Tag Archives: book market control

Should Books Be Discounted?

Should Books Be Discounted? Image from businessblog.winweb.com.

I had a call the other day from David Streitfeld, who often covers the publishing business for the New York Times. He wanted to know if Amazon was discounting the books that IPG distributes at a lesser rate than they used to. There has been widespread concern in the publishing community that Amazons’ game plan is to steeply discount everything until the competition is wiped out, at which point they could put prices way up and start coining money.

It is true that Amazon has discounted very aggressively, and has been content to accept a very low profit margin if this would mean a rapid increase in market share—which it has. If titles are now being discounted less, this might signal that Amazon is turning to Part Two of its strategy, the part where the prices start to go up. In the article that Streitfeld published in the NYT on the 4th of July, one of his sources expressed the view that the discounts were in fact decreasing, especially on independent press and scholarly titles, which would be disastrous for sales.

My take on this issue is quite different. I have no inside information whatsoever about Amazon’s game plan, but I know what I would be doing if I were in their position: I would be experimenting with discounts and mining the sales data to see what effect different levels of discounting would have on the sales of various kinds of books at each stage in their life cycles. Streitfeld quotes me as saying:

“‘They [Amazon] are wondering, “If we knock off only 10 percent as opposed to 35 percent, where do we come out ahead?”‘ Mr. Matthews said. ‘They don’t care how many books they sell. They want to know how many dollars they get.'”

My grammar is regrettable, but the idea is from Business 101: Find the place where the price and volume lines cross on the graph, the balance that yields the most dollars.

Many people are offended by the very idea of discounting books.  After all, books have a list price printed right on the jacket flap or back cover.  Almost no other products have the price printed on them during manufacture. Doesn’t this mean that, for books, the list price is somehow the right price? And aren’t discounted products usually cheap knockoffs of better things? Perhaps Amazon has done a disservice to the special stature of the book as a cultural icon; perhaps all this discounting has convinced many consumers that paying list price for a book means you are a bit of a chump, like the little old lady who pays full sticker price for a new car. Or, it may be that the book is not quite the cultural icon it used to be—for reasons that have little to do with discounting.

I will confess that I was a happier book buyer in the days before they were routinely discounted. The printed list price assured me that the title I wanted would cost the same in any bookstore, and that no one would get a better deal than I did. But perhaps a lower price justifies putting up with a little low-level anxiety of that kind.

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CEO Weighs In: “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Platform Author Solutions”

The big shoe that I was certain would drop just did:

Three authors have filed suit against self-publishing service provider Author Solutions, and its parent company Penguin, airing a laundry list of complaints and alleging the company is not a publisher so much as a “vanity press.” — PW May 1, 2013

I have no special insight into the merits of this suit as a legal matter, but the filing of it brings to light the obvious fact that there are companies out there exploiting the hopes and dreams of neophyte authors. More from the PW article, “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Service Author Solutions”:

The suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Author Solutions misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with “traditional publishers,” and the company offers “greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors.”

The problem here is easy to spot. No doubt in the literature that they show prospective authors, and in the agreements that they execute with them, such “publishers” are careful not to promise sudden authorial fame and fortune. But of course the prospective authors do want some degree of Book authors file class action suit against Author Solutions self publishing platformrecognition, and they would like some remuneration too.

What most people think they know about publishing comes from the utterly anomalous success stories the media finds newsworthy. It used to be “first time novelist gets million dollar advance.” Now it’s “first book by self-published author sells 500,000 copies.” Getting hit by lightning three times on a sunny afternoon is much more likely.

So, aspiring authors have some expectations. What expectations do self-publishing services such as Author Solutions have?  Read between the lines of the following “prepared statement,” quoted in the same PW article.

In a prepared statement, Author Solutions pointed to the fact that it has “successfully enabled more than 170,000 authors to self-publish more than 200,000 titles,” and noted that it has received an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau.

I am not sure that the 170,000 authors of those 200,000 titles are all that thrilled by their publisher’s “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau. They might have preferred a place on the best-seller list.

Perhaps the authors who are suing were a little naive. Let’s look at two publishing scenarios. In the first, the publisher pays an advance, covers the editing, designing, and printing costs, and will suffer a big financial loss if the book does not sell. In the second scenario the “publisher” charges the author for all of the publication costs and makes a profit even if the title does not sell a single copy. Which outfit will be motivated to sell books? To understand a business deal you need to follow the money.

And now this article, in Friday’s PW. The CEO of Author Solutions has, for some reason, been replaced by a Penguin executive. Here is how they are spinning the change:

Penguin chairman John Makinson said that the appointment of [Andrew] Phillips [the new CEO] will connect Authors Solutions more closely to Penguin. “Andrew’s impressive range of talents and experience equip him perfectly to extend the international development of Author Solutions, to build on our network of publishing partnerships, and to strengthen the ties with Penguin companies around the world.” — PW May 3, 2013

This statement looks like an attempt to blur the distinction between Author Solutions and Penguin—so that the cash register will keep ringing for Author Solutions. But no amount of corporate speak about building on a “network of publishing partnerships” or strengthening “ties with Penguin companies around the world” can bridge the apparently huge gap between these two enterprises.  The big question is why Penguin, one of the greatest publishing companies on the planet, is willing to wrap its name around a dubious proposition like Author Solutions.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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What Does the Random House/Penguin Merger Mean for Independent Presses?

Of course it is early to speculate about the effects of this merger, but if we think about it as the latest step in a process that has been moving forward for the last decade or so, it will not seem very surprising.

A place to start is with the lead sentence in last week’s article in the New York Times:

The book publishing industry is starting to get smaller in order to get stronger.

This is the sort of press coverage that drives indie presses crazy. It perpetuates the utterly false notion that the Big Six publishers are all that counts in the book business. In fact, they account for only about 50% of bookstore sales. I think many assume their share is much larger.

If we accept the spurious notion that the Big Six publishers and the “book publishing industry” are the same thing, then it is true that the book publishing industry is “starting to get smaller;”  actually has been getting smaller for years. Unit sales for the Big Six as reported in point-of-sale data are 23% less now than they were in 2007; these numbers actually understate the decline, because the number and kinds of stores included in the point-of sale data have increased over time.

However, the sales of all the other publishers captured in the point-of-sale data have only declined 18% compared to 2007, or 5% less than the Big Six publishers’ sales have fallen. This, of course, means that the market share of the “others,” the non-Big Six publishers, has increased. But how about unit sales in absolute terms? Indie presses depend more on sales made outside of the book trade than big publishers do, and these sales, which go mostly unaccounted for in the available point-of-sale data, have grown much faster than sales inside the regular book trade. Gift stores, museum shops, and specialty stores in general are natural customers for the niche titles independent publishers mostly produce.

Such sales are very hard to track on a national basis, but at IPG, we have seen dramatic increases in sales to such non-standard book trade customers—in actuality, much greater increases than in the regular book trade. So it may be that sales of indie publishers have increased, not just in terms of market share, but also in terms of total units sold.

There are multiple reasons to explain the growth of the indies, but a main one is that the big houses can no longer make a financial success of midlist titles. Their overheads are too high to even think of publishing a book that might only sell 3-5,000 copies—but such titles are the bread and butter of small and medium sized houses, and book buyers, who really want special interest and niche titles. So much so that the number of publishable niches is proliferating right along with the explosion of interest groups we see reflected on the internet.

The Random House/Penguin merger is just the first step in the consolidation of the Big Six and I think that their share of the market will continue to decline. Of course “the suits” say otherwise. According to the New York Times article, one spokesperson stated:

The merger would not result in closing redundant imprints and less editorial independence. The idea of this company is to combine the small company culture and the small company feeling on the creative and content side with the richest and most enhanced access to services on the corporate side.

Right—except every one of the things that will not happen will happen, quickly, right after the merger is completed. Heads and imprints will roll right and left.

Indie publishers do not have to pretend they have a “small company culture” or “editorial independence.” They come by these desirable traits naturally. As the room at the top contracts, there will be more room in more markets for us.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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What’s in a Niche?

In a previous post, I cited the second habit of successful independent publishers as: “They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for new, or better yet, related ones, because they know that the half-life of a particular niche may only be about 2.5 years or less.” To begin at the beginning though, what exactly is a publishing niche?

A negative definition, even if it is not flattering to the ambitions of independent publishers, will be helpful here. A niche is a potential market or audience not big enough to attract the attention of a large publisher. Because of their high overheads, large publishers are not interested in titles where the likely sale might be less than 15,000 copies, or even 25,000 now. Titles that do not achieve these numbers will be failures for large publishers.

Independent presses, on the other hand, can come out on top with a sale of only 5,000 copies, so long as the author advance is low, the production costs are reasonable, and the print run is correct. This gap between 5,000 and 15,000 copies leaves independent publishers with a world of potential titles that can be published profitably. In my opinion, a great many of the highest-quality titles, however you want to define quality, fall into this gap. A negative definition thus becomes much more positive when it comes to independent publishing.

A directly positive definition of a publishing niche has two basic characteristics. The first part is that the niche includes a big enough group of potential buyers with a strong, already established interest in the topic of your title. The “strong, already established interest” is critical because it means the job of the independent publisher is simply to inform these already interested buyers that a book intended for them exists. It is far harder, and much more expensive, to convince buyers that they should be interested in a book that doesn’t seem to have an audience. This much more difficult job should be left to publishers with large publicity budgets.

The second essential characteristic of a good niche is that these already interested buyers can be reached accurately and inexpensively. Actually, these two parts are closely related: a niche that is ready for a book will have evolved some structure—an association or club, blogs, chat groups, specialized websites, Facebook or Twitter action—i.e., means through which group awareness is created. This kind of structure can be tapped into quite efficiently and at little cost.

A title which perfectly demonstrates the two characteristics of a strong niche is The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano. First published about 25 years ago and distributed from the start by IPG, this title has sold between three and six thousand copies every year and continues to do so. The potential audience, while not large, is highly motivated (pianos are expensive) and self-replenishing. And piano owners or potential owners are networked together though music teachers, piano dealers, technicians, and many other kinds of groups, most of which have some sort of presence on the Internet.

Note, however, that good niches have to be defended. The Piano Book had the initial advantage of being written by one of the best piano technicians in the country, but the author/publisher has also kept the book current through multiple editions, and he has resisted the temptation to raise the price to an unreasonable level. This book has filled its niche so completely that no competitor has dared to take it on.

Moreover, this niche publisher has found a way to expand his niche. Piano buyers want current information about the prices of new and used pianos. These prices are volatile, so a yearly price guide supplement is very welcome in the market. And of course, the eBook format is perfect for this supplement.

The second part of this post will discuss pseudo-niches and other marketing traps for unwary independent presses.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The Trouble with eBooks: A Recap

Most of the blog posts put up in this space over the last two months have circled around three very major issues in regard to eBooks. Here they are, together with an account of what if any progress has been made in resolving each of them.

eBook Distribution: What’s the Deal?:
No one who is really privy to hard information about what is going on is able or willing to speak out.

Non-disclosure and Confidentiality Agreements, Most Favored Nation Clauses in distribution contracts, and then out of nowhere, the Department of Justice restraint of trade litigation against most of the biggest houses—all these things conspire to silence any informed debate about the issues. And to be blunt about it, most independent publishers feel abject terror at even the thought of confronting Amazon’s enormous market power. This part of the problem has not improved at all.

Market Share: You’d Be Surprised What the Big 6 Controls:
“The Big Six publishers, who control about half of the entire market for trade books, have been able to drive a better bargain with Amazon than the independent publishers could.”

A structural difference of that magnitude (roughly 20 points of discount) would put the independents out of business in short order (See also At What Discount Should Publishers Sell Ebooks to Resellers). This part of the problem may have eased a bit. The Department of Justice’s litigation could have the effect of largely taking away the discount advantage briefly enjoyed by the Big Six which would level the playing field. We will see.

The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content: Part II:
“The 50% plus take that Amazon insists on for distributing eBooks from independent publishers bears no relation at all to the cost of delivering that service.”

A free market and real competition would squeeze out excessive margins wherever they might be found in the supply chain from author to book consumer. So far we have not had anything like a free and competitive market for eBooks. On this issue, however, there is some very good news on the horizon. Microsoft’s investment in Barnes & Noble’s eBook programs is very welcome. Two other eBook programs, which look to be robust and publisher friendly, are well in the works. Of course for the reasons explained in point one above, I can’t tell you a thing about them.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Should Any Ebook Reseller Be the Custodian of Our Literary Culture?

In the last post to this blog I pointed out that the Big Six publishers have about 51% of the overall market for print books, and that this percentage was just fine. The 49% left over for independent publishers is easily enough to support a vibrant literary culture.

But to what extent do the Big Six dominate the market for eBooks? At this point nobody is compiling reliable numbers, but since print bestsellers and eBook bestsellers are usually the same titles, a good guess is that the Big Six have about 50% of the eBook market too.

This degree of dominance in the eBook market is to my mind also just fine: in addition to the Big Six, there are thousands of independent presses keeping every conceivable cultural pot boiling. No, the real worry is that just two or three online resellers are going to be allowed to dominate the distribution of eBooks, and that they will be guided purely by the crassest sorts of commercial considerations: the desire to achieve overwhelming market share; the ability to set prices; the power to crush competition; and a financial interest in keeping inconvenient or unprofitable content from reaching the market at all.

Why should publishers cede all of this power to these new players in the book business? It is obviously true that producing good content is the hard part of making a good book, no matter how that content is captured. How much credit do we give a printer for manufacturing a book we enjoy? Some credit surely, but nowhere near as much credit as we give a book’s author and the editorial team that polished the text. Is the important thing about an eBook the fact that it turns up on the latest new device? The distributors of eBooks have gotten way ahead of themselves when they suggest that their systems or devices are more important than the content they deliver. This is the tail wagging the dog.

We should also keep in mind the danger of censorship. In the case of printed books we have been over this ground time and again. Do printers control what books are printed? Do booksellers decide what ought to be sold? No, they do not, although at various stages in our history they tried to. Should an electronic distributor be allowed to restrict what we read? As a society we have faced these censorship issues again and again, and in all instances we have said NO except for very extreme cases involving pornography or the protection of children.

The real danger may be even more prosaic. Those of us little guys who have had to deal with large corporate entities know that getting inadvertently stepped on is the serious problem. If you are a mouse sharing a stall with an elephant, at some point that elephant will need to scratch its rump against the rough boards of its stall and you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nothing personal about it, you’re just squashed.

The eBook distributors of this world may intend no evil, but then again they intend no particular good either—except perhaps to generate favorable profit margins for their stockholders and senior executives. But books are not widgets, and a purely commercial standard of corporate virtue is just not good enough when the viability and vitality of our literature and culture are at stake. No monopoly is ever a good thing, even in the case of widgets. A monopoly on book content, whatever the intentions of the monopolist, would be a cultural catastrophe.

Photo: Curt Matthews, CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated. Courtesy of The Chicago Tribune Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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