If eBooks Are the Future, Do Publishers Have a Plan?

The numbers are in, and eBooks may very well be the bright spot in book publishing's dim future—but only if publishers can figure out a way to keep the momentum going.

kindle booksEBook sales accounted for $46.5 million as of the end of September, according to the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), but that number only represents trade eBook sales through wholesale channels. Retail numbers may be as much as double these figures due to industry wholesale discounts, says IDPF. It's a drop in the bucket for book sales overall, which amounted to about $1.26 billion for the month of September, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

What's most astonishing, though, is that eBooks have sold like hotcakes without a marketing or sales strategy. Publishers are moving quick to catch up as new digital innovations come to market.

"Everybody's awake now," says Mike Shatzkin, a 40-year industry veteran and founder of the Idea Logical Company, a firm of digital publishing futurists. He lauds larger publishers such as Random House and Hachette for being way ahead in terms of the mechanics of getting eBooks to market. But one of the publishers' biggest problems, he says, is that their selling strategies are built around book formats, and not about the interests of the people reading those books.

Brian O'Leary, founder of Magellan Media, a publishing industry consultancy, agrees that the approach to finding the eBookworms varies from publisher to publisher. For instance, he notes many of Hachette Book Group's titles have had simultaneous print, audio, and e-book versions that are marketed and sold using common campaigns.

HarperStudio's publisher, Bob Miller, acknowledged that their overall strategy so far, is integrated with their print program because many of their eBooks and digital audiobooks have traditional print versions. This from the HarperCollins imprint that rocked the publishing world recently when they announced a 50-50 profit-sharing deal with authors—a departure from the traditional 7% to 15% royalty— and publishers of the multi-media "Vook" CRUSH IT!

vookMiller speculates that commercial fiction categories such as thriller, mystery, suspense, romance, and science fiction will continue to sell briskly in digital format. "Readers of these genres will continue to like the convenience and low cost of this format and are less concerned about having the physical book to keep on a shelf," he says.

But O'Leary suggests publishers such as HarperStudio would do well to take a page from the genre publisher's playbook. Though he's not advocating a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy, he notes that Harlequin has enjoyed much success by marketing short-form digital downloads for Nocturnal Bites separately, and recently announced the start of a digital-only imprint.

Indeed, Harlequin Enterprise Ltd.'s Brent Lewis, vice president of digital and Internet for Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., has been leading the strategic charge of Harlequin's digital publishing and marketing programs that now reach over 50 million readers in ebooks and digital audio, as well as on Harlequin's own site, in mobile distribution, and digital-only content.

Lewis' revealed Harlequin's not-so-secret ingredient in an interview with Fast Company last year: their consumers. "At Harlequin we have a very powerful brand that people have been very loyal and engaged to since the business began."

While Harlequin has its finger on the (ahem) throbbing pulse of its readers, it will be interesting to see what strategies evolve at Random House when industry vet and ex-Amazon employee Madeline McIntosh assumes the newly created position of President, Sales, Operations, and Digital on December 1. Her appointment will "unify their physical and digital sales efforts for adult, children's, and international titles, distribution, publishing operations, IT, and corporate digital-publishing capabilities in an interconnected team," according to a statement from Markus Dohle, Random House chairman and CEO.

They managed to pull out a blockbuster under current leadership. Crain's New York Business reported sales of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol sold 100,000 e-books its first week out, or about 5% of total sales for the book. September ebook sales at Random House (much of which are presumably The Lost Symbol) pulled in $22.6 million, which is a 700% increase over Kindle sales last year. While every month can't be a Dan Brown blow-out, a good marketing strategy to find and retain loyal readers will help shore up the revenue model.

Right now, Shatzkin says eBooks are more profitable than print because there is no physical inventory, and in many cases the publisher has negotiated lower royalty payments (and other than the aforementioned specific instances, no one seems to have a marketing plan). As such, he believes Amazon, proprietors of the Kindle eReader, is subsidizing publishers for digital editions because the price they are paying up front for a digital edition is the same as for the print version.

O'Leary believes this too, will change. As publishers gain experience and sales grow, the cost of creating them will fall. "In the last year retail prices for e-books have been set lower than their print counterparts. If those lower prices stick, they will leave little room for retailer or publisher profitability under the traditional publishing model," he adds.

Yet Shatzkin wonders whether good marketing strategies and proper branding of digital books won't keep them from being cost prohibitive to the consumer. "There is plenty out there to read that's free. Will the public plunk down $25 for Ted Kennedy's eBook?" he asks, then responds, "I think it will take a while to answer that question."

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2 Comments

  • Hikeno Smith

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  • Richard Geller

    EBooks make so much sense. For the consumer, they promise convenience and (inevitably) lower costs; for the publisher they bring manufacturing and distribution costs to near zero. For the author they offer the opportunity to never be out-of-print and access to global markets. For the environment, they're a total win. But....there's always a but, it all comes down to marketing. How long will it take publishers to develop compelling expertise/advantage at web-marketing? And when authors already have (or establish) their own fan base, it's hard to imagine what publishers will be bringing to the table. $25 for an ebook as a viable business model? I'm really not feeling it.
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    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...