On The Media Show

I recorded a piece about ebooks, digital change and self publishing for the media show last week. It’s right at the top of the show and I think it went pretty well:

There’s also a fascinating piece with the editor of the Irish Independent talking about the digital change going on at Independent (kicks off around 13.00 mins or so) and Brian Fallon from Distilled media talking about TheJournal.ie and the other brands in that group.

On Innovation & Disruption

Baldur Bjarnason has a great post on his blog this week, Which kind of innovation? In it, he asks whether ebooks can be considered a true disruptive innovation (as per the work of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma) or whether they should be considered a sustaining innovation that the publishing industry flubbed.

It’s a great question and he supports it well, but I think he’s wrong in his assessment for a number of reasons. Firstly his premise is mistaken, ebooks are not the disruption, merely the manifestation of the disruption (of which more below) and secondly even if we are to accept his categorization of ebooks as the disruption/sustaining innovation, he misses a key point about the nature of the trade publishing industry that undermines his argument.

On Disruption
The error Baldur makes in looking at ebooks as the disruptive innovation rather than considering ebooks as part of a wider context. I would contend that ebooks themselves are simply one symptom of a much wider and radical transformation that is underway, digital creation and distribution of content.

This process has actually been ongoing for quite some time and began with the emergence of tools that digitized the back-end of the business; word processors, computers, design software, email and much more (which changed writing, editing, typesetting, design etc) and has over time moved from there towards more front facing aspects of the industry (production, distribution, selling) before starting to make a large impact on the consumer side of the industry, consumption in the form of ebooks and web-reading (not to mention making many other forms of content from music to games available to those consumers).

It is this process which is causing the disruption, not ebooks which are merely one, now obvious, fork that it enables. What’s more this process is very much a disruptive one. It enables self publishing, which Baldur points out has the potential to be very disruptive and I would argue already has been and will continue to be. It also makes real the competition between all forms of content in a very cutthroat way. Digital creation and digital distribution pits amateur against professional, curated against random, quality against crap and, probably most importantly of all, form against form and past creation against current creation. It makes accessible all things ever created (once digitized) and pits them against all other things ever created.

So yes, the ebook is just a format change, but it is not a sustaining innovation in any true sense of the word. Rather it is a symptom of an ongoing, radical and endless disruption of the creative content industry in all its guises (and one which is replicated across most industries that have an information/content/data/entertainment component which is to say, them all).

On Trade Publishing
But let us move beyond the argument of whether it is or isn’t disruptive in itself and onto Baldur’s case of why eooks are just a format change the industry flubbed. One of Baldur’s key points is this:

Unlike most disruptive innovations, ebooks were very quickly adopted by the publishing industry’s most profitable customers, people who buy the most, spend the most, and talk the most about books.

The problem here is that those consumers are not publishers’ most profitable customers, rather they are the customers of their most profitable customers, bookstores.

So when Baldur says:

Amazon’s release of the Kindle was like the iteration of the Thinkpad or the Powerbook that first made them viable as desktop replacements, not a disruptive innovation but a discontinuous sustaining one.

He needs to consider  the impact on bookstores before he can say the Kindle was a sustaining innovation. Ebooks might be just a format change but they are a format change which would, if they were adopted by a large enough group of consumers, wipe out publisher’s key trading partners. That is what makes them so disruptive to the industry even though they are only a symptom of the real change.

To ignore this key fact is to misunderstand the trade publishing industry as a whole.

Baldur also says that:

Ebooks are a sustaining technology that are being mismanaged into devaluing an entire industry (that mismanagement is a subject worthy of a series blog posts) while the true disruptors get to work in peace. (In the long run, Google is the real winner here.)

I have much to fault in this section.

First Baldur notes that ebooks have brought about a considerable devaluation across the industry (which presumably has been a boon for readers) something I question and isn’t really held up by the figures either even if you look at the most recent figures from the UK, print sales were down modestly but digital sales more than made up for it.

He rests the fault for this at the door of publishers who have flubbed the transition to a new format. BUT how else might they have acted? Ebooks threatened, and still threaten, to close  their most profitable route to market, bookstores.

The only booksellers who have successfully launched rival ebook offerings have done so only with great difficulty. Barnes & Noble has sunk considerable cash into the project and struggles to gain further traction in the US or any beyond the US, even as it has successfully spun out the entity and sucked in money from Microsoft. Kobo was started as an independent entity and recently sold by Indigo to a non-booktrade player.

If Ebooks were indeed sustaining and just a format change, we should be seeing the old order of trade publishing flourishing, we are not, our bookstores are dying. Publishers can and will survive ebooks, but their major customers look almost certain not to. Print booksellers are looking like the major casualty of a “format change” which seems to me an unlikely occurrence of that “format change” were indeed sustaining.

One thing Baldur certainly gets right about the implication of this true disruption wreaking havoc up and down the supply chain is that Google is happily egging the disruption on, but he misses that Amazon is too. if he got that, he might see this for what it is.

Go Read This | How International Pricing Strategy Affects Publisher Profitability

Interesting piece by Patrick Crowley on pricing for different territories:

On the face of it, McDonald’s overall pricing objective is to increase market share, whereas for publishers it tends to be achieving short term return on investment. Bearing in mind that some markets are mature than others, and can hold higher prices than others, we recommend that publishers should consider varying their eBook pricing appropriately. In general, we find that the US can hold a higher price point than the UK, and still be competitive. This means setting your price a price of x and just doing the currency calculations, means you are missing out on opportunities to maximize your revenue.

via How International Pricing Strategy Affects Publisher Profitability | ePubDirect.

The Three Most Important Lessons We Can Learn From Barnes & Noble’s Nook Setback

We should be really grateful to Barnes & Noble. The company just spent the last five years driving hard into a new space, consumer devices, and while it encountered much success, over the last quarter or two that success has crumbled away and has resulted in what some might consider an embarrassing and costly mess when many of its competitors in the tablet space have seen soaring sales.

Yet, despite those failings, there are several lessons that are applicable to all players in the publishing industry ones Barnes & Noble has learned at great cost and the rest of us can learn from.

1) Don’t overestimate your addressable audience

In retrospect it now looks like Barnes & Noble’s great success (and its ongoing success, let’s face it, it is still selling many hundreds of thousands of tablets!) was just a very spectacular penetration of the bulk of its available customer base or addressable audience, those already friendly to B&N and its products and willing to convert from print to digital book reading, the bookish digitants if you will.

The company clearly managed to persuade some, but not many of the non-reading (or light reading) early adopting market in its first year of offering tablets, but as more competition come on stream its ability to do that has collapsed. Barnes & Noble simply didn’t have the chops to sell to people beyond its target audience. This wasn’t apparent when the market was smaller and so it seemed like Barnes & Noble had really made a significant advance. That impression was plainly incorrect.

The bookish digitants are sated (at least for now) and the non-converted non-bookish digitants are not going to trust B&N over Apple or Amazon or someone else with a track record in consumer electronics or technology.

That’s an important lesson for anyone involved in a brand extension as dramatic and bold as the one Barnes & Noble tried to pull off. Be exceptionally careful to track monitor and understand the true size of your audience. If you take an ambitious view of what that audience is, be sure that ambitious view isn’t based on a hope! Listen to what your sales tracking is actually telling you about your customers. Don’t mistake early enthusiasm and success with a small group for evidence of wider adoption unless behind the raw figures you are actually reaching beyond your base.

Publishers need to be realistic too about just how big an audience they can reach and not over-invest in product or projects that ultimately won’t deliver results.

2) Books are not driving the tablet market

Oh I know this is hardly a revelation but it is an important thing to note, after all, we KNOW that books drove the adoption of dedicated ereaders. It’s particularly important because tablets seem to be making dedicated ereaders generally less attractive, certainly to those who don’t read many books and seemingly to those who do read lots of books. Not just that, this shift to tablets by a wider public hasn’t been driven by the tablets sold by booksellers. How else can we explain the massive fall off in sales for tablets sold by Barnes & Noble while the market for tablets exploded?

The reality is that even dedicated readers find the logic of buying a tablet that features any number of entertainment forms, email and web access more compelling than a dedicated ereader. Euro for Euro, Dollar for Dollar, Pound for Pound, it just makes more sense to buy a tablet than it does to buy an ereader for the majority of buyers.

Which means that the space dedicated to books on-screen is dropping dramatically as a percentage of the market. It means that book readers are faced with myriad choices of entertainment forms when they fire up their tablets or smartphones and books, face competition in its rawest form. At least the competition on a dedicated ereader was between books. Now it’s between movies, radio, tv, video, gaming, books, web browsing, magazines and pretty much anything that can be made function on a tablet or smartphone.

I’m not personally all that hopeful that reading will win this competition as often as it might need to, certainly not as hopeful as others seem to be.

3) In digital and online, there are huge surprises in store for us

I’m thinking and writing about this with respect to the book publishing and retailing industry, but it holds true for most other industries too. A year ago, it seemed to me and to others that Barnes & Noble had a nice thing going, that they were successfully making the transition from a bricks and mortar, print bound bookseller to something different, now we know that even if that is the case, the path will be a rocky one.

The key lesson I take from that is that we are still guessing when it comes to the power of the web and digital to transform our industry. I’ve felt very forcefully over the last two years especially that most big publishers feel like they have the digital problem solved, or are well on track to get there. They are seeing increased ebook sales and profits from ebook sales, authors are largely playing ball and while they still resent the scale of some of the technology companies they must work with to succeed in the digital space, they more or less have it down.

The truth is something very different. Potential banana skins abound From simple things like Amazon’s patent for reselling ebook licences (bound to have an impact on ebook sales especially of lead titles if it were ever to be put into practice) or like discovering that despite having a great product your brand just doesn’t resonate with consumers beyond your core audience and hence you lose a bundle of cash trying to sell them tablets or realizing that your main competitor is not the rival publisher of literary novels or commercial non-fiction but a game in which trajectory considerations are a more important aspect of gameplay than would normally be considered cool and various music video fads from Gangnam Style to Harlem Shake.

There are several other lessons we can take from the whole tale but these three strike me as the most salient and long-term of them all.

Eoin

In Search Of The Number

There is a number I’d like to know, if I knew it, I think it would help me explain some things that currently seem inexplicable to some and unclear to me.

I know the number exists because I can phrase questions to which the number is the answer (maybe numbers is more accurate, but it’s got less impact). Those questions can be expressed two ways:

– the first; at what £/$/€ spend does a primarily print book reader become a primarily ebook reader?

– the second; at what number of books read does a primarily print book reader become a primarily ebook reader?

It has a follow on question:

– Which indicator is more reliable, ie: is a reader more likely to shift formats because they become comfortable reading ebooks or because they have managed to spend a certain amount of money on ebooks?

I strongly suspect that the answer to the follow on question is that a reader shifts when they become comfortable reading which happens after X (where X is the number) ebooks read. That point obviously changes for different types of readers and is probably very individual. However, there’ll be an average number of books, an average I guarantee that Amazon knows, that B&N certainly knows and that Kobo, Apple, Google and Sony know (or suspect).

If I’m right, and it is about making a print reader comfortable with ebook reading, then conversion is a case of making the offer compelling enough until the formerly print dedicated reader has shifted format without really realizing it.

When you think like that, and you think about 20p ebooks, which seems to have confounded and angered so much of the industry (though to me, just lacked a clear logic that I was aware of, it HAD to have a logic, even if the logic was wrong) they start to make an awful lot of sense. Once you’ve converted the print reader to ebooks (and especially if you shift them to your ecosystem) there’ll be loads of time to drive up the revenue you earn from that consumer. The lost revenue before they convert is simply customer acquisition cost.

See why the number is important to know?
Eoin

The Rewards & Costs Of Inaction

Eason LeafI’ve often written of the value of inaction in the face of an uncertain future. Today, I want to write about both the rewards and the costs of inaction in a specific case, Ireland and the ebook retail business.

Eason, by far the largest bookstore chain in Ireland, is set to launch an ereader onto the Irish market in December. It’s called the Eason Leaf. To be fair to Eason, it has a natty offering, a 6-inch, touch-screen eInk device with weeks of battery life and storage for 4,000 titles. All for less than €100. It could plausibly become the best-selling dedicated ereading device in Ireland after the Kindle and create a mass market for ebooks sold via the Eason ebookstore.

You could say that the company’s move is a great example of collecting the rewards of inaction. Having followed a sensible and cautious strategy in a period marked by uncertainty and using the intelligence it gained during that period, Eason acted decisively.

It bought in a device from an OEM, branded it and is selling content directly to readers via its own ebookstore. In this way Eason can build a closed circle for its customers with itself at the centre and all the while build a digital retail position to rival its physical one.

No doubt Eason has seen the work Barnes & Noble was able to do in the US, converting heavy book readers to Nook users through in-store selling efforts and hopes to replicate it.

Even if you see the move as more defensive, ie a way to capture a limited audience of ereading book people, while ensuring the majority stay devoted to print, the strategy has the benefit of being low cost. I don’t often have praise for Eason, but in this instance I think the company has played a good hand. Given the choices available to Eason I think it has taken by far the best option it has.

The costs of inaction of which I wrote at the beginning then are being paid by the other ereading/ebook retail players (Kindle aside) whose inaction has meant their ereader presence here is not backed by a convincing consumer message, and certainly not by a retail store presence. They have not scaled rapidly enough in order to stifle competition,

Kobo seems to be making the most of its distribution via chains like PC World (distribution which includes even the keenly priced Vox table at only €139 which packs a fair punch relative to the Leaf) but name recognition is low and no BOOKSELLERS seem to be on board except WH Smiths whose High Street retail presence in Ireland consists of one concession in Arnotts. Without a convincing way to reach the readers how will Kobo convert them from print to digital?

Nook‘s plans are mystifying though the company does seem to be offering to ship tablets and ereaders to Ireland from its UK Nook site. If Kobo has a name recognition problem I wager Nook’s is far, far worse in Ireland. Nook then faces a huge challenge in establishing a name, a brand and a conversion strategy in Ireland.

Apple is the only competitor with some chance of making gains in 2012, with the iPad mini, but in truth I suspect that device will not be a book readers choice. I’ll wait to see.

The truth is though that all these companies could have acted more forcefully in Ireland at any time, it’s a small, English language territory with pretty friendly tax arrangements. It was inaction when the time called for action that led them to where they are now.

The costs of inaction for the major Amazon rivals are first and foremost that a local competitor in a small local market looks set to steal a march on them. It seems so very unlikely but it’s really happening (I wonder who will be the first to pondering buying out the Eason operation should it prove successful?).

In an English language market that could easily be technologically serviced from the UK or US (as Amazon does with Kindle) so long as the retailer made a small commitment on the ground marketing and brand building and converting print readers to digital, a small bookseller with great physical footprint and footfall but not much by way of a digital track record might just, strangely, be a leader in this shift from print to digital in Ireland.

We always do things a little differently here!

Eoin

Bloomsbury’s Interesting Results

I don’t know why I find Bloomsbury so fascinating, I just do! Maybe it’s because they published the Harry Potter series, maybe it’s their fantastic cookbooks but I think it more likely, given the nerd that I am, that I find their medium to long-term strategy so interesting, this shift away from a reliance on trade towards educational, professional and information based publishing activities.

There is much to ponder in their half-year results but I want to focus on three points, two digital related one not.

Item the first, great sign of the robust nature of the UK digital market, Bloomsbury saw ebooks sales as a percentage of group revenue rise some 66% in terms of group turnover. Without that bounce, the company would have seen an overall drop in top line revenue. I wonder when that might be a problem for them? If print sales do not get a lift but ebook sales continue to rise, when will the revenue problem manifest in that top line revenue figure?

Digital sales mainly comprise ebook sales, which are up by 89% year on year to £4.5 million (2011: £2.4 million). Ebook sales now represent 10% of total Group continuing turnover (2011:  6%) and 15% of the Adult division continuing turnover (2011: 9%).

Item the second, this huge increase has the strange and I would imagine annoying effect of increasing the seasonality of the company’s results! Did we expect this outcome? I guess the answer is to shift reporting seasons to at least exclude January from the second half results?

Ebook sales peak in January and February following the sale of e-reader devices at Christmas and academic sales peak at the beginning of the academic year, in September and October. As these two revenue streams form a higher proportion of total turnover, the proportion of our results accruing in the second half of the financial year increases. 

Item the third, strategy pays off at just the right time. So the children’s division saw a £2.8 million drop in sales! That’s right totally offsetting the gains in ebook sales. What’s more it went from a £0.9 million profit to £0. Yet at the same time the information division delivered in spades.

The division generated 4% of Group continuing sales in the six months ended 31 August 2012 (2011: 4%) and 41% of Group continuing operating profit before highlighted items (2011: 15%). Continuing turnover in the Information division increased by 21% year on year to £1.8 million  (2011: £1.5 million).

Which is a very nice way of say that the margins on this end of the business are totally insane compared to the rest of the business! We know that group profit for the half was £2.1 million and that the Information Division delivered 41% of that or £800,000 give or take. Thus the division had a margin of 44% or so. Diversification and changing the focus away from Trade & Children’s books has saved Bloomsbury’s shareholders from a nasty surprise.

The strategy has worked, and worked well. It’s nice to see in an era when we don’t tend to think of publishers as innovative or rapid actors.