With MatchBook Amazon Pushes The Envelope, Again!

Amazon.com  Kindle MatchBookWith the jam made, I can finally sit down and write about MatchBook. Amazon has gotten very good at releasing solutions to problems within publishing that many people have been talking about for some time but mostly (see comments below) doing nothing about. You’d have to wonder if the industry in general (and I include myself here) will get tired of allowing them set the pace of this digital transition and start working with start-ups to change that dynamic?

My initial response to the announcement of Amazon’s new  product was summed up in the tweet below and I think it still holds though I stress two things:

  • I expect the price points to grow in number (to the higher side) and
  • I expect most publishers to see sense and come on board (there’ll be rights to consider)

But it’s worth working through those points and explaining them.

Incremental revenue
The great thing about MatchBook is that in essence it’s making money for old rope. Customers who avail of it already bought the IP in the book they are “upgrading” and are paying simply to format shift. They’ve no real reason to do this, they are unlikely to do so at full price but a discounted price may well prompt them to buy increasing the overall revenue from that customer for that piece of IP and increasing revenues for Amazon, the publisher and the author. No one in the current chain loses anything in such a transaction (bookstores were never in the transaction to begin with). Sure complications arise where rights have been reverted, but authors can make print and ebooks available again, and here’s a great reason to do just that! This is driving revenue per customer and per title smartly.

E&P bundling & Reason to shift to Digital
Taking these together as they make sense that way! Lots of folks seem to think E&P bundling is a good idea. I’m not sold on the value for me, and I’ll still buy mainly digitally only. But for wavering print buyers, E&P bundling makes a digital transition completely risk free encouraging them to try digital and maybe, just maybe converting them in the process. That’s good for Amazon. It’s okay news for publishers who at some point in the process will begin to wish all their readers were digital ones to enable them to kill costly print runs! For authors it’s neither one nor the other.

Reason to switch to Amazon
This one is clever. So suppose you are a digital buyer from Amazon (or indeed anywhere) and your print purchases are mainly gifts or illustrated and you normally by them from local bookshops, MatchBook is a real incentive to shift those purchases to Amazon just to get your hands on the digital editions for a limited fee. And, if you are a print buyer who buys anywhere but Amazon, this encourages you to shift to Amazon or your print to ensure you can (if you want to) get a cheap eBook version!

Incentive to digitize
Most interestingly to me is that by opening up the hitherto closed incremental revenue option, Amazon is encouraging publishers and authors to make old books available both in print and as ebooks. This drives increased selection for Amazon making it better and more effective at its core goal (in this market of selling books in whatever format). The lure of potential sales will see more ebooks published especially for backlist titles that might once have had decent print sales an area that might see an uptick too.

Objections
I had a long twitter discussion with Tom Bonnick from Nosy Crow about MatchBook the other day and he’s posted a blog about it here

I think it’s fair to say that much of his case is based in this piece (though he might disagree so I’ll leave it for him to respond if I’m wrong):

Conventional wisdom is that Amazon have been pinning their hopes on eBooks as the key area which might one day make them a profit (they’re certainly not making any money on sales of Kindle devices, which operate on absolutely wafer-thin margins). Yet MatchBook seems to fundamentally devalue that core product: it treats eBooks as commodities with no inherent worth; as products that can be given away for nothing as promotional tools. Even if the norm is for a $2.99 pricetag, rather than a straight giveaway, the inescapable conclusion is that the e-format is nothing more than an adjunct to print.

Tom’s logic assumes that Amazon is committed to digital sales (which, while currently true, may not always be so) and only digital when clearly, so long as a customer spends on Amazon, it largely doesn’t matter hugely to the company what format the customer buys content in. Amazon’s strategy then could be simply to improve the value of its ecosystem in its entirety to book readers and encourage them to upgrade from one format purchases to two format purchases driving incremental revenues per sale and per customer and per customer lifetime. If Amazon can gain customers from a bricks & mortar outfits because of this development and it can also drive increased revenues per existing customer then this could really grow its business.

A second key section in Tom’s post is this one:

who will want to continue paying the full price for eBooks as standalone products (which they have, at long last, managed to establish themselves as being) if they’re available for little or nothing when you buy the print edition? And what will MatchBook do to the general assumption about what eBooks “ought” to cost? What will that shift in buyer behaviour do to Amazon’s bottom line, I wonder?

The answer is that just as many people will be unmoved by the offer of a cheap upgrade from print (those who never intend to shift to digital and are not in any kind of wavering camp likely to be attracted to such offers), many (like me) see absolutely no use for print in most circumstances. In fact I view print as a nuisance for most of my reading (though I see it as incredible for several other circumstances). That Tom does not see this suggests he sees print as always having value, but in truth, often it does not have any value at all and so people like me will pay the full price for ebooks because they don’t need or want print.

Tom’s final concern is about bookshops. Actually Tom sees a potential upside of bookshops can get themselves into the bundling game:

But I think this could be a great opportunity for high street retail, rather than a death knell. If bookshops can get in on the act and start offering bundling as well, they may well be in a better position to take advantage of it. For a start, bookshops’ core products are print, rather than e-books, and so unlike Amazon, they won’t be undermining their own health by giving away the e-format. They’re also in a great position to be able to up-sell to customers: there’s no competition between an engaged and enthusiastic bookseller and a website algorithm. And if bookshops can build the right infrastructure, they might be able to offer customers e-editions in non-proprietary formats for more than one sort of device, rather than just the Kindle edition.

While, as you might imagine, I’m not sold on his logic for the benefits, I do see how bundling and up-selling (and I’d say not just up-selling of ebooks, but experiences and more) to print customers offers some potential for book shops. However, as I cautioned earlier, some print buyers simply have no interest in ebooks, arguably (though I may be mistaken) print buyers in local bookstores are probably the most resistant to them, making ebooks perhaps not the right up-sell for them!

On the other hand, Amazon’s very existence is a problem for the bookshops so MatchBook will not really change the nature of the problem, merely perhaps the keenness with which it is felt.

All things considered, I don’t see a negative for MatchBook from Amazon’s perspective drives forward where most others just have yet to push too hard. It may actually help drive adoption of E&P bundling and grow revenues for everyone (except bookshops!).

What Lagardère’s First Half results Doesn’t Say

To be fair, Lagardère’s first half report does draw attention to its success in digital, in fact, on the publishing side, it says the following:

Digital books continued their rise in English-speaking countries, accounting for 34% of Adult Trade sales in the United States (vs. 27% at end-June 2012) and 31% in the United Kingdom (vs. 22% at end-June 2012). Digital books now account for 11.3% of Lagardère Publishing’s total net sales, compared with 8.4% at the end of June 2012. In France, the contribution of digital sales to Adult Trade sales remains low (3.2%), although rising sharply.

But you need to actually work the sums to see what that means. It means that in Fast-half 2013 Lagardère saw €103.61million in digital sales (Based n 11.3% of Net Sales for the division of €907million). So digital is now worth over €100million in net sales to Lagardère. That €100million is €27.59million more than First-half 2012.

That €27.59million represents just over 3% of overall net sales for the publishing division meaning practically all the like-for-like growth in the division and more  than all the reported growth in the division came from digital. Without digital, Lagardère Publishing would be a shrinking business.

Perhaps more interestingly, while digital is clearly growing well, another part of the business is also booming, their Partworks unit. Different ends of the spectrum in some ways, but driven by trends obvious in digital too, branded and licensed content and subscriptions with a healthy dose of direct-to-consumer thrown in for good measure!

Fascinating.

Go Read This | BEA 2013: The E-book Boom Years

Fascinating stuff:

During the 2008–2012 period, trade sales overall rose a total of 14.2%, with the increase due entirely to the introduction of e-books. During the period, sales of print trade books fell 8.4%, from $13.1 billion to just over $12 billion in 2012. The BookStats figures document the important role adult fiction has played in the growth of e-books. In 2012, e-book sales in the segment rose 42%, to $1.8 billion, while sales of adult nonfiction increased 22%. Within the trade category, children’s/young adult had the strongest gain, with sales jumping 117%, from $215.9 million to $469.2 million.

via BEA 2013: The E-book Boom Years.

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

Author Services In The Light Of Penguin’s Purchase

I started this post back in April, I REALLY wish I’d published it then! Following Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions (DBW, The Bookseller) I’ve reworked it somewhat and added a few ideas around that move.

It all started at the London Book Fair this year, an event which brought to the fore for me questions over what will happen to publishers during this radical digital shift? A number of times, either as part of a conversation or in response to questions about the publisher role in the future, I spoke about Author Services or as I prefer to think of it, changing the editorial department from a cost centre to a profit and revenue centre.

But what does that really mean? Well it turns out that in the background several companies have been thinking about exactly that. Some companies have been busy creating product suites that cater to the diverse needs of authors.

A really good example of someone who is moving into the space in a measured and clever way is Bloomsbury through their  Writers & Artists Yearbook site. What was once  a staid old handbook of contacts has, over the last number of years, been recast as something entirely different, something very impressive.

The property was acquired as part of the A&C Black acquisition is also home to a number of other print products that have since transitioned fairly nicely to digital or represent an impressive list for future transition (the company has a fascinating history, worth reading, here).

What they offer ranges according to what you think you need from the very beginning of the process (you can get a book idea assessed for only £119.99) to the end of it (a meet the agent, beat the rejection pile meeting for £199). The one thing they don’t yet offer is actual help with self publishing, but that is a fairly simple step beyond what they currently offer.

The big opportunity is not so much to draw in new content from those who might otherwise self publish, but rather to create viable and real businesses from the editorial (and I suppose the production) departments that currently cost so much money.

Offerings like that at Writers & Artists Yearbook and their existing and future competitors will, I suggest, probably form the front end of the editorial departments of many publishers when the transition is complete. It is entirely possible that they will be independent entities or only loosely aligned with publishers, but it is equally possible that at some point, a vast transfer of staff will happen that sees the editorial department of a publisher shifting towards the newly created services units.

Imagine how it would be if Penguin was to reshape its business so that Author Solutions (or whatever it is renamed) provided the editorial resources (staffed no doubt by Penguin editors) to Penguin as one client among many (perhaps with privileges the others don’t have) it would change the way the company thinks of editorial services.

If all publishers decided to take that radical step (and I admit right now it IS radical), it would enable publishers to subsidize new titles by generating revenue on what have been traditionally expensive services to provide. Of course it would certainly change the way everyone thinks of that department and would probably lead to some resentment both within those departments and between the authors who were made to pay for them and the lucky authors who publishers felt were safe enough bets to invest in themselves.

I think we are only at the beginning of this re-shaping of publishers but the first big change we are seeing is in how we think about the editorial department (though some changes are hitting home hard in sales and marketing too).