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

Amazon Steals Everyone’s Thunder Again (But Quietly)

Fascinatingly clever (if predictable in many ways) move from Amazon to extend the reach of its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) to the UK, Germany and France. By doing so it demonstrates very clearly that it is Amazon who is really driving the pace of development in ebook adoption and ebook retail. What’s more, it is making clear that its rivals are struggling to match its services to authors and readers within their own ecosystems. As the focus of ebook growth moves rapidly beyond the USA (has moved already in truth), Amazon is making the case for giving it exclusivity even more compelling.

Amazon.com, Inc. today announced that the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library is coming to the UK, Germany and France later this month, bringing Kindle owners with a Prime membership over 200,000 books to borrow for free as frequently as a book a month, with no due dates. Independent authors and publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing KDP who enroll their books in KDP Select can be included in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library in the UK, Germany and France, as well as the US. With the new lending libraries launching this month, the KDP Select fund has been increased by $100,000 to $700,000 in October, with a larger increase anticipated in November. Authors will earn money every time their book is borrowed from any of the lending libraries – in September, authors earned $2.29 per borrow, which is more than many KDP books earn per sale.

via Amazon Media Room: Press Releases.

What amazes me the most about this move is just how dangerous it is for the ebook retailing rivals who have yet to open their doors to self-published content. In reality only Kobo has a fully functional platform for self publishing authors beyond the USA (Apple does too, but only to the extent that those who have a nice Mac can access their iBookstore, but not everyone has a Mac).

Nook’s platform is US only, though the talk is that this will change soon, the longer B&N & Microsoft exclude non-US citizens from the service, the longer Amazon has to lock in exclusive content for three months at a time. It’s not that the content individually is necessarily compelling, but given the wide field of talent in question, some is sure to be winning material, even if much of it isn’t great. The trick is, of course, that Amazon is armed with the tools to sort, grade and sift through this mass of titles and to promote, suggest and even work with the best (or just the most saleable, let’s not forget that the goal is money-making not literature spreading).

I’ve talked before about how important authors are to the success of an epublishing platform and ecosystem. Sometimes I think the retailers agree with me on this, other times I think they only pay lip service to the idea. Perhaps that’s a lingering snobbery regarding self publishing authors (which is foolish, idiotic and wrong-headed in an age when some of the biggest writers are rapidly moving towards self publishing, are already self publishing or have emerged from the self publishing space). Perhaps it is a desire to avoid dealing with so many small accounts and the headaches of customer service and platform development that entails. Who knows, but the longer these ecosystems remain closed shops to direct author engagement the larger a lead they allow Amazon to build up on them.

Every author Amazon signs up for KOLL is three months of exclusive sales for Amazon, three months lost revenue for their rivals. More importantly it is three months of sales data and analysis for Amazon that no-one else will have. That’s especially important when a title is loaded into KDP & KOLL for the first time, before getting a look in elsewhere. What will happen when one of those sign ups turns out to be the next EL James? What will happen is that Amazon will sign that author up directly, before the KOLL period ends and the game, for that author, is up for the other platforms.

It is not just dangerous to rival retailers though. If Amazon succeeds in convincing enough authors that KDP & KOLL are the way forward and along with them, exclusivity, companies like Smashwords and other aggregators of self published content will be put in the position of having to justify their offering. As long as a vibrant market for content persists of course (and despite this move, we do have a vibrant market for content) everyone has room to move and grow.

So yes, this move is illuminating, it suggests that Amazon is still the pace setter and is capable of moving faster and more aggressively than anyone else (still, after five years). Kobo has started something of a price war for self published authors though, by offering a higher royalty to authors who use their self publishing platform. If this keeps self publishing writers committed to an non-exclusive policy then it will have been a wise move. I’m sure it is a smart response from a smart company, even if it is one that admits to a certain weakness in terms of the capability of their platform, but then competition doesn’t (and indeed shouldn’t) always mean matching your rivals move, but finding clever and novel ways to best them where your strengths lie.

What that in mind, Kobo and other Amazon rivals would do well to pay attention to Baldur Bjarnason‘s piece on FutureBook about how Ebook publishing platforms are a joke, pay attention that is and offer some of the services he mentions to self publishers asap.

On THE Platform And What That Means

When you look at this ebook game from a distance it seems to make a little sense:

1) Microsoft & NewCo. = Content, Device, Apps + possible future Mobile play via Nokia & Windows 8

2) Apple = Content+ Device, Apps + Mobile play

3) Amazon = Content, Device, Apps + Whispersync making Mobile already a significant play in my book but an actual partnership not yet to hand

4) Google = Content (-ish), Apps + Mobile (with Motorola) and a Device neutral stance

Leaving Sony and Kobo somewhat on the sidelines missing some element of the game. Of course those two, like the previous four also have a crucial component in the forthcoming game, lots of cash. And, seeing as folks seem to be tooling up for a platform war, I reckon they are gonna need that.

Of course we know already that all the players in the top league have some fashion of a flaw.

For Amazon the very success of the company’s ebook strategy has created a huge problem in that they are now the team to beat. Apple has a locked down and locked in strategy as closed as the rest of its walled gardens and there’s little chance of it opening voluntarily. B&N and Nook well they as yet have little international footprint (what does this move mean for Waterstones digital strategy?) Google, well where to start with Google? Its execution in the ebook space has been poor and right now does not inspire confidence, though it does have what I think is the better long-term concept.

The biggest problem for everyone though is that a platform war is pretty pointless in anything longer than a medium term horizon (by which I mean 5-10 years). Just as Google is failing to maintain its grip on attention and Facebook is growing stronger every day, someone will rise to take Facebook’s place and then another will rise to take theirs. This impermanence of pre-dominance is, for me, a defining characteristic of the web, and it is driven by the incredibly low to non-existent barriers to entry online because the WEB IS THE PLATFORM, which fosters competition, innovation and experimentation.

That is not to say that those who succeed will inevitably meet a doom, Google is doing quite handsomely thank you, and no doubt Facebook will do well for some time too. Which means that in the medium term a successful ebook platform will milk the system just as Amazon appears to be doing right now. I just believe that their platform has no long-term, sustainable foundation. Moving against Amazon is mostly pointless, rather the focus should be on finding a way around Amazon using the web as a platform and not relying on another closed platform.

Where does that put publishers? In a familiar spot I would argue. I wrote a piece two years ago about ebooks and how it was important that publishers focus on:

developing an expertise in how to sell content in many different forms and at many different prices to different audiences. Publishers should be platform agnostic, selling wherever readers are willing to buy and not focusing on if it is an e-book, an app, online access, segments, chapters, quotes, mash-ups, readings, conferences, or anything else (a point made Friday on Publishing Perspectives by Clive Rich).

Strangely I don’t think I would change a word of that paragraph today. Nor would I shy away from the other recommendation I made:

publishers need to focus on two long-term objectives: audience development and content curation. Neither of these are specific to digital activities, meaning that they will only serve to bolster the print side of the business as well, whether it declines rapidly or gradually.

I just wish I could recall them when I make my day-to-day decisions!
Eoin

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PS: Worth reading all these pieces:

1) The Window Is Closing

2) Why Ebooks Will Soon be Obsolete

3) Microsoft Looking To be Third Time Luck In Its Bid For Ebooks

Kobo: Publishing, Self-Publishing And Getting Bought

When Kobo announced that they were planning on becoming a publisher I meant to write  a post that said something to the effect of:

That makes sense, in fact it’s essential to their survival. What’s also essential is that they open their publishing platform to writers, and allow them to self-publish their work just as Amazon and B&N do.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble are having considerable success for a variety of reasons, but an important and, I think, underplayed aspect of that success is built on allowing authors to access their platforms.

In many ways, Kindle has become the international ebook platform of choice for writers because it has been the easiest platform to self publish through.

Other platforms have made it difficult to do the same, for instance you MUST use a mac to access the self-publishing abilities on for Apple’s iBooks (seems crazy to me). B&N, despite attractions, has Byzantine rules about providing US Bank Accounts, US Credit Cards and US Social Security Numbers before being allowed self-publish and the only other viable route to it and other markets are via Smashwords (lucky for Smashwords who do a great job) or one of the more expensive aggregators.

I suspect that if you are going to try the ebook market as a way to sell your work and Amazon make it easy (and they do) then you will push their system to your readers helping to spread the word of Kindle rather than the word of ebooks in general.

Of course you could counter by saying that it’s the quality that matters and so we deal with top publishers. That’s fine, but, I suspect, wrong.

Then I read, with some surprise I must admit, that the company (Kobo) has been sold. I hope for Kobo’s sake that the change in ownership doesn’t result in a change of priorities.

I want them to unveil their self-publishing platform and fast. The battle for position in the ebook market is really fierce and while as I argued many moons ago Ebooks Are A Cul de Sac, right now they are the most interesting game in town. Any delay for Kobo\s plans means another chance for Amazon or B&N to sneak a march on them. If B&N’s flagged move out of the US happens soon, you can expect them to ease the restrictions they place on foreign self-publishers opening an easier route to market for many writers*.

It seems clear to me that not having an open and easy to use system to facilitate self publishing is now a damaging and foolish business decision for an ebook platform.

Great chat today with interesting people!
Eoin

* I should add that the KDP is also a godsend for many small independent publishers like my own The Irish Story.

Bookshops, You Have Three Choices

It is becoming increasingly clear that bookshops, both chains and independents, are the first segment of the trade book publishing industry to face wrenching decisions that amount to bets on survival in this digital transition.

Publishers, agents, authors, wholesalers and many others all need to respond and some have already made significant efforts to do so, but it is clear that bookshops are the facing the full thrust of this change right now.

The way I see it bookshops have three choices:

1) Bet On Digital
Betting on digital means much less emphasis on real bricks and mortar locations. In order to win in this space you’ll be taking a leaf out of Barnes & Noble‘s book and building a real platform for content that provides self-publishing access AND access for traditional publishers direct to your platform and be shifting readers to your platform in your store(s).

Waterstone’s looks like it is about to embark on this strategy by launching its own device next year, I fear it will be too late. Barnes & Noble is two years into this strategy and is well on the way to building a convincing platform with a significant share of the US ebook market. They could still fail, which only goes to emphasize the importance of acting quickly.

Make no mistake about this choice, it means closing bookshops and shedding staff and soon. It’s a hard choice for chains because up until recently floor space devoted to print books were hallmarks of success. That is no longer true.

Smaller chains and independent book stores are faced with an impossibly high barrier to entry here, their own device is an excessive cost, as is creating their own platform and I don’t see a real way for them to pursue this strategy unless they can develop a loyal customer base for a curated ebook offering. It’s not an impossible prospect, but it will be damn hard for them to take this option.

2) Bet On Retail
This is perhaps the hardest decision for a bookseller to make because in essence it involves admitting that the product that to date has defined your business, books, is no longer the most important aspect of your business.

It seems to me that WH Smith has decided that its focus should be on retail, that its retail space can be best used to sell anything and perhaps over time that means fewer books and more of the other things it sells. If that is the case, then being in the digital book business is a distraction not an essential element in its future, hence the Kobo Deal.

By working with Kobo, Smiths leverages the book portion of its business to gain revenue and to sell devices while shifting its actual in-store focus towards products that deliver more revenue and profits. The company may feel some regret about that but as a retailer it will have to be unsentimental and profit driven. The flip side of not developing its own platform and device is a significant investment saved for another opportunity.

On balance, I think it’s probably the right decision. Either ebooks take off and WH Smith must replace a large section of their product line up OR ebooks plateau and what has the company lost?

I suspect that here in Ireland Eason is following this strategy, but the signs could point either way.

3) Bet On Print
By betting on print, bookshops will be making the assessment that they cannot compete in another retail space (or that they choose not to) and, as I suggest above in 1, they simply don’t have the resources to compete in digital.

Nothing about betting on print prevents a bookshop or a chain from doing a deal with an ebook platform to sell a device and provide access to an ebook library. That will bring some revenue but it won’t  (in all likelihood) be enough to replace the revenue lost to most bookshops of falling print sales.

The bet here is that YOUR bookshop or chain will the lucky one. The one with just enough customer loyalty, just the right location, just the right level of population density, just the right amount of print loving readers, just the right range of books in the right formats and at the right prices, just the right amount of business nous and just the right amount of marketing know-how to rise above the other bookshops hoping the same thing.

Sadly, some bookstores probably most of them will lose this gamble. Many will lose because of bad luck or poor location, nothing to do with how good a bookstore or a bookseller they are which is a slightly depressing reality, but one we should face.

The winners may well do pretty well because although the overall market for print books shrinks, they will have an increased share of that market and also because the market for print will change most likely towards higher value books.

There’s a final choice of course, which is to do nothing and keep on rocking. I don’t hold out much hope for survival for those who make that choice.

Go Read This | Kobo’s new deals propel them into the top tier of global ebook competitors – The Shatzkin Files

Interesting throughout:

All other things being equal, I can see a global ebook marketplace that some years from now is 90-95% controlled by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and a local player in each country, with Google getting most of the rest. Google may punch above its weight on the long tail because discovery of the obscure or highly niched content might be their forte; one scholarly publisher told me at Frankfurt that he is already seeing some real growth in his Google sales, which no trade publisher has said in my earshot yet.

via Kobo’s new deals propel them into the top tier of global ebook competitors – The Shatzkin Files.

Kobo Launches Germany’s Largest E-Bookstore, Beating Out Amazon | paidContent

I’d expect this to test three things:

  1. As Kobo and Amazon compete in Germany and push greater awareness of their deices, will the greater availability of devices that will create drive ebook uptake
  2. Fixed pricing means that self published books will have a huge pricing advantage if the authors chose to use it. Will self published ebooks begin to gain more purchase in Germany because of that?
  3. Now that you can reach German consumers on multiple platforms digitally, will there be more translation of foreign language texts into German for digital sale?

There’s more of course, but those are the ones that interest me.

Kobo—and presumably Amazon—chose to expand to Germany first because the German book market is the second-largest in the world, after the U.S. E-books are still gaining traction there and in the rest of Europe, and “it’s a market where local experience matters,” Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis told us. “Creating a locally merchandised offering with local recommendations was key.” He said Kobo employees have been working with German publishers to add titles to the store for over six months. The company is also in discussions with German retailers and booksellers and will soon announce local partners. Book prices in Germany are fixed, with all e-book prices set by publishers.

Kobo is simultaneously launching German-language iOS and Android apps, and will launch its German-language E-Reader Touch in August, for €149. $208.23/£131.51 An international version of the Kindle, which costs €139, $194.25/£122.69 is available in Germany and other countries, but it has English-language menus and an English keyboard.

via Kobo Launches Germany’s Largest E-Bookstore, Beating Out Amazon | paidContent.