Mike Shatzkin

Some things I will be looking to learn more about at London Book Fair

3 April 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

The London Book Fair is an every-second-or-third-year thing for me, going back many decades. From an English-centric perspective, it is like a mini-Frankfurt. All the UK players are there and a lot of US senior executives. But because it is so accessible to the Continent, you can get a taste of how things look to the rest of the world.

In the US, we look to me to be in a period when two dominant giants — Amazon for online bookselling and Penguin Random House for general trade publishing — are consolidating their positions. Amazon’s enormous market share is growing, both for print and ebooks. It is too early to draw the same conclusion about PRH, but my guess is that a year or two from now we’ll have seen them taking share from their biggest competitors just like Amazon is from theirs.

. . . .

In a recent conversation, an executive at a Big Five company told me of a recent development. His company had licensed a few titles for Russian language rights to a publisher in Moscow. But by which retailers would most of those ebooks be sold? The answer is Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo and Barnes & Noble! And the Russian publisher, really just breaking into the ebook business, has far more limited access to these retailing giants than the US publisher which had licensed them the rights.

So the US publisher, in a suggestion that seemed in everybody’s interests, offered to be the “distributor” of those Russian ebooks to the major accounts. The deal was made and it worked. I said to the executive who explained this to me, “You could be helpful in distributing all their books, not just the ones you licensed them.” “Exactly,” he said.

But then we took the conversation a little further. This house is wondering whether, in an ebook-dominant world, it wouldn’t make more sense for them to publish books themselves in Spanish, Mandarin, and French (the first three languages they are thinking about). After all, the translations are done by freelancers. Anybody can hire them no matter where they are. And if most of the books sold are ebooks, and if the publishers of English, especially those in the US, have multiple daily contacts with the big ebook retailers and others don’t, then what is the point to licensing away those rights?

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

Even the biggest and smartest publishers still have a lot to learn about digital marketing

26 March 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

We recently had three examples from three different Very Big Publishers with Very Smart People of mistakes, or misunderstandings, or structural paralysis, that seem almost generic. All of them involve challenges that every publisher faces on a daily basis.

The first is from a publisher which is among the first to take a step that all publishers must take eventually: optimizing the metadata for their backlist. (Backlist is a topic that has interested us for a long time.) This is a mammoth challenge for every publisher of considerable size. They have tens of thousands of titles and, often, many of the ones selling best will have been published years — or even decades — ago so that nobody among the editors or imprint marketers have read it or thought through the markets for it, except when traditional reissuing activities have occurred or an exceptionally sharp marketer saw an opportunity.

There really are two distinctly separate problems inherent if you want to maximize backlist sales in the digital age. One is the one they are tackling: to get the foundational metadata — the book descriptions and their placement in the information chain — solid so that the titles are called up in response to the searches suggesting a possible customer for them. The other is to build a mechanism to observe the news and social graph each day and to identify the titles that can benefit from new developments. And then, of course, to couple the two in order to optimize a given title or series for the most appropriate semantics to drive both discoverability and conversion in different environments. SEO, yes. But really nuanced and real-time SEO which accounts for fundamental changes in how all the engines work and subtle differences inherent in each. We have our ideas about that engine (and have developed a proposal to address it) but, for now, like that publisher, let’s just worry about the first challenge: getting the backlist metadata foundations right.

The pioneering publisher we encountered is addressing the question across the many imprints in their large organization by asking each one to work on the metadata for their top-selling backlist. What this means, in practice, is that fuzzy-cheeked editorial or marketing assistants — most operating with little direction from senior people and, frankly, mostly working with senior people who wouldn’t really know exactly what to tell them to do (this stuff has gotten very technical in nature) — are the ones looking at what is there now (if anything) and fixing or updating it. This house will inevitably find that they get very uneven results and, because most of the work will be done by low-level people who turn over (or get promoted) quickly, it will be hard to generate training or processes that will show steady improvement of this work in the future.

Unless some great care is being exercised to introduce procedures most of these people would be unlikely to know about, this also runs afoul of Pete’s repeated mandate that research must be done for each and every title before a marketer can create optimized metadata. For backlist, in Pete’s methodology, this starts with finding out who the people are who have already read the book and commented on it and what words they use when they describe it.

. . . .

So, aside from the massive distraction created by asking each imprint to take on such a substantial additional chore, the chances are good, actually overwhelming, that the results — the new metadata foundations that will be created — will not be thoroughly applied and optimal in the best cases and that most imprints won’t be as good as the best. And, in a problem that repeatedly bedevils publishers in the age of digital media (as we will see again below), the staff time to do this exercise is not readily available. Everybody doing this work already has a fulltime job, largely jobs managing author talent and frontlist, jobs which must be done.

. . . .

We did an online audit for an author who is in the news. We found some circumstances which seemed to call for “paid media”: the purchase of search terms and phrases (ones on which major retailers had not bid and for which the book was not surfacing organically) or contextual display ads around news breaks to call attention to this author and his book in particular cases where we (really, Pete) believed it would do some real good.

So we made the suggestion to the top digital marketing thinker at this big publisher. He reported back that this kind of campaign had never worked for them, even tried on a big scale. Once again, Pete’s experience suggested to him possible reasons why it hadn’t worked for them and how it might. Pete told me:

The houses (almost to a one) do not know how to run these promotions, track their efficacy properly (they do broad “last-click” attribution, which is likely to capture a third of the actual effect, or so), and they make them amazingly expensive for themselves by not optimizing for the goals or for the platform, which at once benefits the platform and them.

Despite nearly infinite inventory, these places (the online venues) prefer that users click on ads when they see them. The better you are at it the cheaper those clicks are. Then you track the clicks and augment your attribution model with the known amplification effect (conservatively apply a % applied across outlets and formats per studies or in-house knowledge).

Drive a nice conversion percentage at Amazon and the book begins to rise. By rising, it gets better “placement” on Amazon via algorithmic store optimization (e.g. merchandised in the cart). That’s a virtuous circle that has momentum of its own.

Link to the rest at The Shazkin Files

Declarations and forecasts of Great Change in the book business need specificity to be useful and often do not provide it

5 March 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

The extended discussion in the comment string of the prior post had to do with to what extent publishers serve authors, and to what extent authors are better off eschewing publishers and working on their own. Unless and until publishers turn digital marketing at scale into a clearly compelling proposition, their power to serve authors effectively diminishes with each closing bookstore. The less bookstore- (or brick-and-mortar retailer-) dependent any book is, the less additional benefit in sales and exposure can be delivered by a publisher (although a cash advance and somebody to handle all the business aspects of putting a book out will still be both helpful and persuasive to many authors). Bookstore shelf space, and printed books, seem to be suffering slower erosion over the past year or two than they did in the several years before that. Michael Cader has made a convincing case that we actually know that for a fact. But, even if we accept the fact, whatever erosion continues will affect different books and authors to different degrees.

. . . .

So generalizations about the book business, whether they come from a self-published author or an industry expert like O’Leary, really require us to do a little parsing to make them useful. We’d be steering toward a more constructive conversation if we posed three questions every time somebody posits a Great Change we will see in the book business.

1. Which books, exactly, should we expect to be affected by this particular Great Change? This is necessary to specify now that most people would agree that “books” has become a pretty worthless generalization.

2. How soon can we expect a meaningful change in the perceived utility, and therefore the demand, for the affected books? That is, are we talking about a change that is already happening and evident and having a commercial impact (travel books are suffering and have been for years) or one we expect to see in the future (readers abandoning longer form books for shorter content choices) for which we might have only the scantiest evidence is affecting commercial reality today?

3. How likely is it that whatever the Great Change is going to be that publishers are well-positioned to affect or control or accommodate it? Brian suggested, and I wholeheartedly agree, the answer is “often not”. That being the case, the prediction of the Great Change should not necessarily be accompanied by the prescription that the publisher should change behavior to address it, although it seems to me they almost always are.

. . . .

Could a publisher of travel books have created Trip Advisor? Does the publisher-created Cookstr do the job of digital assistance for a cook better than allrecipes.com or cookbooks.com or betterrecipes.com? It doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking to see that a publisher’s skill sets are not the best match for building an interactive internet business where content is a component of the strategy but everything else about it is different from publishing books.

Over time, I expect the book business is going to get smaller, whether the number of books consumed goes down or not. Among the reasons for that is that, over time, the intrusion of self-publishing entities will be even more disruptive than self-publishing authors have been.

. . . .

Whether “book publishing” or “book retailing” shrinks, disappears, or changes form depends on how widespread across the various silos of interest and utility we call “books” today are the many disruptions that will affect those verticals in different ways and at different speeds. And generalizing about what these changes mean, let alone delivering advice that isn’t informed and bounded by an understanding of how any particular book or author or publishing program fits into the time and scale of any particular change, is as likely to be wrong and harmful as it is to be correct and illuminating.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

While PG sometimes disagrees with Mike, he usually thinks what Mike says makes sense when viewed from the perspective of an established publisher.

This post is pretty loosey-goosey, however.

What is happening to the publishing business begins with technology disruption – ecommerce and ebooks – and is manifesting itself in a massive restructuring of the publishing business that involves the disintermediation of traditional publishers, distributors and booksellers from readers.

Complaining that the precise boundaries and directions of this tumultuous change are not being forecasted with useful precision sounds a little like a surfer complaining that nobody can specifically describe what the next wave will look like.

One of the reasons disruptive change is interesting is that it’s impossible to forecast with specificity.

If Apple hadn’t rehired Steve Jobs in 1997, the music business would look much different than it does today.

Yes, digital music would exist and portable digital music players would be sold in large numbers, but the contours of the digital music business would not be the same as they are with iTunes, iPods, iPhones and iPads. A Microsoft-driven digital music business would look much different than an Apple-driven digital music business or a record-label driven digital music business.

Likewise, the ebook world would look much different if Jeff Bezos still worked for a hedge fund and Sony had led the market into ebooks.

One thing that is clear is that some individuals and some businesses respond better to disruptive technologies than others do.

So far, in PG’s persistently modest opinion, Big Publishing has been remarkably inept in its responses to ebooks and ecommerce. It’s not a business that is tech-savvy or tech-friendly, for one thing. It’s not a business that really wants to change, for another.

The fact that major publishers are owned by large media conglomerates (another group without a lot of tech chops) is a huge disadvantage in a dynamic and rapidly-changing technology and business environment. No big media conglomerate will allow a large subsidiary to lose money or fail to deliver steady profits like the stock market permits Amazon to do.

Mike and Big Publishing want predictability in a business which has become and will remain generally unpredictable for a while. Too bad they can’t choose a different business.

Comparing self-publishing to being published is tricky and most of the data you need to do it right is not available

13 February 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

I have a certain pride of discovery in super-successful indie author Hugh Howey. It was nearly two years ago that I learned about him on a trip to LA to organize a conference that didn’t happen. The Hollywood grapevine told me about his novel-of-assembled-novellas, Wool, which was a sudden major self-publishing bestseller and that he had a movie deal. I got in touch with him and his agent, Kristin Nelson, and learned that he was making $50,000 a month in royalties, and had a host of foreign deals as well as the movie deal. Meanwhile, the publishing establishment couldn’t come up with an offer that would sensibly entice him to give up his indie revenues.

. . . .

He’s a terrific guy who has achieved a phenomenal success and maximized it in a very clever way. But I think he’s a much better author and self-promoter than he is a business analyst.

. . . .

Hugh’s advice for publishers is to eliminate things that annoy him (non-compete clauses, length-of-copyright licenses, New York City offices) and to lower prices, give away ebooks with hardcover purchases, and pay authors monthly.

Now, none of these things is necessarily a bad idea, and some of them will almost certainly come to pass, at least for some authors in some contracts. And I remember when Wiley moved from 3rd Avenue to Hoboken that they figured they got a competitive advantage of permanently lower rent at very little sacrifice of efficiency. But none of them are things a publisher would do just for the hell of it; they’d have to see a competitive advantage or a competitive necessity. The piece he wrote advising the publishers (which he addressed to HarperCollins but which he meant to be generic) didn’t even attempt to prove that these changes were either commercially advantageous or necessary.

But giving this advice to HarperCollins or any other big publisher is not dangerous to anybody’s health. Unfortunately, Hugh’s latest business inspiration — a call to arms suggesting to independent authors that they should just eschew traditional publishing or demand it pay them like indie publishing — is potentially much more toxic to consume. (The agenda here is unclear. Is Hugh most interested in getting more authors self-publishing or in organizing authors to demand better terms from publishers? It’s hard to tell, but there is an agenda, it would seem.)

The long story short is that Howey analyzed a bunch of Amazon rank data (apparently a single day’s worth, 1/28-29/2014, which has so many obvious problems associated with it that all by itself it raises questions about what of value can be gleaned) and from that extrapolated some breathtaking (and breathless) conclusions that go way beyond what the data could possibly tell anybody. The analysis purports to compare how authors do self-publishing versus how they’d do with a publisher and comes to the conclusions that they make more per copy on average self-publishing and maybe even sell more and make better books to boot.

. . . .

My problem with the whole exercise is that there is a long list of relevant facts not included in the data and therefore ignored in the subsequent analysis:

1. Author revenue from print sales.
2. Getting an advance before publication versus having costs before publication.
3. Unearned advances and their impact on author earnings.
4. Getting paid for doing the work of publishing which goes beyond authoring.
5. Current indie successes where the author name or even the book itself was “made” by traditional publishers.
6. Rights deals.
7. How well Amazon data “maps” to what happens elsewhere. Is it really projectable?
8. The apparent reality: flow of authors is self- to traditionally-published, not the other way around.
9. Publishers can raise royalty rates (or lower prices) when it becomes compelling to do so.

. . . .

4. Getting paid for doing the work of publishing which goes beyond authoring. Frankly, the biggest omission to me is the eliding of the costs — in time and money — of doing the work the house does for an author. Howey mentions that editors and cover designers can be hired. That’s true, and good and competent ones too. But is a good writer necessarily a wise chooser of an editor or of a cover design? How much does it cost if you don’t get the right one the first time? (We know publishers aren’t perfect at these jobs either, but they’re bound to be better most of the time than somebody who hasn’t ever done it before.) And is that how you want to spend your time? Authoring is a job but doing the work of self-publishing is also a job. And it entails real risk. Advising a writer to self-publish without considering these things is like telling somebody who’s a good cook that they might as well just open a restaurant.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG was tempted to go through a point-by-point discussion of Mike’s post, but he doesn’t have the time.

Mike’s a smart guy but he really, really, really doesn’t understand the world of self-publishing and what’s going on there.

Mike looks at indieworld from the viewpoint of traditional publishing, but traditional publishing is getting it all wrong. Over and over. Publishers believe that because they sign an indie success to a traditional publishing contract, that means traditional publishing has won and it can capture successful self-published authors at will.

The publishing establishment doesn’t understand that a lot of indie authors regard a traditional contract as a marketing play to build their author brand. They also don’t understand that a lot of hybrid authors become convinced pretty quickly that the traditional side of their hybrid career sucks and they’re not going to maintain the traditional side any longer than they have to under their contracts.

Publishing is still focused on sales of paper books because that’s where they’re still a gatekeeper. Publishing prices ebooks wrong and thinks the profit margins are great but its pricing mistakes keep the gross way, way down. And, of course, traditional publishing contracts really underpay the author.

Self-publishing is primarily an ebook play. As Hugh has demonstrated in the post below this one, the 70% of the market that publishers commonly cite for print market share doesn’t do the authors much good. Most of that 70% goes to bookstores and publishers, not authors.

But, of course, Big Publishing doesn’t ever view the world from the author’s perspective. That’s why they have such difficulty understanding why so many authors are so happy with indieworld. And what they don’t understand, they deny.

The book business is being massively disrupted by two technologies – ecommerce and ebooks.

Traditional publishers and physical bookstores are on a downward path that’s not going to reverse itself. The overwhelming economic advantages of ebooks and ecommerce will devastate the legacy method of creating, distributing and selling books.

UPDATE: PG was chatting with Mrs. PG over lunch and realized he omitted a couple of additional things.

1. One of the common tradpub criticisms of Author Earnings is that it only covers Amazon and “Amazon isn’t the whole market.” This is another manifestation of ignorance of indieworld.

At least in the US, Amazon is virtually the whole market for indie authors. The rest of “the market” isn’t accessible to indie authors. (No dissing intended toward Smashwords, Nook, Kobo, etc., intended, but, with a few exceptions, most indie authors make most of their money from Amazon.)

2. The analysis of indieworld by those associated with traditional publishing includes an unstated assumption – What’s good for publishers is good for authors.

Anyone who has carefully examined a traditional publishing contract knows this assumption is false. Publishers get the sandwiches and authors get the crumbs.

In fact, as the publishing world comes under more disruptive stress, PG predicts the interests of publishers and the interests of authors will diverge even further. Publishers will always consider their own financial interests over those of their authors. Again, look at a traditional publishing contract as Exhibit A.

Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player

10 February 2014

From Mike Shatzkin:

Sony has thrown in the towel on the ebook business and turned its customers over to Kobo. This has unleashed speculation that Nook will soon do the same.If B&N were really forced to choose between the investments they need to make in their stores and the investments required to compete in digital delivery, it would be hard to see them making any other choice but to save the stores. The notion of another retailer, perhaps Walmart, buying the whole thing seems eminently logical, but one can’t account for the role that a sentimental attachment to the stores by B&N’s principal owner, Len Riggio, might play in these decisions.

Despite the hopes and expectations of upstarts like Zola Books (which itself made an acquisition lately, taking Bookish off the hands of the three publishers that started it) and Baker & Taylor’s Blio or longtime competitor Copia or the originally phone-based txtr, it feels to me like we’re seeing the beginning of consolidation of the ebook business.

. . . .

Sony is a big company with a very tiny ebook business. They were also really the “first mover” in the modern era ebook device space. The e-ink Sony Reader is more like the Kindle and Nook than any other thing that came before. But if the ebook play ever fit into a larger objective for Sony, it is not clear what that was.

. . . .

In the last post here, I posited (among other things) that ebook retailing just wouldn’t work as a stand-alone business; it has to be a complement to other objectives and activities to make commercial sense. Sony has found that it doesn’t fit for them, almost certainly because it doesn’t add value to any of their other businesses.

. . . .

The wild card here is if some big outside player — Walmart being the most frequently mentioned — saw benefits to having the ebook business (or even the whole book business) in its portfolio. That’s happened in the UK, where supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bought a majority stake in Anobii (a UK-publishers-backed startup, analogous to Bookish in the US) and Tesco bought Mobcast because the ebook business was one that they thought fit in well with their offerings and customer base. (Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco made statements about strengthening their “digital entertainment” and online retailing propositions. Tesco is investing in devices as well.)

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

Book publishing may not remain a stand-alone industry and book retailing will demonstrate that first

31 January 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

Book retailing on the Internet, let alone an offer that is ebooks only, hardly cuts it as a stand-alone business anymore. The three companies most likely to be in the game and selling ebooks ten years from now are Amazon, Apple, and Google. The ebook business will not be material to any of them — it is only really close to material for Amazon now — which is why we can be sure they will see no need to abandon it. It is a strategic component of a larger ecosystem, not dependent on the margin or profit it itself produces. And the rest of their substantial businesses assure they’ll still be around as a company to run that ebook business.

Kobo is owned by Rakuten, a large Japanese online retailer. They started a global  expansion in 2005, buying up ecommerce companies in different key markets, including Buy.com in the US. They also have invested in Pinterest. I don’t know what it is, but I have to believe that deep in Rakuten’s strategic consciousness there is a larger reason for them to have Kobo, probably based in the opportunities inherent in having a consumer’s email address and credit card information and knowledge of what s/he reads. So they also have a base bigger than the ebook business.

Barnes & Noble demonstrates the principle that books alone and one market alone just aren’t enough. They were able to use their US store presence to jump-start the Nook, but after they grabbed the low-hanging fruit among their store customers for digital reading, they quickly ran out of steam. Without a global presence and without a strong online store (BN.com has been deficient, and an albatross, for years), they just don’t have the ballast to be competitive. And that’s a shame, because B&N is the player that could make the most powerful consumer offer in the book space. They have online and offline, print and digital, but it really hurts them that the execution of offline print isn’t up to competing with Amazon and the overall coordination that would maximize the power of all these capabilities is not in evidence.

. . . .

The book publishing industry scratched its collective head for years as Jeff Bezos and his crew grew a giant online bookseller without keeping much margin and had Wall Street shovel money at them to grow and invest. The widespread wisdom in publishing in the late 1990s was that Amazon was performing some kind of parlor trick that would shortly come to an end. Instead, they built on their customer base, their tech, and their reputation for service to expand way beyond book retailing. And today they can afford to run a profit-less book retailing and publishing operation (if they want to; I have no evidence that they don’t make profits and don’t claim to know), taking the margin out of the game in a way that would squeeze any competitor trying to make a profit from book retailing.

. . . .

This is a paradigm that leaves Barnes & Noble out in the cold. Their business, on which they must make money, is selling books. They are trying to diversify their merchandise selection a bit in their stores, but that’s a strategy that is both difficult to execute and has nowhere near the upside that Amazon, Google, and Apple have with their other businesses. This is an unfair fight where B&N is dependent on margins from their ebook (and book) sales while their competitors, if perhaps not totally content to break even on that business, aren’t materially affected if they do, or even if they lose a bit of money on that aspect of their business.

. . . .

[P]ublishing — like book retailing — is likely to become a subsidiary function pursued in strategic support of larger goals. Unlike in retailing, this will not be consolidated among a few players, but as widely scattered as the subjects about which books are produced. But the core challenge for the legacy publishing establishment, that they will increasingly face competition that doesn’t need the profits from that activity as much as they do, will be the same. Book publishing as a stand-alone industry with most of its significant players earning all their profits within it is in the process of morphing into something quite different, starting with the retailers.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

The future of bookstores is the key to understanding the future of publishing

25 January 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

Of course, there has already been one shock to the system — one “Black Swan” event — which was the closing of Borders stores in 2011. That suddenly took about 400 very large bookstores out of the supply chain. Since then, the anecdata about independents — which includes encouraging, but unaudited, financial information from the BEA and a lot of rah-rah from thriving indies . . . has been very upbeat (although Bowker data seems to suggest Amazon gained more from Borders’s passing than anybody else did). And while B&N has continued to show some sales slippage, its more drastic setbacks have been in the Nook business, not selling print in stores.

. . . .

We need to know about changes in the division of those sales between online and offline to really have a complete picture. If ebook takeup slows down but the online buying shift doesn’t, the bookstores are still going to feel pain.

This point about the key index being online sales versus offline sales rather than printed book sales versus digital book sales is a key one that we’ve been hammering for years.

. . . .

A friend of mine who is a longtime independent sales rep says that even the successful indies are finding it necessary to sell books and other things — cards, gifts, chotchkes — to survive. The mega-bookstore with 75,000 or 100,000 titles or more was a magnet for customers in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. It isn’t so much anymore because the multi-million title bookstore is available through anybody’s computer. This is a fact that makes the number of successful stores a weak indicator of the distribution potential available to publishers. If replacement stores carry half the inventory of the ones that go out, we can have a lot of indie retail success stories but still a shrinking ecosystem into which publishers distribute their books.

. . . .

But the fate of almost all trade publishers is inextricably connected to the fate of bookstores. There are only two exceptions. Penguin Random House is one, because they are large enough to create bookstores on their own with just their books. The other is publishers who are vertical with audiences that open up the possibility of retail outlets other than bookstores. Children’s books and crafts books are obvious possibilities for that; there aren’t a ton of others.

The feeling I had at Digital Book World is that most people in the trade have either dismissed or are wilfully ignoring the possibility that there could be such serious further erosion of the trade over the next few years that it would threaten the core practices of the industry.

. . . .

I have no data to refute the notion that we’ve reached some sort new era of bookstore stability, just a stubborn feeling in my gut that over the next few years it will turn out not to be true.

. . . .

But my hunch (and this is not a “prediction” as in “this will happen; take it to the bank”) is that shelf space for print in Barnes & Noble and dedicated bookstores could well shrink by 50 percent over the next five years.

. . . .

But, most of all, publishers are going to have to think about how they maintain their appeal to authors if putting printed books in stores becomes a less important component of the overall equation. It is still true that putting books in stores is necessary to get anywhere close to total penetration of a book’s potential audience.

. . . .

But that’s today when the online-offline division may be near 50-50 overall and is 75-25 for certain niches. If those numbers become 75-25 and 90-10 over the next five years, the bookstore market really won’t matter that much to most authors anymore. Whether through self-publishing or through some fledgling publisher that doesn’t have today’s big publisher capabilities but also doesn’t have their cost structure, authors will feel that the big organizations are less necessary than they are now to help them realize their potential.

Higher ebook royalty rates, more frequent payments, and shorter contract terms are all very unattractive ways from the publishers’ perspective to address that issue. So far the marketplace hasn’t forced publishers to offer them.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

Publishers do need to sell direct, but here are five things they should at least be started on first

7 January 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

I wrote about 18 months ago: the benefits that flow to publishers that sell direct. In that piece, I highlighted the disagreement that seemed to exist at that time between my advocacy of direct selling of ebooks particularly and Random House’s lack of interest in doing so.

In the meantime, I’ve been working with Peter McCarthy, building a digital marketing business. Pete was the lead digital marketing strategist at Random House for six years ending shortly before I published the piece. Nano makes the point that only Random House among the former Big Six does not sell ebooks direct now (although Penguin, the other half of the supermerger, does).

But in the year I’ve been working with Pete, I’ve learned with more nuanced perspective where “owning the transaction” fits in the hierarchy of tools and opportunities for publishers to directly influence consumer behavior. It isn’t at the top. So I have a new-found respect for Random House’s reluctance to forge ahead with retailing (although they clearly have been pursuing a direct-to-consumer strategy for years) and a new-found understanding of many other things publishers can do to help themselves with direct-to-consumer book marketing without necessarily executing the final sale of the ebook.

. . . .

At first blush, it seems like a no-brainer that if you are talking to the consumer, introducing them to a book and persuading them to buy it, then you ought to at least try to get the full margin on the sale by executing the final transaction (as well as, perhaps, learning even more by observing their behavior as they read). But, of course, there are myriad complications.

Selling ebooks with DRM at all costs money for the license, adds complications for the end consumer, and can’t be executed by anybody except Amazon for delivery to the Kindle.

Setting prices is devilishly difficult. Either you resign yourself to being more expensive than many of the retailers or you compete with them on price. That requires technology and complicates the relationship with the sources of most publishers’ sales. It also means the “additional margin” you’re aiming to capture might not be as much as you hoped.

Being a retailer requires customer service. That’s something publishers have no experience with. And the difficulty of delivering it escalates with DRM and with any kind of dynamic pricing policy.

. . . .

One thing I learned from Pete is that — at least for a time and maybe still — Random House, apparently uniquely, was able to gain very granular affiliate-code tracking from Amazon. (This was achieved, apparently, merely by requesting it.) An affiliate code is the mechanism that enables publishers (or any other third-party) to be paid a referral fee on sales executed from traffic they send to Amazon (or any other retailer which compensates affiliates for referrals) for a purchase. Publishers normally have one and only one for each retailer to use across all their referrals, so they get sales reporting and payments from each retailer that are consolidated across all their titles and all the campaigns they run for those titles.

That leaves them flying blind on one of the most important metrics in digital marketing: how their clicks convert. Publishers persuading consumers and sending the traffic as an affiliate to Amazon or B&N (or any other retailer) can only possibly know the total number of clicks that went through them to the retailer and the total number of copies of each book they are credited with selling. Painstaking matching could get them a conversion index for a title, but not broken down by campaign or referral source.

Because Random House didn’t have that blind spot, they were, first of all, aware that their conversion rate on clicks to Amazon was very high, much higher than they would expect to get themselves if they tried to encourage consumers to buy direct. So the capture of more margin per sale would be at theexpense of losing many sales. But, in addition, the extra margin can get burned up pretty quickly with the costs of running a direct-sale operation. One that provides solid user experiences, customer service, and other now standard eCommerce practices anywhere near today’s customer expectation is expensive — more so when it isn’t your primary business. eCommerce is a huge distraction, especially when it is executed by the folks who are also your digital marketers! That, or additional head count (which further lowers margins), would constitute a publisher’s choices.

. . . .

That granular knowledge also enabled Random House to measure the success of campaigns by the meaningful metric of “books sold” rather than the proxy of “clickthroughs created”. That data made it evident very quickly that the search terms and calls to action that drove the most clicks weren’t necessarily the ones that drove the most sales. And, in addition, Amazon likes it better, and is more likely to invoke their own marketing capabilities on your behalf, if you’re driving traffic for a book that converts.

. . . .

The opportunities that a digital marketing environment creates for increasing sales of backlist have, across the industry, hardly been explored. If publishers are failing to do the necessary research to deliver optimal metadata on new titles, most aren’t even thinking about it for their backlist. This is a complicated problem. You can’t spend the hour or two we consider minimal necessary research to position a new title across thousands of titles on a backlist on a regular basis. Both monitoring the outside world, news and the social graph, and keeping metadata optimized for changing circumstances are, as yet, problems without a lot of helpful tools (or start-up initiatives) to assist them with yet. But publishers have lived for years in a world where the biggest barrier to backlist sales was the lack of availability of books in stores. As sales made online now exceed sales in stores for many titles anyway, that’s no longer a barrier and a much more proactive everyday approach to selling backlist is called for. A proprietary direct-selling effort can be of only minimal value there until a publisher creates such a heavily-trafficked store that screen real estate can be an effective tool. So other solutions are called for and it is probably unnecessary to say that McCarthy and I are working on this challenge too.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

As Passive Guy has mentioned before, he regards Mike Shatzkin’s writing as generally representing the best and most forward thinking in traditional publishing.

With that in mind, PG will observe that Big Publishing is way, way, way, way behind the curve when it comes to ecommerce, SEO, online engagement with readers, etc., etc. He speaks as someone who was running major ecommerce 14 years ago and doing serious SEO 10 years ago.

PG agrees with Mike that publishers do not need to sell direct. He would state the proposition a bit more strenuously – Big Publishing trying to sell direct would be pouring money down a rat hole.

There are good reasons that major Silicon Valley venture capitalists (who are a bunch smarter about ecommerce than anyone in publishing) will not fund any startup that plans to compete with Amazon.

Someday, Amazon will become fat and sloppy and fast-moving startup will upset the apple cart, but that day is not going to come for awhile.

Any online strategy for a publisher (and for many other categories of direct-to-consumer ecommerce) needs to be built around Amazon. Google-focused SEO for books is a waste of time. Amazon-focused SEO is another story. It will, however, be much different than the Google variety.

It will require a 180-degree turn for the Price-Fix Six, but a smart publisher would fly to Seattle, beg for forgiveness and offer to do almost anything to build a collaborative relationship with Amazon. Five years from now, Barnes & Noble may still exist, but it will be a shadow of its former self. Amazon is already the biggest bookstore in the world and, for the foreseeable future, its market share is likely to grow.

In the aftermath of the Christmas season, PG is feeling uncharacteristically charitable towards all, including Big Publishing, so here’s his one good suggestion for 2014: Every publisher should open an office near Amazon’s headquarters and staff it with a few very smart people. The job of the Seattle office is to figure out better ways to collaborate with Amazon.

This is not an original idea. If you travel to Bentonville, Arkansas, the home of Wal-Mart, you will see offices for every major consumer goods company that sells its products to Wal-Mart. Representatives of those companies are visiting Wal-Mart’s offices almost every day. Even in an internet age, face-to-face interaction is important.

Just like General Mills, Hasbro and Tootsie Roll do with Wal-Mart, smart publishers would explicitly acknowledge Amazon as their very most important customer.

And smart publishers would also instruct their employees to quit trashing Amazon. If Big Publishing is going to have a future (and it may not), that future will be inextricably tied to Amazon.

Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing

5 January 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

The digital transition of the trade book publishing business, which I would date from the opening of Amazon.com in 1995, enters its 20th year in 2014. Here are some of the ponderables as we close out the first two decades of a process of very rapid change that is far from over.

1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire.Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable “floor” for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.

. . . .

4. It is accurate, but misleading, to describe the Penguin Random House combination as a merger of “two of the big six”. It is actually a merger of the two biggest of the former Big Six, and it creates a publisher that is nearly as big as the four others combined. So we now really have a Big One and a Following Four, rather than a Big Five. The big question is what PRH can do to apply what is a huge difference in size as a scale advantage. The hunch here is that proprietary distribution channels can be created by a company that controls approximately half the most commercial books in the English-language world. Whether that will manifest itself as ebook subscriptions, special retail distribution using vendor-managed inventory, or the creation or purchase of marketing channels for its exclusive use — or all of the above and more — will be one of the most important things to watch in 2014.

5. The financial reports from big publishers in 2013 have been mostly encouraging. It looks like the shift to ebooks has had the impact of improving publisher margins and profitability. But can those good times last? Publishers now face a world where there is a single dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer, a single dominant internet retailer, and, as noted above, a single dominant publisher. Agents want to keep competition alive, so they’re going to be sensitive about pushing the Following Four too hard or allowing too quick a migration of authors to the industry leader, but the retailers won’t be so accommodating. Another pressure point on margins will be ebook pricing. It has been driven down by successful self-publishing and the the court’s elimination of agency as a protection. Now big publishers have discovered “dynamic pricing” — lowering prices on a book temporarily to spike sales and awareness — adding their own activity to the list of forces reducing margins. Both the top line and the bottom line will be harder to maintain in 2014, but how it will turn out is an open question. After all, most of these things were true in 2013 and margins still improved.

. . . .

8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from “extremely difficult” to “impossible” for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

We do not yet know whether ebooks will work for anything except readerly books

4 December 2013

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

In the 1990s, Mark Bide would always begin the “Publishing in the 21st Century” conferences we ran by reviewing the research we had done around some aspect of digital change in publishing with the admonition that book publishing was “many very different businesses.” By that, Mark meant that trade publishers (who sold primarily through bookstores) were quite different from college textbook publishers and schoolbook publishers and sci-tech publishers and database publishers (who did not, and shared different dissimilarities with each other).

All of them were in the “book” business because all of them put their publishing output into bound pages for packaging and sale. But, aside from that, the commonalities in business model were all within the segments of book publishing, not across them. And when we were running these conferences 15 or 20 years ago we wanted our attendees to understand that how digital change might affect trade books might be quite different than how it would affect textbooks or professional books.

. . . .

Last week Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader pointed my eyeballs at a story from the UK about a very prominent gardening author who, at age 85, has decided to stop writing gardening books because he believes his audience now gets that information from the Web, not from books.

Dr. David Hessayon created the Experts series of gardening guides and has been delivering more and more of them for over five decades, distributed in the UK by a division of Random House. But his sales figures and his insight into digital change tell him that “the how-to-do-it book has lost its absolute supremacy. To write a bestseller now you need to choose something that you can’t look up on Google.”

. . . .

Now it is the trade book business which is showing it is many book businesses, a fact that is being revealed by the shift to digital. And publishers are increasingly realizing the truth of this and that they have to focus on that fact as they plan their futures.

. . . .

We have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that digital versions of narrative immersive reading — which I define as books you read from page one to page last — if made reflowable will satisfy the vast majority of the book’s print audience. Some people have switched to devices and some haven’t. Some stubbornly prefer printed books. Some find reading on a phone too cramped or reading on a computer too confining. But almost everybody finds reading on an ereader to be quite satisfactory (even if they don’t find it preferable to print). And if the book reflows and you can pick your type size, the ways it could have been improved but wasn’t always (seamless note-taking ability, improved navigation, ability to share) don’t interfere with your personal reading enjoyment. So these books have “worked” commercially as ebooks, particularly since the cost of getting to a digital version is trivial.

However, the complementary fact is that we have not yet found a formula that works for any other kind of book.

. . . .

How-to books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Reference books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Cookbooks haven’t sold well as ebooks. If you dip in and out; if you rely on illustrations (which maybe should be videos); if your book is just filled with pretty pictures; then there is no formula for a digital version that has demonstrated mass commercial appeal.

. . . .

What this means is that the digital future for narrative reading — fiction and non-fiction — is much clearer than it is for any other kind of book. Publishers of novels can apparently count on their sales shifting from print to digital and from in-store to online without losing a lot of readers. And with not much in the way of conversion costs, publishers of these books can proceed with their development with some confidence that the changes in publishing’s landscape and ecosystem won’t throw the calculations they are making for future profits on today’s acquisitions into a cocked hat.

But publishers of everything else have no basis for similar confidence.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG notes that most of the things he sees on his smart phone, tablet or computer screen have lots of photos, illustrations and graphics, so there’s nothing inherent in electronic screens that make them unsuitable for such content.

While Mike is correct that traditional publishers may not be selling ebook versions of cookbooks, how-to, etc., the Internet is jammed with very popular websites devoted to recipes and how-to items. People may not buy ebook versions of cookbooks because they’re getting electronic recipes, complete with illustrations and videos, directly from web locations.

For traditional publishers, it’s possible that some types of books won’t transition from printed to ebooks, but from printed versions to nothing.

While Casa PG still receives a lot of holiday catalogs in paper form at this season, the number is down from previous years, perhaps because fewer people are interested in that sort of highly illustrated publication on paper.

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