O’Reilly’s 25% Sales Decline: In a Nutshell

So I’m reading this latest O’Reilly revenue thingie, and looking firmly at that second chart–the sorta blurry one which tells us O’Reilly’s selling 25% fewer printed books than they did a year ago, and July’s worse than March.  But we’re told it’s all good, ‘cuz, well, the Computer Books market stinks for everybody.

That’s whatever.  I mean, the economy sucks, print biz (outside Amazon) wasn’t great for me in the first-quarter, and I bet not a few people were really glad when Amazon moved things up on the Kindle store, giving people 2 months of earnings for July and, effectively, 13 months for the year.  However, sales through Ingram have rebounded more than 50% from April, so, you know… bottom’s in, for a lot of us.*

But what puzzles me about this particular O’Reilly blurb is the way it conflicts with another O’Reilly post, where we learn O’Reilly had the biggest drop-off in units of any computer book publisher, and, err, Wiley’s up, and, um, mentioned, but Apress appears to be nearly flat, largely, one suspects, on Iphone developer titles (good call!).

Indeed, the other imprints down drastically (not as bad as O’Reilly, but still) are the Dummies books, Peachpit, and maybe Microsoft (I don’t trust Bookscan for Microsoft Press, ‘cuz I’m sure the tech academies have seen admissions exploding and I suspect a lot of those books are sold through “schools”). That’s not the “Computer Books Market” talking; that’s what we call a “Flight to Quality” in a downturn.

Now it’s possible that the author of the later piece; the one that blames it all on Mean Mr. Market, isn’t familiar with a flight to quality.  To simplify, let’s say you hold a conference on the future of publishing.  And as a hook, you make the whole thing about a need for “open-ness,” and, you know, an ebook format.  But you don’t really mention that, 60,000 publishers being 60,000 publishers and authors and their heirs being authors and their heirs, the soon-to-be-widespread open format really only benefits one DRM vendor, and the bizarre way the format was (euphemistically) “evolved” from Microsoft’s .lit, without Microsoft’s participation, lawyers being lawyers, guarantees there’ll be a real paucity of ebooks available from major publishers (currently 12k or so… maybe), even three years for the “evolved” format’s launch.

Now, that conference, that’s a thing.  And, maybe, if the economy’s good, you can get a thousand suckers to pay $1,000 to get in… some of ‘em on day passes.  But it’s not necessarily a quality thing, particularly if the conference organizer turns tail and dumps its entire list into the (not “open”) Kindle store shortly thereafter after seeing q1′s print results.

And you’ll find, if publishers actually care about the digital book marketplace, they might start their own event. And, if only to keep out industry outsiders who speak didactically and ignorantly of their business with an invented jargon (‘cuz, well, there’s no p-book to ‘splain what sounds like an idiot), the second event, the quality event, will mostly be attended by grown-ups.

And if attendance at the first event were to drop by 25% or more, while the second (earlier) event ascends?  That’s, like, a flight to quality.

It’s pretty clear something similar to our hypothetical scenario is currently happening to O’Reilly’s book business.  The money’s still there for technology guides.  It’s just no longer there for fluff.  And binding up blog articles, or, “celebrity” programmers, or even guides to hardware that’s been out six months, isn’t really gonna work anymore.

As has been noted on this site in the past, O’Reilly isn’t done with layoffs.  But, sad thing is, given what I know of media organizations in a tailspin, the author of the accurate blog post, who can face reality, will be among the first to go in the next round.

*I apologize, my personal results are a bit skewed, not only by the Kindle launch and my status as a primarily ebook person since ’06, but also by the fact that last summer I went from having one distributor (LSI) w/ some extras to having 5 (LSI, Booksurge, CreateSpace, Replica, Booksurge UK), including international distribution, and something happened to boost Amazon sales in April too.  Also, I’ve not updated the print book listings on Dispub or Silk since gas went to $4, ‘cuz I ain’t doing direct at the shipping costs of last summer (or next fall).  So, there just isn’t much point in knocking out a vague chart.  But I’m actually happily embracing a world where universities buy 15 copies of one of my books for a class, instead of 50, as I know then I won’t get 20 back.

**Gets even weirder next year. The continued bloodbath in university presses might end up helping Silk (I’ve even tried to steer college stores towards another, better, edition of a classic Vietnamese book, only to be told the title in question wouldn’t be reissued owing to budgetary concerns), coupled with the going-on-hiatus status of Olympia‘s largest (only) direct competitor in the UK (world), will perhaps boost my “sole survivor” status.  So don’t expect a chart then, neither.

***To be honest, I suck at making charts.

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