A Long, Detailed Look at Distribution Windows

December 8th, 2009 · 13 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Has there ever been an industry more unwilling to make its customers happy than publishing? Simon & Schuster and Hachette have (independently) decided they’re going to hold back the ebook releases of some titles. Not all of course. Most likely just the ones they paid far too much for anyway. They’re taking a stand by creating marketplace confusion…some books yes, some books no. Consumers will need to guess.

Gee, that’s a good idea. But not a problem for me. If the book isn’t available, I’ll buy something else. I won’t be checking back in three or four months, because, well, clearly the publishers don’t want my money. And the chances of me remembering? Going with nil to nada. And even if I do, what bright and shiny new books will capture my attention…?

This new delay relates to windowing, the concept of moving a product through specific retail channels for specific periods of time. Windowing is a concept that works really well in the motion picture industry, though studios are trying to compress those windows, while the music industry (another business prone to overpaying advances) works with simultaneous release of formats.

[Part One: Response to Nat Sobel]

The window argument, as practiced by the motion picture industry, is often cited as justification for withholding digital books (and even trade and mass market paperbacks). To me, this represents a flawed understanding of how money flows in the motion picture industry. Books and movies are not comparable.

But first, let’s talk about rebellion. Nat Sobel used the window argument with an unconvincing twist. He chose Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as an example. Despite being pulled early by a number of [unnamed] exhibitors, it grossed, am I reading this right?, $30.1 million on 3,119 screens. I haven’t seen this film, so I don’t know if the sub-Pixar numbers are warranted, but I can tell you this: with that many screens reporting for opening week (generally the most lucrative; mama didn’t raise no stupid exhibitors!), the protest was, at best, muted. Like books, movies suffer from the limited marketing attention, though motion picture awareness and dollars are much higher. New titles are constantly displacing old, to the point where a release from a month ago is largely forgotten.

(Engrave that thought on your brain.)

Yes, motion pictures (a category that includes feature films, television series, and made-for-video/DVD) cycle through a series of windows. Those windows are growing ever-tighter, especially the one between theatrical release and home entertainment. It’s a money thing. The difference between books and motion pictures is this: a revenue continuum with direct, indirect, and sometimes repeat consumer sales.

Say that three times fast!

So what do I mean by “revenue continuum with direct, indirect, and sometimes repeat consumer sales”? Good question. Let’s walk through an oversimplified (ha!) feature film lifecycle. I think it’s instructive to dissect if this what publishing thinks it wants. Note: I am purposely leaving out some, mostly ancillary, revenue streams (this is not a master class), and there may be steps skipped in real life. Also, I am leaving out marketing costs associated with trade shows.

  • Theatrical: Movie is shown in a theatrical setting. It’s generally the first time people interact with the film, and if it’s good, they might pay two or three (or more) times to watch it again. Popcorn and really huge sodas are often involved. The money split is interesting, with studios getting decreasing returns the longer the film is in the theater (90/10, 80/20, 70/30, and so on; unless it’s an art house film, which plays out differently). Marketing costs are largely borne by studios (big, huge marketing costs) with co-op between studio and theater also in play. Consumer sales: direct.
  • Non-Theatrical: This is a pretty big market with not a lot of dollars. It’s all showings outside the traditional theater setting (prisons, schools, boats). Airline sales are generally lumped into this group. Some consumers may be watching the film for the first time; others caught it in the theater. Most marketing costs are borne by the third party, though some co-op comes into play in “theatrical non-theatrical” settings. Consumer sales: direct (ticket, pay-to-view) and indirect (streaming on airplane).
  • Pay-Per-View: A television-based market. Consumers pay to access a movie. First-timers and repeat viewers are engaged. New models are emerging. Marketing mostly a function of the third party, though, again, possibility for third party. Consumer sales: generally direct.
  • Home Entertainment: Right now, this is mostly DVD, and for a long time, it was the golden egg. Home entertainment covered that awful gap between production, marketing, and print costs and, oh, profitability. People have largely finished with building their libraries, and now purchase more selectively.

    At its most basic, the home entertainment market breaks down into three areas: sell-through (consumer purchases product), rental/premium (Blockbuster, Netflix), and streaming (models emerging all the time). Again, first-timers and repeat customers. Marketing has trended toward the theatrical model. Consumer sales: direct and indirect.

  • Pay Television: In this instance, we’re talking about the premium pay channels like HBO and Showtime. Big bucks are paid by premium channels for the privilege of an exclusive television window (U.S. only) starting about 12-13 months after theatrical release. First-timers and repeat customers tune in; people who paid in the theater or own the DVD are funding the license fee if they’re also premium pay subscribers. Marketing mostly borne by the third party. Consumer sales: indirect (money not associated with a specific product).
  • Network Television/Basic Cable: Other stuff is happening between Pay and Network, and it’s discussed below. Once upon a time, the network debut of a motion picture was a big deal (and reasonably lucrative). It’s less so now. Basic cable has picked up some of the slack here. First-timers and repeat customers. Marketing largely borne by network/cable channel. Consumer sales: indirect.
  • Syndicated Television: This is the never-ending revenue stream (or seemingly never-ending). International sales do kick in earlier in the lifecycle (and are a mix of pay and free, depending on the country), and domestic syndication happens after the network window. Films are syndicated like crazy. In a 24-hour programming world, there is always time to be filled. First-timers and repeat customers. Marketing largely borne by individual stations, though some additional dollars may shake loose, especially if a barter arrangement is employed. Consumer sales: Direct and indirect (mostly indirect, as a lot of this activity is ad supported in free television markets).
  • Wash, Rinse, Repeat: In addition to the ongoing television sales, home entertainment sales continue. Sometimes a film will get be reissued theatrically, sometimes an older title will show up on an airplane (crazy, but it happened to me on a flight!). As long as a product can be sold, it will be sold. Marketing: situation dependent. Consumer investment: ditto.

So that’s what I mean about the revenue continuum. So how do books fit into this model? Well, let’s see. Gifts aside, books are generally a one time sale (more if that consumer suffers from my particular form of insanity and poor library management). As you can surmise from above, there is never an actual gap in the windows. Ever. Okay, books can do that.

And, as you can surmise from above, there is a marketing continuum. Studio and theater advertising leads to airline advertising leads to retailer and studio advertising leads to premium pay advertising leads to network advertising leads to endless commercials in the free television space. Well, I guess books can do that. I mean, it’s gonna take some work to keep titles in the minds of readers, but, sure, I’ll play along. The key to success here is constant marketing. Luckily the costs are spread among players. This stuff gets expensive. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Note: without this ongoing effort, all hope is lost.

Differences. “Windows” in books don’t have that lovely mix of direct and indirect money. They don’t have that revenue continuum. Authors only get paid on that first sale. Actors, directors, and other get residuals and participations, whether the sales are direct or indirect. A hardcover window doesn’t protect hardcover sales from anything but people who want to buy the book in another format (the horror, people who want to buy books!).

I’ll be absolutely frank about one thing: publishers have already lost the pricing battle. They’re being subsidized by Amazon and Barnes & Noble now, but if they cannot figure out how to make their business work in a consumer-friendly way, well, we saw how ugly it got for the music business. I love that some publishers argue that it’s for the authors, because we all know how many authors actually earn a living wage from their writing. It’s a business thing, I get that, and there is definitely concern for authors. There’s just as much concern for the bottom line.

No shame there. Truly.

Publishing has, I’d guess, a year, maybe two, to figure this out. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but protecting the current business model — especially since publishers have done nothing to justify any aspect of their ebook pricing stance — is a zero sum game. You’re losing me and others as customers. How do you recover from that?

Personally, I’d look to another industry for guidance. In music, multiple formats have, with some blips, had simultaneous releases. In some cases, that lead to multiple sales. Yes, consumer behavior has changed, but it’s clear two separate formats can co-exist without diminishing the value of either. Look at how people can — with some teeth-gnashing on the part of the music industry! — move their music from CD to portable audio player of choice back to CD.

I would also look at the motion picture tradition of skipping theatrical releases when it’s clear some films are better as direct-to-video (sadly, a decision sometimes made after expensive production).

I get that this is hard. I’ve watched it happen in other industries. It’s been painful every time, but if you want to succeed, you make it work. If you want to go down with the ship, I have a lovely window seat for you….

File Under: The Future of Publishing

13 responses so far ↓

  • Responding to Nat Sobel, Cranky-Style | Booksquare // Dec 9, 2009 at 12:14 am

    […] You have “challenged” publishers to hold back e-reprints (I presume you are making the case for the ebook as a secondary market of some sort), and you make no bones about, as Richard Curtis states, “giving hardcovers their moment in the sun”. This sounds like fetishism to me. We must worship the all-mighty hardcover, without worrying about the actual impact to overall sales. Without even considering the reader. Of course, why would publishing ever consider the reader? [Part Two: A Long, Detailed Look At Distribution Windows] […]

  • David Henley // Dec 9, 2009 at 4:33 am

    Kassia, your long long post is very interesting. You’re of course very right that the book industry should stop trying to be the movie industry. We don’t have the marketing/revenue continuum and should stop acting like we do, or expecting the same results.

    Though, as stated above, we have the hardback release, then the paperback, and then the smaller paperback if its lucky. This, in a way, is similar and works to build up momentum; the follow on is to see the “author” rather than just the “book” as the continuum. There isn’t much of that because authors bounce regularly between publishers so few build the kind of mutually beneficial relationship where they work together to create an ongoing experience and outward persona for readers and fans. There are of course many successful author brands that succeed to do this over time, Stephen King, James Patterson, etc And also the series should be thought of as a continuum I suppose; think Wheel of Time or any crime series with a career detective.

    We’re trying to build a bit of a continuum over at seizureonline.com using serialization to gather a following and web presence for the authors before launching the book. It’s a tough grind but we all gotta start somewhere.

  • Marion Gropen // Dec 9, 2009 at 8:39 am

    I agree with you about almost all of this. I suspect, though that the worship of the hardback is because of its greater profit margins, which make far more editing and marketing possible. That makes publishers feel better about the work that they do, as well as improving a house’s bottom line, if people can be persuaded to buy them in significant numbers.

    And, as you pointed out in your link to my blog post on trade numbers (thank you!) a trade book’s P&L is not for the faint-hearted.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 9, 2009 at 9:53 am

    @marion — I’ve been thinking about the hardcover conundrum for far too long. It started years ago when I read an article about unit sales for titles on the NYT bestseller list. It made me laugh to see that the “bestsellers” weren’t really best sellers. Not a problem, how a list is defined is how the list is defined. Since then, I’ve been amused by the ways NYT manages lists to reflect actual bestsellers and, ahem, outliers such as Harry Potter. Am I correct in recalling that was the genesis of a children’s list?

    This year, Publishers Lunch offered up a dissection of unit sales for NBA nominees (http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/lunch/archives/005937.php), and again, the numbers are painfully low. I continue to wonder if the greater profit margins are really so great when units simply don’t move. Even if the publisher is making money, surely all those unrecouped advances add up? Then there’s the problem of getting enough readers to take a chance on an author (or getting those readers to follow an author to hardcover after a mass market or trade career), especially given the price of the book. Over and over, it’s made clear that women are the primary purchasers of fiction (even more so if the author is female, which is just puzzling to me), and the one thing we know about many of these women is books are a luxury. A luxury that sometimes falls below shoes and other items for children.

    I know the reason women have adopted ebooks is the convenience factor, and I strongly suspect the reason they’ve adopted the $9.99 price point is because it seems affordable. $27.99, especially if you’re a fast or heavy reader, is unmanageable. I’m feeling like, yes, there’s good money in hardcovers, but the possible audience is necessarily limited by the price point. At the very least, ebooks give the reader an opportunity to buy into that market, at relatively good returns for the publisher (even when, as I believe is inevitable, the pricing structure moves to net).

    Long way of saying: way too many books are published as hardcover when the overall returns don’t justify it, and considering the readers might actually increase sales!

  • Vastly more ink | booktwo.org // Dec 10, 2009 at 6:12 am

    […] and Hachette to hold back ebook publishing until four months after hardback (admirably, as always, investigated by Booksquare) is a good example of this. Technology allows us to serve readers and writers better than this, but […]

  • Rich Adin // Dec 10, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Interesting article, as always, Kassia.

    The problems in publishing are myriad and window vs. no window really makes little difference. The flaw is that ebooks are being equated with hardcover book sales when the y should be equated with paperback sales. I believe that there is a cadre of hardcover bookbuyers who will continue to buy hardcover books regardless of when an ebook (or, for that matter a paperback) is released. I am one of those people (although I rarely buy fiction hardcover; almost all my purchases are nonfiction).

    The results of my (granted, unscientific) survey of readers and bookbuyers is that if the ebook is a threat to anything in publishing, it is a threat to paperback sales. People who buy paperbacks rarely buy hardcover books; people who buy ebooks used to buy largely paperbacks. Using myself as an example, it doesn’t matter whether Stephen King or James Patterson’s newest book is released iall all formats simultaneously or spread out over 25 years — I am not a buyer of their work. OTOH, I do buy the books of L.E. Modesitt and David Weber, but I buy their books in hardcover when released; again it makes no difference to me when or if an ebook or paperback is released.

    But ebooks, the subject of the conversation, do supplant paperback buys in my universe. For example, yesterday I bought 17 ebooks — all from authors I have never read, all fiction, and all inexpensive (average price $2.75) and DRM-free. (FWIW, it was this kind of ebook buy that introduced me to David Weber’s writing and converted me from ebook to hardcover buyer, not the other way round.) These are books that I would never have bought in paperback or, especially, hardcover. But it may turn out that one or more of the authors really captures me and will turn me into a hardcover buyer of their books (or a buyer of higher priced ebooks).

    I’ve been long-winded but my point boils down to this: Those who want to read Stephen King in hardcover will buy hardcover at release; those who won’t buy hardcover will wait 1 year for the paperback release. Those who buy only ebooks will either wait or move on. The publishers are confusing their audiences and the bookbuying habits of those audiences. Again, if ebooks are a threat to anything, they are a threat to paperbacks, not hardcovers.

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