Il blog di Antonio Tombolini

Mondadori, Ultima Books and the ebook growth problem

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No more Mondadori on Ultima Books
Now I really have to say something about a matter which, at least among ebook professionals and enthusiasts in Italy, is causing a bit of a stir. Let’s start with the old news, as journalists used to call it: last December 20th I received a very formal but completely anonymous email message in my inbox, from Trade Books General Management:

From: Trade Management
Date: Friday 20 December 2013
RE: distribution of ebooks of the Mondadori Group catalogue through your store

This letter is to inform you that starting from 1/01/2014 the contracts between the Mondadori Group companies and Simplicissimus Book Farm Srl, stipulated on 1 February 2011 and subsequently renewed up to 31 December 2013, concerning the distribution of the ebook catalogues of the following publishing companies:
Edizioni Mondadori
Giulio Einaudi Editore
Sperling & Kupfer
Piemme
Harlequin
Electa Mondadori
are to be considered definitively terminated.
Best regards,
Trade Books General Management
Mondadori

Essentially, this message informs us that starting from 1 January 2014 we can no longer sell books published by the Mondadori Group on Ultima Books, the online bookstore of Simplicissimus Book Farm. All this without any advance notice whatsoever and without any explanation, as is obviously within the rights of the publisher (although the trade usage with which I’m familiar is quite different: the formalization of a relationship, or the termination of a relationship, always arrive after negotiation, dialogue and explanations. But after all, I’m just an old merchant and evidently things have changed). In light of this unexpected notification we felt we should do the right thing by refraining from making any comments, and limiting ourselves to making the issue known, as was clearly necessary for our customers.
It would have all finished there, and this post would’ve never been published, if it weren’t that the same Mondadori Group that feels justified in not having to give advance notice or explanations to its client (so much so as to resort to an anonymous email sent right before Christmas) instead believes it must, engaging the Trade Books Digital Development Manager in person with name and surname (Sandra Furlan), give explanations and clarifications to the first journalist who happens to call them. Not very conventional, for an old merchant like myself, but at least it’s something new, in fact: now there’s a somewhat official explanation, and I have to respond. Because Sandra Furlan actually provided many quite interesting clarifications.
First news item, Mondadori will cease business relations with other companies, both small and big during the upcoming months:

There is no personal problem with Ultima Books or the other companies, big and little, with which we will cease business relations over the next few months.

Thus the size of the business is not one of the reasons for ceasing relations. The rate of growth is, however, according to Furlan:

If a company, big or little as it may be, grows less, then it’s preferable for us to concentrate on other portals, both Italian and non-Italian.

Thus the criteria seems to have been the following: dear Ultima Books, you may have a moderate turnover, (the net sales of Mondadori books in 2013 reached several tens of thousands of euro, actually), but you didn’t grow enough for me, so we’re finished. Perhaps I prefer someone who has less turnover, but is growing faster.
A strange criteria, but of course everyone is free to choose their own criteria. The real issue is instead another: if things are like Furlan said, it won’t be long before we see the closure of all Italian ebook stores. I raised the issue almost one year ago, in April 2013. Pointing out how the sale of ebooks was clearly being progressively concentrated in the hands of global players like Amazon-Google-Apple-Kobo, concluding even back then:
Am I wrong to say that Italian ebook retailers (and not just the so-called independents at Ultima Books or Bookrepublic, but also those dependent on large groups, like Media World, IBS, Feltrinelli) have a big problem?
Am I wrong to say that in a situation where ebooks are naturally bought more frequently in the particular store the user finds already pre-installed on his new ebook reader, smartphone or tablet, the problem cannot be overcome, and the market will become increasingly carved up between the Big Guys (which already have 80% of the market today)?
Lastly and more importantly, am I wrong when I say that this indicates the need (and opportunity) to creatively find new paths and new channels for the promotion of ebooks, which are definitely not those of a foolish, and even a bit ridiculous, competition against the Big Guys? In other words: are we really certain that an ebook must/can be bought only in a dedicated ebook store?
We, for our part, are already working creatively on two or three projects for non-conventional ebook sales methods, on which we will soon provide more information. Acknowledging the fact that the Mondadori Group has instead decided to solve its problems (its, since contrary to what Cavallero said no more than a month ago, the drop in digital concerns only Mondadori, and not the market) by closing channels, like ours, which in any case has generated a few tens of thousands of euros over the year. This means we’ll have the opportunity to perform a new experiment on this lively and unpredictable market: can a bookstore survive without selling books of the Mondadori brands? Who knows, maybe in the digital world we could discover that yes, even this is possible! It’s up to you.

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