30 March 2008

Forward to the past with Amazon

Beside the Charles River in Cambridge, MA, between MIT and Harvard, there's a little patch of green called Riverside Press Park. It takes its name from a book printing plant that stood on that site until the early 1970s. Riverside Press was the manufacturing division of Houghton Mifflin (now called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ).
This type of vertical integration was common for book publishers a century ago. By the time
HMCo dismantled the Riverside Press in 1973, they were among the last big publishers to spin off or shut down their printing operations.
There's a strange
deja vu in Amazon.com's announcement that they won't sell print-on-demand titles unless they are printed at its subsidiary BookSurge. Book publishers got out of the printing business decades ago, because book publishing is a seasonal business. Publishers couldn't afford to tie up their capital in factories that for half the year were idle (or contracted out to do competitors' work).
So why is Amazon muscling its way into the printing business? Amazon's value proposition isn't the merchandise. They sell convenience, the ease of shopping for books, music, movies, cameras, and golf clubs all in one place, and getting them delivered to your door quickly. They're successful because they put their resources into the buyer experience. They let other people invest in factories, warehouses, and inventory.
Amazon might have saved itself a lot of trouble by reading
Charlie Rheault's fine little book, In Retrospect: The Riverside Press 1852-1971* (you can even buy it on Amazon). They might have learned that assets aren't worth keeping if you have to bully your customers and business partners into paying for them.
* The source of
the illustration above.

25 March 2008

The three faces of publishing

When civilians talk about publishing, they almost always mean the world of book signings and movie rights. I'm a stranger in that world, although I've spent much of my career in publishing. As I told Jim McCormack's graduate class at Emerson College last year, publishing isn't one business, it's at least 3 very different businesses:
  • The entertainment business, where you find Harry Potter and Henry Miller. Highly vulnerable to recession and to competition from other entertainment options (Internet, television, movies, etc.)
  • The information business, where you find textbooks, academic journals, reference books, and the like. Spending is less discretionary (you can read a Harry Potter book, watch a Harry Potter movie, or do neither. But you can't pass Calculus without your Calculus text, whether you get it in print or on your laptop.)
  • The inspiration business, where you find religion and the softer varieties of self-help. (If you think inspiration is too trivial to deserve its own category, consider that in 2006, religious publishing revenues grew 5.6%, versus 3.2% growth for US book publishing as a whole.)
If you look at publishing this way, some segments are more viable than others, but all of them are defined by ideas and audiences, not delivery systems. This is probably what Time and Warner (and Harcourt and General Cinema) had in mind when they merged, but they couldn't make it work, because their principal revenue streams were tied to delivery systems, not content.

23 March 2008

Souvenirs and southern cooking

I couldn't make it to the Tools of Change conference, but last week I had the pleasure of hearing one of the speakers, Phil Zuckerman, give a guest lecture to a graduate class in publishing at Emerson College. Phil is the founder and president of Applewood Books. Applewood has been around since the 70s, and at first glance, they seem positively Luddite. Their web site says they're "fully Y1K compliant" and offer "an old-fashioned personal experience . . . serving up wisdom and entertainment from America's Living Past." You imagine a wood stove, a manual typewriter, a rotary phone. But Phil's a savvy businessman, and owes his much of his success to ignoring the traditional rules of the publishing game.
  • Applewood revives titles that are long out of copyright (everything from Thomas Jefferson to Tom Swift), avoiding royalties and typesetting costs.
  • They aggressively target markets that mainstream publishers dismiss as marginal, such as gift shops, museums, and sales to schools and corporations. The retail book trade is a relatively small segment of Applewood's business, so they enjoy a very low rate of returns.
  • A large share of their sales comes from their backlist, so they manage their portfolio like the best university presses. Perennial best-sellers are printed by traditional offset for lowest unit cost. Slower-selling titles are printed digitally so little capital is tied up in inventory.
Another speaker at the 2008 TOC, marketing visionary Seth Godin, expressed the opinion that people don't want books for information or entertainment any more, because they can get those things faster and cheaper on a computer or iPhone. People still want books, Godin says, but only as souvenirs to remind them of the experience. That may be a devil-take-the-hindmost view of publishing's future, but it's surprisingly compatible with Phil's publishing mission. After all, what is "wisdom and entertainment from America's Living Past" but another name for souvenirs?
The traditional content supply chain is a one-way sequence from author to publisher to bookstore to reader. Phil broke that chain long ago when he killed his authors. (Okay, he didn't kill them, they were already dead.) Then he made the traditional bookseller an option rather than a necessity. And on a new web site, he's turned himself into a retailer for other publishers' books (excuse me, souvenirs).
One of Applewood's evergreen titles is What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking, an 1881 collection of recipes from the American south, and it has become the flagship of a list of over 100 titles ranging from Camp Cookery to Manufacture of Liquors, Wines & Cordials. As an offshoot of this list, Phil launched Foodsville.com, where you can buy books about food and cooking from Applewood and other publishers, but where you can also read Applewood's cookbooks for free, post your own comments or recipes, and share them with other Foodsville users. It's not revolutionary, but it completes the deconstruction of the old-school publishing model: The publisher is a bookseller, the reader is an author.

22 March 2008

What is publishing mojo?

In a 2007 interview Marissa Mayer, the vice-president in charge of the Google Books project, told The New Yorker magazine, "If we provide access to books we are going to get much higher-quality and much more reliable information. We are moving up the food chain." Google's co-founder Sergey Brin echoed this view: "Comprehensiveness [is] about having the really high-quality information. You have thousands of years of human knowledge, and probably the highest-quality knowledge is captured in books."
Why does the search-engine giant Google look to books for the highest-quality knowledge? It's publishing mojo. Publishers created a model that still can't be improved on:
  • To search and select the best ideas from around the world
  • To present them in a clear and attractive design
  • To deliver them in a convenient and affordable format
  • To preserve them for the future.
For centuries books have been the vehicle for the best that human culture has to offer. Now we have other vehicles, but we still need publishing mojo: the conviction that what we are making is valuable, and deserves all the care and creativity we can muster.