Value Chain

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.

Moving Up The Value Chain: How Digital Publishing Disrupts

A good while ago now (nearly 2 and half years I think) I wrote a piece called Whither Publishing In The Twenty Teens? It looked at the changes in publishing which I argued were being driven by digital publishing over the internet.

I made a prediction in that post:

3) Quality and curation will deliver rewards (so firing editors may be self-defeating) in the long-term, if you survive the shakeout. Given the proliferation of poorly written/created content, acknowledged quality will be a valuable feature as will good filtering capabilities (as we can already see).

The point here was that value could be created through curation of content, whether that meant building a dedicated niche in one topic or aggregating content from one specific area or doing that across many topics at once, but ensuring depth and value in each.

At the time I was interested in how traditional publishers might adapt their print curation to online and digital curation, something several have done well and others have not. I saw both an opportunity and a challenge to traditional publishers in the new curation.

I stand by the thrust of it, but I think I failed to make clearly enough a subtle point about that prediction. That is, that as blogs and websites gained credibility and status, they could quite easily move up the value chain towards the same kinds of products traditional media/publishers currently produce. If they show that THEIR curation is at least as effective and valuable as that of the traditional publishers is, then they can benefit from that prediction as much as anyone. It’s the classic example of a disruptive player moving up the value chain and it is happening before our eyes. What’s more, because they were coming from a smaller cost base, they can likely do it more competitively than traditional book publishers.

In many ways, it is the problem newspaper and magazine publishers have been facing for a long time, writing itself all over the face of book publishing. It’s a slightly different type of problem from the issue of self publishers growing in confidence and ability  (equipped as they are now with more tools to aid the creation, distribution and sale of their books). We are talking here about content producers designed around the web, using the web as a platform and building their content offering off a low-cost base and often offering most of that service for free to web surfers.

Demand Media has just announced the launch of two series of ebooks one on wine varietals and the other on pets. I recall how Demand was viewed when it first came to prominence, a content farm, and in some ways it has never shaken off that description, but with this move it shows that its low-cost model can deliver content that has pricing power and provides value.

Here’s how Jeremy Reed discussed their new effort:

As the digital landscape continues to change and new concepts are introduced, we’ve stayed focused on the still important idea of connecting people with knowledge through various media. The shift to smartphones and tablets has opened opportunities for new content formats, and the lines that once separated how people consume content — on television, in print, via online or through mobile devices — have all but disappeared.

The eBooks we’re releasing today exemplify this change. For people interested in learning about the vast world of wine or the intricacies of pet ownership, our collection of eBooks offers a modern alternative to what’s offered online or on shelves today.

Demand Media has taken almost the reverse approach of traditional publishers, but the more traditional approach (in the sense that the content being commissioned is specially created for books rather than created for multiple purposes, one of which may, at a future point, be books) also gets attention today with the funding announcement for Open Air Publishing:

Open Air believes it can disrupt traditional publishing faster. The New York-based startup has published four books. Priced between $5 and $10, all of them have at least broken even, and all of them have taken just three to four months to produce.

Now, with $800,000 in seed backing from SV Angel, 500 Startups, Charles River Ventures, Social+Capital Partnership, David Tisch, Advancit Capital, and others, he’s set to release a total of nine ebooks by the end of the year.

There is a huge amount of room for different models in the market and there will be customers for both the higher end products produced by Open Air and the cheaper ebooks created by Demand. However, in terms of scale and, I would wager, profitability, I think Demand has the game in hand. Certainly, I’d be betting any investment on them rather than on Open Air. After all their bottom up creation model means that a rigorous selection and filtering model combined with some judicious article creation around perceived gaps can result in far quicker production and, most crucially, the creation of ebooks without incurring extra cost (because the content is presumably being reused in other ways).

The Demand Media model for non-fiction publishing looks a lot like moving up the value chain from lower order prospects. In the same way the moves by the likes of GigaOm to start selling ebooks as a standalone product show two things, firstly that their reputation has created value in their brand and people trust it (their curation and editing and credibility) and also that what started as a threat to magazine publishers and newspapers is now a threat to technology and general book publishers.

GigaOm’s move shows the versatility of that publisher’s content too. Their offering now encompasses free content (ad-supported of course so not FREE free), premium subscriber content (their Pro offering) and what might be described as their mid-range content, their new ebook range. This comes close to the Publishing Continuum I first heard Dominique Raccah talk about and certainly does so from a surprising direction at least for traditional publishers. Whereas publishers might have seen GigaOm journalists as potential authors on their lists at some point in the future, it seems clear that GigaOm journalist are at least as likely to be published by their own home imprints.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the internet IS creating direct competition for new non-fiction books exactly as has been predicted that it would. Another short paragraph I wrote two years ago seems relevant if sadly telling now:

The challenge for most publishers is first to realize there IS a challenge and that responding to it is less about social media, ebooks and fancy apps (though they all have a role) and more about rethinking the way you conceive content and how and where you deploy that content to engage and build an audience.

If the world of publishing doesn’t seem to be moving very rapidly, that’s only because you are looking in the wrong direction.

From a very, very, rainy Dublin!
Eoin

No New Normal – The Value Web

For some reason this has been a very hard post to write. It’s a rather strange situation for me as in essence what I’m writing about is really a very basic idea. Maybe it is because I’m afraid that people will misunderstand it or take the wrong message from it. Which if I’m honest means I’m not writing it clearly enough. Oh well! Here goes nothing.

~~~

I want to write about this very simple idea:

That as the impact of digital distribution begins to be felt along the trade publishing value chain, what will emerge is not a NEW VALUE CHAIN as much as a new VALUE WEB, an environment that sees, not one way to generate value in the industry but many ways of doing so. What’s more, this state will persist because no particular method will emerge as the single ‘way’ of trade publishing (if that term even retains relevance), at least not for some time to come.

Everyone (at this stage) thinks that the trade publishing value chain is endangered. They’ve even created a word to describe it, disintermediation. And Everyone is right.

What I think they tend to ignore is the way in which the value chain is endangered. It’s not a simple change that we are experiencing, it’s far more dramatic and complex then is often imagined.

Until recently, the trade publishing value chain looked something like this:

Author > Agent > Publisher > Distributor/Wholesaler > Retailer > Reader

Some people fear that Amazon or Google or Apple will make a big move and the result will be something like this:

Author > Amazon/Google/Apple > Reader

And there’s some real danger of just that happening. You only have to look at how companies like Apple and Amazon have facilitated self-publishing and in so doing excised huge swathes of the old chain from certain sectors of publishing. Certainly on Amazon’s part the ambition to disintermediate the publishing industry has been obvious for some time, at least if you were paying attention, it was certainly clear long before they made this announcement, but sometimes it takes BIG HEADLINES to make people pay attention.

There’s an added complication in that authors themselves (or some of them at least) might just wish for something that looks more akin to this:

Author > Reader

And what’s to stop that? After all there is no reason why using Paypal or some other selling tool, an author could conceivably sell ebooks directly to readers and maybe even turn a small trade by doing so. You could argue that Amazon’s Kindle Direct Platform is a close approximates of that, but I think the platform ownership position of that player means its role is greater than just a service provider.

Hold on tight
But, and it’s a huge but, despite all this evidence of disintermediation there is absolutely no reason to believe that one way of reaching an audience or one way of delivering value will win out for ever and in every instance. For example:

  • Random House has just disintermediated the agent by doing a deal directly with Tom Sharpe for digital rights, and that is by far NOT the only way in which publishers, big and small are finding new ways to operate in the digital era.
  • Bricks and mortar bookstores, despite being at the coal face of the digital wave, are not against a bit of disintermediation themselves. B&N is quietly disintermediating everyone in the self publishing world (just like Amazon is) via Pubit service for their Nook platform. You should expect to see them take their print publishing arm (Sterling) even more seriously then they already do after Amazon’s announcement.
  • Agents are building direct channels to consumers and publishers, long the supposed victims of the piece are beginning to find direct selling attractive and capturing audiences to (hopefully) turn into readers.

The point being that as this digital distribution wave of change washes over the industry, it will radically reshape the value chain in unpredictable ways.

For some titles it will force authors to make hard decisions, it will reduce the predominance of publishers (or at least the traditional ones) while elevating the role of platform owners like Amazon, B&N, Apple and maybe even Google, but for some titles it will broaden the role of publishers and if they are lucky and smart maybe even the surviving booksellers.

All of this will happen despite, or perhaps because of the fact that, the actual slice of value captured by each player changes in size and shape. Publishers will be forced to cede more revenue to authors, the idea that 25% Net is a defensible long-term ebook royalty rate is a farce best forgotten about quickly.

Agents may find their 10% under threat too, especially on backlist titles, unless they offer something more valuable then just conversion, after all, their authors are pretty much able to upload a file to a platform for conversion themselves.

Authors themselves will face greater competition both from the increased numbers of writers (Good and Bad) facilitated by digital distribution and the existing databases of ALL titles ever published digitized and available for distribution. If most authors already have low incomes, then they will get lower. Though I’d also expect the winners to become even more gigantic!

As the influence of bricks & mortar retailers wanes, especially the chains, so too will their ability to demand such high levels of discount. I’m pretty sure the platform owners will be able to squeeze most players for a greater share of the revenue. How powerful they will become remains dependent on just how easy it becomes to read a file you buy one place anywhere (currently easier then I’d have imagined).

None of them will go away though. For some books, print will remain a huge segment of the market and bookstores or supermarkets will remain the best place to sell them and traditional publishers will probably remain the best home for such books. For others, the author’s platform will be large enough to justify a going-it-alone route, but even for the biggest authors, for the right book. partnering with an agent, a publisher or a platform owner might be the right move. That’s where the web comes into play.

The tidy chain discussed at the start begins to look, and will be in real life, a whole lot more complicated.  Instead of a publishing value CHAIN, we have something more akin to a value WEB. Different actors can work together on different projects depending on their needs at a given time. And that means title-by-title projects, agents taking on roles more akin to producers (or publishers or retailers or maybe all of them doing so but not on every title). Of course for large parts of the business the platforms and self-publishing will suffice, but overall, the change will be dramatic and will, I think, look something like this:

It’s not all going to be plain sailing
Of course there are going to be losers. The least well positioned players in the game are wholesalers and physical bookstores. Their roles are uniquely challenged because of the shift in format from physical to digital. Yes, as I have said, some print market will persist but what size and shape that will have in twenty years time is anyones guess, what we DO know is that it will be smaller and because of that we’ll have fewer physical bookstores, but how that shakes out we cannot be sure.

I’m sure too that we’ll see casualties among the publishing houses that currently thrive. Some because they make bad decisions and fail to adapt and some from just bad luck. Other will lose market share and fall under the wing of other players, maybe they’ll be publishers too, or maybe they’ll be retailers or platform owners.

The funny thing about this disintermediation business is that the only clear winners are at the ends of the old chain, writers and readers. The writer’s win is tainted by the knowledge that though their options, the costs of and their routes to publication will have expanded greatly, their chances of earning a living from writing will have decreased rather dramatically too.

Readers on the other hand will be faced with a surfeit of choice, less of a problem then most people imagine, but still an issue if too much time is wasted in filtering through those options. On the other hand they can expect to see the price of individual pieces of content to fall, especially when the creator, however talented and however the web has coalesced to deliver that content, is an unknown.

Is Feidir Linn,
Eoin