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Last week I took a quick look at what was trending on Amazon. It is, of course to drive up sales, important to be at the top of Amazon’s best-sellers. But it is as important how long the titles are at the top. Being there a day is fleeting, but sustaining weeks will result in thousands of sales. I checked Bookscan and most of the children’s learning titles listed in the last post were up 4x-10x in sales over the previous week.

Similar titles dominate the list again, but a few micro-trends are emerging – expanding to the top 100:

  1. The big grade workbooks continue to sell, but the rankings are not as high as they were last week.
  2. Coloring and how-to-draw books are trending higher. There are almost a dozen books here (led by Workman’s PAINT BY STICKER series). Adult coloring books are popping into the top 100 too. Not only do children need activities, but so do adults.
  3. Callisto Media has three of the top eight titles (Learn to Write; Coloring Book; and a Joke book). Impressive number of titles in the elite 10. Sales throughout the list are high, but getting into the top 10 is huge.
  4. Summer Bridge books from BrainQuest (#21, #31, and #47) have all made it into the list. To date, only the BrainQuest summer titles are trending. Are parents looking at summer already? As schools extend the stay-at-home, the school year may all be done by distance learning. Many colleges have cancelled in-person classes for the rest of the semester. Will K-12 follow? Plus, if a parent has finished a K-workbook, then time to start a new grade. Also, these summer books are made for teaching during an extended period of time outside of the classroom. Watch these books (Carson Dellosa, Highlights) start to rise.
  5. Modern Kid Press has made leaps from last week with five titles in the top 50 (#5, #11, #19, #24, #41). They had two titles last week. Their Amazon page states the company is a “husband + wife publishing company.” I was not able to find a lot of information about them. I am impressed by their sales/rankings on Amazon. Their covers are great too.
  6. Self-published learning titles are in on the action too – with three in the top 50. The best selling one is a 109-page handwriting tracing book for $6.65.
  7. Flashcards are trending with three in the top 50 and eight in the top 100. These are dominated by SchoolZone with a few from Carson Dellosa. These are being sold as individual decks and inexpensively. I would think a great add on to a book. I wonder when the sets of cards will start to trend. Other non-book items like board games are probably trending well too although I do not have expertise in that area. Jenga, Guess Who?, and Connect 4 are at the top three sellers in “toys and games.”
  8. Easter books for children are selling with three titles in the top 50 and seven in the top 100. A sign of returning to normal. Easter is on April 12th.
  9. The top two books are, in part, due to Reese Witherspoon – with WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (#1) and LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE (#2). Granted these titles have been selling at a high rate for over a year. They are trending at the top now.

As the stay at home continues, the demand for various books will shift. Will be interesting to see what happens next.

Two additional titles that caught my eye.

#50 – CALM THE F*CK DOWN : AN IRREVERENT ADULT COLORING BOOK — a 2006 book from Sasha O’hara, a self-published author.

#62 – BUSHCRAFT: A FIELD GUIDE TO THE ART OF WILDERNESS SURVIVAL — makes sense to me. This is published by Adams Media.

Stay calm, stay safe, and use this time wisely.

 

 

 

As the world braces to self-contain and experience social distancing, more schools are closing and parents are faced with homeschooling and/or keeping up with activities. Amazon’s book sales are an insight to the zeitgeist of the country.

Q: What is driving the Amazon top 50?

A: Children’s Learning titles.

Thirty-eight of the top fifty books overall (76%) are in subjects to help children learn — and to help parents occupy but still teach their young children.

The current #1 seller is MY FIRST LEARN TO WRITE WORKBOOK – from Rockridge Press.  Rockridge is an imprint of Callisto Media. Callisto is an Emeryville, CA based publisher that scrapes Amazon data to find niches. They have created an entire line of learning titles for children. Rockridge has four (4) titles of 38 from the top 50. The others are FIRST TODDLER COLORING BOOK (#9); AWESOME SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS (#12); and THE HUMAN BODY ACTIVITY BOOKS FOR KIDS (#15).
publisher that has the most titles on the list is
School Zone with eight (8) titles trending in the top 50. Dominating the top 10 with titles at #4; #5; and #6. School Zone’s best selling titles are in the “BIG” series of workbooks, with books covering pre-school; kindergarten, first grade, and second grade all trending. School Zone titles generally are the top sellers (accd. to Bookscan) and have rising accordingly.

Workman has seven (7) titles in the top 50 and is driven by their BRAIN QUEST series of workbooks. This series is unique compared to the others in that there are titles for older kids (the competition generally stops around 2nd-3rd grade). The BQ titles for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade are trending. The Workman titles are at #7; #11; #13; #19; #27; #36; and #37.

Scholastic has three (3) titles on the list. Their biggest one is a “wipe clean” format with an erasable marker. The lead title is one that traditionally is a bestseller and it has risen as the entire group of books in this sub-genre have gone up. Scholastic has a long list of learning titles and this is a small sampling of their offerings.

Highlights Learning is another publisher with more than one title trending. Highlights has three (3) books in the top 50. All general grade-related workbooks that cover pre-school; kindergarten; and first grade. Highlights workbooks are at #14; #23; and #29.

We are in unprecedented times and never before have so many children’s learning titles dominated the Amazon list. This is an indicator of what is on people’s minds. This was not the case before Wednesday night – as Amazon’s top 50 looked as it traditionally does with the Oprah picks, new novels from best-selling authors, Trump books (pro and con), and a spattering of other in-the-news titles. The tipping point was after the President’s speech that tanked the markets and schools started to announce closings. Major league baseball also delayed opening day.

Given many of these searches are probably general in nature (as opposed to a specific title) and driven by category, it is a good time to invest heavily in buying the keywords like “workbook”, “kindergarten books” etc. Parents are searching and wanting to buy. They just don’t know specifically which titles. Owning the SEO with this increased demand will pay off in sales. The other important factor is to stay in stock and ensure Amazon reorders. Most of the titles are discounted already, but pushing for lower prices would help spur sales too. I realize that goes against basic supply-demand rules, but my contention is lowering prices will create multiple sales. Plus in a time of a national emergency, helping people out with lower pricing is the right thing to do. To see what is the wrong thing to do, check out this article on a guy in Tennessee who stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer only to be kicked off of Amazon for price gouging.

Amazon’s top 50 is updated hourly, and this is what was listed as of this posting, it will be different soon. My sense is the run on children’s activity books will slow down in a few weeks but will settle on a number that will be higher than what was selling pre-social distancing. But as schools start to close across the country, parents will be searching for books that will help their children keep up with their studies.

Be resilient everyone and stay safe.

 

 

 

 

I just received Flea’s memoir. This is the first volume (a teaser for volume two in the book) before co-founding The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Looking forward to reading about his formative years and what shaped him into one of the best rock’s top bassists. At the back of the book, Flea lists 10 books that changed him. It is quite an eclectic list and I am sure informs his writing.

 

BOOKS THAT BLEW MY MIND LIKE WHEN YOU

MAKE TWO HOLES IN EITHER END OF AN EGG

TO BLOW ALL THE INSIDES OUT OF IT

 

THE MASTER AND THE MARGARITA – Mikhail Bulgakov

OF HUMAN BONDAGE – W. Somerset Maugham

JANE EYRE – Charlotte Bronte

THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS – Arundhati Roy

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

THE SLAVE – Isaac Bashevis Singer

AGAINST OUR WILL: MEN, WOMEN, AND RAPE – Susan Brownmiller

JAZZ – Toni Morrison

COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER – Michael Ondaatje

TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG – Peter Carey

“There’s just too many damn books so I gotta stop but those ones really had an impact.”

Amazon is a bellwether of what is happening in the nation. The country is enthralled with politics and everything Trump.

Above is a snapshot of the top selling Amazon titles.

  1. A WARNING – Anonymous — the writer of the infamous NYT piece that was an early indicator of what was to come.
  2. DIARY OF WIMPY KID – Jeff Kinney — great kids lit. I think adults should read too. Good to get away from it all.
  3. TRIGGERED – DJT2 — a book by someone that is as close to the President as anyone.

Seems right. in between the two polar opposites, is the latest in a tremendous book series that unites us.

Then a few hours later, I was delivered this package from Amulet (division of Abrams). It was a promotional copy of the new WIMPY KID! Thank you. I love the shiny. silver packaging. It makes a statement.

Oh by the way, WIMPY KID is now #1 on Amazon.

Also – both Anonymous’ book and Don Jr’s book are published by imprints at the same corporation, Hachette Books.

 

 

Publishers for Sale

06.17.2019, No Comments, Uncategorized, by .

Penguin Random House made two acquisition announcements over the past few weeks, they purchased 45% of independent publisher Sourcebooks, and they also bought the assets (2,000 titles) of bankrupt publisher F+W Media. These purchases are not unusual, as over the past five years, more than 150 publishers have been absorbed by other publishers. The majority have been bought by the corporate giants (PRH, S&S, HarperCollins, Hachette), but smaller publishers are buying others and even investment firms like Trustbridge are picking up publishers.

Why is this happening In an industry that is flat and distribution to the market continues to consolidate? What is the value of a publisher?

Intellectual property — as the saying goes, “content is king.” That is true to a degree, because that is ultimately what the consumer wants. There is a mentality to acquire as many titles as possible. Take the best and keep selling them, look for the underserved gems to repackage, and clean out the titles that no longer have an audience. Not all content has value. Some of the content is junk and needs to be sorted through. The 80-20 rule applies to publishers also — in that 80% of the sales come from 20% of the titles.

Vertical integration and ownership — dominance in a category leads to power. By “cornering the market” on a specific genre, the publisher can control the message and own the community. The publisher can have a more direct relationship with the consumer, control the distribution and message, and use as leverage against Amazon dominance. Many formally independent publishers were successful by focusing on an area. Now those publishers are being scooped up by the corporate ones.

Economies of scale — big publishers have a lot of overhead expenses. By adding hundreds (or thousands) of titles at once, the publisher can chip away at their costs. This is especially the case in the warehouse, sales, finance, systems, production, shipping, and any other area that is not specifically tied to the creation of the content. PRH and S&S have expanded warehouse space over the past few years and the closer to capacity they are running, the more they can make.

Founders getting older — successful independent publishers were/are created by powerful personalities who were able to transform their vision into reality. These publishers are driven by the leader. But after 25+ years, many of these entrepreneurs are ready to cash in. Publishing is a low margin business with constant threats from Amazon’s power and B&N’s decline. Generally there is unlocked value in the assets of a publisher that has been ready to sell for a few years. These founders are (well-deservingly) ready to cash in. Corporate publishers are ready to oblige. A “win-win.”

This consolidation is nothing new. Publishers have been combining and buying one another for a decades. Bennett Cerf started Random House in 1927, two years after he and Donald Klopfer acquired the Modern Library imprint that became the foundation for the new publishing venture. Today, that company is part of Penguin Random House and is made up of at least 250 formally independent publishers.

Will it continue? Sure.

Consolidation of publishers is the wave of the past, present, and the future.

“The Mueller Report – The Redacted Edition” is one of the most discussed and debated titles of the day. This is not a political review. This is a perspective on the publishing of this document and how the words get to the readers.

Typing in “Mueller” on Amazon, almost 50 books come up. Most are self-published and appear to be a direct copy of the report with no extra effort to make it more reader-friendly. These editions are available in both Kindle ebook and a POD paperback.

The top two titles that show up are both sponsored. The publishers have “won the phrase” in the Amazon Ads marketplace.

The top sponsored title is from Skyhorse. They were the first traditional publisher to announce and have an introduction by Alan Dershowitz. The paperback is listed at $9.20 ($12.99 retail).

The second sponsored title is completely different. It is a self-published novel titled ADALINE by Denise Kawaii. The copy reads: Enter the world of Adaline, where humanity has been made perfect. An advanced A.I. has made sure that every person is in their place, living in harmony within the community. Everyone is equal, living in the contented bliss of a structured life where every need is attended to with mechanical precision. That is, until one of the cloned children discovers that he is remarkably different. It is $0.99. I’m buying it. I applaud her for grabbing this second spot. I don’t know the sales spike, but it is getting her title in front of hundreds of thousands of readers. 

The rest are not sponsored but based on the Amazon algorithm. The aforementioned Skyhorse title comes up again. This time both the paperback and the ebook ($7.99). Skyhorse has their title twice in the first three spots. That is also smart and positions them well. The next title is from Scribner (S&S) in conjunction with The Washington Post ($10.50 pb with a $15.00 list and $7.99 ebook) followed by the mass market version from Melville House ($7.40 pb with a $9.99 list and a $1.99 ebook). The sixth listing (but fifth title since Skyhorse is listed twice) is the audio version from Amazon-owned Audible. It is free with an Audible subscription. Then there are four self-published versions with unique cover art on them. One of the editions is split into two volumes.

The next two entries are not books at all. They are knee and back braces from Mueller Sports Medicine. I wonder if their sales have increased?

Then the entire list starts to get chaotic with dozens of self-published editions. I can’t imagine anyone buying these.

Outside of the Amazon world there has been smart plays by independent bookstores (Shakespeare & Co in NYC and Harvard Book Store in Cambridge) with the Espresso Book Machines. They have been using the technology of print-on-demand to have copies available immediately in the stores. It takes about 10 minutes to print and bind the 440 page report. Skyhorse, Scribner. and Melville House editions won’t be in stores for a few more days. So these stores have been selling copies 10 days ahead of others.

My favorite is still the searchable PDF available everywhere. Here is a link to Slate’s version on Scribd.

One note – the Amazon lists are fluid and change hourly. So, my results may differ from yours. But, what has been consistent since the announcement of the report, is the Scribner, Skyhorse, and Melville House editions have all been in the top sellers and current sit at #1, #4 and #10 overall.

Another note – there is an edition listed from Random House with introductions from three huge names, Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss, and Evan Thomas. But it is only listed as a $1.99 Kindle edition and is unavailable.  Probably a metadata feed that went awry. But I would love to read the perspectives of these three award-winning historians on this “living history.”

 

Wattpad just announced the creation of Wattpad Books with an inaugural list of six titles in Fall 2019. Callisto Media is a publisher that scrubs Amazon data and publishes books to fit niches. Swoon Reads (Macmillan Children’s) builds their list from readers submissions. Inkitt helps self-published authors with feedback and then publishes the most popular.  Amazon has been using reader data for a decade to influence their publishing. These are just five examples of data-driven publishing.

Wattpad Books states they will be “combining human editorial expertise with Wattpad’s Story DNA Machine Learning technology.”  Quite a phrase! They then go on to quote some impressive statistics; 565-million story uploads and a global audience of over 70-million. Wattpad signed up with Macmillan (US) and Raincoast (CA) so there is distribution muscle behind their product. They are focusing on YA titles because that is the biggest part of their audience.

Callisto Media has been in business for almost a decade. Their mission statement is “Big Data is disrupting the world’s largest media industry, ushering in a new age of predictability, profitability, and explosive growth. Consumers no longer have to choose among products that only partially meet their needs. Authors can expect consistent success. This is the new world of publishing. This is Callisto Media.” They started selling via Amazon and now have expanded into bricks and mortar. Their success has been driven by cookbooks and self-help. In some ways, slicing categories into even more specific areas has been a winning formula.

Swoon Reads is a bit different in that they were created within a massive corporation, Macmillan. Their model is also crowd sourced. They don’t push the data angle as much as the others, but have been effective in crowd sourcing this information. They recently signed a deal with A+E to develop programming.

Inkitt has had success turning self-published books into Amazon best-sellers. They state they are “the world’s first reader-powered book publisher, offering an online community for talented authors and book lovers.” They select the titles that get the most action from the community.

Amazon is all about using data to publish books. Driven by the largest single source of self-published sales data, they have used that to influence their various imprints. Other publishers can not get at this information and this has given Amazon a competitive advantage in many genre categories that drive self-publishing – Romance, Thrillers, Mystery and Fantasy.

I am sure there are others that fit this “data-driven” publisher category. In many ways, all publishers are driven by what sells and research. Every title today has comp titles that help drive the distribution and promotion.

There were also numerous companies established at the onset of ebooks that promised reader data and information. But, most had difficulties makingthe model work. Two that come to mind are:

  1. Hiptype was a startup in 201x that promoted themselves as the “Google Analytics for eBooks.” But a year later, they went bankrupt. Apple disabled the code implanted in the ebooks that would allow them to track reader’s habits. Amazon and B&N never let them in at all. A key component of using the data, is to own the platform in which the reader is consuming the data.
  2. But Apple didn’t sour on probing into reader’s habits, for is 2013 they purchased Book Lamp. They had created a project called Book Genome that was scanning books for what the consumer liked and suggesting others. many called it “the Pandora of eBooks.”  But there has been little news on how it has impacted Apple ebook sales. Amazon continues to dominate that realm..

Technology allows this to happen. In many ways, it is not much different than what Reader’s Digest did 50 years ago. At one time, Reader’s Digest was the largest and one of the most profitable publishers in America. Through the monthly magazine and reach to their millions of readers, RD was able to create books based on interests like Sewing or Home Repair. They would then sell millions direct (data – they had the customer’s names) and also did quite well in retail.

I teach a course on publishing at NYU. One of the assignments is to come up with a publishing related project. Over the years, there have been suggestions for Buzzfeed Books, Scribd Books, Gawker Books, Youtube Books, etc. As publishing moves ahead, I am sure there will be more websites that look into their readers and decide it can be done. That they can publish books and have an inside scoop on what the reader wants.

I am sure there will be successes, but readers are fickle and many times what looks good in the data, fails when consumers have to put down real $$$$.

 

 

One night last summer I couldn’t sleep and was surfing the internet. I stumbled across a few articles on POTTERMORE, the start-up web site founded by J.K. Rowing. After five years, they announced their first profitable year. I thought, if it takes five years to break even for one of the strongest brands ever, then what chance does anyone else have?

I then started to think back to the previous decade and all of the start-ups entering publishing. The rise of digital (in ebooks, audio, marketing, publicity, data, etc) has created untold opportunities. But, opportunity does not always lead to success. Frankly, the majority of the start-ups failed. I focused on some of them, but I actually wanted to look at the success stores more. I had consulted (formally or informally) with dozens after I founded 38enso Consulting. So, I had insight to the mentality of various publishing start-ups.

I wrote up a rough outline and sent to Andrea Chambers, head of the NYU SPS Masters Program in Publishing. She liked the idea but had some suggestions to the format to make the class fit better with NYU standards. We went back and forth 6-7 times to get it right. I enjoyed the collaboration as the class was being built.

The class was offered as a 7-week elective in Fall 2017. Not enough students signed up. So, it was postponed.

It was offered again in Spring 2018. This time, 19 people signed up. I had planned for less than 10. So, immediately pivoted and changed aspects of the course.

The first class was in late January, and the last class was this week. Final papers are graded and will soon post the grades.

So what did I learn?

It is an enormous amount of work preparing 2.5 hours of lecture on a weekly basis. It is necessary to create at least and extra hour of material.

  • Video is effective – show a clip of the founders describing their vision.
  • The pitch decks for some of the most successful companies are not that profound, but were effective.
  • Started with 200 companies as possible discussions, and selected 20 (two were suggested by students):
    • Oyster; Scribd; EPIC!; The Atavist; Book Riot
    • Goodreads; BookBub; Open Road Integrated Media; Bookish; Wattpad
    • BookBaby; Smashwords; Callisto Media; the Skimm;
    • Mail Chimp; Uber; Casper; Slack; Warby Parker; Humble Bundle
  • Have great guest lectures. Learn from those who have the experience / who have done it. Our class was blessed to have four:
    • Thea JamesBook Smugglers (also Workman and currently PRH) – a ten-year old company that just ran a successful Kickstarter campaign.
    • Evan Schnittman — OptiQly (also Hachette and Oxford) – his story of how fast things can move in start-ups.
    • Brendan Cahill — Open Road and NatureShare (now at PRH labs) – did a brilliant job discussing funding and process
    • Anthony ZaccardiPost Hill Press (also S&S and PRH) – his two-year old publisher is one of the fasting growing in the industry.
    • I also asked Josh Shanker (BookBub), Molly Barton (Serial Box), John Kilkullen (Callisto Media and many other start-ups) and Thad McIlroy (The Future of Publishing). Other committments didn’t allow them to speak – but maybe next time. Josh, Molly and John all have great stories to tell about running a start-up and Thad has done some excellent research on start-ups in publishing.
  • The final paper was for each student to select a publishing start-up over the past decade and do an analysis. There were some great profiles. One of the better ones was about Aer.io (started by Ron Martinez and sold to Ingram)

We also did a very-deep dive on Amazon. Given that they were a start-up just 20 years ago. Plus, Amazon is involved as a competitor, partner or parent to every one of the 20 start-ups . Amazon is everywhere — as most in publishing know, but their depth and expansion into so many areas is amazing

One of the pieces used to evaluate Start-Ups was from a TedTalk by Bill Gross, founder of IdeaLab: