TitlePage: Plus or Minus?

titlepageAs we come to the end of 2012 the issue of TitlePage and its future is still unresolved. The much vaunted and oft announced TitlePage Plus has still not launched with no clear timeframe for when it will. Despite a Heads of Agreement being signed between the Australia Publishers Association (APA) and Thorpe-Bowker in August 2011, it is my understanding that a final agreement between the two organizations has still not been reached.

TitlePage is a free price and availability service that Australian bookshops use. It allows them to access up to the minute inventory information from nearly all publishers and distributors in Australia including all the major suppliers. The service was launched in September 2004 and was a worldwide first at the time. Since launching other platforms have become available and have offered more services while the TitlePage platform has not been upgraded.

In 2011 it was proposed that the operating license for TitlePage be sold to Thorpe Bowker, who also run the Global Books-In-Print service and own Pacstream, who provide EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) services to bookshops. Under the proposal the free TitlePage price and availability service would remain but a new subscription service, TitlePage Plus, would be added that would incorporate EDI services, eBooks, Print-on-Demand, Customer Direct Fulfilment and Global Books-In-Print. This was seen as a great opportunity to provide both publishers and booksellers an integrated supply chain solution.

Unfortunately negotiations between the various parties have been protracted and many opportunities have been missed. The book market is not static and other solutions have been sort and found by publishers and booksellers.

At the time TitlePage Plus was proposed there was no clear eBook solution for Australian bookshops. In the intervening time locally based and owned eBook vendors Booki.sh and ReadCloud both launched and offered bookshops an eBook solution (Booki.sh has since been purchased by OverDrive). Rather than work with these vendors an arrangement has been reached with US-based Copia, who are yet to launch in Australia. The Copia offering is also not clear. While the APA have endorsed Copia that does not guarantee eBook content for their platform (if the ABA endorses a vendor it doesn’t guarantee all bookshops will use them).

Print-on-Demand is a key component for any supply chain improvements however a coordinated industry approach seems impossible as inter-publisher/supplier competition seems to preclude any cooperation needed for efficient integration. One of the biggest delays in supply is what are known as Indent Titles. These are books that a publisher/distributor has decided not to stock as demand is expected to be too low. Ordering an indent title can take anywhere between 3 and 8 weeks to supply despite the fact that both overseas wholesalers and overseas retailers can deliver the same books in under 7 days. Print-on-Demand would speed up this turn around and also allow local printers to remain relevant and viable. It would also mean no book would go out of print ever again.

Another key component to the supply chain is Customer Direct Fulfilment (CDF). CDF is an effective way of increasing supply efficiency. CDF involves a retailer placing an order with their supplier where the supplier sends the order directly to the retailer’s customer. CDF is most effective in eCommerce as a retailer doesn’t have to carry as much inventory. Where they don’t carry a product, instead of waiting to be supplied and then repacking the product and sending it on to the customer, the customer is supplied directly much faster.

CDF has been offered to Australian booksellers by US wholesalers Ingrams and Baker & Taylor for a few years but only with overseas titles. Under proposed upgrades to the TitlePage service CDF will be offered by the major book distributors in Australia. I have been testing the service and it is relatively seamless through my Point-of-Sale system and Pacstream. Turn around is between 24-48 hours and arrives to the customer in plain packaging addressed from my store.

However there are a number of drawbacks. Firstly CDF is being aimed at Bricks & Mortar bookshops as well as eCommerce. The drawback from a Bricks & Mortar point of view is that when I special order a book for a customer I like them to come into the shop to collect it because they can browse the shelves while they are here. Foot traffic is a vital part of bricks & mortar retail and CDF diminishes foot traffic into store.

Another drawback is the cost. There is a major disparity between international freight costs to Australia and this disparity has been passed on domestically. This means that overseas retailers can ship books into Australia for free while for Australian bookshops it is expensive to post books even within their own metropolitan area. The CDF proposal via TitlePage proposes to be free to the consumer to combat this. However to cover this suppliers are cutting bookshop’s margin in half which then makes offering a discount on the books sold impossible. In the world of online retailing this will be challenging as most customers online are looking for a good price on the product first then competitive freight costs, not the other way around.

This biggest drawback though is consumer data. With many publishers now selling direct to customers and one publisher actually owning an online retailer (Bookworld), there are massive question marks about what happens to a bookshop’s consumer data when they use CDF.

CDF seems to be the only component ready to launch. It is not clear where any of the other services are up to. Communication with the primary users of the TitlePage service, booksellers, has been poor to say the least. As has communication with the peak body representing booksellers’ interests the ABA. Every morning when a bookseller logs on to TitlePage they are met with the below message:

titlepage greeting

Screenshot taken 2/12/12

This is the “Latest” communication officially given to bookshops. It was announced at both the Leading Edge Books Conference in March 2012 and at the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) Conference in June 2012 that the new TitlePage Plus service would launch in the 3rd or 4th quarter of the year. This date and the details of the service were shown as a PowerPoint presentation but no physical copy was provided. There has been no further ‘formal’ communication since.

The ABA was initially involved in discussions over what shape a new TitlePage would take. However this stopped when the ABA refused to endorse the preferred eBook vendor for the platform at that time. The ABA were concerned that their member’s customer data would be given away to a competitor. These concerns were later vindicated when this eBook vendor cut all retailer ties but kept the consumers they had gained through retailer partnerships. Concerns over the structure of CDF also appear to be ignored.

The supply chain is critical to the future of the Australian Book Industry. It is in both publishers’ and booksellers’ interests to have an internationally competitive supply chain. To expect a consumer to wait more than 5-7 days for a book is bordering on ludicrous when competing international retailers and wholesalers can supply in this timeframe. When consumers purchase books overseas local publishers as well as local booksellers lose sales, including multi-national publishers. There are many factors such as freight, GST and import restrictions that hinder the competitiveness of the Australian Book Industry but there are other factors which the industry can control, improve and even lead on.

Booksellers continue to be frustrated with the progress of TitlePage Plus. This frustration is exasperated by a lack of communication and consultation as well as no clear indication when the service will be launched and the exact form it will take. I hope that whatever the issues are holding TitlePage Plus back doesn’t jeopardize the real issue of selling more books from Australian bookshops via Australian publishers.

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