Monday, April 30, 2012

The Book Industry is Dead, Long Live the Book Customer

Microsoft's partnership with Barnes & Noble is probably welcome news in many publishers boardrooms. After all, this represents the hope that someone can loosen Amazon's grip on reading public and hence loosen the grip on those that supply that content.

But does anyone really think that Microsoft is getting into the book game because they care about books? (Thanks to John Cutcher for that question).  Their lack of caring about the industry and their being out of touch with the needs/wants of the end consumer is what caused their previous failures here.  No, if anything, Microsoft going into business with Barnes & Noble signals something more ominous in my opinion.  It signal's Barnes & Nobles' departure from the book industry and formal entrance into the technology industry.

Up until 15 years ago or so, bookstores (large and small) were the main conduit of customers for books, and since mostly what they sold were books, everyone was happy to live in a bubble called the book industry.  We were free to create our own rules, set our own standards, and be proud that our work was not only for profit, but was sort of a public service. There was always contention between the publishers and the retail community, but it was genteel, as each side realized that they ultimately needed the other to survive.  Issues got resolved and there were enough retailers and publishers to keep the balance of power fairly well distributed.

The rise of the internet certainly disrupted that status quo.  As the public became first aware, and later enamored with the ease of purchase through the internet, the balance was thrown off as a significant conduit of customers came in through the 'new' medium.  But, for a long time, that disruption merely changed the balance, it did not upset the apple cart. 

Fast forward a few years and now our hand held devices (phones and tablets) have further disrupted the way that customers come to the internet for their sales experience.  Software has completely thrown off the balance in the book industry as many customers can now not only purchase, but consume book content in a completely different way.

It can be argued that Borders slowness to recognize the coming of these latest 'platforms' was a key in the company's legendary collapse.  That collapse has done as much to throw the balance of the book industry off as anything.  It can also be argued that Barne's & Noble's long investment in online retailing and the Nook platform, have kept the company alive through all of the turbulence.

The result, aside from Barnes & Noble, the four or five largest customers of every publisher have completely turned over into different entities. Even the major wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, who were used and abused by Amazon are in deep peril as the number of retail partners they have continue to diminish.  The new behemoths are all technology companies, Amazon, Apple, Google, and to a far lesser extent, Sony.
With Barnes & Nobles' departure to the technology industry, I think it's fair to say that book industry that we all know and love is on it's deathbed. The remaining players in this industry need to come to grips with this fact, and soon, or risk their own demise.

The good news is that customers for books and book-like products is still out there, consuming as much as ever.  There is still a very valuable place for those who are dedicated to bringing the written, spoken, and viewed word to minds of the world.  What we need to recognize is that the rules have all changed, our standards and trade organizations are losing their relevance every day, and that really the new retail giants do have some objectives in alignment with those of publishers.  We also need to recognize that the new customer-conduits have no investment in the 'magical' book.

These retailers only worry about a few things: making customers want to do business with them, and selling them whatever products they want and need. Does it really matter whether it is a book or a movie? A game or a game controller? A song or sheet music? Not to the retailer.  What matters is that they have the ability to fulfill the needs and wants of their customers.  Publishers are suppliers of but one of the segments of products a customer is looking to purchase.

To survive and thrive, publishers need to accept their demoted status in the balance of power and move on.  The reading public still wants their products and services, and the more innovative those products and services are, the more the retailers will need to have them in their virtual catalogs. Publishers need to work with the new retail giants in order to best understand how to build, market, and promote their products in a way that achieves the maximum return for all involved.  

My hope is that as the dust settles on all the disruption in the industry that a great new creative spirit will fundamentally change the products we create for the education, entertainment and shear joy of the reader.  Long live the book customer! (wherever they may be).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The End of an Era

Congratulations to Don Collins on his retirement from the University of Chicago Press!

I don't even know how many years Don has been involved in University Press Publishing, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was more than 40 years. I do know that since 1986, Don has been at the University of Chicago Press.

Given the direction to 'make it work or shut it down', Don is best known for taking the university's distribution center (CDC) from a single client to 102 distribution clients today. However, I dare say that everyone in university press publishing has an opinion about Don. To call him a lightning rod is a vast understatement. Some think he's a blow hard, others a visionary. Well known for his long monologues on how to handle thorny issues, Don's persona is much larger than his stature.

But, as my wife would say, Don is a campfire marshmallow. Crusty on the outside, gooey on the inside.

Few know or understand how loyally devoted Don is to those close to him, and vice-versa. This past Wednesday evening, the warehouse at CDC was transformed to a party room as Don was feted by close to 100 colleagues and friends. Current, and past colleagues from the press as well as a handful of friends from over the years came to celebrate Don's illustrious career and to wish him well in the next chapter of his life. [In the picture above, Don is giving his 'thank you speech' at the party.]

This is truly the end of an era in university press publishing. I can't imagine it will ever be the same without Don. I hope you will join me in wishing my friend nothing but the best going forward!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Our Challenge is Disruption itself

When I was a young aspiring baseball player, my Dad would hit me ground balls so that I could learn to field them. Whenever I'd botch one because I was caught on my heels, he would yell, "Play the Ball, don't let the Ball Play You!"

In essence, he meant that when the ball was coming toward me that I should charge forward and meet the challenge rather than simply wait for it to come and potentially overwhelm me. This advice has served me well in many aspects of my life, and it seems good advice for our embattled publishing industry.

After seeing Brian O'Leary give his talk about Abundance at the Internet Archive a couple of weeks ago, and reading follow up commentary from my friend and colleague, Don Linn, as well as the response by Bill McCoy of IDPF, I'm been inspired to add my own two cents to the conversation.

Brian made many points during his talk - which I encourage you all to read. One point that resonated with me was when he referred to disparate initiatives in publishing by saying "If we don't hang together, surely we will all hang separately". Don extends this point by talking about there being too many trade organizations and standards bodies - a point I wholeheartedly agree with. (and one that I will address in a future post)

But, in thinking about this a bit more, I can't escape the question: How did we get here, and what ground ball are we trying to field?

The problems we are facing today are but the latest in a constant surge of disruption that has been going on for at least 30 years. Since the early-to-mid 1980's improvements in computer hardware and software have radically changed the throughput of published materials from author to reader.

In the 1980's, computer systems led to supply chain improvements, which (it could be argued) led to the formation of chain stores. The internet and the ubiquity of browser technologies in the 1990's enabled an innovative company named Amazon to be a first mover in disrupting the world of bookstores. Computer to Print, and Print on Demand technologies have radically changed inventory strategies. Constant improvements in computer hardware and telephony have enabled discovering and reading ebooks a reality. The simple process of creating ebooks have encouraged authors, agents, and retailers to become publishers. Now, social networks have once again upset the apple cart and have changed forever how we will choose the books we read. Social networks are also evolving and its certain that collaborative reading and writing will become a normal human endeavor before long.

With each disruption, some of us have "charged the ball", while others "let the ball play us". Groups were formed, sometimes officially, sometimes not, to work together to solve whatever the latest challenge was. Most of these groups were formed because either they didn't acknowledge that other groups existed, or were impatient with the incumbent's speed in addressing the challenge. Many were created for very good reasons, some, well, not so good.

Now we are in a state where we have more trade and standards organizations than you can count, many with the same parties involved. We're all trying to come up with standards and practices that address 80% of the problem. Many of these organizations are vying for financial and human resources from the same constituency. It's not just the disruption that we're all fighting, the problem is that we are fighting ourselves over who owns what solution, and we're all thinking that we're more relevant than the others.

It's ludicrous that to be involved in the technology end of the book industry, you need to be a member of five or six trade organizations.

I say it's time we get all of these groups to huddle together, pool their resources, and get back to work on fielding the grounder that we all face: disruption itself. The disruptions are only accelerating.

It may be a pipe dream, but, "If we don't hang together, surely we will all hang separately!"

Monday, June 20, 2011

Learn to be a Reader Again

Last week, Don Linn, wrote a couple of very practical blog posts entitled "What Men (and Women) Talk About When They Talk About Publishing". In those posts, Don advises how best to focus management attention and move organizations forward during these early days of ebooks.

Don has hit the nail directly on the head with his posts, but from my perspective, there is still a piece missing. While Don has laid out "what" publishing executives should focus on, I have a few tips on "how" they should start to do it. In offering these tips, I must acknowledge that these come from some very savvy publishers who are already doing this!

1. Understand the Consumer's experience. As a company executive, you should OWN many different devices, a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad, a Kobo Reader, and any other device you can get your hands on. You should be BUYING books from different retailers (all around the world), downloading them to your device or devices and READING them. BUY books from your own website and from the websites of other publishers. This is a relatively small investment of money compared with the insights you will receive in doing so.

2. Become at least as "tech savvy" as your readers. Read books that have DRM applied and those that don't. Understand the difference in the user experience. Download a book or two from a "Pirate" site. Try to borrow a title from your local library. Try to lend a title from your Nook.

3. Where ever your titles or discussions of your titles can be found, you should be there. If your house is using NetGalley for disseminating review copies, join NetGalley and request your e-ARCs. If you house is using Edelweiss for electronic catalogs, get on the distribution list. Join GoodReads. Join LibraryThing. If your publicity department is putting up facebook pages for certain titles, visit them.

4. Ask lot's of dumb questions internally. Understand your internal processes. Understand why certain groups work differently than others. Understand what kinds of stresses and strains producing ebooks puts on your staff. Understand how production quality breakdowns occur. Understand how rights are managed.

As you progress down this path you will come to understand many things, and your experience and training as a leader will help your company break down many barriers.

The moral of all of this is, that as publishing executives, you cannot delegate understanding how your products AND the products of your competitors are consumed in the marketplace.

Good Luck!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ebook Files and Metadata need to travel together

At the London Book Fair this week, I found myself talking to several publishers about the topic of ebook content distribution and metadata distribution. On at least four occasions I repeated: "I don't care who does it, but the same company that distributes your files, should distribute your ebook metadata".

Full disclosure: we at Firebrand Technologies distribute ebook content and metadata for publishers. So, of course, we would love for publishers to use us for both metadata distribution and file distribution. However, it's also true that it is a lose-lose-lose situation when a publisher uses one "vendor" to distribute files, and another to distribute metadata for those files. And we have decided to not to distribute ebook metadata only for any more clients. Here's why:

1. The ebook supply chain is fundamentally different than the print book supply chain.

With print books, retailers were happy to receive metadata from publishers even though the books were not yet available. They were happy to take files with incomplete records, until the publication date of the title. Retailers, wholesalers, and data aggregators have systems in place to deal with data files with thousands of records, and they are all run to automatically upload the files.

In the ebook world, none of the above is true - at least not universally. ebook retailers only want metadata records for which files are also coming at nearly the same time. Most only want the record once, and it better be complete. Most ebook retailers don't have the systems in place to upload the kind of volume that print books do. Ask anyone who has ever tried to upload thousands of titles to Apple's transporter. You can do it, but you better allocate hours of babysitting time after you manually log in and start the upload process.

2. When something goes wrong, problems are often very difficult to track down, and often go unresolved.

I related this story to a few people at the fair. Let's say that the person at the publisher who is responsible for data delivery (let's call her Jean) gets a phone call from her boss, asking why a book - that should be - is not in the iBookstore. This phone call spurs Jean to call her contact at the metadata partner AND her contact at the content file partner. Both of those contacts in turn start an internal investigation as to what when wrong and unreported. If each contact is at a loss, and then imply that the other vendor is to blame, then Jean is left sitting in the middle with a dilemma of who to believe. The bottom line is still an unresolved problem. Even if both vendors did their job, then the problem might lie with the retailer. Jean doesn't have that relationship, the vendors do, so Jean calls them both back again to find out if the retailer knows anything. Both vendors call different people in the retailer with the same question, causing two more investigations.

This is a nightmare of wasted time and resources. Everyone in this chain loses. And support is the highest cost element of the relationship for each of the vendors. And, Jean is left not knowing who she can trust if this ever happens again.

In conclusion, streamline your processes. Keep one point of contact who can track down problems. Managing your ebooks through one "vendor" or "partner" is far less expensive in the long run than managing multiple relationships.

Good luck out there.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Publishers, Authors, Agents, Retailers - One in the Same?

I woke up this morning thinking about all the hoopla lately about the changing dynamic between authors, agents, publishers, and retailers. Authors going straight to retailers, agents going straight to retailers, publishers coming up with direct-to-consumer strategies, retailers starting self publishing organizations. The landscape that once was clearly defined in a world of physically printed materials, is being turned on its ear in a world of electronic content.

As my mind twisted around these dynamics, it became clear that there really is no distinction anymore. All of these (self proclaimed) groups have really the same objective to find content that the market will pay for and make as much money from it as they can. That's it. That's what they all want. The only difference is how much risk they are willing to take, how they go about it and what work they are willing to do.

There is no way to generalize what one group or another is willing to do. Some authors are willing to do everything, others don't want to do more than submit their manuscript and be left alone. Some agents are willing to cull slush piles looking for the next great novel, and hire editors to help polish up a manuscript, others only want to deal with rights deals from established brand name authors. Some publishers are willing to do the hard work of creating markets, while others are only willing to push a work through their established processes. Some retailers are willing to leverage their community and the author and the work in every way possible, and others only want to hang out a shingle and wait for customers.

This really wasn't different in the print-only world - especially before digital production - except that publishers were the only ones who invested in all the processes that brought a work from concept to product on the shelves. Publishers were clearly the group with the largest risk, and hence fairly expected the lion's share of the financial return.

In the electronic world, there is the belief that this is no longer true. The risk is not as great, the need to invest in scalable processes not as necessary. This may be true for the briefest of periods, but as virtual retailers pop up everywhere in all kinds of forms, and works of all quality levels are brought to the virtual shelves, my belief is that this pendulum will once again swing in the other direction.

But, until then, we have a very disrupted ecosystem. It's interesting and exciting times in the publishing business! The companies to watch are those that are investing in scalable operations. From my perspective those companies don't fall under any of the aforementioned groups.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Digging Deep

Many of you who know me know, I’m rather proud of my twin sons for their participation in Karate. This email came in over the weekend, and I found it quite inspiring:

Dear Dojo Family,

It's only been a couple of weeks since so many people gave themselves to long, sweaty, dusty hours to make our new dojo a reality. But already, circumstances have moved me to ask you all to mobilize yourselves to an even more profound undertaking.

You certainly don't need to me tell you about the massive humanitarian crisis going on just a few hundred miles off the shore of our country. The Red Cross estimates that as many as 50,000 people were killed by this week's earthquake in Haiti. In a country where daily existence was already a struggle for so many, an unthinkable amount of rebuilding will be needed for them to even return to that status quo.

What many of you do not know is that some very dedicated students of ours, the Groder family, run a mission in Haiti. Kevin Groder is Pastor to, and adminstrator of, Mission of Hope Haiti ( In addition to providing thousands of pounds of food to families in need, Mission of Hope also runs schools that educate 1,000 children who otherwise would go without, and was in the process of building an orphanage. That planned orphanage now lies in ruins, along with a number of school buildings. Two teachers died.

Our Tokyo Joe's community can help Mission of Hope rebuild what was lost. So we are organizing a "kickathon" fundraiser that will give 100% of its proceeds directly to that undertaking. As of this writing, Kevin is on 24 hour standby for the next military cargo transport out of Springfield that has room for him. As soon as he is on the ground and able to assess the full scope of what's happened to Mission of Hope, he will give us a concrete project that can benefit from our efforts.

Think of this: if every student in our school can find ten friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers or classmates to donate just five dollars; $10,000 can go to this rebuilding effort. And while that does not go too far (speaking from recent experience) in construction costs here in the U.S., it can make a mountain of difference in the impoverished nation that is Haiti. And as that money is put to work, you will be able to see it happening thanks to members of our community who will be there.

Here's how a kickathon works:

Starting Monday, every student will be able to pick up a pledge sheet, and begin gathering sponsors. Between February 15 and 19, each student will be given 60 seconds to throw as many kicks as they can. The participants can use any kick, and either or both feet. Feet must touch the ground between each kick, and the instructor who times the participant will have final say as to whether the kick meets the level expected of that student. Sponsors can either give a set amount of money per kick, or pledge an overall amount.

Caroline and I would like to extend our thanks for your participation in this by offering some incentives. Any student who collects $50 dollars receives a free patch. A total of $100 or more gets a special tee-shirt designed for this occasion. The top donations for each student in our Panthers, Dragons, Junior, Teen, Adult and Kickboxing levels gets $100 in "dojo dollars" that can be used for any item or service that we sell.

And the greatest prize: turning the horror and empathy that we feel watching the images that emerge from Haiti into concrete action, and watching as concrete results are achieved. I could not issue this call to action to a greater group of people.

Yours Gratefully,

Sensei K

All of us here at Firebrand have a few traits in common, one of them being that we try to help other people where possible. The devastation in Haiti is unbelievable. The numbers I heard this morning are tragic, estimates of 200,000 dead. About all I’ve been able to do is text “HAITI” to 90999 a few times, but who knows where that money really goes?

What was inspiring about this email for me was 3 things:

1. It’s a very specifically targeted place to help,

2. We can keep the money out of the hands of middlemen, and get it directly to the mission, and

3. With all the dead, there are probably a lot more orphans in need than there were before the quake.

What Firebrand is going to do is this: donate 2.0% of our top line revenues for the next 3 months to the Mission of Hope orphanage in Haiti.

This will be a strong challenge for us, but not nearly as difficult as many people are facing in Haiti. We have faith that our customers will support us during this effort. We also hope that our efforts on behalf of the Mission of Hope will inspire other friends and colleagues to find their own way to help.