Monday, March 26, 2007

Too Many Book Publishing Conferences?

I just need to ask the question: are there too many conferences in our fair industry?

It seems that there was an opportunity every week so far this year to attend some type of conference on the state of our industry. I've attended at least 6 or 8 so far this year. But, that is the nature of my job - I need to be where my customers, and potential customers are. So, in a way, its a blessing, and in another, it's a curse.

Some have been very interesting and highly topical. Others have lacked. Most have included someone from a high tech company, and others have just gotten down to brass tacks.

And, the calendar seems rife with more to come. The London Book Fair, BISG's Making Information Pay, and the BEA seem like hits on everyone's list. Then there is the Canadian Book Expo, and the AAUP Annual Meeting for me. Then fortunately, everyone acknowledges that the summer is not a good time or conferences, and we get a break until September.

We live in a competitive, yet collegial environment. And, conferences at their best, inspire and teach us about ways we can improve our business. At worst, they often suck up an entire day or days that could otherwise be devoted to taking care of the issues at hand.

Does anyone have any comments?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

In a Digital World, Should Bookstores & Libraries Collaborate?

In the non-digital world (5 - 10) years ago, independent bookshops and local libraries, peacefully co-existed, albeit separately, each with a seemingly separate mission. Each had it's own resources, and was somewhat limited to what those resources could supply to their communities.

Libraries are (generally) public institutions - founded for the greater good of all the citizens of a particular community (city, town, college, etc.). Bookstores are (generally) private entities, peddling their wares to individuals of a particular community (city, town, museum, market demographic).

The main difference between them though, seems that one is about providing entertainment and information for free, and the other is about providing entertainment and information for a price (note the lack of the word, 'profit').

Aside from that, however, they have many things in common. They provide similar types of materials to their patrons. They help and recommend items to their patrons. They are both under tremendous financial pressure. Neither really knows how to embrace the digital age. They both work with the community to foster reading and literacy. They both have the same suppliers (publishers), and they both 'curate' their collections to serve their communities.

At the AAP General meeting last week in NYC, I heard Ann Moore, CEO of Time, Inc. say that in a digital world, content from 'trusted providers' will be where the public turns. I also heard Peter Bloom use the word 'curation' to describe how 'trusted content providers' will be appreciated.

If you think about it, bookstores and libraries are, in their heart of hearts, curators of a certain collection of product. And, it is this concept, that they each curate on our behalf, that makes them so beloved by their communities.

So, is there a collaboration between libraries and bookstores possible? Well, my personal opinion is that they had better, or they will fall even further behind in the public's list of trusted content providers. Part of this opinion comes from the FACT, that this type of collaboration is happening already, except that it is being done by a publisher!

I am very intrigued by what I heard (and have since, seen) about what Tim O'Reilly is doing at Working for a community that has never been particularly well served by either bookstores or libraries, O'Reilly has seemingly taken the best of both worlds and created a 'Library for Profit' space on the internet. O'Reilly provides tools for programmers and other technology aficionados. Note the word 'tools'. I didn't say books. I didn't say research material. And, I didn't say source code. However, he does provide all of that.

He helps programmers figure out what they need themselves by providing lots of free content, and lots of free contextual metadata. He allows educators to put custom course packs together. He provides (for a price) access to his entire library of collected works. He even allows them to comment on works in progress. And, of course, he sells books - and lots of them.

This sounds a lot (save the point about works in progress) like what bookstores and libraries do.

Now, I don't know the answer to the question of how libraries and bookstores should collaborate. What I do expect, though, that in the next few years, if they don't, we will see far fewer of them both in our communities as their individual missions will seem too anachronistic for the public to support.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

In the World of POD, Is the Printing Number Relevant?

This was an interesting question that came up at the AAUP Financial Managers Meeting in San Antonio yesterday. At least that was how I interpreted the discussion.

During the meeting we heard a couple of presentations about Print On Demand technology from Caty Millar, CFO, Johns Hopkins University Press, and from David Prentice, Account Executive, from Lightning Source. David calls it Print to Order, but both were extolling the virtues of keeping books in print by keeping only virtual revenue. The key elements of the Lightning/Ingram program are:

  • Books in the program are given an artificial inventory level of 100 copies at Ingram, so Amazon's website will read that the book can ship within 24 hours.
  • Orders that come in for the book are printed within 8 - 12 hours after the receipt of the electronic order.
  • Only the number of books ordered are printed. None go onto a shelf. (This is a huge difference from the ultra short runs they used to do).
  • List price and Ingram Discount is set by the publisher.
  • Publisher receives a monthly report along with a check for the price received, net Ingram's discount, and Lightnings printing costs.
  • Books that work in this program should sell more than 13 per year, otherwise the storage charges will bring the entire cost structure negative for the publisher.
  • Books in this program need to fit into one of the 12 standard trim sizes offered by Lightning.

This was all very compelling for the audience, as they see no cost of goods, no WIP, no Inventory, and maybe more importantly, no work for their production departments. It was clear from the conversation as well that the technology for POD (or PTO) is getting better and better, and that for scholarly texts, they could change the entire publishing budget plan for some books. It is possible to see a day, where the book is never done on a web or sheet fed press, ever.

This kind of print on demand has a few flavors, all in the category of digital printing. There is Print-to-Order (PTO), meaning one copy at a time. There is also ultra short run digital printing(USRDP), which for the sake of discussion should mean 2 - 10 copies. Lastly, there is short run digital printing (SRDP), which for the sake of discussion means 250 - 500 copies.

Now for some scholarly books SRDP is a good strategy for the first printing of a book that is not expected to sell well. While the unit cost is high, the overall cash exposure is relatively low, and if the books take off, then going to a web press is still an option. But, for most books, all the different flavors of digital printing are happening mostly on the second and subsequent printings. And this brought us to an interesting dilemma. Do we increase the "Printing Number" every time the book goes back for a reprint anymore? If a book is in the PTO program and sells 20 copies, does that mean it went back for 20 printings?

These question cropped up during the discussion of the AAUP annual Survey, where it was clear that a) there was no consensus on this topic, and b) it looked like most of the publishers felt that there was a clear distinction between the PTO model and the USRDP and SRDP models except that they didn't all make the same distinctions I made earlier - in terms of quantities. Here were the results:

out of 63 presses reporting, 20 considered each printing of POD or PTO as a unique printing, while 37 thought that SRDP should be considered a unique printing, and 43 thought that USRDP should be a distinct printing number. The only explanation I have for these results is that people didn't use the same definitions.

In the old world of four years ago when everything was printed in traditional methods, the "printing number" meant something. If a book was in its fourth printing, that was important for marketing bragging rights, as well as for citation purposes. If the book is cited in a scholarly paper, the footnote always displays the printing number of the book so as to distinguish it from earlier versions.

Also in the old world there was always a correction cut in to the film, minimally on the copyright page, but often on many other pages as well. In the digital world, the text is fixed by the publisher, and a new PDF is sent to the printer. But with USRDP/PTO, it is not always clear that new files are sent in advance of the printing. So the copyright page isn't updated. So is it really a new printing?

Bill Lindsay of Harvard University Press said that they rarely ever put printing numbers on the copyright page anymore, and they haven't seen any citation issues. Lain Adkins of Southern Illinois University Press was pretty vehement about the citation problem, and that a book can't be called a new printing if the underlying digital file hasn't changed. As the discussion continued, it appeared that the word 'printing' was the problem.

From a financial perspective, in the old world, printings had to be 'closed out'. Final costs had to be reconciled against the original estimates, WIP systems needed to be updated, and Inventory valuation had to be adjusted for the new books in the warehouse. How do you close out a printing without an estimate, without inventory, and without an invoice from the printer? Plus if a publisher has to close out 20 PTO printings a year, the overhead in the production department would cost more than the actual printing, binding, and shipping costs of the title.

This discussion never quite got finished, but it was clear that no consensus was possible on this day, and the discussion was put on the agenda for next years meeting. And I think more than a few of these CFOs are going to be wondering if they need the same production staffing levels in the future, if all the accounting, and overhead of producing reprints gets dramatically easier.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Battle of the Titans

In the world of Digital Content Distribution, battle lines are being drawn and companies are starting to shoot salvos across the bows of each other. At the AAP General Annual Meeting, representatives from Adobe, and Microsoft had their moments at the podium, and just a few blocks away, Google was making all kinds of noise as well.

At the AAP meeting, Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe, was asked about what kept him up at night. His response was “Microsoft, Microsoft, Microsoft, and, ah… Microsoft”. He went on to explain that Microsoft was this $50 Billion behemoth who might see that Adobe was starting to eat their lunch when it came to some of the products they were offering. Adobe, is a $3 Billion company whose products can be found on virtually every personal computer in the world. I thought that he was going to say that he was worried Microsoft would just outright purchase Adobe, but he didn’t.

What Bruce did go on to say was that Google serves as an enormous “heat shield” that distracts Microsoft from worrying about Adobe, and that allows him some measure of rest at night.

Later in the day, Bruce’s comments were validated by Tom Rubin of Microsoft, (click this link for the full text of his speech) who was there to talk about the Live Book Search program. Tom repeatedly said that he wasn’t there to attack Google, but anyone in the audience could literally feel the antagonism coming from Mr. Rubin as the name ‘Google’ crossed his lips. His main argument was that Google pays no attention to the rights of copyright holders, while Microsoft does. He also slammed their business model by essentially saying that Google will take publishers content and essentially put ads around it to monetize that content. Microsoft says that their approach is more altruistic, working with publishers to jointly make money by facilitating the sales of both traditional books as well as e-books.

Meanwhile at the Book Business show (formerly known as BookTech), Jim Gerber of Google was trashing Microsoft. I wasn’t there for that one, but as I understand it the gist is that Google feels that they are bringing more visitors to a publishers books through their program than Microsoft, and it isn’t costing the publisher a penny. This was covered in PW and Publishers Lunch.

In a world where publishers are going to have to deal with all of these companies, and also Amazon, and Yahoo! when it comes to distributing their content, none of this cross-town bickering bodes well. In order to deal with them all, some semblance of data transmission standards will need to be in place, but from the looks of things, it doesn’t appear that we’ll be able to get most of these folks around the same table.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Rise of the Social Networks

In this morning's Shelf Awareness, it was reported that Amazon had made an investment in Shelfari - a social networking site for book lovers. Doesn't it seem like we're hearing more and more about social networks, these days?

Or, don't you really know what a social network is? I have to say that social networks aren't on my radar as an internet user, but they are certainly on the radar of my children. MySpace is the biggest social network out there, and if you are a parent of teenagers (I have 3 in that category), then you know what a wonderful - terrible place it can be. Or you may have heard of YouTube, the place where you can post video clips, this is another social networking site.

MySpace and YouTube are social networking sites that are open to just about everyone. But Shelfari is segmenting the market. They are just going after book lovers. Trying to get book lovers to recommend books to each other. I am sure that there are many other social networking sites out there, even though I don't know what they are. One thing I'm sure of though, we are going to see more and more of them.

Why am I so sure? A few reasons, one - we are a nation that has lots of communities. Some of them are generally popular, Fantasy baseball, or Nascar, or Political Commentary. Others are highly specialized, like: 17th Century Sculpture, 1969 Camaros, or Saddle Seat Horseback Riding. The internet has already allowed lovers of these more specialized communities to find each other, and soon, they will all have their own social networking sites. Now that there are a few social networking sites out there, there will soon be a technical model for building them, and then someone will create the the software to set them up quickly.

The last reason is that the search engines have indexed so much stuff, that we can’t find what we are looking for anymore. If we are looking up information about a hobby, we get so much stuff back that it is hard to sift through it all. The Social Network sites are going to serve the purpose of sifting through and culling the best information out there for us.

In an earlier post, I mentioned how one publisher I was speaking with was moaning about not being able to get their books in the top eight Google Search results. And if they go below that, will anyone ever even click through? How many of us actually click on any search results much past the second page of results? So, we have a conundrum, companies supplying product are mixed in with all the other results, and customers looking for product might not find it because it might be listed too far down in the search results.

Isn’t it interesting how we have gone through this cycle where the technology helped us so much, but now we need the human element to help the technology? The social networks will apply the human element to the technology, and the internet will once again become a place of trusted information.

There is a big opportunity for publishers in the social networks. By their very nature, the social networks will become ‘trusted’ sources of information. Books, in our culture, are already consider ‘trusted’ sources of information, so they are a perfect fit for the social network.

This week’s announcement of widgets by both HarperCollins and Random House will help publishers get their ‘shelf space’ in these social networks. The widgets are like online books that can be browsed from the social network site, and then bought through anyone who placed the widget on the site.

Now, all we need is a way to identify social networks so that they are easily distinguished from other websites and blogs. Then we can target our books to these communities. This could be a natural way for books to continue to be relevant in our digital age.