Bookstores

On Amazon Publishing

It’s big news that Larry Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon Publishing, it’s just not so big as it appears, especially as the retailing giant is going nowhere, and its Kindle project is as strong as ever. That also doesn’t mean that Amazon Publishing will have an easy ride in the years ahead. Laura Hazard Owen sums up some of it nicely:

Nonetheless, at least seventy percent of the books sold in the U.S. are still print, so Amazon’s inability to get its titles into bookstores was a huge strike against the vision that it would be able to compete directly against general trade publishers on big fiction and nonfiction titles. And just because many have argued that the traditional book publishing industry’s business model is outdated didn’t mean that Amazon would be able to completely upend the way the industry does business in New York in two years.

via Amazon Publishing reportedly retreating in NYC. Thank or blame Barnes & Noble — Tech News and Analysis.

This recalls to me one of the three things I identified a bricks and mortar bookshops’ advantages in their struggle against Amazon and online retail for a talk at a booksellers gathering last year:

Physicality: being a place is an underestimated thing as is its almost completely ignored sister point Proximity: the idea that a bookshop is often a local place that is NEAR the reader or the customer. Where is Amazon? I wonder how many Irish people know that the company has a customer service centre in Cork and an engineering office in Dublin? Or indeed how helpful either fact is when you want something nearby?

The other two points I figured went in bookshops favour are Knowledge and Sympathy, tools and advantages that Amazon itself possess to some extent, but which are greatly added to by the physicality and proximity of bookshops.

I would expect Amazon to respond in three ways to this set back:

  1. Push its niche imprints more aggressively than ever because those imprints have massive advantages in specific verticals and can deliver real benefits to authors and readers.
  2. Work to convert more readers to digital or online book purchases (booksellers have made themselves Amazon’s true enemies now whereas in the past they were simply the hapless victims of Amazon’s usage of new distribution and sales systems).
  3. Find a new way to market for its printed books. This might be seen as a slight contradiction of 2, because it might require working with bookshops, but it would be a sensible strategy for Amazon to find SOME way to get books in front of people in large numbers. Several avenues suggest themselves; somehow convincing a chain or a group of indies to take them, selling the retail print rights to the best market offer (I’m sure bidders would emerge), doing a deal with retailers of other products with good footfall and a desirable audience (this might work), or simply hiring out empty retail space on short leases for book big launches (expensive but interesting potential, especially around peak season releases).

It’s very clear that Amazon has taken a defeat of some kind, frustrated by its competitors and by circumstances. I don’t expect that will end the company’s drive into publishing, it has created a much too valuable commodity with its platform to retrench at this point, but it will clearly require a rethink and a retool before the company can move forward again against the big fish in New York.

That would not make me happy if I was an executive in those same houses though, it would make me even more nervous. This reversal does nothing to counteract Amazon Publishing’s attractiveness to niche authors and the KDP Platforms dominance of digital self-publishing. Publishers will need to think and act smart if they are to take advantage of this Amazon misstep.

Go Read This | An Industry Pining for Bookstores | The Scholarly Kitchen

A fine post about bookstores, print and emerging ecosystems (I’ve written about before about this new emerging value web) by Joe Esposito over on The Scholarly Kitchen:

Trade publishers pine for bookstores.  Part of this is nostalgia, but part of this is an awareness that their businesses were built for one ecosystem and another one is evolving before their eyes.  People may clamor for print (which would reinforce the publishers’ historical position), but the marketplace is increasingly becoming reluctant to provide it.

The simple truth is that with one exception, every link in the value chain must be profitable or the entire chain breaks.  Bookstores are breaking and are taking the entire chain along with it.  Amazon’s hands are outstretched to receive the new customers, to play its dominant role in the new ecosystem.

The one exception?  Authors.  Most authors don’t now and have never been able to live on the proceeds of their work.  A few do, and do so spectacularly.  That spectacle draws authors in:  it’s not the prospect of a good and interesting job but the chance to win the lottery that makes a writer out of a normal human being.  When we express regret at the passing of the old print paradigm, don’t shed a tear for the authors.  Our sympathies should be with the booksellers, who held it all together.

via An Industry Pining for Bookstores | The Scholarly Kitchen.

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 | Bookshop numbers halved in seven years, says research | The Bookseller

Interesting to see the long term trend impact of online sales on bookstores:

According to a study by Experian for The Telegraph newspaper, there are 1,878 bookshops left on the high street today, including independents and Waterstones stores, whereas in 2005 there were 4,000. Separate research by analysts at Mintel suggests UK consumers spent £261 million on e-books in 2012, nearly twice the £138 million spent in 2011, while physical book sales fell from £3.3 billion last year to £3.1 billion this year.

via Bookshop numbers halved in seven years, says research | The Bookseller.

Go Read This | Will Independent Bookstores Seize the Day? « INVERSO

Intrigued by this article:

Even if a substantial majority, say sixty percent, of the supply gap is captured by Amazon, B&N, or by a conversion to digital reading, there remain tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of annual book sales up for grabs in towns like Southbury scattered across the United States. Our own ongoing consumer research, conducted by Verso Digital, provides additional reason for optimism. The data consistently point to a hybrid print and e-book market that will persist for decades. E-reader owners who classify as avid readers ten or more books bought per year are splitting their purchases between print and e-books in nearly identical numbers. Moreover, there is a sizable majority of readers, over 70%, who express strong resistance to the idea of screen-reading as a substitute for print, a percentage that has remained steady across multiple surveys over the past two years. The resistance is strongest among older 45-plus readers, who already account for more than two-thirds of the consumer books purchased in this country. As these readers downshift into retirement or more flexible work-leisure lifestyles, their proportion of the book market is likely to increase, further making the case for print’s durability.

via Will Independent Bookstores Seize the Day? « INVERSO.

Unconvincing, Worth Reading Though | Boston Review — Onnesha Roychoudhuri: Books After Amazon

This reads like an extended complaint letter from publishers to Amazon. I’m unconvinced.

There’s nothing here that’s new or original, nothing that suggests anything other than an old order faced with a new one, and even that motif is tired.

I get no sense of what kind of ‘King’ Amazon will be, if indeed King it will be. I get no sense of where the reader fits into this little picture, nor the writers, nor even for that matter, despite the chatter in the piece about them, the booksellers, large or small?

In short it’s fun to moan about Amazon, but why are you moaning, who other than the publishers (and perhaps the booksellers, though that case is less clearly establish in this piece) is being hurt?

 

Publishers who once met directly with Amazon representatives find they can no longer reach anyone at the company, even by phone. Many publishers with distributors don’t even know the name of the person who buys their books at Amazon. The relationship is almost exclusively handled by the distributor. Indeed, of the 20,000 employees at Amazon, just one is tasked full-time with working as a liaison between the company and publishers.

Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and of Small Press Distribution, suggests that the difference between Amazon and brick-and-mortar bookstores is most evident in how they market books: “I think even people at Amazon would say that it’s essentially a widget seller that happens to have begun by focusing on books. Many people, like me, will say you can’t sell a book the same way you sell a can of soup.”

At the heart of the soup-can analogy are the algorithms that Amazon uses to “recommend” books to customers. Most customers aren’t aware that the personalized book recommendations they receive are a result of paid promotions, not just purchase-derived data. This is frustrating for publishers who want their books to be judged on their merits. “I think their twisted algorithms that point you toward bestsellers instead of books that you might actually like [are] a shame,” Gavin Grant, cofounder of Small Beer Press, laments.

Algorithms can also affect how much customers pay for books. Individual customers may get different discounts on the same book depending on their purchase history. The practice is euphemistically called “dynamic pricing.” According to Roger Williams—the former sales director at Simon & Schuster, and one of the first salespeople to deal directly with Amazon—the complexity of the algorithms is such that, Amazon’s employees “sometimes don’t know themselves what is going to show up in some of the pages that appear.”

via Boston Review — Onnesha Roychoudhuri: Books After Amazon.

Go Read This | Waterstone’s needs to find its Nook | FutureBook

Nice post from Philip here. Personally I think the physical retail presence and access to HEAVY BOOK BUYERS and BROWSERS via that retail presence is the key to Barnes & Noble’s success with the Nook.

It’s an odd story in a way but it reinforces the idea that one of the key weapons in the future of the industry is knowing the customer OR having access to them directly. The three winners in the ebook space right now, Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble all have either huge databases of customer information or direct access to them in places where they part with their money, we shouldn’t miss that when thinking about this today.

Many people wrote off the Nook when it first launched in the US. The name was a bit, well, odd. It had a funny colour strip that didn’t serve much use, except to show book jackets. The e-books available weren’t cheap enough, when compared to Amazon’s overly aggressive pricing. And it had initial shipping problems, a sure-fire technology killer. It was seen as the last gasp of a dying mammal washed ashore by a particularly arch digital wave.

We neglected to look at the two key advantages it had over the Kindle. There was the innovative sharing function, which Amazon has now copied, that gave users a sense of having purchased something tangible—not just a license to read. And of course the ability to read any book for free in one of the chain’s 700 shops, making a physical connection to the shops via digital. The latter gave it something Amazon could never have.

via Waterstone’s needs to find its Nook | FutureBook.