Niches

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 And just because many have argued that the traditional book publishing industry’s business model is outdated didn’t mean that Amazon would be able to completely upend the way the industry does business in New York in two years.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.

Ebooks Are Boring? So What?

Nick Atkinson has an interesting post over on FutureBook this morning. In it he asks three questions he feels people aren’t asking about ebooks. The ones he hits on are:

EBooks  aren’t actually that exciting, so why are people buying them?

Why am I rubbish at selling books online?

Where the heck is my audience? They used to shop at Borders.

he’s got a refreshing perspective on some of those:

So why are we struggling so much to make a digital book look and feel like a book? I remember the overwhelming sense of disappointment, anti-climax and resignation that I felt when I first looked at an eBook, way back when, on the Iliad – a device thankfully confined to myth and legend (it had a STYLUS for god’s sake). Even now, working with a conversion supplier I’m proud to partner with, who does a good job of stretching the ePub and Kindle formats, whenever we get our eBooks back, we still often gaze misty-eyed at the print edition and wonder where the design went and that’s just on text-based product. If you are honest, you’ve felt the same way. We’ve had moments where we’ve tried to shoehorn full-colour books into reflowable epubs to see what would happen, got the files back and laughed out loud at ourselves for even bothering.

via 3 important questions about digital that nobody is asking. | FutureBook.

Not that he’ll be put out, but I disagree with the first half of his post pretty strongly in that I actually like ebooks as they are, simple text files. I don’t want enhancements.

There’s a peculiar, and seemingly pervasive, fear among publishers that the written word just isn’t compelling enough for their readers (one well addressed by James Bridle here) in the digital age. It’s something I just don’t understand. Afterall text is fine in print, why not in digital form?

The rest of it though, I’m mostly on board with and it speaks to the quick presentation on Niches & Communities I gave to publishers during the Pecha Kucha session at TOC Frankfurt in 2009.

Not, I stress, that I think ebooks are the end of all things book related as I myself wrote for Publishing Perspective some time ago:

THE critical concern should be 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 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).

Rather than expend their energy focusing on one format that may be fleeting, 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.

Still, a good post that will no doubt generate discussion!
Eoin 

Three Sites Worth Reading

This is a little off topic in many ways but also on topic.

There has been the slow emergence of professionally written blogs in Ireland, reinforcing my thinking about blogging as a tool for publishing as opposed to any kind of social change, political change or even a weapon for undermining mainstream media. It also echoes (finally) the trend in the US where both commercial mainstream news outlets and academics have take to the tools with gusto.

It’s not just that newspapers like The Irish Times and Irish Independent are making use of the tools but three group blogs written by academics are quickly establishing themselves (or have already established themselves) as must read sites.

They are:

    The Irish Economy (Economics)
    Ireland After NAMA (Geography & Social Sciences)
    &
    Pue’s Occurrences (History)

Some individuals also keep blogs, my personal favourite being Dr. Constantin Gurdgiev who calls it like it is with no pulled punches, not to everyone’s taste, but entertaining.

Working on the web,
Eoin

Six Implications of Digital Vertical Niches

Promises made, must be kept!
I promised I would post notes to go with my Pecha Kucha speech from TOC FrankFurt at the start of the week but it has been quite the week, so here, a little later than promised, they are!

For those who attended TOC Frankfurt the notes give some more detail on what I said (or would have liked to say) at the event and fill in what I couldn’t fit in.

Pecha Kucha
I want first, to say a few things about the format:

    1) It is great fun
    2) It is very hard
    3) I tried to do too much
    4) I learned an awful lot
    5) I’d do it again

So to my actual thoughts
I think that digital change is fundamentally altering the world of publishing. Like a glacier it reshapes the geography that it passes over. But in many ways that’s not very useful to a publisher, what is useful is to think about how you might react to this change and what specifically you need to be thinking about.

One of the ways to react is to develop vertical niches in product categories where you are, as Dominique Raccah put it at TOC, “Essential to the conversation!”. A vertical niche is a community organized around a particular type or genre of content, for instance, Irish History, Military History, Science Fiction or Cookery. I’ll leave it up to you to find the niches and communities that suit your market, you might even decide that you can do better than the existing ones (if there are existing ones), or indeed you may need to create some because they do not exist yet.

But what do you need to be thinking about in order to achieve a digital vertical niche or a community? I highlighted 6 things, there are more implications and perhaps these 6 are not even the most important but they are the 6 I wanted people to think about.

    1) Sales Channels
    2) Brand
    3) Content
    4) People
    5) Education
    6) Time

Sales Channels
Creating a community changes drastically the ways and opportunities for selling. For one thing it changes publishers, traditional Business to Business companies into direct to consumer companies. So your sales channels will change. That is okay though because the types of products you’ll be selling will change too. Publishers need to think about how community will change their niches/market segments/genres. If you are a publisher of computer books for instance, it seems to me that some kind of partnership with O’Reilly’s Safari is inescapable in the medium to long term (40 or so publishers agree). I strongly suspect that Tor.com have created a beast of a similar nature. Competing against it may well be folly, so how do you engage and use it as a sales channel? If your segment does not yet have its Safari or Tor.com, how can YOU create it?

Brand
I used to think that we could as easily dump the plethora of imprints that major publishers control and develop a more streamlined brand much as Thomas Nelson did recently. But recently it has occurred to me that many of these imprints can be rejuvenated as niche brands, focused exclusively on single vertical of content, filled with meaning and relevant to consumers. Of course this would require a new way of thinking as well as new honesty with readers too and a willingness to allow imprint to develop an identity of their own.

Content
If your thinking about how sales channels, products and brand are going to change then the way you look at, commissioning and using content will alter completely. In my speech I gave this quote from Mike Statzkin and I think it brings into focus the kind of thinking publishers need to do about their content offering:

The bottom line is that we can expect to see reshuffling as publishers trade off areas they can’t afford to market to for others where they’re going to expend the marketing effort and want to have the most possible content to dominate the niche and from which to extract a payoff for their efforts.

You need to double down in the niches where you can add value and create a community. Otherwise you will spread yourself too thin. That may mean allowing imprints to develop as stand alone companies, trading lists, shuttering imprints or simply commissioning tonnes of new content in a niche you already dominate.

People
If your are going to develop a community around your content then you need to consider people. Not just editors, authors and readers, but community members and the crucial voluntary leaders of those communities. How do you intend to grow an authentic community without recruiting readers and community leaders? Does an audience exist online to do that yet? How can you grow this organically? In a digital community, your content will be worthless without people and engagement. Without people your brand will not grow and your newly thought out sales channels will yield no revenue.

Education
So assume you have the right content mix, your brand has succeeded in attracting attention and you have successfully engaged volunteer community leaders how will you keep other readers interested? The key readers are new arrivals to the community. Do you have the content to hand to lure them in, is there a receptive atmosphere that encourages participation and education of people new to your topic area or genre? Or does your community intimidate newcomers and leave them cold? You need to think about how you will draw those newcomers in and educate them. This will be hard.

Time
All of this is going to take time. And a lot of that time is going to look very unproductive. You need to be ready for that. If you work in a publisher with a decent editorial staff, you’ll be used to that in any case. Of course, once you have a functioning community and so long as you don’t undermine your community and lose it, the community will be easier to maintain than to build. It will be as they say defendable and will create something of a barrier to entry* in your genre.

And that, was pretty much what I wanted to say. I know it didn’t quite come out that way, but you live and you learn Pecha Kucha!
Eoin

* Though my thinking on this is that if you have a truly open community, new publishers will be part of it either as partners or as members. Either way they will add value and ensure that your members see more reason to stay in your community or vertical.

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 19/10/2009

The Frankfurt Cleared The Air Edition

Richard Eoin Nash’s post on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog is all kinds of excellent:

Not only, it turns out, are the readers of the world looking to buy our content if we can deliver it to them digitally, but the world’s leading hardware companies are looking to help us. Along with Sony, iRex, TXTR, and other dedicated reading device manufacturers exhibiting, presenting, and working the floor, two Apple executives were traversing the halls of the Fair to let publishers know all the opportunities that await them on that platform. (Let it be said: that platform, right now, is the iPhone. Not any other rumored device. Apple has not been in private discussions about a larger device and reports that they have are a hoax. But Apple does believe in the opportunity for the publishing industry’s content, contrary to the occasional snarky comment from Jobs.) Apple is working to improve the Books section of the App store to make it more browsable, and they are trying to help publishers find the right developers to work with.

You should take the time to read all the contributions from Richard and his fellow Book Fair Bloggers, they provide a nice slice of the fair.

Brian O’Leary has put the slides for his trouble causing presentation on piracy up on Slideshare, when you read through, you’ll find it hard to find the controversy and wonder just how tightly poised those knee-jerk reactions are.

The news of Google’s Google Editions, which first came to light back in June has been formed up by more recent news. Like this AP story:

Tom Turvey, head of Google Book Search’s publisher partnership program, said the price per book would be set by their publishers and would start with between 400,000 to 600,000 books in the first half of 2010.
“It will be a browser-based access,” Turvey said Thursday at the 61st Frankfurt Book Fair. “The way the e-book market will evolve is by accessing the book from anywhere, from an access point of view and also from a geographical point of view.”
The books bought from Google, and its partners, would be accessible on any gadget that has a Web browser, including smartphones, netbooks and personal computers and laptops. A book would be accessible offline after the first time it was accessed.

Of course as you would expect it is platform neutral (if web based/cloud based is neutral), omnipresent and smart. Anyone who thinks that devices are the future is living in the past.

There is a whole load of other stuff on the margins, but in terms of signal, I think this is it!
Eoin

Branding & Publishing

The things that get you thinking
I’ll be speaking during the Pech Chang session at TOC Frankfurt in October. I’m going first and frankly, I’m terrified. Even so I’m looking forward to it. It feels like an opportunity to talk about some of the forces shaping the future of publishing and books.

I mention it because one of the things I will be talking about is Branding and why, in a nichified world, it will become increasingly important. This has been an absolutely huge meme online in the last few days and it’s worth sharing some of those thoughts here.

Mike Shatzkin, as ever, was there ahead of me and many others, with an interesting piece on his blog. He focused on the reason why publishers need to understand brand:

In the next 20 years or so, the brands that will dominate for a very long time will be created.

Why?

Because the organization and delivery of stuff — including information — is being realigned into verticals; that is: subjects. The requirements of physical delivery required aggregation across interests that the Internet does not. So enduring horizontal brands of content like newspapers or book publishers but also outside content, among retailers, for example, that thrived across interest groups will find themselves challenged by new brands that are narrower and deeper. Being narrower and deeper permits a much more involved engagement with the audience. It strengthens the brand.

Read the rest of the article, it makes complete sense, echoes much of what I think and places the conversation in context from a publishers perspective.

Then Seth Godin spoke at a small event organised by the DPG in New York and touched off a firestorm! And for reasons I cannot quite get a handle on. The video’s don’t seem too radical to me, but you be the judge:

And Eugene G. Schwartz’s blog about the talk over at Personanondata make me think that the ony issue is that some people haven’t seen the truth, that the digitisation of reading, makes publishers largely irrelevant unless they react adapt and change.

Patrick over at the Vroman’s blog has a wonderful post that nicely sums up some of the arguments of Stein, alludes to some of and suggests some positive views too. The subsequent discussion is worth reading as well.

What this all comes down to of course is that as Don Linn noted in the tweet below, business models are all very well, but profitable business models are hard to find.

Profit is good!

Profit is good!

Bob Miller, in this video from Ron Hogan, says pretty much what Don and Seth are saying but from the finance side of the fence.

Changing a brand and making it matter will not be THE panacea, publishers will still shrink and they may well not survive as large companies. If they do, they will publish books (as Richard Eoin Nash has said and wouldn’t you know it, I cannot find the link, but here is a general one for Richard) like movies are currently produced.

That is because the internet and digital media enables the removal of every single point in the value chain except author and consumer. In this model the only scale that needs large capital (and furthermore justifies the application of capital with large rewards) is when you need to market to everyone, brand will enable you to connect with niche reader and writers at as granular a level as you can building something that is worthwhile to readers, so worthwhile that they give you money. Of course, who YOU are may not be a publisher.

Working on letters and notes, thoughts and ideas, trying to avoid too many down thoughts!
Eoin

Publishing success in Ireland, Part Two

Eoin Purcell

This is Part Two in a series (currently of indeterminate length but I suspect five) of posts. Read the first, Here.

The Categories
I promised at the end of my last post to offer up some analysis of the ICM in terms of categories and trends. The first thing to say about this is that I don’t think people will be surprised by the list in the image below. It reflects the top ten best-selling categories in the 2008 ICM. The image is small but clicking on it will take you to a google document that will have quite a lot of other data as this series moves ahead.

The Top Ten Best-selling Categories in the ICM Top 1000

The Top Ten Best-selling Categories in the ICM Top 1000

What strikes me as the most interesting part of this top ten categories is that the overwhelming winner is General & Literary Fiction. At 30.9% of the Top 1000 it is 3 times larger than the next biggest, Crime & Thriller, which is also fiction. If you add in Young Adult Fiction and Childrens Fiction to the mix, fiction makes up a solid 47.29% of the Top 1000. Impressive no?

Interestingly, Autobiography of all varieties makes a solid appearance in the top ten, which is not all that surprising when you consider that it includes titles like:

    Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything
    Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes
    The Diving-bell and the Butterfly
    Parky: My Autobiography
    Would the Real Gerry Ryan Please Stand Up
    My Booky Wook
    Ronan O’Gara: My Autobiography
    Carra: My Autobiography
    Sonia: My Story

Yes readers, the celebrity publishing is alive and well in Ireland, just in case you thought we had a more literary bent here in Ireland.

What does the top ten not show us?
Well for one thing we miss the fact that the 11th most popular category was True Crime. I’m not surprised by this and I suspect most people would not be either. The rest of the top 20 is a bit more diverse. But the number of units and the percentage of the market these categories represent slide rapidly towards less than 1% of the whole ICM Top 100.

The Top 11-20 Best-selling Categories in the ICM Top 1000

The Top 11-20 Best-selling Categories in the ICM Top 1000

Which neatly brings me to the core message this category analysis exercise MIGHT suggest, that publishing fiction is a good route to success. After all fiction seems to account for the bulk of the Top 1000 sales. On the face of it that makes sense, but I’m not so sure about it. However I think I will leave the next post to explain why that is the case.

Two very interesting meetings today,
Eoin