Thursday, 24 March 2011

Book Distribution: Broad Brush or Fine Detail? The Conclusions are Quite Different.

This month Dominic Myers, MD of Waterstone's (the UK's last remaining national "bricks-and-mortar" book retail chain), has twice made startling public suggestions that over-capacity in book distribution space in the UK is contributing to inflated costs and thereby threatening the future of book retail. When a retailer suggests that the UK book industry as a whole is subsidising approximately £150 million-worth of excess supply chain space, and that this is squeezing everyone's margins, I would suggest that a closer examination of the problem suggests that increased discount to retailers is not the only place that the money could be better spent.

I should add that Myers did have the grace to add wryly that his comments might sound rich coming from the MD of a company that has recently added to the overall sum of UK distribution space through the implementation of its own 150,000 sq ft hub. But what alarms me about his statements is not their lack of tact in view of the hub's troubled gestation that still vexes many publishers. It is that Myers' observations contain a potentially dangerous half-truth. Modern book distribution is a macro-scale task underpinned by micro-scale detail. In such circumstances broad brush statements are potentially misleading.

I suspect that Mr Myers believes that there are too many books in too many sheds. And he has a point. It is indisputable that publishers world-wide frequently over-print, tying up too much cash in physical stock that occupies storage space that must be paid for. And even when overstocks are patently obvious to publishers, facing up to writing them down and pulping them can be a painfully slow process. But it concerns me that taken just at face value, what Mr Myers is saying might be grist to the mill for those who think that the supply chain is where we as an industry need to look in order to reduce costs. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Myers that supply chain efficiency is a prerequisite for success. But it certainly does not follow that distribution is therefore a place that publishers should be looking for savings, or retailers should be pointing to as a place where more margin can be eked out of net revenues that are not increasing in line with volume sales or inflation.

At the recent IPG conference near Oxford, Myers said that he estimated that the UK book market has approximately 3.7 million square feet of distribution space at an average of £50 per sq ft. Statistics he then repeated at the BA's Academic and Professional Booksellers' Conference. Having recently been involved in NBNi's move to modern warehouse premises (the company I work for made a three-quarter of a million pound investment in more efficient warehousing facilities last year), £50 psf pa seems to me to be an astonishingly high estimate unless Myers was aggregating all book industry supply space: warehouse; pick/pack space, wholesale, retailers' hubs plus expensive high-street retail space. All of this is in one sense or another distribution space - but each category with significantly different overheads and purposes, and lumping these together is not necessarily illuminating.

It's worth noting that one of the ironies of the modern supply chain is that the requirement for just-in-time supply of all product lines, including deep back list, now demanded as a condition of supply by online resellers and (dare I say it) bricks and mortar retailers' own distribution hubs requires (if anything) more distribution space and less storage space. Increasing amounts of slow-moving product lines need to be kept available for instant pick rather than retrievable (more slowly) from bulk storage - and are taking up valuable picking locations that require a fast stock turn to be efficiently profitable. (Yes, in the long-term the answer to that could be print-on-demand - but for high-quality colour books with high production values, cost-effective technology to make this happen just isn't there yet.)

Plus, we should remember that a generation ago the major costs of the supply chain were rent and manpower. Nowadays there is a third major cost-component to efficient supply: I.T.  investment. Constant I.T. investment is required in order to interface with customers. The book buying experience - whether it happens online or in-store is underpinned by millions of data messages across the web, be they price and availability data from PubEasy or BookNet; EDI ordering of stock by large customers through their own systems; payment information through Batch; individual orders placed on publishers' own web sites; title data hoovered up from myriad sources by Amazon; daily stock feeds sent to online retailers; EPoS statistics; or even the tentative experiments with RFID currently being made by some publishers and retailers in a few territories. The technology required to make all of this happen is costly and requires constant upgrading. And the people who facilitate such technologies command considerably higher remuneration than the labour force of an old-fashioned warehouse. All of this cost is lumped by our industry under the generic heading of "distribution".

Nor should it be forgotten that what we traditionally think of as "distribution" includes customer services. Modern customers - be they the buyers employed by book trade intermediaries - or individuals sourcing direct from publishers (and there are a growing numbers of publishers for whom off-trade and direct-to-consumer supply are increasingly important) - are extremely demanding. Physical books require a top-class customer service experience paving their complicated path from the printer into the hands of the consumer. With increased competition from non-traditional media and gaming as well as e-books, customer service has never been a more important element of book distribution provision than it is now. 
When thinking about where we can save money, increase margins and leverage discount, we need to remember that modern book distribution is about more than sheds. It is about data excellence, service excellence and the end consumer.

Useful links
The Bookseller's report on the IPG conference
The Bookseller's report on the APS conference

Please add your comments & observations below. I'm interested in your opinions!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

A Big If: Key Take-aways from the Academic & Professional Booksellers Group Conference 2011

As it's book industry conference season here in the UK, here's another quick overview. I'm just home from the academic & professional bookseller's group conference where (tellingly) I was a lone tweeter. (You can find my somewhat patchy summary at #apsba2011). This conference is renowned for it's collaborative and collegiate atmosphere. As one of my new colleagues remarked - it's like being the new girl at a school where everyone else has been there for several terms - thereby pointing out that what is one of the meeting's strengths is also its Achilles heel.

You know you're at an academic booksellers conference when the session chairman remarks that one of the slides gave her a "Proustian rush". However the pervading bonhomie was dispersed in an instant this morning by an address from Waterstone's MD Dominic Myers. In half-an-hour he brought the room to a total - and eloquent - silence. Myers warned of a tipping point for academic books on the high street, and for the second time in two weeks (cf. the IPG Conference) pointed to over-capacity in the supply chain as an area of huge wastage in our industry. He also called for academic books to be supplied to stores on consignment if they are to be stocked outside of peak selling season. There are probably several full-length future posts in unpicking the implications what Myers had to say, so I'll save that for when I have time to think them through properly.

So here in the meantime are my ten key take-aways, which include some unexpected (to me anyway) nuggets:

1. Whilst cuts in government higher education funding coupled with escalating student fees/loans are a very serious concern - it is possible that they present an opportunity. Students will have less face-to-face lecture and tutor time - and therefore to get their grades they'll need to access and use other learning resources (e.g. books!).

2. We talk about today's students being "digital natives". Based on the student panel interviewed, I'd say that we aren't there yet. Today's 14 -year-olds are digital natives. But today's students in higher ed still show a marked preference for the print book. One even made a call for "bigger margins" for her notes. (Whereupon one wag in the room quipped that we all need bigger margins).

3. We all mean different things by "e-book". To students"e-book" means anything available digitally whether it is sourced via a publisher, library or from any one of a variety of free online sources (or their peers' memory sticks).

4. Students are not interested in dedicated e-readers. They already have an e-reader. It's called their laptop. Academic publishers do not need to wait for an e-reader tipping point to deliver electronic materials.

5. Higher Education is diverging between vocational courses and academic courses, and the resource requirements of the two different types of course are also diverging. (The more academic the course, the more likely the student still to engage in immersive reading).

6. Students aren't interested in e-books that don't add value through enhancements (video, sound, graphics, interactive test modules). Flat reproductions of the printed text don't cut the mustard.

7. Academics are going to come under greater scrutiny as their students become increasingly aware of their status as customers of the institution.

8. Changing pressures on academics and institutions mean that institutions are going to become more interested in getting involved with publishers at a product development stage.

9. Academics are under pressure about how they spend their time, and their free contributions to the publishing industry (peer review) are going to come under closer scrutiny.

10. In my view the other side of (9) is that academics need to acknowledge the extent to which publishing props up the structure of academic career progression and tenure (where tenure still exists). Publishers and institutions need to engage in a dialogue about what the impact of financial pressures upon their fundamental symbiosis is going to be. I don't hear that discussion happening yet.

So I end today reflecting that we live in interesting times. But that publishers are still highly relevant to the academic and student community, and will become more so if they can get their delivery channels, customer services and business models right. Which could be a very big if.

Please feel free to add comments below
Permission to reproduce with full attribution

Monday, 14 March 2011

IPG Conference 2011: (Social Networking) Butterflies Emerge from their Cocoons

South by Southwest may be dominating the American creative psyche at present, but on a somewhat different scale over here in the UK last week's IPG conference near Chipping Norton was the biggest and most vibrant to date. It was a meeting of startling juxtapositions: olde worlde Cotswold charm on the approaching back roads to a stunning modern venue. And in an ironic illustration of the pitfalls of misalignment between technology and content, top quality sessions on social media delivered in a state-of-the-art lecture theatre where a near total lack of Internet connection and blocked mobile phone signals were reducing the twitterati to frustration (and good old analogue pen and paper).

This was my 12th IPG conference and the organization has blossomed in the time since my first event at The Royal Hotel, York in 1999, when as the organization's new "Secretary", I was nervously navigating the first of my six annual conferences at the helm. Over the twelve years since then not only has the IPG changed, but the landscape of publishing and bookselling has irreversibly altered. (To say seismically altered would be disrespectful of those caught up with the horrific natural disaster currently unfolding in Japan, and which puts all of our preoccupations into perspective.)

Back then, independent publishers and the IPG were usually the butt of industry jokes and looked down upon by their corporate cousins. Horace Bent made free on the last page of The Bookseller with pithy observations about the average age of IPG members being older than the Deity. Having a panel of major book retailers to speak at the conference would have been an impossibility, and no-one had the slightest inkling of what online sales were going to do to the market. In 1999, Beverley Hodson, then in charge of WHS, delivered the keynote in which she enjoined the audience to bear with WHS as they were dealing with the legacy of a large, outdated organisation, by which she meant their arcane warehouse. I wonder how long before a Waterstone's CEO describes the Hub as a legacy issue. Later the same day, Michael Schmidt, MD of Carcanet told the audience that he took a "forestry ecology approach" to publishing, Paul Clifford of Lion Hudson talked about collaborating with other independent publishers on seasonal (Easter) in-store promotions and Bob Rooney of T&F US made some pithy (and colourful) observations about the book industry's approach to Customer Services.

Interesting to note that what the publishers were saying in 1999 (about niches, markets and customers) has maintained more currency than the retailer's contribution. How moribund and Canute-like some (but not all) modern retailers seem in contrast to today's independent publishers. And how ironic that some of the very qualities that made independent publishers so unfashionable in 1999 are those that are enabling them to emerge as victors in 2011.

IPG publishers are almost all specialist in one way of another. Most have a level of detailed customer and market knowledge unimaginable to their corporate competitors. Knowledge they own and don't need to buy from Nielsen. In an era of Twitter and other social media, publishing to an audience you know by name is an enviable position. Independent publishers are engaging with their customers online in ways the corporates cannot emulate, because these indies are already deeply integrated in the dialogue and community of their specialist markets. They are able to use social media to share and engage and not simply to broadcast. Inspired tweeting from a different period of history each week by a member of the Osprey team, or the way in which children's publisher @nosycrow - herself a refugee from corporate life - engages with parents online could not be a greater contrast to excruciating Publicity Dept tweeting from some of the corporates. (Perhaps the IPG should organise the equivalent of the annual "bad sex" award for the crassest book tweeting.)

Last week's conference was absolutely remarkable for the way in which an atmosphere of excitement and optimism pervaded the group. Given fears about inflation and the prospect of a double-dip recession there can't be many industry groups that are genuinely so excited about what the future has to offer, and how new technologies are going to help them achieve their aims. Over in the US, Mike Shatzkin has been talking for a while now about the emergence of vertical markets as a response to changing technologies. IPG publishers provide some excellent examples of the points he is making.

Useful links:
Mike Shatzkin's blog
Osprey Blogs

Feel free to add comments below.

Permission to quote with full attribution.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Monetizing the Book Buying Experience

There's been a lot of media attention focused on bricks and mortar booksellers recently. Hardly surprising given the storms rocking high streets the world over. We're only two months into 2011 and already this year in the US Borders has gone into Chapter 11 (its British cousin having failed some time back); Waterstones/HMV in the UK is closing stores and laying off head office staff; British Bookshops & Stationers (the chain) is in administration, and in Australia RedGroup Retail has gone to the wall owing over $44million Australian dollars.

On 21 February, online journalism pioneer Robert Niles blogged on "imagining the 21st Century's Digital Bookstore". The publishing industry's big mistake, according to Niles, has been to view print and digital as two separate businesses. He goes on to envisage bookstores as chill-out zones and social spaces where customers can engage with digital and print product, experience live narrative, and pay for it all on their credit cards. Monday's Guardian carried an interesting piece by Robert McCrum urging authors to engage in social media (or be left high and dry by their audience). McCrum dryly observed that the days when a book being available in bookstores on a predetermined and well-advertised publication day was enough to guarantee sales seem "as remote as the Regency".
The same day's New York Times contained an article by Stephanie Clifford and Julie Bosman highlighting the growing trend for publishers to work with non-traditional high street retailers to boost sales, citing Anthropologie, Target and Cracker Barrel as examples of stores upping the ante when it comes to their book offering. In the meantime back in the UK the online Bookseller reported on the Big Green Bookshop's appeal for 1,000 customers as a bid to ensure their survival (in a campaign reminiscent of Salt Publishing's 2009 Just One Book).

All of these pieces are fascinating. But none of them interrogate consumer preferences. Are bookshops struggling because people's buying habits have changed so much that they prefer to buy books online, or because the prices offered online are lower?

The reality, I suspect, is a mixture of the two. I'm usually very wary of using myself as a research sample - those of us who are closely connected with the book industry have a very different relationship with books as desirable objects and sources of pleasure than most other potential customers. However something we all know - whether we work in the industry or not - is that the experience of buying books online is totally different to browsing in a physical book store. Online purchases tend to be prompted by need (a textbook or professional reference book), desire (a favourite author) or recommendation (for example from Amazon's recommendations, or from other online prompts such as recommendations on Twitter). These are all valid and effective pulls and pushes towards books. But they do not replicate the experience of spending an hour in a well stocked bookshop. I'm fortunate enough to live near to the Ely Topping & Co bookstore where I invariably buy books I had no idea I wanted until I encountered them there. I may not have previously known about the books I purchase in Topping - but after the fact I am invariably glad to have found them.

Of course not everyone behaves on impulse, and consumers do not have an obligation to buy in store. Those from outside the book industry do not necessarily feel a responsibility to support their local shop if the prices there are higher than online. In a recession customers are much more likely to browse, and then go home an buy online to save money. The key questions therefore are how else can physical bookstores monetize what they offer? And, should publishers be much more proactive in supporting them through increased discount and other measures?

There are three elephants in the room here. Namely order turnaround time, discounts and returns. Publishers are usually alert to returns & discount. It is well known that when it comes to returns, bricks and mortar booksellers feel that they deserve equal discounts to those enjoyed by the online retailers whilst also maintaining that in order to offer range, they must have the right to return. What this ignores is that although the online retailers theoretically have the right to return, they almost never exercise it. Returns from online resellers run at less than 1% of invoice value. From the high street it is usually well in excess of 10% and often very very much higher. Returns are a drain on publishers' resources. Not just in terms of the cost of the book which is often unsaleable - but in terms of the cost of administration.

That's the easy bit. What many don't add into the balance is the fact that when it comes to order turnaround, it is the online booksellers placing far greater pressures - and therefore cost burdens - onto the supply chain. Online retailers often require individually tailored data feeds (and in the case of Amazon, the EDI protocol they use is not industry standard). Books from a range of deep backlist must be constantly available for instant supply, which has big allocation of pick-space implications for distribution. Whereas publishers often supply in bulk, or at least several units per isbn to the bricks and mortar trade, many online retailers have pushed just-in-time-supply to its very limits by eliminating all stock holdings. All orders are responses to their customer orders and must be supplied within a very tight time frame for the online retailer to be competitive. Thus savvy online booksellers are pushing the logistical costs of their business models onto their suppliers. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. What is worrying is that many publishers are not alert to it and therefore do not factor these costs into their decisions about discount.

For publishers to make informed and sound choices about whether or not they are prepared to stand by and watch high street bookshops continue to close at such an alarming rate they need to understand that while online retailers are saving them money on returns, they are pushing up the cost of supply. Without such a recognition the danger is that bookshops will continue to close at a frightening pace, and publishers' end consumers will be denied the opportunity to make purchasing decisions based on the complex emotional, psychological and visceral mixture that makes up the bookshop browsing experience. Without this experience and opportunity available, publishers may find themselves driven towards rising supply costs and a much narrower range of products.

Useful links:
Robert McCrum in the Guardian
Clifford and Julie Bosman in the NYT

Robert Niles' Blog on reimagining bookstores
The Bookseller on The Big Green Bookshop

Thanks as always to
@jafurtado for useful feeds & links via Twitter

And if you have never been to a branch of Topping & Co (Bath and Ely) - go visit - you won't be disappointed...