The Future Of Media

On Publishing Mergers & Strategy

I have been mulling the Penguin Random House deal for some time now. In fact, I wrote most of this post about ten days ago or longer. I’ll be honest enough to admit that my failure to post my thoughts was as much due to work commitments as it was to a conscious decision, even so it has been useful to wait (as is often the case, we too often underestimate the value of inaction).

I’m glad I waited because it’s quite remarkable what you can discern when you stay out of the flow of an issue. Firstly it meant this post comes in the wake of Peter McCarthy’s wonderful piece When Elephants Mate: Thoughts on the Potential Penguin Random House which explores the merger in wonderfully telling detail and is a must for the interested. Secondly, it comes in the wake of this piece of news News Corp., CBS in Talks Over Merging Book Businesses. Both pieces have been useful in underlining my thinking.

I’ve felt, watching and reading the reactions of tweeters, journalists and thinkers, that there have been three clear waves of response to the news. The first wave of response was mostly surprise (not without some humour and a considerable degree of fun as people contemplated names for the possible merged outfit (my own was definitely Random Penguin). Some discussion pondered the sheer scale of the entity, the number of imprints, staff, buildings  books and authors it would encompass. Best described as the shock and awe stage I think.

The second wave echoed with fear; fear of the powerful combination that the first wave only began to consider, fear of reduced options for writers, agents and readers, and a fear of the changes this new entity would bring to an industry that seems of late to be in constant flux. The fear and loathing stage seems an apt description for this stage.

The third, more considered wave, saw discussion of the merits of the merger in terms of what it equipped the larger entity to do, the power shift relative to digital interlopers and other publishers not to mention the chances for success. In general this wave of discussion was an attempt to put the events in context, consider the implications and look to the future. The dealing with reality stage I pegged it.

To most of those discussions I felt I had little extra to add. One area however seems to have been curiously overlooked in the discussion to date, the fact that we are seeing two very different strategies in action here and strategies that are making value judgements on entire industries. And what are they?

Well the first is a clear strategic decision to move out (and definitively so) of the trade publishing industry. That’s what Perason has done. Make no mistake about it, it wanted shot of trade publishing, and saving the prize of the Penguin brand for use in other areas where it might be useful (like its educational publishing segments) it got shot of it (intriguingly it is also rumoured to be keen to sell the FT though those rumours seem to have been put to bed more recently). What interests me is that Pearson isn’t out of publishing, just trade publishing. So it made a decision based on its read of  its abilities, its resources and its weaknesses. Probably the likelihood of future profits and the environment of the sector had a large bearing too.

Pearson’s takeaway from that analysis was that even with the most recognisable brand in trade publishing, they’d rather be out of the game, than in it. When you let that sink in, the fear and loathing stage doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

Of course, in counterpoint, Bertelsmann made a very different decision indeed. Penguin Random House is now a Bertelsmann beast, majority owned by the company and, I suspect, likely to be wholly owned by it at some point. Bertelsmann has doubled down on trade publishing. As if to confirm the company’s strategic decision it purchased the remaining stake in Random House Mondadori. Bertelsmann sees value in trade publishing, so much value it has gone to the trouble of building the largest English language trade publisher in the world.

It begs the question, “Which one of these huge companies is correct?”

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero sum game. Both parties could well have made the correct decision for their own enterprises and simply assessed their abilities and their desired return on capital very differently. As we line up for the follow on round of mergers that the dealing with reality wave has suggested is likely and recent reports indicate are indeed in the works, we should be looking at what strategy the parents of these trade publishing giants are pursuing and how that will impact the shape of things to come.

We are living in interesting times, or whatever that means!

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On Publishing Economics & Cannibalism


UPDATE: The Sunday Times (Ireland) has picked the post up in an edited version for their Think Tank column today.


There has been some debate over whether cannibalisation of print sales by digital sales is actually occurring and what’s more some debate about whether, if it is occurring, it matters a great deal, all mostly prompted by The Bookseller’s recent piece on ebook sales beginning to impact sales of print books:

For example, the e-book market share of the science fiction and fantasy sector globally for the 10 weeks since June was 10%, more than treble the genre’s market share of print book sales. The share taken by romance and saga books was 14%, seven times its print market share.

Julie Meynink, business development director of Nielsen BookScan, said though it was early days, data from Nielsen BookScan US, which globally represents the biggest share of e-book sales, showed a decline in print sales within these two sectors. In the year to date sales of romance books in the US are down 7.5%, while science-fiction and fantasy sales are down, even when the effect of Stephenie Meyer is stripped out. Estimated e-book sales from the Association of American Publishers show that the e-book market has risen 10-times since 2008, with sales accelerating this year with sales over the first two quarters up 180% on 2009.

Ahead of the seminar, Meynink said: “There has been over-performance in the growth in e-book sales in the romance and science fiction categories, when compared to the market share of print book sales, and this correlates with a fall in print book sales in those sectors.

Sorry for the long quote, you should read the whole piece. The highlighting is mine. I want you think through that bit as you read this. Meynink is telling us that ebooks are pushing aside print sales in specific genres that are at the forefront of digital adoption. No messing there, no room for shifting the territory or fluffing the message – the rise correlates with the fall.

Evan Schnittman has an interesting analysis in which he posits that ebooks are not the issue, it is the changing way people interact with books when they shift towards digital and that it’s not such a problem in the medium to long run:

The good news is that the same Nielsen study shows a significant portion of the ereading market buys more ebooks than they did print books. Furthermore, the study also shows that 80% surveyed would never consider buying a dedicated ebook reading device. So in the end, the book-selling world may lose 25% or so of its print customers to ebooks, but those customers will likely buy more product than they would have if they didn’t use an ereader.

Publishers must face the vibrant and growing market of ebooks with a view that their print runs and print sell-through have been and will continue to be downwardly affected by the loss of consumers to ebook reading devices. However, this isn’t cannibalization, it’s an opportunity for market expansion by feeding ereading consumers more of what they want to find.

I Think People Are Misunderstanding The Issue Here
I’m not sold on this market expansion argument. And I’m not sold on it for a specific reason. We are looking at the problem through the wrong end of the lens. The customer isn’t the issue, the publisher is. Simply put, for most publishers and on most titles a 10-20% shift to from print to digital undermines their economic model. Costs per unit will rise and revenue per title will drop if that kind of shift happens, and coping with it won’t be easy.

A loss of 10% or even 20% of print sales when the print run is over 10,000 isn’t catastrophic, especially if ebook revenues bring in some of that lost revenue. It won’t help the economics of a title, but it won’t kill them either. The more you print the less and less it costs per unit and the more and more room for manoeuvre you have regarding price and discounts. Sure, you’ll feel some profit pinch, and your revenue per title will dip, but overall if most of your books sell in excess of 10,000, you will be able to cope with a reduction in the region of 10-20% (though if the digital share grows beyond that it MIGHT become an issue).

But most books are not printed in quantities in excess of 10,000. In fact, in Ireland, I’d warrant that the average print run is circa 3,000 if not a little bit lower. From what I know of the US and the UK, this figure might be slightly higher, perhaps 4-5,000.

Those kind of books (hardback or paperback) are only just viable at current price levels. It’s one of the major issues publishers face. Paper prices have risen dramatically this year, but book prices haven’t risen to reflect that. If publishers are forced to cut print runs on top of absorbing cost increases, the profit per book sold will decrease dramatically.

Looking At It Clinically
If ebook starts to take 20% of a books sales, the print run becomes increasingly non-viable. Only two decisions really remain at that point, reduce costs or increase price.

Suppose a publisher looked to reduce costs, they might cut the print run even more, but each unit would then be more expensive and printers don’t really like doing runs below 3000 so the price might end up being pretty much the same. They could use cheaper materials and thus reduce the attractiveness of the product. They might squeeze the author’s percentage, but authors could self-publish when the deal gets bad enough and if an agent’s involved that’ll probably not happen.

So the other option is to increase the price. This is likely to reduce the demand from readers in the bookstore, and make it harder to get shelf space in physical stores. Even independent bookstores are wary of taking books that they know are more expensive than readers expect and readers have come to expect good prices.

On top of which the higher prices could shift more readers towards digital editions exacerbating the problem that kicked this all off to begin with!

I suspect that leaves the publisher in a pretty tough spot, they are pushed on costs and they have no flexibility on price. They can’t really dramatically increase the price and they cannot dramatically reduce their costs. UNLESS…

They Go Digital
The left-field option is to cut the print cost out of the equation and with it the cost of distribution and go digital only (perhaps with a print-on-demand option) with a title. That changes the economics of the project and is scary as hell for traditional publishers, because then pricing is weird for them, involving only fixed costs and very little in marginal costs per unit sold.

But, and this is the crucial point, if they follow this route, they have the prospect of profitable sales whereas if they stick with a mixed print and digital set up they will lose money.

What would you do?
I suspect that many publishers, those at least who fit squarely into this bracket I’ve described here, will start to see this logic. They will begin to adapt their model to reflect the changes they need to make. They will pull physical books and release ebook editions, at first they’ll also do print on demand or short run digital editions. Over time, they will actively recruit their readers to digital, because they know they have to do these things to survive and profit from the changed realities. It may or may not be enough.

Those that don’t, unless they actually are lucky or good enough to move from titles that routinely sell around 3,000 to titles that sell in excess of 10,000 units, will definitely perish. That’s not fair you might say, but they have the option to change. If they just think it through and start making those changes now or VERY soon.

Of course you see now why we were looking at the problem through the wrong end of the lens, if publishers shift to digital to enable profitable publishing, that may very well mean readers don’t get to choose if they shift to digital because for certain books they may very well be forced to.


Related:
I’ve talked about how this reduction in print runs will affect physical bookshops

Go Read This | Gamebooks, branching narratives and adventure

Well worth reading and thinking over and over and over!

And it is all these things that make gamebooks great, and unique. While there have been plenty of things that are similar, very few have proved quite as uniquely engrossing or successful at marrying the pretending to the rules as has the branching narrative. The early ‘80s turned out a lot of treasure hunts, and while Masquerade was beautiful to look at, readers weren’t enchanted by the magical escapism so much as caught up in an explosive collision of puzzle fever and expensive prizes. Picture puzzle books came in every shape and size in those days, Fighting Fantasy author Ian Livingstone even wrote one, but none of them had the same power to gleefully hijack your identity as the CYOA and FF-type gamebooks. In fact, in my view, the closest thing to a gamebook isn’t a book at all; it’s not even Dungeons&Dragons. It’s the text adventure video game – and its modern young nephews, the Interactive Fictions and all the text-based online games that seem to co exist happily and modestly in the same niche today.

via Gamebooks, branching narratives and adventure.

Go Read This | Why Print Publishing Will Never Die | Ditchwalk

There is much here in a short space, but it’s all worth reading!

That’s why broadcast television is going to die of a certainty, and why print publishing never will. Because physical books have always met the on-demand test. It’s their greatest strength, by far, and always has been.

via Why Print Publishing Will Never Die | Ditchwalk.

Go Read This | Inside View from Ireland: Rise of Social, Demise of Literary Reading

So Say We All!

I’m concerned at the demise of literary reading–the reading of fiction, poetry, or plays. It has declined among all specified ethnic groups, at all educational levels, among all age groups, and among both women and men. In US research, the “steepest decline in literary reading is in the youngest age groups”. For example, the decline goes from 59.8 percent in 1982’s 18-to-24 group to 42.8 percent in groups surveyed in 2002. The decline in literary reading correlates with increased participation in Facebook, Twitter, and discussion boards.

via Inside View from Ireland: Rise of Social, Demise of Literary Reading.