Kindle Unlimited: publishers as collateral damage?

At one time there was only the Kindle.

Then came the Kindle Fire and Amazon Prime.  Now there’s the Fire phone and Kindle Unlimited–all five programs (along with a bunch of smaller ones) launched by Amazon (AMZN) to bind customers ever closer to the shopping service and get them to buy more stuff through it.

For AMZN, it’s not that important that any of these be moneymakers straight out of the box.  That can always be straightened out later, when the customer has been transformed from a buyer of X who happens to use AMZN to an AMZN customer who happens to want to buy X.

Kindle Unlimited, the just introduced subscription service for e-books and audio-books, is a particularly interesting instance.  That’s because it may end up being the tipping point in AMZN’s favor in its long-running battle with the five big publishing houses for control of the English-language book reader.

Another intriguing aspect of Kindle Unlimited is that AMZN has more relevant information, I think, than any other party at the table–but it isn’t talking.  So analysts, both the Wall Street kind and the planners inside the publishing companies, have less than normal to work from as they create their castles in the air.

Here’s how I view the situation:

1.  For $9.99 a month–about $120 a year–Kindle Unlimited lets subscribers read as many e-books as they want, from a collection of over 600,000, as well as to listen to as many Audible audiobooks, from a list of “thousands.”

No titles from the big five publishing houses are included, although, for example, all the Harry Potter books are.

The rollout of KU suggests that the very public spat between AMZN and Hachette, the smallest of the big five, may have been aimed at persuading Hachette to take part.

2.  Most industries exhibit a “heavy half.”   The idea is that, say, 20% of the purchasers buy a huge amount, usually put at 80%, of the stuff.  For e-books, only AMZN knows what the exact proportions are.  My guess is that heavy users easily spend $50 a month ($100+?) on e-books.  For them, signing up for KU is a no-brainer.

3.  It seems to me that KU users will dig deeper into “free” content in the 600,000 titles instead of buying expensive bestsellers launched by the big five.  Presumably, AMZN has surveyed the heavy half, and maybe even run small tests to figure out what will likely happen.  Certainly AMZN must believe that KU will redirect a lot of e-book use away from the big five and toward AMZN self-published content, or content from smaller presses that may sign up.

4.  Until yesterday, I hadn’t looked at AMZN’s financials for years.  From my perusal, I’ve decided, for no particularly good reason, that AMZN makes $60 million in operating profit per quarter from e-books in the US.  The company could easily let that drop to zero, as sales of high-priced best sellers wane. However, AMZN seems to be indicating–who knows whether bluster or not–that it is willing to go deep into the red to get KU off the ground (remember, AMZN is generates about $5 billion in yearly cash flow, so it can afford to lose money on KU for a l-o-o-ng time).  Last night it guided to a possible operating loss of over $800 million for the coming quarter.

5.  The big five could be squeezed in a number of ways.  KU users switch away from them, constricting their cash flow.  Fewer pre-orders from KU users would mean new titles fall off the bestseller lists, hurting sales further.  Authors complain about diminished royalty payments and ponder self-publishing through AMZN themselves, where, for sales in the US, the author receives 70% of the sales price vs. 25% from the big five.

6.  AMZN has lots of customer information; the publishers probably have much less.  Therefore, this negative money cycle may end up being much larger than the big five anticipate.  One or more may break ranks.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

 

 

rent vs. buy: digital goods

My daughter, who’s very interested in digital goods, suggested that I write about them.

Why?

They’re new, and they’re different.  Also, Laura supplied a lot of the information in this post.

Part of the difference between the digital goods we have now and their physical counterparts is in the nature of the beast(s).  Part, however, comes the desire of sellers–particularly Apple–to recreate the AOL-style “walled garden” that tethers the buyer to a given seller’s product line and secures fat profits for the retailer.

Some examples:

Generally speaking, for digital goods like e-books, or songs or movies, you don’t really own the digital copy you download.  You only have a license to use it.  Kindle owners found this out early on.  Amazon was inadvertently distributing 1984 without having bought the digital rights.  When the company found out–presumably when the rights holder called asking for money–Amazon simply went “Poof!” and made the book disappear from all the Kindles it had appeared on.  Apparently very few of the shocked Orwell fans had read the fine print in the Kindle service agreement.  It is kind of funny, though.

Usually, you can’t give your download to someone else.  You may be able to lend it for a short period of time, but maybe not.

The digital good may appear on all of your devices.   …or it may appear just on all your Android devices but not Apple, or vice versa.

 

The most peculiar aspect of digital goods, to my mind, is what happens with e-books in (if that’s the right word) libraries.  Many authors or imprints won’t sell e-books to libraries, so the selection is limited.  At least some sellers place counters in the downloads, so that the copy disappears after a certain number of borrowings.  It isn’t a quality control issue–a worry that the digital copy has somehow degraded;  it’s to mimic what happens to physical books, which eventually fall apart after repeated use.   In other words, it’s to force the library to pay again after a certain number of uses.

 

investment significance?

Maybe there’s none.

On the other hand, I think we’ve got to distinguish carefully between essential characteristics of digital goods and those that are a function of sellers’ desire to create closed “ecosystems.”  After all, the AOL walled garden lost any allure it had (I never got it) when people discovered there was a big wide world outside the AOL server farms that AOL got in the way of people experiencing.

I suspect the same will eventually happen with Apple–personally, I think this might be happening already.  As/when this occurs, I’d expect the price of digital goods in general to fall (maybe a lot).  A sharp separation will probably also emerge between high-quality content, whose unit sales will increase (again, maybe by a lot), and me-too content, which will disappear.

 

 

 

 

 

Microsoft (MSFT) buying the Nook e-reader?

the news

Yesterday, the stock of Barnes and Noble (BKS) soared 22% on more than 10x normal volume.

The reason?

…a TechCrunch post saying MSFT is preparing a $1 billion offer for the company’s Nook-related digital assets.  The assets are held in BKS’s Nook Media subsidiary, which also contains the company’s college bookstore operations.  Leonard Riggio, who controls 31% of BKS, owned the college bookstore business privately but sold it it BKS in 2009 for $514 million.

The TechCrunch report is based on its examination of internal MSFTdocuments which the New York Times says are genuine, though perhaps dated.

is the headline figure, $1 billion, all that it seems?

Maybe not.  The most favorable interpretation of the TC scoop is that MSFT is willing to pay $1 billion for the portion of the BKS digital assets it doesn’t already own.  The least favorable is that the offer values the entire Nook Media at $1 billion.

The difference?  Three factors:

1.  MSFT already owns 17.6% of Nook Media.  Pearson owns another 5%.  Under the more favorable interpretation, the $1 billion would be split between Pearson and BKS, with the latter getting $940 million.  Under the less favorable, which I think is probably the correct interpretation, BKS would collect $774 million.

2.  Does the $1 billion value include the college bookstores, which–as I read the BKS financials–are the company’s most profitable operations?  If so, cut the MSFT offer in half.

3.  In its original deal with BKS, MSFT promised to fund up to $180 million in Nook R&D.  I think this was a loan, not a gift.  If so, part of the $1 billion may be forgiveness of the loan, not a new cash inflow.

In the least favorable case for BKS, subtract $500 million from the $1 billion headline number if the college book stores aren’t included.  Another $176 million represents the stock MSFT already owns.  Let’s say a further $100 million represents repayment of the R&D advance.  Then, the “$1 billion” offer would mean a cash outflow of  about $250 million, of which BKS would get about $235 million.

the Nook is bleeding red ink…

…for three reasons.

In the Darwinian world of consumer electronics, stand-alone e-readers like the Nook are an evolutionary dead end.  They’re being replaced by small, light tablets.

The Nook is an also-ran among e-readers.

As I read the BKS  financials, the company has a razor/razor blade strategy for the Nook.  It prices the device roughly at cost in the hopes of generating a lot of high-profit e-book sales from users.  In fiscal 2013 (ended in April), however, BKS appears to have lost $350 million trying to persuade consumers to take Nooks off their hands.  It’s hard for me to see how BKS can sustain deficits of this size.

why buy the Nook? 

1.  MSFT takes in $1 billion in cash every two weeks.

2.  To compete in the tablet and smartphone businesses, MSFT needs an e-reader feature.  Because of the company’s tiny market share in both businesses, developers aren’t beating down the doors in Redmond to make reading apps for it.  MSFT’s plan would apparently be to stop making e-readers and refocus the Nook division on creating/enhancing e-reader apps, especially for Windows devices.

3.  According to TechCrunch, the MSFT documents project Nook ” revenues to gradually recover, up to $1.976 billion by fiscal year 2017, for EBITDA profit of $362 million.”

Given that sales of e-readers make up the huge bulk of Nook Media’s sales, the most polite thing I can say is that this forecast is extremely optimistic.  Revenue growth appears to assume a rocketship ride for sales of digital content.  The $750 million positive swing in EBITDA looks too good to be true.  But it does make Nook Media look cheap.  My hunch is that this is its main purpose–to justify the purchase.

(One caveat:  it’s impossible for me to judge how revenues and costs for the Nook devices and for digital content are figured and split between the retail and Nook divisions of BKS.  The only way I can see for Nook Media revenues to rise without hardware sales is if the whole basis of revenue calculation is somehow changed.  EBITDA of $362 million is only plausible to me if somehow post-acquisition Nook Media’s SG&A expense of around $400 million a year completely disappears, or if somehow a whole bunch of digital content profits are now being attributed to the retail division but revert to Nook Media post-acquisition.)

For what it’s worth, TC says the MSFT documents value BKS as presently constituted at $1.66 billion.

4.  MSFT is anything but a shrewd acquirer, in my view.  Just look at its $40+ billion bid for YHOO in 2007 (it has taken a 70% rise in YHOO’s stock price over the past year for that company to recover to a market cap of $30 billion-).

5.  Nook Media may be MSFT’s best alternative–and it may feel it can’t allow the business to die.

I don’t have an investment opinion about BKS.  I don’t own the stock and I have no inclination to be a buyer.  Any holder must ask himself where he sees upside from the current level, and how much that might be.

PS:  I wonder who leaked the documents   …and why.

demise of the e-reader: implications

e-reader sales

A Christmas Eve Financial Times article indicates that while e-reader sales in 2012 will still be robust, the category may be on the brink of a rapid decline in popularity.  Its source is IHS iSuppli.   I’ve found the data in a graph from emarketer.com (note the convoluted chain of attribution–PSI cites emarketer, which in turn cites CNET citing IHS).

The reason for the falloff?   …the rise of light, powerful cheap multi-function tablets, which can serve as e-readers as well as do a lot of other stuff, for within a reasonable distance of the price of a dedicated e-reader alone.  This development wouldn’t be surprising, since the multi-function smartphone has replaced the dedicated music player for many users.

(The above is what I see as the consensus view. It’s not a unanimous one, though.   The Market Intelligence and Consulting Institute, which presumably has special insight into the Taiwanese companies that actually make the e-readers, predicts a bounceback in sales for 2013.  So we should at least keep in mind that the consensus may not be correct.)

Implications, if the FT is right?

In a world where the decision on what merchant to buy an e-book from hinges on what dedicated e-reader you own, the firm with the largest number of e-readers in circulation (Amazon) should be the dominant factor.  Other, non-compatible e-reader makers, like Barnes and Noble, should have small relative market shares.  Other would-be booksellers are footnotes, at best.

The game changes substantially, I think, if the key decision becomes what app the potential buyer has on his tablet.  That’s because any customer can download a new book app with a couple of taps.  Unlike the case with music, where users may want to construct playlists, it probably doesn’t matter much whether one’s entire library is on one app or several.  So the key factor in the purchase decision probably comes down to price.

It’s possible that AMZN can develop a tablet that’s the full equivalent of a Samsung or Google offering.  The performance of the Kindle Fire suggests that’s not likely.  But, if it can, perhaps AMZN can preserve its “ecosystem” with avid readers for a while longer.  And in doing so it would be able to bar the download of other booksellers’ apps onto its machines.

Personally, I doubt Barnes and Noble will be able to create a viable tablet.  Yes, it does have its alliance with MSFT.  But that only seems to me to guarantee that BKS can have the Zune of tablets.

AAPL is in an unusual position.  Its strategy has been to generate superior profits by selling up-market devices at premium prices.  Does it want to compete in the (eventual) $100 tablet market?  My off-the-cuff guess is that it doesn’t.  By default, this makes AAPL less of a player in the e-book market.

On the one hand, this would make the big publishers’ alliance with AAPL of a few years ago look extremely short-sighted.  On the other, it creates the opportunity for them to have a common app that bypasses both BKS and AMZN.

the stocks?

Any restructuring book distribution by cutting out dedicated e-readers is obviously not a reason for the companies that control the e-reader market to celebrate.  The biggest single loser, I think, is potentially BKS, since AMZN has 3x the market share in e-books that BKS has.  It isn’t that AMZN escapes the change unscathed.  But it already has lower prices than BKS; its large relative size gives it another big advantage in the price-drive. environment I think will develop.  Also, it’s not clear that AAPL will abandon the up-market strategy that snatched it out of the jaws of bankruptcy to become a serious competitor in the mass tablet market.

All in all, I score the situation as a net plus for AMZN.

The wildcard is potential new competitors who might be able do offer superior app performance.

thinking about tablets–and ecosystems

my tablet

I’ve owned a iPad for several months.  I use it much more than I expected.  I’d use it even more than I do, but the AAPL “walled garden” prevents me.

My only real complaint is that the wi-fi chips AAPL uses in its tablets appear to be relatively weak, so mine (a “new” iPad) often wants to make a cellular connection.  My wife’s (an iPad 2) has the same problem.  Here on my back porch, my Macbook hooks up to our wi-fi without a problem; my iPad can’t make a connection.  Design defect  …or concession to the mobile network operators?

One more thing–I’ve spent much too much time playing Kingdom Rush.

in the schools

The iPad has picked up momentum in areas I hadn’t really thought about.  For instance:

–AAPL commented in its 3Q12 earnings call that it is beginning to sell a ton of iPads to schools.  They’re all iPad 2s, which apparently have hit a price point low enough to trigger mass orders.

–an interesting article in the Financial Times from late July outlines changes tablets are making in the scientific/medical press.  It’s short and worth reading.

professional journals

Its message is that there is a surprisingly quick transition to online delivery going on with professional journals.   For doctors’ publications, the positive points of online are:

-most physicians have and use tablets, especially for reading between patient appointments;

-doctors read close to double the amount of a journal’s content when they access it online rather than in print;

-they appear happy to watch video advertisements imbedded in the online articles; and

-the publisher has precise data to show advertisers about what online ads have been seen.  For print, the publisher has to rely on surveying users–and who’s going to say he doesn’t read the journal from cover to cover?

Googling “tablets and medical journals”

My results were mostly about the perils of sleeping pills.  But I did come across a medical student’s blog post on the merits of various tablets.   Steven Chan’s conclusions are about what you’d expect, with one exception:

–using a tablet is a lot better than carrying files around with you

–if you’re hopeless with tech, get an iPad.  It’s easy to use, but limited by the AAPL “walled garden”

–Android tablets are harder to get up and running but are much more useful

–the iPad is too big to fit into a standard white lab coat pocket.  If you use an iPad you should get a new iPad-friendly model (this is the one I didn’t think about).

my investment point?

It’s about ecosystems.   In a world of cloud storage, where individuals own multiple devices–smartphones, tablets, laptops–that they may want to function for both personal and work tasks, the choice of what products to use becomes less about how cool the individual device is and more about how the device allows one to access, share and save data.

Yes, everyone believes this, to one degree or another.  In a “cloud” world, though, AAPL has two (well-known) weaknesses, I think.  One is its “walled garden” approach, which makes it seem a little like AOL when the WorldWide Web was opening up in the 1990s.  The other is how weak AAPL’s browser and productivity software are.

Again, no secrets here.

What’s interesting, though, is how this leaves the door open for MSFT, even after more than a decade of bungling, to become relevant again.  It has an adequate browser, which seems to be losing its my-way-or-the-highway attitude.  Its productivity suite is the world standard.  More than that, MSFT seems to me to understand the new opportunity its position is giving it, and (for once) to be taking intelligent steps to exploit it.

Anyway, I’m starting to think I may have to take MSFT more seriously as a potential investment, for the first time this century.  If I only thought MSFT had good management…

News Corp’s proposed split-up

the NWS split

Monday evening the Wall Street Journal  reported that News Corp (NWS) will be considering splitting the company in two at its next board meeting.  The movie and television units would be placed in one publicly traded company, and the newspaper and publishing divisions in another.   Presumably both new companies would retain the current dual share structure, which ensures effective control by the Murdoch family.  Given that NWS owns the WSJ, the report should be considered highly reliable.

not a new idea

Dividing a conglomerate into smaller, more focused pieces isn’t a novel idea.   But it’s one that has so far been opposed for NWS by family patriarch, Rupert Murdoch.  Maybe he worries that doing so would dilute the extraordinary political influence NWS has been able to wield in the countries where it has operations.

why now?

The rationale for considering a separation now is doubtless the negative political and regulatory fallout from the cellphone-hacking scandal that has engulfed NWS’s newspapers in the UK.  The affair has foiled the company’s plans to acquire complete ownership of BSkyB.  It might also ultimately result in NWS being forced to divest its current controlling interest in the satellite broadcaster.

Demonstrating that its BSkyB equity is held in a corporation completely separate from the Murdoch newspaper operations may be a pivotal consideration in staving off this outcome.  True, the regulators may regard the move as simply a ruse, especially if the successor companies have basically identical boards of directors.  But NWS’ allies in the British government must either think the move has a reasonable chance of success, or that without it the negative outcome for NWS is a foregone conclusion.

the move makes stock market sense

Reorganizing a conglomerate into a number of smaller companies may not always make economic sense.  This is especially true for a firm run in effect as a privately-held firm.  There may be complex borrowing and tax planning arrangements that need to be unwound, for example.  There may be jointly-owned computer control systems that need to be separated.  And what happens, say, to any book deals with Harper Collins that personalities on Fox News may have?

here’s why

But it almost always makes stock market sense, for several related reasons:

1.  In the case of NWS, the publishing/newspaper arm makes very little of NWS’ operating profit.  On the plus side, then, it’s almost inconsequential.  But bitter experience has taught every portfolio manager that when such “inconsequential” businesses lapse into loss, they can punch a huge hole in the bottom of the boat.  That’s one reason for the PE multiple discount at which virtually all conglomerates trade.

2.  Professional equity portfolio managers like to build their own portfolios.  I may decide I want to overweight the media industry, for instance.  Within media, I want to overweight film and TV, and severely underweight newspapers.  This is harder to do with NWS than with “pure” film and TV companies.  Another reason for the conglomerate discount.

3.  Professionally managed equity portfolios are increasingly “style”-oriented, displaying either growth or value attributes.  This is partly a function of the psychological makeup and training of the managers, partly a marketing constraint forced on them by the pension consultants who recommend them to institutional customers.  Film/TV is arguably a growth industry.  Newspaper/publishing is clearly a value one.  So some managers may want one part, some the other.  But none want the entire bundle.  Conglomerate discount again.

In theory, then, and almost always in practice, the sum of the values of the two post-split pieces will be noticeably higher than the two were together.  That’s the reason the announcement has sparked a rally in the stock.

Often, it happens that operations in each of the pieces become sharper and capital allocation becomes more efficient when they are run by experts in their fields rather than generalists.  It’s unclear whether these favorable developments will also occur, given that the Murdoch family will be fully in control of both sides.  But they may.  And this isn’t the main reason the stock is going up, in any event.

calculating fair value

How to get a fair value for the decoupled pieces?  Compare each with its peers.  I’m not a NWS fan (although I’ve watched the company grow from its Australian roots since the mid-1980s), so I’m not going to do the work.  But it’s a pretty straightforward task, however.  Value Line, which you can probably find in the local library, should give you all the relevant metrics.

Apple, book publishers and the Justice Department

the investigation

Media reports yesterday indicate the US Justice Department is investigating five of the top six book publishing firms (Random House is the exception) and Apple for price-fixing in the e-book market.  Settlement talks aimed at avoiding litigation are apparently going on, at least with some of the publishers.  A parallel investigation by EU regulators seems to be happening, as well.

what’s at issue

It’s all about trade books.  Publishers have traditionally wholesaled physical bestsellers to bookstores at 50% of the suggested retail price.  The store owners then figured out how much to mark them up–or whether to sell them as loss leaders.  A hardcover with a retail price marked on it of $25, for example, would be sold to a bookstore for $12.50.  The store might retail it for, say, $16–or for $10, if they so desired.  Stores could return unsold copies for a refund.

As little as two years ago, publishers were following the same procedure in the nascent e-book market.

This created a potential problem, however.

AMZN was aiming to become the dominant seller of e-books, to be read on its proprietary Kindle device.  It was taking every e-book it paid a publisher $12.50 for and retailing it for $9 or $10.  Yes, the company lost around $3 a book.  But short-term profits have never been an AMZN concern.  And the company was shifting avid readers in droves from being physical book buyers to becoming Kindle aficionados.

Publishers began to hear the giant Perot-ish (Perotian?) sucking sound of their physical book distribution network disappearing into cyberspace.  How to respond?

AAPL, which was just about to launch the first iPad, came along with a proposal.  Publishers shouldn’t necessarily wholesale e-books to e-retailers.  Instead, they should (technically, anyway) remain owners of the e-books (with no physical inventory, what difference would it make?) and hire companies like AAPL as commission-earning agents to put buyer and seller together…kind of like the way real estate agents sell houses.  That way, publishers could set retail selling prices themselves. This wasn’t an entirely new idea.  Publishers already had similar deals with some small independent bookstores.

AAPL proposed to charge a fee of 30% of the proceeds for each sale.  And, oh…by the way…publishers would also agree not to allow their e-books to be sold anywhere else at a lower price.

Publishers said okay and then broke the news to AMZN.  No more selling e-books at a loss.  E-books had to be priced at the publisher-determined price of around $13-$14; AMZN had to take 30% of the proceeds.

AMZN said no.  The five publishers now being investigated immediately responded by revoking AMZN’s permission to sell their e-books.  AMZN took the books off its website.  But a few days later, AMZN caved and agreed to the publishers’ terms.

consequences

Saying what might have been is a little like writing an alternate history, which is rightly classified as a branch of science fiction.  Nevertheless, here’s my take on the effects of APPL/publisher deal:

–imposing what amounts to the agency model on AMZN broke the company’s momentum in the e-book business and slowed the growth of the medium.

–this gave the publishers time to try to figure out how to support the physical book distribution network.  I don’t know what good that’s done.  It certainly didn’t save Borders

–it caused AMZN to refocus its competition strategy on the price/quality of the reader

–it gave BKS time to perfect the Nook and allow it to emerge as a viable competitor to the Kindle

–it gave APPL another selling point for the iPad, although the device seems to me to be much better for magazines, scholarly journals and textbooks than for regular trade fiction/non-fiction.

what would a settlement mean?

I’m assuming that the main result of any settlement would be to allow AMZN to set the retail price of e-books wherever it wants.

Under today’s rules, a newly-released bestseller in e-book form sells for about $14.  Sale proceeds are split, with $9.80 going to the publisher and $4.20 to the retailer/agent. AMZN might reduce its e-book bestseller price to $9.99.  I think that’s an easy decision.  That was its desired price point two years ago–and one which, at least at that time, proved to be a powerful psychological motivator for customers to choose an e-book over a physical one.  Unlike the situation in 2010, AMZN could pay the publisher $9.80 and have $.19 left over.

What about $7.99?  That would put AMZN back into roughly the same the loss-leader position it had adopted a few years ago.  To my mind, this would be a vintage AMZN move.  But is it necessary?  Given the much larger size of the e-book market today relative to the physical book market, are the losses this strategy would produce manageable?

Maybe a smaller form factor iPad would make AAPL a bigger player in the bestseller book business, but as things stand now AAPL doesn’t need trade e-books to spur iPad sales.

What about Barnes and Noble (BKS)?  The company seems to me to be the obvious loser if AMZN is able to lower e-book prices.  That would accelerate the demise of the BKS bricks and mortar bookstores.  Having a competitor sell e-books at cost would also appear to diminish the chances of the Nook ever becoming a profit-making device.

On the other hand, the AMZN move would likely increase pressure on BKS to sell its Nook name and technology.  GOOG has been rumored as a possible buyer, which, I presume, is the reason BKS has a market cap north of $750 million–and has been rising since the price-fixing investigation was leaked to the press.

The real question, of course, is the price someone like GOOG would be willing to pay.  I have no clue.  I also don’t have any confidence that I’d be able to come up with a meaningful estimate.  That’s okay with me, though.  As an equity investor, you’re in this position a lot. It just means I won’t get involved with the stock.