Thursday, February 13, 2020

A Book Subscription Service - Resilient Old Ideas

From an article in the Guardian:
From chocolate to coffee to beer to grooming products, subscription boxes are big business, and books are no exception. There are countless online companies that ship out a monthly read, some adding artisan teas, hot chocolate, or an adaptation on DVD of the book. But Heywood Hill’s subscription is as bespoke as possible: each package is individually tailored to the reader’s tastes following a conversation between the subscriber and a bookseller. Camille Van de Velde, one of Heywood Hill’s five subscription booksellers, takes me down a rickety staircase into the basement from where the scheme is run. Staff are at work in a series of pokey interlocking rooms, stacking titles on shelves, ready to be wrapped, packed and shipped. They won’t be specific about numbers, but each has hundreds of people to choose for each month, and it has, by all accounts, transformed the business.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Guest Post - Emily Williams: (More) Education Market Predictions 2020

Fellow traveler, posted her 2020 Emily Williams posted her 2020 predictions on a list serve we both belong to and I asked her if she would like to also post them here.  Emily is Manager, IP & Partnerships at EL Education

Halfway through the last decade I started in my current role at EL Education, stepping one foot out of trade book publishing after ten years of working with agents, editors, and rights departments, industry analysis and reporting, and digital content acquisition. From where I sit now, I get to help publish a highly rated OER literacy curriculum at an organization focused on creating classrooms where students grow into passionate readers, thinkers, and citizens. It's been a steep learning curve in curriculum adoption and book sales, edtech, and OER during a time of upheaval and uneven change in K-12 education. When the chance came to offer predictions on publishing for the new decade, I couldn't resist chiming in from my odd outpost. Here are a few I came up with, based in optimism and hope that we'll grow into the opportunities this moment offers us:
  • movement toward more research-based reading instruction will prompt more school districts to buy curricula that use trade books instead of textbooks. This will cause growth, especially for children's, middle grade, and YA titles rich in information and/or historical context - small growth for big publishers and big growth for some small publishers - in one of the few remaining sales channels not dominated by Amazon.
  • These publishers will get better at understanding and nurturing the virtuous feedback loop that school adoptions can cause for retail sales.
  • The K-12 world will reach a better understanding of the value proposition of OER in K-12, which is different than in higher ed or academic publishing.  In K-12 there are real benefits for districts to OER - security of access to content over time (vs. term-limited licensing models), sharing of resources and best practices, and the ability to create and hold onto adaptations made to fit local needs. However, state and district initiatives are still focused on creating large-scale customized versions, which come with significant and ongoing production costs and cut them off from being able to tap into an ecosystem of resources built on the national versions of these highly-rated core curricula - including multiple format versions, ongoing updates and improvements, ancillary products, professional development, and assessment tools. For core teaching materials that need to be launched and supported across a big, complex system, approaching an OER adoption as a chance to customize up front comes with real tradeoffs. 
  • The shrinking dominance of traditional educational publishers with their one-stop-shop solutions, maturing tech platforms in need of content, and the growth of the OER ecosystem will push the K-12 educational publishing world towards the kind of standardization in format and metadata that the rest of publishing adopted by the beginning of the 2010s.
  • The push for OER and other forms of lower-cost, digitally-delivered curricula that are used in classrooms year after year will lead to a more acute understanding of the need for stable digital resources online, driving educators to digital libraries and other repositories that don't break from link rot.
  • Ebooks in K-12 will continue to be used to offer students access to a big catalog of titles for choice and research reading, but will coexist with paper in the classroom as unequal access to internet and devices at home limit their usefulness outside of school.
  • Audiobook platforms will get better at serving the needs of K-12 schools, and audiobook publishers will get better at supplying the titles they want. Audiobooks will increasingly be used in regular instruction and not just as an optional format for school library books. There will be increased demand for podcasts that support learning, and for tools that allow students to create and share their own audio recordings.
  • A movement toward greater cultural responsiveness and representation reflecting the diversity of students in public schools will create consistent and growing demand for books by diverse authors, about diverse characters - not only in contemporary fiction, but in historical and nonfiction titles as well.
  • The growth in numbers of public school students who are English language learners, from diverse language backgrounds, combined with the movement toward improving cultural responsiveness, will create a demand for more access to books in other languages, especially children's, middle grade, and YA titles. Digital publishing and reading platforms could play an important role in providing access to titles in underrepresented languages from Africa and south and east Asia, if solutions can be found to the challenge of digital supply chain and publishing in the countries of origin. This could turn into an interesting foothold in the US market for international children's publishers.
Emily Williams is Manager, IP & Partnerships at EL Education.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Predictions 2020: War is Hell

Over the years (of PND), I've generally taken a look in my crystal ball to report on some trends and predictions for publishing as we turn to a new year.   For reference, here are some of my past efforts which always seem to generate a good deal of PND traffic (which is gratifying).

This year, my predictions are not a expansive as in year's past but that doesn't mean I think we don't have some interesting things to consider for the next year or two.  Here we go:

Where’s my Inclusive Access?
The Inclusive Access roll out is slow, painful and exasperating for most higher ed publishers.   There are approximately 5000 colleges and universities in the US but based on research I’ve seen less than 15% of them are ready to deliver inclusive access to students.  Moreover, this roll-out is going incrementally without any real drive or impetus.  This is circumstance will frustrate all publishers attempting to change business models and drive their customers to complete digital delivery of content.   As a bi-product, we may see more activity around ‘student choice’ options which address the delivery of digital content to students but which replicate print textbook purchase process.  For publishers their preference is toward inclusive access, but it may be several years before we reach 50% penetration in the market.

Amazon Texts?
Amazon’s publishing program continues to grow and they now have more than 15 genre imprints.   I expect they will look to enter the textbook market for some experimental products over the next few years.  Similar to the Amazon Basics product lines, the company may conclude that they can carve off some market share in education by delivering basic education materials.  Given the broad scope of their current publishing program (and their willingness to experiment) I see education as a natural progression for their publishing program.   What would really stir things up would be if Amazon purchased Chegg which already has student directed products.  The Chegg products would form an immediate platform on which Amazon could build.

POD Books Anyone?
Everyone knows and sees the phenomenal interest in and growth of POD casting and publishers are trying to jump on the bandwagon.   Malcolm Gladwell has released his newest book Talking to Strangers as a POD book which is an interesting experiment and I expect to see more of these type of experiments combining the long-form book with the episodic POD audio format.  Audio publishing is the current engine of publishing and the combination of these two formats is likely to look very interesting for publishers over the next few years.  By the way, Gladwell’s Podcast Revisionist History is excellent.

Hearing Voices?
Voice activation applications are both controversial and rapidly expanding in usefulness.  Alexa “skills” development is entering the education space with solutions for study support, reference desk type applications and campus based administrative activities for meetings, conference rooms, etc.   Additionally, on-campus information look-up is also being tested by some universities to help students source basic campus information.   Currently, these ‘skills’ may be relatively basic but as voice technology becomes more pervasive and complex we will see more application in the education space.  After all, just ask Alexa.

Infrastructure Week?
Infrastructure is boring and not normally associated with publishing however the implementation of 5G may well provide education publishers with some interesting opportunities.   5G enables speedier delivery of web-based content and will alleviate all of the problematic issues with using online content and technology in the classroom.  As a result, more immersive content with more participants (100s of students) can be possible including augmented reality (AR) type products.   Campus’s across the country are already beginning to work with Infrastructure providers to define benefits and options for 5G on their campuses.   We will see center’s of excellence develop around the possibilities that 5G offers educators.  For example, we should see benefits in how research is conducted, how content is delivered and how educators can cater to a wider set of student needs.   It is possible that students with special needs could see better options simply because 5G enables faster, deeper content at the point of need.  Smart publishers will look to work with universities building these 5G center’s of excellence.   Infrastructure isn’t always boring.

Last Points:
It is going to be an interesting year for Barnes & Noble - both on the trade retail and the college retail side.  Both companies are likely to end 2020 in different form than they entered the year.  Trade retail in under new management and College trade are now considering options for their corporate structure which may mean they are acquired and/or go private.

There is a lot of friction between trade publishers and libraries - evidenced by Macmillan's imposition of a front list embargo.  This friction is growing more raw by the day with the increases in digital content distribution via libraries and the belief by publishers that purchase for lending substitution is becoming a more real issue and is eroding retail sales.  How this friction is managed over the next year will be closely watched by all parties.

As always, looking forward to an interesting and exciting year.


Michael Cairns is a publishing and media executive with over 25 years experience in business strategy, operations and technology implementation.  He has served on several boards and advisory groups including the Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN organization.   Additionally, he has public and private company board experience.   He can be reached at

Read more articles on my Flipboard magazine:


Are you considering an investment in new technology?  Check out my report on software and services providers.  (PubTech Report)

Enjoy that?  Here are my predictions from past years:

2018: Predictions 2018: Somewhere Else
2017: Predictions 2017: Subscribe To Me
2016: Predictions 2016: Education, China, Platforms and Blockchain.
2013: Predictions 2013: The Death of the Middle Man
2012: Predictions 2012: The Search for Attention
2011: Predictions 2011: The Growth of Intimacy
2010: Predictions 2010: Cloudy With A Chance of Alarm
2009: Predictions 2009: Death and Resurrection:
2008: Predictions 2008
2007: Predictions 2007

2007-2013: My Big Book of Posts & Predictions on Slideshare

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year 2020: Review of Popular Posts

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Looking forward to new and exciting challenges for 2020
A selection of articles from this year which generated a lot of traffic. During 2019, I completed business strategy projects for two education publishers, due diligence support for several acquisitions and market research for two associations.  Please reach out to discuss your projects or you have a C-Level search or board role I can help support.  - Michael Cairns
Content owners are fascinated with memberships. Faced with eroding subscription revenue, many legacy publishers plan membership programs in a well-intentioned attempt to turn around their revenue declines, but do no more than confuse their core customers. “Membership” programs - offering more frequent content such as topic-specific newsletters, earlier access to the magazine, database content and a branded mug are nothing more than a tiered subscription offer. But when memberships are differentiated from subscriptions, they offer “members” reciprocity in the purpose and function of the publication and deeper engagement for the mutual benefit of both the member and the publication.
Five Strategic HigherEd Trends
Perhaps the only surprise in the fact that major changes and dislocations are taking place in educational publishing is that they took so long to exhibit themselves.  The more recent change is the aggressive growth of all-access textbook deals sold to students – frequently via the institution – which provide students access to the entire content catalog published by a textbook publisher.  

Cengage put the wind up most educational publishers two years ago when they launched their program, which they now claim has been sold to more than one million students.
Cengage announced this week that they have extended their “all you can eat” digital subscription package to the store.   Since the company launched this subscription model, students have been able to gain digital access to everything the company publishes, all for $119.99 a semester and $179.99 for the full year.
The approach to education in prisons is improving and expanding Pell Grant eligibility will accelerate change but industry groups should do more.  Ask any prison-enlightened pol what metric is most important in determining the success or failure of incarceration and they are most likely to cite recidivism – how many released prisoners return to the system. It’s also the one they would most like to improve. America has one of the largest incarceration rates in the world (IHEP) and also one of the worst recidivism rates. More focused on warehousing inmates than on rehabilitation, the US prison system still takes no collective responsibility for a revolving door system which keeps hosting the same participants like a warped frequent-flyer program.
Last year I pulled together a post discussing how I thought blockchain could (and was) be used within the publishing industry.  (Publishing in the Age of Blockchain).   There is definitely still excitement about blockchain but my impression is less about the hype and more about actually doing stuff that works. I said last year the use of blockchain with the identification and management of intellectual works looks like a very viable business case.   After my post last year, I was approached by several organizations in the news and image management area seeking more discussion about how some of these initiatives could help support their business objectives.
This  report identifies over 100 software and services providers and reviews in detail more than 30 providers serving publishers of all types and sizes. In this report, we list the leading providers of financial & accounting, rights, contracts and royalties, product information, editorial and production management and content management solutions.
Information Media Partners
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