Breaking the Scale: Bigger is not always better

A couple weeks or so ago, I left a comment on The Passive Voice under an article about Hachette’s CEO and his response to Amazon’s late night call to give him hell…er, politely inform him of your desire that they think critically about their pricing decisions, and seriously consider dropping the push for higher prices. Anyway, I got into a little bit of my experiences in dealing with large consolidated corporate accounting departments and the thinking I’ve run into about higher prices in days gone by. It got me thinking about a couple things and how this might relate to further understanding Hachette’s position and what the possible consequences could be, even if they get what they want.

Here’s the first comment I left:

“It may even be simpler than that. It reminds me of something I called the bean counter effect at a couple of magazines I worked for. They just couldn’t conceive of the notion that a higher price didn’t automatically mean more money. They wouldn’t recognize any kind of multiplier effect of more for less, no matter how many times we showed it to them on paper. It was a risk, unquantifiable (at the time) and all they knew was the difference between what we were selling at and the increase they wanted. We were selling print ads but it’s the same principle.

“Amazon could have said each sale at $9.99 generates a thousand extra sales and they wouldn’t have recognized it. They simply can’t see past “If I sell this for $13, I make $3 more than if I sell it for $10.” What I could never get across is that it’s not the difference between $13 and $10 that’s at issue, it’s the difference between $10 and the $0 that a not-insignificant number of people will choose instead $13. In this case, it’s the difference between $17.50 and $0 with Amazon’s multiplier data, which makes it an even dumber choice, I think. You’re not gaining anything at $13, you’re losing all the people who would have bought at $10. Essentially what you’re doing is making your customer base smaller and milking your best customers for extra money.”

Later on in the thread, I related a second instance of what I considered overly simplistic thinking involving money we paid out in this case. Here’s that second comment:

“At the same time though, you can’t always trust what they’re telling you about marginal cost. I was the managing editor of a free distribution magazine several years ago for a publisher who’s name would be instantly recognizable (not any of these folks). We were strictly ad supported and we operated on a 60/40 ad to editorial ratio, meaning we basically added up paid ad space and that number would represent 60% of our page count.

“Now I was a huge proponent of trading out ad space for various kinds of work we needed whenever possible. These trades were not counted as paid space so that added no cost outside the simple real price of what we paid to produce that space. Say I needed a delivery route run, something that would take a couple hours. I might pay someone $100 to handle it. Or I would offer them an 1/8 page ad for their business or whatever that’s listed at $150. They always took the ad, every time. Our real-world cost for that space across the entire print run was something like $20. And coming from non paid space, that $20 was a total sunk cost. So I traded $20 worth of sunk cost in exchange for not laying out $100 in real cash, effectively adding $80 to our bottom line. (You could argue it was adding the full $100 to the bottom line considering that $20 was being paid no matter what.) I was saving us somewhere between $2,000-$3,000 an issue with this stuff, if not more.

“Well our accounting department threw a fit. They insisted that we were actually losing $50 on this transaction. (Actually, they started out saying we were losing the full $150 price of the ad but I did manage to convince them the $100 was going to be outlayed in any case.) No matter how many times or how simply I laid it out for them, they would not move off the position that we were losing $50. It turns out their accounting systems had no mechanism for quantifying this because there was no revenue coming in but when they audited the paper, they recorded these ads as paid space, so we showed a deficit between the revenue they said we should have and what we actually produced.

“Eventually, they forbid me from making any more trades rather than adjust their accounting systems to record these gains. To make matters worse, our bottom line actually looked better on paper after they banned trades despite the fact that we were now spending a few thousand more per issue than we had been. That’s when the light bulb went fully on for me. If their standard accounting practices can make a real world $80 gain look like a $50 loss, and do it in such a way that it’s actually defensible and looks like it makes sense, can any of the figures they produce be trusted? How many other gains are showing up on the budgets looking like losses?

“Now this is a little simplified. There are tax issues and time a designer spends getting the ad together and such. But generally, we would get about 4 times the value back on a trade than we would paying out for it, and they banned me from doing so.”

I’ve found myself recently re-asking the two part question I wondered about back then, why in the world would you throw away essentially free money (in the instance of trades) and how do they not see that a much broader customer base at lower prices makes a far more stable longer-term revenue stream than a smaller base with higher prices? I also spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time worrying about the fact that I knew absolutely that the budget sheets we were getting from them were showing an artificially better bottom line than what actually existed. The disconnect between reality on the ground and the faux reality of their accounting systems was an insoluble issue simply because they wouldn’t even admit there was a problem.

I’m watching book publishers and their supporters today making arguments that are just as inexplicable to me as those were then. Do they not understand what’s really going on out here? Can they really be deluded enough to believe that readers will be supportive, even in the short term, of a strategy that gives them less choice, more restrictions and a higher price? Were they being taken in by comments from some readers supporting such a position? What I knew, from lots of experience, is that there’s often a hell of a difference between people speaking in high minded pronouncements about paying a premium to support their “culture” or what have you, and the choices they actually make when it comes time to break out the wallet.

I’m starting to believe the problem here is scale. Larger and larger companies require higher and higher outlays of resources just to keep the lights on, meaning the proportion of price needed for simple infrastructure that has nothing to do with actual production expenses grows near exponentially with the size of the entity. We’ve had it drummed into our heads that scale is beneficial because it provides greater negotiating leverage and greater purchasing power at lower prices from larger levels of bulk buying. This may have made sense at some pre-internet point, but does it still make sense in the current atmosphere? Does it even apply to something like ebooks that requires no physical materials to produce or distribute, making the notion of bulk buying power completely irrelevant? Certainly, Amazon is a large and growing company, their scale does have decided advantages, but is there a similar advantage from scale for publishers in dealing with them? It certainly doesn’t appear that Hachette’s size is any kind of advantage. If it were, there’d be no dispute going on.

Penguin Random House is often pointed to as the direction of things to come, but should it be? Consolidation in the periodical sector, looking back now, clearly did considerable harm to those publications siphoned up in it. It looks like efficiency on the surface but in practice turned out to be just the opposite. The question I have now is does the counter effect of increased infrastructure costs of consolidation counteract any bulk savings? I say yes, and then some.

Hachette’s not arguing for profit so much as arguing for maintaining revenue to cover sizable infrastructure costs. The obvious counter of why aren’t you decreasing your infrastructure costs to support those margins doesn’t seem to be a very popular one. It is, however, a needed question to ask and answer. There’s a line of thought going around that the lower production costs for ebooks and POD should have no bearing on the end retail price. I find that as inexplicable as not understanding a multiplier effect from lower prices or the savings from trades based on actual out of pocket expenses. Of course those lower production costs are a factor in price. Not only that, they must be.

Smaller entities are currently taking full advantage of these lessened costs. The problem for large publishers is their sheer size changes the equation. For an independent, the lower costs are directly tied to both lower prices to readers and a higher margins to themselves. For the larger entities, the lower price is threatening because of the sizable portion of the cut must go to the infrastructure costs associated with such scale. They can’t risk the multiplier effect not taking place because they need the raw revenue stream to be somewhat constant to keep meeting payroll and keep the lights on. The conventional wisdom that bigger is better is increasingly looking to be just flat wrong in this atmosphere. And if you’re doing it as a publisher to “compete” with Amazon, you’re making an even bigger mistake, as well as displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of the word compete.

There are numerous reasons to believe that, in the current environment, it’s better to be a smaller entity. One is that your accounting doesn’t have to be so complex and standardized as to be inflexible. Really, the problem I had with trades was that what I was doing didn’t fit into the parameters of their accounting software, so instead of adapting the software they just stopped me from doing it. Admittedly, changing that software is a pain in the ass on a much smaller scale. On a giant corporate one, I can understand why it wouldn’t be your first choice. But that’s stupid! I was one magazine adding an extra $50 grand a year or so to our bottom line doing what I was doing. This company had dozens and dozens of publications. They chose to throw that away because of inertia. It was a big enough amount to be a pain but not a big enough amount to force any accomodations. And they somehow managed to make the budget sheets look better than they had when they were in reality, worse.

Another is that the costs of the bundle of services publishers offer are inflated well beyond what those same (or better) services cost in an open market. That’s why you see some trad writers, when discussing the costs of publishing on their own, will cite numbers anywhere from $15k to as high as $40k for those services. It’s what they’ve been told these things cost. The knowledge of the reality that this work actually can cost at least 10 times less outside the gated publisher world isn’t even available to them. My lower prices/higher margin sales can relatively quickly cover those costs where your lower royalties require many, many times the number of sales just to cover the overly-inflated expense figures. Publishers costs in this regard are inflated for the same reason they want to maintain higher prices on the books themselves, their huge infrastructure costs have to be paid from somewhere.

In the present environment, scale isn’t some kind of competitive panacea for suppliers to retailers. It’s an albatross of expense and inefficiency hanging about their necks that necessarily limit their ability to fully exploit emerging markets and bring costs down in flattening if not outright declining markets. Scale, which may have been useful in the past, is increasingly suffocating now.

It’s really a matter of intetests. Is it in a writer’s interest to sign on with one of these increasingly consolidating publishers? How much does their sheer size, and the need to pay for that, change the dynamic between their interests and yours? How much longer will it be before a critical mass of writers realize that they’re bearing much of the weight of paying for many of elements of the publisher that have nothing whatsoever to do with producing, marketing and selling their books? They’re paying their expenses using you for pennies on the dollar, while pocketing the gains from the diminished to near nonexistent ebook production costs. Just on a simple dollar for dollar examination, the publisher’s interests run almost completely counter to my own and that’s moving more into the publishers favor as each day passes.

When the print ad revenue collapse hit newspapers, the companies with the largest scale responded the only way they could, tens of thousands of people losing jobs in round after round of layoffs. This not only hurt their ability to handle the size they had become, it further handcuffed their digital growth, which is now evident in the fact that their digital revenues are also declining and managing little to no separation in the rate of loss as the decimated print sector. Their scale forced the cutbacks which in turn left them understaffed to handle the essential tasks and woefully short on money for experimentation and growth in digital or keeping forward-thinking folks in their employ. Their scale became a self-defeating necessity to maintain itself rather than the advantage it had initially appeared to be.

What happens if we have a bad holiday season in print books sales this year? Can Barnes & Noble even sustain through another massive hit? Publishers are already squeezing writers both with deep discount clauses on print books and low ebook royalties (not to mention shrinking advances). If a round of layoffs or two end up a reality, the value of their bundle of services declines even more than the over-inflated costs we’re already experiencing. In turn, these companies become even less efficient, and less productive as they become understaffed to handle their sheer size. And raising prices to recoup print declines simply is not going to possible.

In the future, bigger is better may no longer be true, even for Amazon. People seem to be under some impression that it takes a giant to slay a giant. But that’s not altogether accurate. As Amazon continues to grow and expand, it’s own scale is adding massive infrastructure costs by the day. It’s not going to be one big company that gets them (certainly not one big consolidated publisher). They’ll suffer the death of a thousand cuts as many small, nimble entities target various bits and pieces of what they do, undermining the whole by eroding key components of it wherever possible. And Amazon is in a position where it simply cannot raise prices to compensate. Trying to do so will drive customers away in droves which will, in turn, further exacerbate the infrastructure cost problem. It can try to further squeeze suppliers but there are limits to how far that kind of strategy can take you, too. If they get complacent and anything is going to get them, it will be their scale that’s they’re undoing.

Smaller Is Better appears to me to be the approaching mantra of the 21st century. As huge consolidated corporations fall by the wayside under the weight of their own infrastructure, the only question I have left is how long it will take for Wall Street and business schools to catch on. Consolidation and ever larger entities may seem like something beneficial to those businesses today but, ultimately, they might only be serving to break the scale.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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