales have shifted in two dimensions: a big chunk of the books now bought and consumed are digital, not printed, and more than half the books consumers buy are not bought in brick-and-mortar stores. And the share for physical stores continues to shrink. Indeed, these trends are linked. The fact that books can now be delivered without inventory, without a sales force, and without a warehouse has made it possible for just about anybody to publish a book.

. . . .

Commercial publishers bring books to market to make money for themselves and their authors. But today, book publishing is a idea-dissemination or brand-extension tool for many originators, and making money on the publication is a secondary consideration.

That means that commercial viability is no longer an effective check on the number of titles. One wealthy and digitally-smart author we know is reluctant to engage with a publisher because he wants to be free to give away his content. And in another case we found and discussed in a recent post, because the originator was so enamored of the idea of giving it away through web streaming, they ignored the opportunities through commercial ebooks that would have required setting some price a bit higher than zero to work in that channel. Anybody doing this more than once will figure out ways to increase their distribution.

It wasn’t very long ago that nobody would think seriously about publishing a book unless they had the infrastructure — a sales force, a warehouse, a way to process shipments and returns — to put books on many bookstore shelves. Now those services are ubiquitously available for variable, not fixed, costs (you can reach the whole world through Ingram Spark or a big chunk of the world through Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace).

. . . .

In the new marketplace, where most of the sales don’t require the expensive-to-engage distributed bookstore infrastructure, established publishers no longer automatically dominate. So we’ve gone from a marketplace where only truly professional publishers could effectively get books to customers to one where their size, their lists, their sales forces, and their operational efficiencies give them much less competitive advantage. That new marketplace and the competitive set means that publishers can no longer count on a reasonably substantial minimum sale for every title they publish.

. . . .

For as long as I’ve been in the industry, I have heard publishers complain “there are too many titles” while the smartest ones also saw that their own profitability was improved by increasing their own company’s title output. But over the past two decades, the title glut has hit home and even the biggest and most powerful publishers need to exercise restraint about what they try to publish profitably. Because they really can lose money publishing a book, which two decades ago was actually a rare occurrence in a major house unless they had wildly overpaid for the rights.

Publishers have also found it sensible to redeploy resources from “sales” — working with intermediaries to reach a book’s customers — to “digital marketing”, which often leads to a direct sales appeal from the publisher to the consumer. (Although the sales themselves might be executed through Amazon or another retailer, the publisher’s effort is driving the specific sale to the specific customer.)

This has, inevitably, made publishers more “audience centric”. They build topic- or genre-specific websites, apps, and — critically — email lists. The email lists of book purchasers are of increasing value, if the publisher can continue to feed it choices from which it will find things to buy.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files and thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for the tip.

PG suggests that, not long ago, publishers would not have considered direct sales efforts to readers via mailing lists, etc., because bookstore owners would have objected. The OP suggests to PG that publishers have mentally written off Leonard Riggio/Barnes & Noble and no other bookstore chain is big enough to intimidate them.

At a time when real digital marketing talent is widely recognized as a valuable skill, PG also wonders what sorts of digital marketers are willing to go to work for a publisher instead of a tech startup or digital marketing agency with potential for some real upside.

For authors, signing a standard contract with a traditional publisher looks like something akin to an extraordinarily expensive exclusive contract with a digital marketing agency which you can’t fire for incompetence or failure to respond to your emails.

And where’s the nurturing in that sort of relationship?

Words-to-be-read are losing ground to words-to-be-heard, a new stage of digital content evolution

14 June 2018

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

“Words-to-be-read” must now become a content category, along with still images, video, and audio. Audio includes “words-to-be-heard”. We are in what must be the early stages of a reordering of primacy among these varieties of “content for delivery and consumption”, which is distinguished from “content for interaction”, or the world of “gamified content” along with who-knows-what-else.

In a post three months ago, I observed that I had been fortunate enough to have been taught to type when I was a little kid, so producing written words was relatively fast and easy for me. That led to great “experience” with the practice of narrative word creation at a young age, a great competitive advantage in school and the workplace (quite aside from enabling the writing of several published books). That piece also made the point that words-to-be-read were, until some very recent moment, the cheapest and easiest form of content to deliver and distribute. Still pictures required film and processing. Audio and video required controlled (and often expensive) circumstances for recording and a variety of skills to deliver professional content. And beyond that, delivery by cassettes and CDs was expensive and also failed to reach large numbers of the potentially interested people.

. . . .

What really rang a large bell for me was the recent New York Times article about the rise of audio, which focused on big-earning writers whose fortunes and reputations had been earned through “words-to-be-read” (in what we can now see was really a different content era), but who were now switching to audio. One such author, John Scalzi, was moved to reconsider his publishing strategy when a recent book sold 22,500 hardcovers, 24,000 ebooks, and 41,000 audiobooks. Author Mel Robbins responded to her self-help book “The 5 Second Rule” selling four times as many audios as print by making her next creation an audio original.

. . . .

So while we have been recently living through an era where audio pioneers like Don Katz of Audible have had to make the case (and offer the tools) to enable creation of good audio content that was originally intended as “words-to-be-read”, that may be about to flip. More and more, we’re going to find that extra effort is required to make content accessible to the word-reading population, who otherwise will not be able to enjoy a variety of fiction and non-fiction content that will only be professionally rendered to be seen and heard.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

The dominance of Amazon needs to be addressed but it is far more attributable to natural circumstances than it is anybody’s fault

8 May 2018

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

As things evolve in an era of rapid change, it is human nature to assign credit or blame for any drastic alterations in circumstances. And so we have the book business, with its last remaining chain store behemoth, Barnes & Noble, in a period of obvious decline and presenting the clear possibility that the book publishers’ single biggest brick-and-mortar account might suddenly disappear.

This is a very unpleasant notion to contemplate for all publishers and, perhaps surprisingly, to Barnes & Noble’s erstwhile competitors among independent bookstores. Today, the head of the trade association that represents bookstores (mostly independents), Oren Teicher of the American Booksellers Association, is quoted in The New York Times saying, “It’s in the interest of the book business for Barnes & Noble not just to survive but to thrive.”

The op-ed in which Teicher’s quote appears is a piece by columnist David Leonhardt basically blaming the US Department of Justice for Amazon’s growth and the consequent reduction of market share available to all other retailing competitors. There is a lot of history and context not discussed in this piece but I have a nominee for the single most glaring omission. At just about the turn of the century, Barnes & Noble made a deal to buy Ingram, the biggest book wholesaler and distributor in the world, which was shot down by an activist Department of Justice. This is not mentioned.

And, in 1998, when the purchase was announced and B&N specifically cited its need to strengthen its ability to sell online as part of the reason for the purchase, the American Booksellers Association was vigorously opposed!

. . . .

It has long appeared from here (here’s a piece from 2012) that the existential issue in the book business in the 21st century has been “when does Amazon’s share growth stop, and who will be left standing when it does?”

Although definitional and data ambiguities make this an imprecise statement, it is likely that we’ve reached a day when more than half of the printed books sold through retailers are sold online, not in stores. Ebooks added into the mix for the narrative reading portion of the published material constitute a further erosion of the brick-and-mortar store sales base.

The shift of habits from buying in stores to buying online is not restricted to books, of course. Because of Amazon, it largely started with books. But books also have other characteristics that make them better than most things for online purchase, from a consumer point of view.

. . . .

So buying a specific book that you know you want online just makes sense to most people. Of course, Barnes & Noble has had its own online bookstore operation since the 1990s. They have steadily lost online purchasing share to Amazon for decades.

It is true that Amazon cut prices below what many brick retailers charge. And I even think I identified the moment when that strategy kicked in. See the same piece linked above. If I’m right, then they did it specifically to discourage independent stores from using the same Ingram capabilities they used to launch an online sales effort. (In fact, discussing the “low price” challenge that exists for publishers in 2018 without mentioning the self-publishing world which is the primary price restraint mechanism in the market, assuming no disingenuousness, displays serious ignorance of the marketplace realities.)

But the way things looked in then 1990s, with online retail in its infancy, was that it didn’t constitute a threat to brick-and-mortar. Many physical retailers ignored the opportunities and threats of online competitors. Borders, at about the same time that the Department of Justice was killing the deal by which B&N bought Ingram, was partnering with Amazon to deliver its online offering!

With those realities, does it make sense to be blaming the DOJ for not seeing the threat?

Much is made of Amazon’s pricing practices and the possible fallacy inherent in looking at consumer prices as the be-all and end-all indicator of whether a marketplace is working right. But even that argument is just not so simple. More than a decade before Amazon was launched, the retailing chain Crown Books (not to be confused with the then-indie publisher now an imprint of PRH) was aggressively discounting bestsellers. They grew fast in the 1980s. Until the superstore era began in the late 1980s, and the massive selection in the big Borders and B&N stores became the “killer” consumer attraction, this variation of the Amazon strategy (using bestselling books as loss leaders to pull in customers, to whom Crown sold remainders and bargain books to generate the margin to operate) was upsetting the old order.

. . . .

It is not hard to support Leonhardt’s idea that Internet monopolies, even if they result at least partly from the natural power law forces of Internet economics, will have to be regulated, as I suggested in another forum recently. (I publish the stuff that is not mostly about books in other places.) Perhaps the first step with Amazon is to ban them from the publishing function. And because they are a vital path to the consumer for all publishers, it would be helpful for the government to be sure that their sales terms are fair among the publishers competing for their customers (a concept that wll get increasingly tricky as Amazon’s physical store footprint expands).

. . . .

So while it is absolutely true that Amazon is gaining a level of market share, and therefore a level of power and control, over the book business that is frightening for those of us in it and not a good thing for society, this does not make them evil or make everybody who failed to stop them stupid. Through a remarkable series of brilliant moves — the first ones putting books online with a huge master catalog and providing “promise dates” for each individual title so the customer knew when to expect delivery but then continuing onto Prime and Kindle and harnessing their own print-on-demand and, most of all, enabling self-publishing by individual authors that delivered meaningful revenue — they have achieved what sometimes looks like imminent hegemony.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

Large market share and dominance is something Amazon is developing in a variety of different fields besides books.

From MarketWatch:

Amazon.com Inc. may already be the largest apparel retailer and could still grow to sales between $45 billion and $85 billion by fiscal 2020, according to Instinet analysts.

Instinet analysts led by Simeon Siegel estimate overall apparel and accessories sales at above $1 trillion with “above average” online penetration and “leading gross margin” compared with other categories.

“We believe Amazon has the largest [total available market] TAM (ever), doesn’t carry socio-economic retailing stigmas, can stock a limitless number of goods on its virtual shelf and knows customers better than they do,” Instinet wrote. “Amazon’s path to book dominance provides a potential road map for apparel success, with its fiscal 2007 media progress sharing similarities to its fiscal 2017 apparel achievements,” the note said.

PG notes that the “socio-economic retailing stigmas” refer to Walmart, previously the largest apparel retailer and now generally regarded as #2.

PG includes the apparel dominance Amazon has built as evidence Amazon is very good at understanding what customers want and how to deliver it to them at a reasonable price.

Amazon didn’t start selling books online with the goal in mind of becoming a publisher. However, in the face of illegal price-fixing by major publishers and other anti-Amazon activities calculated to bolster an outmoded, inefficient and expensive (for consumers and authors) publishing industry, Amazon innovated.

Prior to KDP, the self-publishing business was dominated by shady operators like Author Solutions and its companions whose business model focused on exploiting would-be authors. Instead of exploiting authors, KDP offered them much higher royalties they could earn in the traditional publishing business – 70% of the amount received by Amazon for KDP ebooks is a prime example.

Unlike traditional publishers that use a long and opaque supply chain which substantially reduces the amounts received by the publisher and thus the amounts received by authors, Amazon sold directly to consumers. Author royalties were quite close to 70% of the amount readers paid for author ebooks. (PG notes that some traditional publishing contracts {although fewer than in former days} calculate author royalties based upon the suggested retail price of the author’s printed book. Ebooks, books sold at a discount to discount retailers like Costco, Sam’s Club, etc.,  and some or all types of paperback sales are typically calculated based on the amount received by the publisher. Royalties calculated on the amounts received by publishers are virtually always much lower than royalties calculated based upon the suggested retail price of a book.)

For readers who really want to support authors they like, buying ebooks or CreateSpace books through Amazon is a much more effective means of doing so than buying books from a bookstore that takes its cut and acquires books from a wholesaler who takes its cut who acquires books from a publisher who takes its cut and passes a relatively small amount of the retail price of a book to the author.

Indeed, if we consider the annual incomes of all the people involved in the traditional publishing supply chain, it is quite likely that the author is the lowest-paid individual working in that business, even including clerks at Barnes & Noble.

PG suspects the traditional publishing practice of paying royalties to authors every six months may subtly influence authors to feel they’re earning more from their writing than they really are. Receiving a $6,000 royalty check in the mail feels psychologically like a larger amount than a $500 salary check every two weeks, particularly after taxes, social security and other deductions.

PG just did some quick calculations and discovered that a worker earning the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour working 40 hours per week is earning more money than an author who receives a royalty check of $6,000 twice per year. If the author isn’t receiving a royalty check of over $7,500 every six months, the author would be financially better off working in a convenience store.

PG is not going to perform the calculations, but will note that the minimum-wage convenience store employee only pays 6.2% of wages for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare (with the employer paying the same amount) while a self-employed author pays twice as much because she’s obligated for both the employee’s and the employer’s portions of those taxes.

Quick internet research didn’t disclose the average income of an author in the US, but in 2015, The Guardian calculated that the median earnings of professional authors in the UK fall below the minimum wage.

Do the median earnings of publishing executives fall below the minimum wage? Other employees working for publishers? How about median earnings of employees of book wholesalers? Delivery drivers that bring books to bookstores? Bookstore clerks?

So exactly why should the federal government take action to protect the traditional book publishing and selling industry at the expense of Amazon if that industry consistently fails to pay authors a living wage? Why penalize Amazon when it consistently pays authors more than traditional book publishing does?

The written word is losing its power and will continue to

22 February 2018

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

If there were a futures market in literacy, it would be dropping. It is a sad fact that the value of written words, in relation to spoken words and still and moving pictures, is sinking like a stone. Changes like this happen for structural reasons.

Since the invention of moveable type and the printing press, printed words have been advantaged for creation and mass distribution. Printing pictures first required “engraving” and then shooting half-tones (showing the picture as smaller and larger black dots to add “shades of gray” to black and white) while type just got set, locked up, and printed.

And the primacy of words continued into the early years of digital information as well. Keystrokes choosing from among letters and punctuation marks instructed computers. Rendering words was easy for them.

Between the era of ubiquitous personal computers (starting in the mid-1980s), through the era that brought us ubiquitous laptops (from the 1990s forward), words could be delivered on smaller and ever-more-widely-distributed devices: personal digital assistants like Palm Pilots and cell phones. Still images didn’t really render well on either of them and moving images were a non-starter.

But all of that has changed in the past ten years. Most people now have smart phones and tablets that show images beautifully through broadband connections. On top of that, the same devices will record the images or videos, so everybody has “creation” capability in their hands as well. And the process 20 years ago had to begin on film and then somehow or other get to a digital form. Now all the images are born digital, cutting out a whole lot of complication and cost. And nobody has to learn a keyboard — or how to spell — to use the capability effectively.

. . . .

Being able to craft good prose quickly has been my personal competitive advantage for my whole life. Meanwhile, I’m not so facile with images. Writing a better sentence is something I’ve been practicing for more than 60 years. Framing a better image is something most people can do much better than I can.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

 

Stability in the book marketplace does not mean commercial publishers continue to maintain their share

14 December 2017

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

Publishing reporters doing wrap up stories occasionally call me for impressions. From those conversations I have gleaned that the prevailing impression of where the book business is now is of “stability”. The consensus about adult trade is that ebook sales have stalled or perhaps even receded, that print is strong, and that the big publishers have beaten back the threat of disruption from indies that a few short years ago seemed like a massive threat.

But while that picture has accurate aspects, it is really incomplete. The world of commercial publishing — even factoring in the growth in juvie books and audio — is shrinking more slowly than it was a few years ago, but it is still shrinking. One “tell” is that Amazon doesn’t believe ebook sales are reducing, they see them growing. Part of that is that Kindle is taking market share from all the other ebook platforms (except possibly Apple iBooks, at the moment). Part of that is that Kindle has titles nobody else has, as some self-publishing entities just use the dominant platform and skip the rest. Part of that is that Kindle doesn’t just sell ebooks; it provides subscription access through Kindle Unlimited that in the aggregate logs a lot of eyeball hours. And almost no big publisher commercial content is included in Kindle Unlimited.

. . . .

The impression that big publishing is shrinking has anecdotal support. S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy . . . recently acknowledged that romance fiction had become very challenging for conventional publishers. Of course, genre fiction is precisely the area where indie authors and Kindle Unlimited have made the biggest inroads.

. . . .

But while maintaining ebook prices well north of ten dollars may be what Barnes & Noble and indie bookstores need to keep selling printed books, those prices cut publishers off from growing chunks of the market that prefer to choose from the wealth of much cheaper books on offer from indie authors and smaller, often digital-first, publishers.

. . . .

The under-reported media story of the 21st century is how well book publishers have adapted to their new world, better than their counterparts in any other print content business. Top line revenue for the majors is flat or shrinking slightly, but profits have been maintained. One big reason for that is that returns go down as sales move online, and print sales are now in the neighborhood of half online. Profitability in these circumstances underscores the point that Amazon is the most profitable account for just about every publisher. It moves half or more of the books, requires minimal staffing to cover, and has, by normal standards, very low returns.

The challenge, of course, is that Amazon has no interest in being publishers’ most profitable account. Amazon does everything they can to claw back margin from publishers and always has a looming threat with their own publishing program, which at any time could reconsider the idea it abandoned a few years ago of going after big trade books outside the genres.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG was a little hard on Mike Shatzkin in his last TPV comments that referenced one of Mike’s posts.

The process of a particular style of creative destruction, described as disruptive innovation by now-famous Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is something PG has observed over and over, primarily among technology companies, but not limited to that business sphere.

PG is not alone in his appreciation for Professor Christensen. The Innovator’s Dilemma has been included on countless lists of the best business books of all time. See, for example, herehere, here, and here.

A few of the victims of disruptive innovation in the technology world, a space with which PG is quite familiar, include names that were once dominant in their industries: Kodak, Nokia, Blackberry, Wang, Sun, Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland, and Novell, to name just a few.

Disruptive innovation has impacts far beyond traditional technology companies, however.

Apropos of the bookstore world, major retail companies and industries based upon people coming into physical spaces to purchase products have either disappeared or are disappearing in the face of technology innovations including, but not limited to Amazon’s. See, for example:  Sears, Montgomery Ward, Macy’s, KMart, Blockbuster and Borders.

More than 300 retailers have filed for bankruptcy this year, including Gymboree, The Limited, Radio Shack (again) and discount shoestore chain, Payless ShoeSource.

According to Time, 1,500 shopping malls were built in the U.S. between 1956 and 2005, but, today, these great retail inventions of the latter part of the 20th century, are closing down at an increasingly rapid pace. Between 2010 and 2013, mall visits during the holiday season, the busiest shopping time of the year, dropped by 50%.

There are still about 1,100 malls in the U.S. today, but a quarter of them are at risk of closing over the next five years, according to estimates from Credit Suisse. Other analysts predict the number of malls closing be even higher.

Again, in Time:

A growing number of Americans, however, don’t see the need to go to any Macy’s at all. Our digital lives are frictionless and ruthlessly efficient, with retail and romance available at a click. Malls were designed for leisure, abundance, ambling. You parked and planned to spend some time. Today, much of that time has been given over to busier lives and second jobs and apps that let you swipe right instead of haunt the food court. Malls, says Harvard business professor Leonard Schlesinger, “were built for patterns of social interaction that increasingly don’t exist.”

PG says bookstores aren’t special retail snowflakes. The forces impacting malls are no different in their effect on physical bookstores. The only remaining major US physical retail outlet for list-price hardcover/paperback books is, of course, Barnes & Noble. Borders has already disappeared as have B. Dalton, Coles, Crown Books, Hastings, Krochs & Brentanos, Mediaplay and Waldenbooks.

PG suggests that three categories of disruptive change are impacting the traditional book business:

  1. Ecommerce
  2. Ebooks
  3. Profitable self-publishing via Kindle Direct

If ecommerce alone is enough to radically change the world for many physical retailers, imagine what two additional disruptive developments will do to traditional publishers and retail outlets for books.

Mike notes a fourth major development in the OP: Amazon is the most profitable place for major publishers to sell books.

Viewed properly, ebooks are a gift from heaven for traditional publishing profits:

  1. Create and upload a digital file to Amazon and other ebook outlets.
  2. Periodically check to see how much money arrived via bank transfers.

Yet Amazon is traditional publishing’s Great Satan because (with no malice that PG has observed) Amazon is changing power dynamics in publishing.

For one thing, Amazon likes to sell things at low prices, lower than prices charged anywhere else, including other places where books are sold.

For a second thing, one of Amazon’s earliest decisions was to make it easy for authors to self-publish both ebooks and POD paperbacks. Amazon also made it profitable for a great many authors to self publish through royalty structures that are vastly more beneficial to authors than those in traditional publishing contracts.

Easy and profitable. What’s not to like?

In the OP, Mike quotes the S&S CEO as admitting that romance books “had become very challenging for conventional publishers.”

Well, of course.

Why? (besides easy and profitable)

Romance authors have traditionally been treated in a disrespectful and condescending manner by a great many mainstream publishers. Since romance has always (or at least for a long time) sold large numbers of books to loyal readers, PG has wondered why. Perhaps it’s a perceived social or class thing. Publishers may regard romance as a necessary evil of their business, not deserving of the star treatment they provide for authors writing about more respectable characters and subjects, the kind of people who would have attended Wellesley.

Perhaps as a result of past disrespect which has toughened them up, a lot of smart women who write romance were happy to give KDP and other epublishing platforms a try. The computers didn’t care if you attended Wellesley or not, plus ebooks paid a lot better, you were in control and could write as many books as you wanted to. Plus, your readers had no problems locating and purchasing your books without dealing with sometimes-arrogant book store employees.

Amazon hearts romance authors. What’s not to like about that?

(No offence is intended toward Wellesley graduates, whether they write romance or not. PG’s grandmother graduated from Wellesley a very long time ago. She was a very nice person with a college friend she called Bunny.)

In PG’s surpassingly humble opinion, a variety of poor business decisions extending over many years have made it likely that an increasing number of traditional publishers will cease to be profitable in the foreseeable future. Poor profitability has been masked in recent years through a large number of mergers and acquisitions, but eventually that solution will dry up.

When a traditional publisher runs into financial trouble and is acquired by an investment bank or some other entity with a modicum of financial acumen, guess what’s going to happen.

  1. Costs of the newly-acquired publishing business will be examined in detail with particular attention being paid to potential cost savings.
  2. Sources of income will be examined with their fully-loaded costs, including personnel costs associated with each stream of income, to determine their true profitability.
  3. The new owners will determine that ebooks are by far the most profitable part of the publishing business.
  4. The new owners will determine that a huge number of expenses are tied to printed book operations, including a large portion of the firm’s overall personnel expenses and costs of third-party service providers that enable printed book operations.
  5. The new owners will attempt to outsource tasks performed in-house such as editing and as much of the content acquisition labor as possible.
  6. Layoffs, including elimination of layers of management no longer needed in the leaner publishing organization, will be a rational step for new owners who want to harvest income from the publisher.
  7. If the real costs of print books cannot be reduced enough to reach target profitability, print prices will be increased.
  8. If print can’t be made profitable, print rights will be sold to the highest bidder and further layoffs will follow.

Needless to say, all the changes in traditional publishing directed by the new owners will result in substantial anxiety for a great many traditionally-published authors. At a minimum, after selling off remaining stocks of an author’s print books, future print runs will either be substantially reduced or eliminated, depending upon the profitability of the individual author’s print titles when considering all associated costs.

If financial analysis causes a traditionally-published author to fall into the harvesting profits bin, he/she will be a line on a computer ledger and all expenses associated with the author’s books will be cut to bare minimums.

Circling back to Barnes & Noble, PG’s assessment is that the company is coasting along, riding modest waves of print customers who are coming to Barnes & Noble as more and more meatspace retail outlets for physical books disappear. PG reads some of the transcripts of quarterly earnings calls for BN and has observed the quality of top management decline under the revolving-door CEO direction of Mr. Riggio. PG suggests that it is unlikely for any salvational innovation to appear from this group of employees.

In PG’s earnestly humble opinion, Barnes & Noble will either collapse a la Borders or transition into the hands of financial types who deal in distressed businesses a la Sears.

Ten Years Ago Amazon Started A Revolution and It Just Gave Me a Very Good Month

30 November 2017

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

Ten years ago, Amazon released the first Kindle device. There had been electronic book reading devices before the Kindle and, indeed, the Sony ereader was actively in the market when Kindle arrived. (Others, like Rocketbook and Softbook, had perished for lack of interest.)

Kindle and Amazon succeeded where others failed for several reasons. First and foremost was the power of Amazon, which already had the attention of a very large segment of the book-reading and book-buying public. But Amazon helped themselves with three big breakthroughs — one technological and two commercial — which made what they were doing different from what had been done before.

The technological breakthrough was integrating the purchasing into the device, eliminating the two step “download and synch” process that previous ebook readers had required. Since wifi didn’t exist yet, executing on that required Amazon to take the risk on dial-up connection charges that MIGHT have been used by Kindle owners to do things other than make ebook purchases.

. . . .

The other commercial breakthrough was pricing. Amazon was willing to take real financial risks to present ebooks as a money-saving alternative to print. They wanted to establish a maximum ebook price of $9.99, so that’s what they charged even if the publisher’s price to them was higher and they had to take a loss on the sale.

. . . .

Back near the beginning of ebook time, a friend at Kobo put together a collection of the first two years of Shatzkin Files blogs into an ebook. Then, about a year ago, a British digital publishing operative named Simon Collinson felt the blogs were worth collecting into annual “books”. He did an extraordinary amount of work to arrange the blogs by subject and to give me the drafts of annual summaries. This turns out to be a pretty decent history of the ebook revolution since its dawning.

And now those ebooks are available in all the ebook formats for 20112012201320142015, and 2016.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files and thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for the tip.

“Since wifi didn’t exist yet” in 2007, ten years ago when Amazon introduced its first Kindle, is an example of both MikeSpeak and MikeWorld.

The first version of the 802.11 wifi protocol was released in 1997. This was updated in 1999 with 802.11b to permit 11 Mbit/s link speeds which really got things going.

Within five years, wifi exploded to about 100 million users, tens of millions of wifi devices being sold, etc. PG can’t remember when he first installed wifi in Casa PG, but recalls regularly using hotel wifi in the early 2000’s.

PG suggests that wifi may not have existed in New York publishing circles in 2007 (MikeWorld), but it was in common use at airports, restaurants, homes, etc., at that time. For example, in 2004, Slate published an article entitled, How to Steal Wi-Fi and How to Keep Your Neighbors from Stealing Yours.

PG has always viewed Shatzkin’s thoughts as reflective of the current thinking in traditional publishing.

Unfortunately, that thinking is consistently out of date and seems unable to draw any lessons from other businesses that have been diminished or destroyed by disruptive technology. The ebookstore, the ebook and the ease of self-publishing an ebook together constitute a hugely disruptive technology.

Traditional publishers are accustomed to paying only a small percentage of the revenue generated from book sales and licensing to the author. Of course, Amazon pays a much higher percentage to authors who self-publish via KDP. Depending on the pricing the author chooses, the majority of the price a reader pays for an ebook will flow through to the author.

Publishers are fond of talking about all the things they do that an indie author can’t do, chiefly getting printed books into traditional bookstores. From the publishers’ viewpoint, this sales channel is very important. From the author’s viewpoint, looking at the money the author actually receives from the physical bookstore channel, it’s less important.

Simply put, an author can often generate a higher income from a given book by self-publishing ebook and POD paperback editions only and selling exclusively through online bookstores than the author can generate by paying a much higher percentage of each book sold to a traditional publisher and accessing the physical bookstore channel. The publisher captures the lion’s share of income from physical book sales, so from the author’s viewpoint, that channel is much less important to his/her financial well-being than it is to the publisher’s.

If publishers were willing to enter into hardcopy only publishing agreements with authors, permitting authors to retain ebook rights for self-publication, business-savvy authors would be happy to sign such agreements. Even with low royalty rates, the hardcopy only agreement would generate net income to the author that the author would not otherwise receive while the author would benefit from the much higher percentage available from independently publishing his/her ebook editions.

One last and obvious point – twenty years ago publishers generated all of their income from print-only operations. If, as the traditional publishing press keeps saying, readers are returning to printed books and physical bookstores, a return to an earlier era of print-only publishing would seem to be a viable business proposition.

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