May 5th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

As a general rule, it seems to be the case that publishers have done a relatively poor job of making older catalog titles available in eBook format. Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your other favorite eBook seller and look up some book you remember from 20 years ago.  More likely than not, it’s not available as an eBook unless it’s from a fairly successful author.

Even books that spent time at the top of the bestseller’s lists are often not available.  One great example is the Belgariad/Mallorean fantasy series from David Eddings. A total of twelve books, most of which spent several weeks at or near the top of the bestseller’s lists when they were originally released.  And yet, none of them are available here in the USA as an eBook.  In fact, of Eddings’ twenty-five novels, only seven are available in eBook format here.

In the case of David Eddings, I suspect that there is some issue regarding royalty negotiations with the estate that is the main problem, because some of his books are available in other countries but not here.  However, aside from situations like that, I think the biggest factor is that mass-market eBooks are still a relatively new thing.  It’s still a young market. To whatever degree eBooks existed before Amazon released the first Kindle in late 2007, they were a niche product used mainly by hardcore computer users. For comparison, if you look at the situation with older music catalog releases on CompactDisc 5-6 years after that formats was first introduced, I suspect you would see a similar situation with the availability of older titles.

But “young market” is not a good excuse, for many reasons.  The first reason is that the publishers should know better.  If you look at the availability of older titles on DVD, you’d see that they were released earlier and more quickly than had happened with music on CD. In fact, this helped make DVD one the fastest growing media formats ever.

Why did they release older titles more quickly?  The DVD format was created and introduced in the mid-90’s, about the same time that significant numbers of people started buying music on the Internet.  Tracking sales statistics for online purchases was much easier and more accurate than for brick-and-mortor stores, and it soon became apparent that the sale of older catalog titles, overall, was a much bigger part of the market than had been previously realized. This fact did not escape the notice of the movie studios. While new releases still got the most attention, they also made an effort to make older titles available more quickly as well.

Another reason why the “young market” argument isn’t a good excuse is that, unlike the process of bringing older music titles to CD or older movies to DVD, there’s no potentially expensive restoration or remastering process required.  With music and DVD, the process of bringing out an older title can require a significant investment of time and money. With music, taking an older set of analog master tapes and making a decent digital master could take a serious amount of work. With movies, even more so.  It’s not unusual for it to cost a quarter million dollars to restore a movie for a DVD release.

With books, and we’re talking basic mass-market fiction with minimal illustrations, there’s no such expensive and/or arduous process involved. Even if the text isn’t already available in digital form, it takes no more than a few hours of work to scan and proofread.  Once the text is in digital form, it takes just a few hours of work, at most, to create an eBook.

How Much Should It Cost?

Above all else, any eBook edition should never be any more expensive than the cheapest paper-based edition.

If the book is available as a mass-market paperback, and is still “in-print” (an increasingly archaic concept) and reasonably easy to find on the shelves at bookstores, then I think the same price as the mass-market paperback is reasonable. Although I’m not complaining if it happens to be cheaper.

I am not at all a fan of the idea that an eBook should cost more because there’s a trade paperback or collector’s edition hardcover edition.  I’ve seen prices go up on books that have been available for years because of this sort of foolishness.  It’s especially stupid when there’s a new CE hardcover, because the markets don’t really overlap much. If I were to buy a new hardcover edition of Dune for myself or as a gift, it doesn’t really affect my decision to buy the eBook version, or vice versa.

If the book is no longer easy to find on the shelves, then my thought is that it should be somewhat cheaper than a current mass-market title.  I think pricing it the same as a current title is foolish because you’re just driving away a lot of people that would otherwise make a purchase.

Once upon a time, with paper-based books, it made sense that older titles which were no longer selling very well would be eventually taken down off the shelves at the bookstore. After all, shelf space is a limited commodity and you want it used for books that are going to sell, not just sit there. Anything on those store shelves has to generate a certain level of income or be replaced by something that will.

It’s a long-standing idea of retail that if you’ve got a warehouse full of stock that is no longer really moving at the original price, you knock the price down. And knock it down again, and again until it’s in the bargain bin. The money required to create the product has already been spent, and every day it sits on store shelves or in the warehouse is costing you more.  At some point, you stop worrying about how much it cost to manufacture and start worrying about being able to recover any money from it at all. If you end up selling it at at 10% of the original price, you’re probably still better off than just letting it sit.

With eBooks, “warehouse space” is virtually infinite and virtually free, so it’s probably easy to decide that if it doesn’t cost you anything to store the product, there’s no compelling reason to drop the price until sales pick up. Just leave the price where it is and sales will still trickle in. As long as the publisher isn’t losing any money, what’s the problem?

The problem with looking at it that way is that it means there’s not a lot of incentive to spend any time or effort on older titles that you’re not convinced will sell very well. Even if the break-even point is really, really low.

Lower prices on older catalog titles would provide incentive to buyers to try out authors and genres they’ve never read before. Why wouldn’t you want a fantasy reader to decide it’s time to check out James Patterson’s Alex Cross mystery series because they can get some of the older books for $3.99 instead of $7.99?  I guarantee you will sell a lot more copies of Along Came A Spider at the lower price, and maybe you also create a new James Patterson fan in the process.

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November 21st, 2011 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Bookstores

Despite the fact that I have been reading eBooks fairly exclusively for the last two years, I still make regular trips to my local bookstore pretty much every week. Part of the reason is to check on new magazines. I read a number of electronic editions, but many are still print-only. Aside from the magazine rack, however, I still find myself going to the “Mystery” and “SciFi/Fantasy” sections to look at the new releases.

The reason is Amazon’s half-assed lazy approach to marketing.

That may raise a few eyebrows who think that Amazon is doing a pretty good job marketing-wise, so let me explain. When it comes to getting people to visit the site, Amazon does a darn good job. And when you get down to looking at individual products, they do a great job of presenting information. With regards to books, if you’re talking NY Times Bestseller list new releases, Amazon does a great job of featuring them prominently. After that, however, they stop trying very hard. Or maybe the problem is that they’re trying TOO hard on some things and other things are getting shuffled aside as a result.

I buy most of my eBooks on Amazon, but it’s often a very painful process. If I am looking for a specific author or title, it’s easy to search and locate what I want. But what about if I’m looking for something less specific? That’s where things break down.

When I look at the new release sections at my local bookstore, they have something like 50 hardcovers, another 50 trade paperbacks, and probably 100 mass market paperbacks, all released in the past couple of months. When I try to browse new releases on Amazon, the first problem is that they don’t really have a “New Releases” page as such.

Well, ok, they do have a menu link for “New Releases”. Click it, then select a genre from the left side, and you’ll have what initially looks like a list of new releases, 5 pages of 20 items each. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that you’re not really getting a list of 100 books in your selected genre.

First of all, many items are listed multiple times for different formats (i.e. hardcover, Kindle, etc.). On the first page right now, 6 of the 20 items are such duplicates. Another couple items were “pre-order” and not actually available yet. Some books shown don’t belong to the selected genre. And some items aren’t even books: there was a version of the ANGRY BIRDS mobile game listed.

If I browse on Amazon to “Books” and then to “Science Fiction and Fantasy” I see they have “Best of 2011″ and “New And Notable” near the top. The “New And Notable” section turns out to be a mix of 20 hardcover and trade paperback releases. They also have “New In Paperback” which has another 20 items and ALSO includes trade paperbacks.

The numbers tell the story: Amazon is failing to show me the vast majority of the new releases I see at my local bookstore. And why? It’s not that they don’t have the books in their catalog. If you do individual searches, you’ll find the book 99.99% of the time. The failure is that they’re not bothering to market them to people interested in new releases.

Since the individual pages for the books show the correct release dates, one must conclude that inclusion in the “New in Paperback” list is being determined by some flag in the database other than the date. They must have a separate flag for “include in new release list” that has nothing to do with the actual release date. That makes it a marketing decision. And a marketing failure in my opinion.

Aside from the limited selection of new releases, the next biggest problem is the huge signal to noise ratio in what they do show. Perhaps one of the prime examples is the inclusion of “pre-order” items which could be anywhere from a few days to six months away from actual release. This is especially annoying when you want to sort the list of items by release date and you end up having to browse through several pages of pre-order items to get to the products you can actually buy right now. Of the 40 items included in the two new release lists, 7 were pre-order items.

Another big example is the way that tangential products are often included in the lists. If I want to see a new rules book for Dungeons and Dragons, I would be looking at a different part of the website.

Many of these issues could easily be fixed by adding a few checkboxes at the top of the page that would allow users to select if such items should be included in the list, but either Amazon is too lazy, too unimaginative, or else simply doesn’t want users to have that option.

The most annoying aspect of this situation is that once upon a time, Amazon’s presentation of new releases more or less made sense. The site had much better options for browsing and “new release” was based on when the item was published rather than a flag used for questionable marketing purposes. Maybe they felt the old system was too hard for the average user to figure out? Maybe that was true, but the “easier” newer system isn’t working all that well for me.

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July 23rd, 2011 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Bookstores

Several months ago, Borders Books & Music announced that they were filing for bankruptcy. One of their first actions in their attempt to bounce back was to close about 200 of their 600-ish stores. At the time, I wrote a post about it called The Borders Situation.  I certainly don’t know everything that contributed to Borders’ downfall, but some things seem to stand out.

Store Closures Too Late To Matter?

If the stores being closed were turning a profit, closing them makes no sense whatsoever. Closing them suggests that they were losing money. So, why didn’t they close some of these stores down one by one before the situation got to bankruptcy? I mean, I guess I could understand waiting if it was a case of a bad performance in a quarter or two, but if a store was regularly losing money, and there’s no real plan to turn things around, why keep it open?

Maybe there’s some cryptic business practice involved that a non-MBA such as myself would not understand without a long explanation, but it seems to me that if a store is losing money quarter after quarter, and if you don’t have money in the bank and a clear plan for turning that situation around, then you ought to be closing that store long before things reach bankruptcy court.

Really, Really Big Stores

Anybody who has ever shopped at Borders will have noticed that the stores are really, really big.  Big stores means high overhead for rent, heating, cooling, electricity, etc. Generally businesses prefer to keep their overhead as low as possible, but this doesn’t seem to have been a major concern at Borders.

Having a big store and high overhead is OK as long as your sales volume and profit margin stays ahead of it.  But I have my doubts that Borders was managing to do that.

Movies & Music

Borders typically devotes a huge amount of floor space to home video and music titles, but their pricing is completely non-competitive.  Even without bringing Internet-based sales into the equation, it’s not at all uncommon to see a new DVD or BluRay release $10 or $15 cheaper at another brick & mortar store like Best Buy, Wal*Mart, or Target, sometimes even in the same shopping center.

For as long as I’ve shopped at Borders, this has NEVER made any sense to me.  Do they think that their customers are unaware of these price differences?   I cannot imagine any but the most ignorant or lazy of shoppers buying these items at Borders.

Traditionally, the only way you justify failing to at least attempt to match your competitor’s price is to add value to the equation so that customers have a reason to shop at your store, even if the price is a little higher.  For example, a store specializing in big-screen TVs is likely to have salesman who are more knowledgeable about their products than the guys over at Best Buy where the same TV might be $20 cheaper.

Borders simply had higher prices for video & music titles. No added value. People bought elsewhere.

I would love to see sales figures, but my guess would be that in-store video sales in particular are a pretty small percentage of Borders’ sales volume.  And I doubt music sales were doing much better.  That means that a lot of their overall floor space in a typical location is generating only minimal income, and also that they were spending a lot of money on inventory and shipping for products that weren’t providing much return.

Caught In The Wake of The eBook Revolution

In a lot of ways, the rise of eBooks and readers seems to have caught Borders by surprise.  They eventually made a partnership with Kobo to feature their eBook readers on the Borders’ website and in their retail locations, but it wasn’t an exclusive deal, so customers walking into the store would see an array of other readers from companies like Sony.

I’m all for giving customers a choice, but given that Borders was late out of the starting gate with eBooks, this really diluted their marketing efforts.  Borders should have made Kobo the exclusive device sold in stores.

Attracting Customers

I’ll be honest, even before the local stores closed, I usually shopped at Barnes & Noble rather than Borders. The reason is quite simple. B&N has a membership deal where $25 a year gives you a minimum of a 10% discount on all your purchases, online or in-store. Some items provide even bigger discounts. Anybody who spends at least $227 or so per year will end up coming out ahead.

Borders also had a membership deal, but instead of a flat discount on everything, they would send out email a couple of times a week with coupons. Most of these coupons would offer a discount on some specific title, usually some new release. The discounts were not bad at all, but if you weren’t interested in the item being featured, they were useless.

The email coupon would also sometimes offer, for example, 30% off any item purchased. These were great, but they weren’t offered every week. Also, you had to actually READ the email to learn about the deal, and then print out the coupon.

With B&N all I had to do was show up and buy something. Even if I forgot my membership card they could simply look it up using my phone number.

Bye!  We’ll Miss You!

Even though it wasn’t always my first choice, I would still head into a Borders store once in awhile, simply because of the different selection they would have.  I would try to take advantage of their coupons when they lined up with my interests, and I always enjoyed browsing throughout the store. I’ll miss that.

It occurs to me that Borders’ going away will create an opportunity for smaller bookstores to make a comeback in some areas.  I hope there are plenty of small business entrepreneurs who are willing to give that a shot.

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