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Needless to say, the ensuing discussion has been awesomely full of punditry and speculation. Thus, me! If I do not offer my two cents, then I will surely be kicked out of future publishing cocktail parties. After all, I must have thoughts on this madness.
On the other hand, Hocking is likely looking at those same worldwide print sales and realizing there’s money in them there books. The two authors are looking at the same worldwide market and taking different approaches. One is a seasoned author, the other is just now realizing her potential.
So who is making the right decision?
Yeah, that’s a helpful answer. Bear with me.
Eisler has an established fan base, and he can tap into a growing network of indie authors who are, for lack of a better concept, forming their indie marketing circle. This is not a new concept. It’s the way indie romance authors — those digital-first (or digital-only) authors — have built careers for the past decade. History has shown this works for some authors.
I think of it as a numbers and talent game. Only a few authors truly rise above the pack. It’s like real publishing, only with more control. However. Any author who goes indie has to become an end-to-end business. Writing, editing, production, distribution, marketing. Oh sure, some of these can be outsourced, but the author must be on top of all these function. Cannot let any one of them slip.
Just as few employees in corporate jobs have the ability to be management and worker bee, few authors have the skills to be everything and more. The authors who seem to do best have what can only be called an entrepreneurial spirit. My belief is that writing is a creative process; being an author is a job.
And it’s not an easy job. This is why I believe Eisler calculated more than a few odds. One does not walk away from a purported $500,000 easily. As many smart people have noted, you don’t go into publishing to get rich.
What Barry Eisler has going for him is control (not to be underestimated), speed to market, the ability to experiment, and instantaneous worldwide digital distribution. This comes into play in our next section.
Now back to that other hand.
Hocking has, and I think you’ll know what I mean, tapped into the Twilight zeitgeist. Something I’d note no major publisher (or minor) has managed to do. I have not read her work, but know more than a few people who have. Clearly she can tell a story that engages readers (not an easy skill!), but there is a consensus that she needs more editorial oversight. I believe in editors in a big way, and know that good editors make a story so much better.
Hocking has also, conservatively and based on news reports, netted well over a million dollars (before taxes, those pesky things!). That is serious money in publishing. I know people who’d sell their souls for that kind of publishing money.
It’s also hard money for publishers to meet. This is an author who is accustome
Today, we welcome the genius Brett Sandusky, chief provocateur behind Publishr, a site focused on exploring the issues behind new publishing business models and challenges. A few weeks ago, Brett announced plans for a new publishing, er, Publishng project. Today, he expands upon his vision:
Let’s start at the beginning: what is Publishr?
Publishr is many things, but first and foremost it is a blog containing a collection of essays about the future of the publishing industry as we forge ahead into what many see as uncharted territory.
Right now our industry is going through a transition from a primarily print business into an integrated business with both print and digital businesses. Yet, I saw a lot of houses entering the digital market with business plans based solely on their print business, or something eerily similar to business models that were predicated on producing a print product to sell in a bricks and mortar retail location. While this worked (more or less) for print books, I found it ludicrous that only a few were speaking out about creating purely digital business models or, at the very least, models that allowed for a digital focus which make sense for moving into the future of our industry.
In the transition that our industry is going through, there are a few steps I see happening:
Production of a large amount of eBooks with little regard for product quality or user experience in order to be represented in the marketplace.
Learning from and about the production process, eBooks in the market as well as industry “best practices”.
Production of second wave eBooks, with more attention paid to user-experience and quality of conversion. Addition of more devices, market expansion.
Learning from second wave of products in market.
Production of third wave eBooks, refined further, device functionality starting to be taken into account, metadata and technical strategy begins to show up on radars.
Learning from third wave of products in market.
Publishr strives to be at the 7th position in this (very crude) spectrum: anticipating what we’ll learn from the latest technology and then attempting to venture yet another step beyond what we perceive as the realm of current possibility.
Though they’ll likely change over time, what are your goals?
Right now, I’m focusing on establishing a foundation of quality writing about the publishing industry that covers as many topics as possible, offers solutions to future problems, and essentially, sets out a path for successful transition from a print to an integrated digital business. While I do think there is more than one way to do this, I am providing one such roadmap that I feel is entirely feasibly while still forward-thinking and adaptable.
In addition, there is the newly announced Publishng project through which we will be publishing an eBook and discussing the process throughout in a completely transparent way. The focus of this project is on learning through hands-on experimentation.
Ultimately, I would like to create a dialog about the transition in our industry as well as anticipate the challenges which will be facing as we move forward. Overall, Publishr is decidedly utopian in tone and aims to provide a positive, yet serious, look at the future of our industry from within.
What kind of business model are you envisioning?
While there are many business models that could function in the digital publishing space, I have personally advocated for one based on agility and modularity. I like to call it the XML business model because it would mirror our content, our workflow and our entire overarching structure.
Let’s say, for example, a publisher purchases or commissions a piece of content. It is then decided that this content will be divided, purposed and repurposed, chu
In last week’s post, I noted some of the questions our South by Southwest panel received from the audience. One, in particular, needed more time and space to address: what’s the deal with publishing and its slow adoption of transmedia storytelling, a concept that includes some types of enhanced ebooks. According the person asking the question (and a few on Twitter), everyone wants it.
I don’t believe it is true that everyone wants publishing to leap into transmedia storytelling. If every story were multi-arc, multimedia, multi-point of entry, multi-everything, that would be akin to a diet of all reality television all the time. Not every story or idea can — or should! — support a multi-pronged existence. The definition of transmedia storytelling — storytelling across a variety of platforms (text, video, audio, chalk messages on buildings) — requires a story that can be told in a way that seamlessly blends technology and story. It needs to be immersive and believable at every point of entry.
We’ve seen transmedia thrive in conjunction with television programs. Lost, in particular, does this very well. On the other hand, NBC often takes an intrusive approach that makes it clear the extended story is part of a marketing effort, not a storytelling effort. I’d go so far as to say the urge to brand everything may very well kill certain aspects of transmedia storytelling.
There are many reasons why publishing hasn’t moved rapidly into the world of transmedia storytelling. The creation of a multimedia experience takes away from the core business of publishing books, however you define the term. There is a very legitimate question about what separates book publishers from motion picture or gaming studios once the move into transmedia storytelling is made. I am not sure how to begin to answer that question.
And for all the buzz about “enhanced ebooks”, it is early days yet. Everything from what book readers want to how to pay for these extras is on the table. There is a huge difference in what a production that has a multimillion dollar budget (such as a television series or feature film) can do versus what publishers, who do not necessarily have the in-house skillsets or budgets to fully explore transmedia storytelling. Yet I still expect to see a fair amount of experimentation coming from publishers large and small in the coming year.
As I see it, beyond reader adoption, there are three major hurdles publishing must overcome first: rights, business model, and technology and skills.
Rights: There is a lot of trickiness in this area alone. In most cases, authors own their copyrights, and when publishers want additional content from those authors, the authors naturally want additional compensation. While I’ve heard stories about agents going directly to transmedia production houses (for lack of a better term), relatively few authors will be willing to part with their own money for what is currently a risky venture.
Figuring out how transmedia storytelling fits into the world of publishing will require a lot of experimentation. There will be more failures than successes. To me, this means experimentation on the part of authors and agents and publishers as well. Of course, authors should be paid for their work, but the experimental nature of what is being done needs to remain at the front of everyone’s mind.
Then there is the issue of territorial rights. Some publishers acquire all rights, worldwide, and those are the lucky ones, from the perspective of creating new kinds of story options from the underlying work. When the rights are parsed out far and wide, putting the together the infrastructure for a well-considered,
Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.
Consumer expectations will rise if prices do
Over the weekend, we rode a rollercoaster as Macmillan laid out its demands for ebook pricing to Amazon, and Amazon responded by pulling (nearly) all Macmillan titles from its store. Late Sunday, Amazon announced they would “capitulate” to Macmillan’s demands on pricing. It almost goes without saying that this will be the go-forward model for all major publishers, and maybe their independent brethren as well.
Publishers have gotten what they want.
Man, it seems like a victory doesn’t it? In a way it is. I’ve been of two minds on this topic since the entire concept of the “Agency Model” was announced (rough definition below). Setting aside the fact that it’s still opaque to parties with a vested interest (authors, agents, even other retailers), I have a natural aversion to wholesalers (book publishers) forcing prices on retailers (Amazon, et al). I believe price is an important tool in the arsenal of retailers. And, as a consumer, I’m not yet willing to pay more for the vast majority of ebooks being released today. More in a few paragraphs.
On the other hand, I love that this approach (finally) levels the playing field for all retailers. Sort of. Some have argued that this battle is not about DRM, but it is all about DRM. DRM is the tool retailers use to lock in consumers. Amazon does it. Sony does it. Barnes & Noble does it. Apple does it (or rather will, in the case of books). Every retailer who has a device has a proprietary DRM scheme. And publishers encourage this. They demand DRM.
These DRM schemes lock other retailers out of the devices. They allow companies to dominate the marketplace. Why would I shop IndieBound when I can’t load the books on my preferred device? Ah, the battles on the horizon! It’s going to be a bumpy year.
And…there is a lot more elasticity in ebook prices than has been acknowledged or realized. Macmillan is talking about pricing books in a (yet-to-be-revealed) dynamic manner, ranging from $14.99 to $5.99. As Macmillan has not previously been a good actor in ebook pricing, this news is heartening. This seems like an attempt to map the existing print marketplace to the digital marketplace, when now is the time for more creativity and thought when it comes to ebooks, content presentation, and pricing — and yeah, that does mean considering higher prices (I am not contradicting what I said about what I will pay).
Publishers have made bad arguments when it comes to ebook pricing. They confuse in-house value (often based on the price paid for the book) with consumer perception of value. Now these publishers who once hid behind Amazon — seriously, I’ve had publishers blame Amazon for crappy formatting when it was clear the underlying file was the problem — will have to stand behind their product. No. They will have to produce better quality books.
This means both from story and production perspectives. It doesn’t appear publishers will make more money from retailers under the proposed Agency Model, but consumer expectations will rise if prices do. There will not be additional margin — at least not significant additional margin — to play with, but publishers will be held to a higher ebook standard.
Longer answer: the magic elixir publishers are injecting into ebooks in hopes they will entice people to pay higher prices.
As you might guess, I am a bit of an “enhancement” skeptic. I have a few reasons. First, they feel like an attempt to skip the walking phase. Right now ebooks are crawling, technical quality-wise, and enhanced ebooks will be (theoretically) leaping and pirouetting. Second, what is being proposed in some publisher statements sounds a lot like standard print material (reader guides) and marketing fluff. Finally, I’m not sure readers are clamoring for enhanced ebooks as much as they’d like publishers to rethink what a “book” is.
First, let’s talk about the technical quality. We could debate the quality of content and editing until the cows come home. We could restart the debate when the cows go wherever cows go when they’re not home. And so on. I believe publishers too readily dismiss reader comments about bad books, value, and price; it hurts the publisher argument because it’s not the job of readers to make the right format and pricing decisions. That’s a discussion for another day.
What I’m talking about is the actual ebook. How it looks, how it flows, how it works for readers.
Right now, most commercial ebooks are treated as exact (but not really exact, which is a problem when it comes to value perception) replica of the print version. Right down to nonsensical elements like references to page numbers within the digital text. The process of taking the final print layout and converting it to an ebook ignores the basics of ebook creation. It cheapens the product sold to readers.
It seems that publishers have been seduced by outsourcing and are neglecting the basic production tasks that are required for ebooks to actually become working books. Readers lack the visual clues of print to guide them; it’s the job of publishers to figure out how digital books can be presented, from better, more logical tables of content and indices to content flow that makes sense (we really don’t need all those breathless press clips about how great the author is…since we’ve already bought the book).
Basics. Get those right first.
Then comes the “enhancements” that really aren’t. Way back in December of last year — oh so long ago! — Macmillan announced a genius plan to sell enhanced ebooks. Naturally, being a publishing company, this meant selling ebooks for higher prices than the hardcover print books:
The special editions, which will include author interviews and other material, such as reading guides, will carry a list price slightly higher than the hardcover edition.
Sigh. Big fat sigh. So silly additional materials of questionable value, materials that are commonly included in the trade paperback version of books will now be added to ebooks and the price will go up? I can only imagine the gleeful rubbing of hands and diabolical cackles that accompanied this announcement. “Take that, Amazon! We’ll add crazy value to those ebooks. People will go nuts for…reading guides!”
These are not enhancements. These are marketing materials. If you, the publisher, cannot distinguish between the two, it makes my heart hurt. Remember point one about the basics? Go back, review that, take notes, ask yourself how you can make the actual ebooks you’re publishing today achieve the same level of quality as the print books.
Note: stop pretending print is the “real” version of the book. That kind of thinking doesn’t help you. Especially as we move into point three.
Finally — and setting my overall skepticism aside — we come to Unicorn. Yesterday, the Internets wer
As you might imagine, I am still dissecting the past few months, and today I want to focus on business model. Some of this might seem antithetical to how publishing does business (I actually don’t think so, not if you think about it). It will definitely make some people uncomfortable because it links the actual success of a book to aspects of compensation. Not every part of the model needs to be applied in every instance, but it’s worth considering the merits and possibilities, even if you ultimately choose another path.
Successful digital publishers have been largely limited to genre fiction, romance in particular (to the best of my knowledge, and I know I’ll be corrected on this point!) because there is a significant portion of the readership that is comfortable being an early adopter of technology. The business model has worked because the participants involved understand the risks and rewards. As I’ve noted more than a few times, this model has been evolving for well over a decade, and will continue to evolve. And, as you’ll see when you get to my final point, it’s undergoing the same sea change the rest of the industry faces.
Over time, there have been failures big and small in this marketplace. The reasons vary. The successes all have elements and principles in common. Not surprisingly, most of these principles have to do with cost effectiveness and economies of scale. I’d like to thank Angela James, who has, over the years, written and spoken extensively on this topic. Some of my thoughts and conclusions may vary from hers, and I defer to experience.
No/Low Advances — Cash flow, especially in the beginning, will be tight. And while there is a strata of author who will not work with you if you don’t pay advances, there are many excellent authors who, for various reasons, including creative expression, will. But the publisher needs to keep some key promises, outlined below.
By the way, over the years, I have heard every argument under the sun for and against the no-advance model. I’ve seen authors refuse to consider this alternative (while spending years trying to sell a manuscript that traditional publishers won’t touch, and not because of quality or talent). I’ve seen an organization engage in an at-least annual battle over this stance. And I’ve seen authors succeed, to the point where traditional publishers with fatter checking accounts are not necessarily enough to convince the authors to give up the benefits of writing for a digital publisher (and yes, most compromise by writing for both).
I believe every author should weigh options and make the right decision for his or her career.
Higher Author Royalties and More Timely Reporting — Royalties in this marketplace are generally higher, starting at 35% and increasing. This probably gives many in the publishing industry hives, but it also makes the author an active participant in her book; at the very least, it acknowledges the author’s role in the writing and marketing of the book. Both sides are taking a risk, and both sides share the rewards of hard work.
Just as important, from my perspective, is the shift in royalty reporting. In the 1990s, it was possible to get a manual distribution statement from Djibouti faster than for a traditional publisher to report sales to an author. That is still the case. Semi-annual statements with 60- or 90-day reporting lags are relics of days gone by. In the digital publishing world, royalties are paid, at the latest, quarterly with a 30- to 60-day window. Many are paid monthly.
Part of this is the difference in money flow. If you look at it on a per-book basis, it takes a long time for hard dollars to get back to the traditional publisher. Cash for digital sales (and note my use of cash) gets to the publisher much faster, certain laggardly retailers notwithstanding. Paying authors in the most timely manner possible is part of the compact. Authors note they’ve written, published, and been paid royalties for ebooks in the time it takes to get the second and third tranches of their advances from bigger publishers.
Completed Manuscripts — In traditional publishing, it is not uncommon for a house to go to contract based on a proposal or even idea. At some point, an advance check is written and the waiting game begins. It’s one of those time value of money things. The longer it takes to get a manuscript completed and available for sale, well, you know.
Faster To-Market Time — One of the key reasons authors love advances (other than the it’s guaranteed money that they can’t take away from me not matter how my book does aspect) is that it’s the only money they might see related to their book for years. Publishing is a slow business, and the timeframe from acquisition to book-on-shelf can be stretched beyond the patience of ordinary humans. The digital publishing production frame is compressed.
Shifting Participants — This is going to make some people cringe, and I admit it was one of the harder aspects for me to wrap my mind around. Many digital publishers started as, for lack of a better term, mom-and-pop operations. As they grew, additional staffing was required. On the minus side, these publishers did not have the benefit of fifty-plus years of backlist to finance ongoing operations.
Finding quality editors was a priority, paying them top dollar was not as easy. A few standards emerged, with two basic ideas moving to the forefront: paying per word and/or paying on a royalty basis. Angela James wrote a very good article about editor pay. As with author advances, this is not going to be comfortable for everyone, but it’s worked out quite nicely for more than a few editors. Bonus: fewer meetings, more editing. Minus: unless your book hits big, your hourly rate is, at the end of the day, rather low. Granted, if you’re working in-house at a traditional publisher and already squeezing your actual editing job into your personal time, this might even out in the end. I am, sadly, not kidding
On Twitter and over time, there have been discussions about the disconnect between editorial and sales and marketing and readers. The people who know the book the best, have championed it, worked with it, invested in it, are very often removed from the process of seeing it succeed. To me, that is unaccountably strange. Of course, as noted above, I’m not sure how the modern editor could add one more task to the schedule. Imagine the culture shift involved in holding fewer meetings…imagine the the number of meetings required to implement such a policy!
Over our brief lifetime, I was also contacted by cover artists who were also willing to work on a royalty basis. This was not the approach we chose, but, yeah, getting your foot in the door as an artist is all about taking risks. Again, something to think about, especially when you’re starting up.
Quality Control — Issues of quality have long been a concern of mine, and I’ve been dumbfounded by authors and publishers who refuse to acknowledge this as a legitimate issue. As you can imagine from the above, there are quality risks a publisher takes in this business model. Poor quality in books turns off customers. The first wave of ebook adopters, readers willing to take a chance because they craved something different, were largely repelled due to poor quality control, including production and editorial.
There has been much progress in this area, but those early perceptions remain. Quality will be, I believe, a growing issue in this marketplace. Existing publishers, facing an influx of new-to-ebook readers will be going head-to-head with traditional publishers.
It should make those traditional publishers cringe to know that they are not surefire winners in this battle. I’ve talked before about the appalling quality of ebooks from very big publishers, and I’ve talked about the sheer (only it was spelled shear) lack of editorial attention to some books. Factor in pricing, DRM, and the way online readers connect, and there are definite pain points for traditional publishers.
Print Is Expensive — Building an infrastructure for print distribution, especially in this marketplace is insanely expensive, far more so than building a digital distribution infrastructure. While it leaves out many physical retail outlets, I remain convinced that a smart POD or PTO program is the most fiscally responsible choice a digital publisher can make, at least until there is a solid idea of sales and customer preferences. Doing print wrong is bad for everyone.
Unit Sales Are Lower — This might be one of those “duh” points. Let’s be frank: the vast majority of readers have not yet adopted ebooks. Publishers who have succeeded have done so by leveraging a growing market while keeping costs low. Luckily, breakeven is a lower dollar value. I will note (though surely I don’t have to!) that low unit sales are not limited to digital publishing. As Daniel Menaker reiterates in the article linked at the end of this post, far too many traditionally published books fail to earn out their advances. One wonders how long this will be possible.
Managing Prices — Success comes in many ways, and one is matching consumer pricing expectations. Looking back at my editorial pay thoughts, both payment approaches allow a publisher to better manage certain costs, allowing them more flexibility when it comes to setting prices. Hint: readers are price and word count conscious. As new readers move into the market, they’re going to seek out like-minded readers in their favorite niches. Information will be shared.
Direct versus Third Party Sales — To date, this model has been successful for publishers because they have built a strong (and growing) readership via direct sales. This increases the amount of money flowing to the publisher and author. In order to maintain this advantage, publishers need to use marketing tactics to encourage readers to shop at their website and, above all, make sure formats are well-supported.
You cannot expect the readers to discover your website. You cannot expect the readers to want to go through the hassle of figuring out files and formats and how to use them. And you cannot (this will sound familiar to all publishers great and small!) expect readers to know about or care about your business model. What you can do is make the idea of buying direct from your website as attractive and easy as possible. If there is a weakness in today’s digital publishing business, it is right there. Buying ebooks is far too hard, and that goes for all publishers great and small.
The above is not a comprehensive look at the digital publishing business model, but I think I hit many key points. Astute readers will notice that there isn’t anything different in this model, unless you count the more careful aligning of costs to sales. As with new business in any industry, starting a new publishing business is filled with risk. I would posit that starting a small print publisher is far riskier than starting a digital publishing company — both from the perspective of infrastructure and ongoing costs.
I still believe this model is viable, and I’m pleased to see others entering the game despite Quartet Press’s lack of success.
Extra credit reading:
Redactor Agonistes: Daniel Menaker writes about editorial job satisfaction and other issues. His observations support some of my points. Risk, she is everywhere.
This week’s publishing industry debate started when the Wall Street Journal covered Sourcebooks’ release strategy for Bran Hambric: The Fairfield Curse. The article contained some blunt discussion about why the publisher chose to delay the ebook and why others are doing the same. This peek behind the curtain didn’t sit will with readers, exposing tensions that really do need to be exposed.
As I write this, I am loading my Kindle in anticipation of a cross-country flight. American Airlines apparently wants to charge me for every bag I check (and, whoo hoo!, I got to use my own ink to print advertisements on my boarding pass), so, yeah, I’m doing everything I can to make sure I don’t exceed carry-on size. I don’t have the luxury of packing books for the flight there in my carry-on bag while books for the flight home are stuffed in my checked suitcase.
Three books I wanted to buy aren’t available in Kindle editions. Only one of those is a book I really feel I must have. The others are nice-to-haves. For the authors and publishers, those are lost sales. Robert Gottlieb, literary agent, says “he doesn’t allow any of his authors’ books to be published simultaneously as an e-book when he can prevent it.” (WSJ article, via Publisher’s Lunch due to WSJ paywall)
In the same article, agent Richard Curtis is just as blunt, saying, “We don’t want to undercut the sales and royalty potential of the printed hardcover.” This makes me wonder: does withholding product from the market actually help sales? Are Curtis and Gottlieb assuming the ebook customer will shrug and purchase the print book?
At least they’re being honest about it. They’re worried that ebook sales will negatively impact the potential for this title to hit a bestseller list. They’re worried that the difference between earned digital royalties and lost print royalties is too vast. Apparently, ’tis better to have no sale at all and all that.
Gottlieb compares the hardcover and ebook markets to theatrical and DVD releases. It’s a bad comparison. I’ve used vinyl albums versus cassettes. Others use CDs versus digital downloads. But theatrical versus DVD? The DVD package often contains more content, more entertainment than the theatrical film; the ebook, generally, has less. And the DVD purchase is generally cheaper than the price of seeing a movie in a theater, after you factor in ticket price, food, and beverage. And, of course, you can resell the DVD, loan it to a friend, and/or play it on multiple devices.
I wonder if publishers are paying attention to the rumbling from readers about crazy, unpredictable digital release patterns. Is the ebook release concurrent with print? A week after, two weeks, six months? Think about it: all your marketing efforts are getting customers to the point of sale…and then you lose them. These readers are not saying, “Well, that format isn’t available so I’ll just buy this one.”
Nope, they’re saying, “That format isn’t available so I won’t buy this book at all.”
What Curtis and Gottlieb are suggesting is that the current business model needs to be protected above all else. I would suggest that preparing for shifts in reader behavior now leads to less pain in the future. Is it better to scoop the mass market reader into the hardcover window via digital or is it better to maintain the status quo, relying on those sales to happen at the mass market/trade level?
If the reader is me, it’s definitely the former because other books will capture my attention in those intervening days, weeks months. The longer the gap between reader awareness and ability to purchase, the greater the chance that a book will be forgotten (or, ahem, sunk due to poor word-of-mouth).
I’m not sure what the answers are, and it will only be through experimentation and analysis that some of these answers emerge. I think there’s some danger in expecting consumers to play by the rules of last year’s business model, especially if readers are adopting this technology at an impressive rate (considering digital reader, phone-based, and the ever-popular browser based reading). In fact, I think it’s dangerous to expect readers to buy into your business model at all.
Last week, the Internets were treated to a rather whiny post from an author who felt that agents were the only thing standing between her and literary greatness. The truth of the matter is that it’s a tough business out there, and sometimes it takes talent plus a little something extra to get your work noticed. Sometimes it takes thinking outside the box.
Over the past few years, we’ve had the special privilege of meeting some authors who not only exhibit incredible talent, but also the ability to connect with readers — in a huge way — through non-traditional means. One of those great people, author Seth Harwood, is now counting down the days to his major label debut for his first novel Jack Wakes Up (listen to our previous interview with Seth interview here).
Note the use of the phrase “major label debut”. Jack Wakes Up was picked up by a small press before attracting the notice of Three Rivers Press. Before that, Harwood podcast the novel. Oh yeah, he gave it away free. Or, he believed in his work enough to make sure it reached an audience. Harwood, who received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, knows one important thing: it’s the story…and a whole lot more.
In the video linked below, he talks about how he did his thing. Your results may vary, but the true lesson is that you make your own success.
[BS: Today we bring you a guest post from Joanna Penn, from The Creative Penn blog. As publishing changes, we're seeing increased overlap between worlds that previously seemed like publishing silos. Where do you fall in the quadrant?]
But despite our differences, we are still a community of people who love books, love writing, and love creativity. We may sit in different parts of the Publishing Quadrant…but the differences are beginning to melt away.
Traditional publishing has been steadily moving into the Digital Publishing quadrant with many top authors releasing ebook versions. As ebook sales have increased, so have print versions. Romance and erotica seem to be taking off especially well! Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise and we can expect some more consolidation of the ebook retail market.
Traditionally published authors are using free ebooks to sell more print books: Cory Doctorow and Paulo Coelho amongst others.
Digitally published authors are also crossing into traditional publishing. J.C.Hutchins podcast success has got him a book deal with St Martin’s Press. Video blogger Gary Vaynerchuk got a 10 book deal with Harper Collins because of his online platform.
Self-published authors are using ebooks to expand their market on sites like Smashwords which also allows the book to be sold on mobile devices like the iPhone
Authors are using self-publishing to get attention for their books and move into the traditional publishing quadrant (Christopher Paolini “Eragon” is one example, as well as the recent Lisa Genova’s Still Alice).
Traditional publishers are also encouraging the self-publishing authors to pitch in new digital ways, for example, Harper Collins Authonomy.
Of course, this diagram is simplistic and there is so much more to each quadrant, but we are all still part of the same brilliant industry. We all want more books, more readers, more creativity and innovation in publishing.
By working together across these quadrants, we can achieve that.
Joanna Penn is a self-published author. Her blog, The Creative Penn, has information and inspiration for authors on writing, publishing options, internet sales and promotion. Twitter: @thecreativepenn
[Special thanks to Joanna for this! Understanding that the pieces flow together rather than operate independently is so important.]
It should come as no surprise that a group of enterprising Amazon customers have joined together to boycott Kindle books priced about $9.99. I’ve been holding my own private boycott for months now, for reasons stated at great length (sorry, Christopher Moore, you were an unwitting catalyst and victim, though another author was a winner). It’s curious that it has taken so long for this protest to form; then again, it seems to a lot of us that Kindle edition prices are creeping up.
Boycotters are buying books from your competitors while leaving yours in the virtual shopping cart.
Maybe Amazon is tired of subsidizing your business development?
Let’s lay out the basics again. First, a digital book is different than a print book. Fewer bells and whistles (nifty color cover? gone). Fewer associated rights (portablity, limited; sharing? ha!). Production problems (can you say double-spaced paragraphs?). I’ve noted previously that everyone who buys into the digital book market right now is essentially funding your research and development.
While we’re examining this issue, let us ponder the idea of tying the current digital price to the current print price, or, ahem, pricing the d-book higher than the print?. How can you, with a straight face, justify this approach? Do the people who purchase d-books at the $26.99 digital list price get more book than those who get the $7.99 list book? Truly, this practice defies logic, and makes it clear that someone in these meetings doesn’t get it.
Consumer dissatisfaction — your customers really get the differences between d-books and print books — is fomenting. While I’d like to say that we’ll rebel by going back to print books (take that!), the real destination is far scarier. I thought this comment from Electronic Cottage was telling, particularly because the dissatisfaction is spreading beyond the inside publishing beltway to “real” readers” (via the Tools of Change blog):
Boy, if I were a publisher or author, I sure wouldn’t want to see my books listed at the top of the tag’s “Popular Products” under the boycott tag.
(Amen! I’m not planning to join in the tagging. Just seeing it makes me hurt.)
This past weekend, Martyn Daniels, arguing that this boycott should be aimed at publishers rather than retailers (though, given how books are sold, the boycott must necessarily be at the retail level), noted that the current business practices as they relate to d-books do not “endear customer loyalty”.
I’d be more blunt: treating customers with blatant disrespect is a the path to rampant piracy.
In the past weeks, we’ve seen a rush of activity on the hardware front. If a company is capable of developing an e-reader, they’ve actively doing so. It’s a bit like books are the last frontier, a literary dot-com rush. You know it’s trendy when AT&T and Verizon start talking e-readers (this was not, apparently, an April Fool’s prank). We’re seeing a burst of innovation that can only be good for publishers/authors (not necessarily separate entities anymore), books, and readers.
We’re also seeing a slippery, rocky slope that can shatter the business at hand. While devices don’t necessarily engender proprietary DRM, entities who see protection schemes as a way to lock-in customers will certainly do so. Who wins? I’d say nobody. Who loses? Every customer who is seduced into purchasing (or acquiring) one of these devices.
Close your eyes and imagine a not-too-distant future: a future where you’re doing tech support for your mother because she can’t share a book with your father because one is a Kindle user and the other prefers the free Verizon reader that came with lots of incentives. Do you really want to have that conversation with your parents?
Here’s the funny thing: even though I won’t currently pay more than $9.99 for a d-book, I can see a future where going above that threshold makes perfect sense. Probably not for fiction, unless that fiction came with amazing bells and whistles, making it worth the price. Then, well, see above about tying price to print version. Smart publishers will rethink editions and versions. They won’t punish early purchasers with arbitrary price changes.
But I can see situations and reasons for paying high prices for digital books. But the technology simply isn’t there yet for this kind of consumer investment. Or maybe the technology is there, but publishers simply haven’t found a way to make their books worthy of the prices they want to charge.
Even as we see exponential growth of ebook sales, most publishers see this market as a 1% blip on the P&L. Nice-to-have money but not really impacting the bonus pool. What is missing from this equation is the competition: the digital publishers who are building brand and customer loyalty by offering readers what they want, by listening, by reacting quickly.
Customer voices are growing louder. Maybe once upon a time, you could pretend you knew best for us, but that time is long gone. Think about it: there’s a public tag Amazon telling uninitiated customers that your books are being boycotted. In the meantime, those who are engaged in the boycott are doing something equally evil: they’re buying books from your competitors while leaving yours in the virtual shopping cart.
As with DRM, right now is the time to get it right. A year from now will be too late.
I have a friend who is heading off to Paris for a long vacation. I guess she wanted to see how the other half — the people who survive in cold parts of the world — live. My Paris experience was in February, standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower on a cold, clear winter night, the city below me. The halls of the Louvre are astoundingly empty during that time as well.
Is this a big, crazy idea that will take a lot of time and effort and smarts? Of course.
This isn’t, of course, about Paris. My friend’s trip reminded me of something else — in preparation for her trip, she acquired a Kindle (this season’s first official sold-out holiday item) and was loading it up. As she listed the books she’d purchased and acquired (within a matter of moments), she noted, as an afterthought, that she still needed to set up newspaper subscriptions.
I get the Los Angeles Times on my Kindle and the experience rather underwhelming. It’s that confusion caused by the scroll wheel — there are things the Kindle does really well; there are things the Kindle doesn’t. Newspapers are not books, and I’m hoping the overall experience of reading news on the Kindle changes. Number one hint: the LAT uses Twitter amazingly well, realizing that news happens after the print edition goes to press. In a world where we expect our news to be current, does it really make sense to recreate the print experience on the Kindle?
This isn’t, of course, about newspapers. I applaud the major publications that are available on the Kindle — kinks will be worked out over time. Every possible way to connect readers with content is important. I was privileged to be part of a great discussion sponsored by the Book Industry Study Group last week. The first three speakers (Steven Pendergrast of Fictionwise, Jane of Dear Author, and moi, with more to come next month) had amazingly similar ideas, though our presentations were very different. Great minds and all that — and those minds talked about the importance of making it easy for people to read stuff.
I was heartened when Steven discussed the all-important accessibility issues that are addressed by electronic books. The number one question I get about my Kindle is “Can you make the font bigger?” Yep, I say, it’s as easy as this. Sighs of relief all around (note: for those of you who, uh, sometimes find yourself reading in low light, bigger font = easier to see in the dark. Not that I advise reading in low light or anything, but things happen).
Women were also discussed: a lot of women buy ebooks (which you already know because you are a regular reader of this site). This means that when you talk about reading electronic books, you have to talk about how women read. This means addressing simple notions such as flexibility (when your demographic is reading everywhere from the office to the couch to soccer practice, how do you make their experience the best?) and price. Also, variety.
This isn’t, of course, even about the Kindle. It’s about what I’m seeing as a great opportunity for content delivery. Subscriptions. Short content that isn’t news or how to lose weight in seven days or less. Stories, analysis, reviews, bookish stuff that isn’t books.
What I’m talking about is a little bit literary journal (how is it that Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine are the only real choices available a year into the Kindle store?), a little bit book review, a little bit opinion, and lot of bit accessible to a wide range of readers. Make it weekly and make it meaty. Curated, edited, interesting. Make it subscription-based and one-off. Give me short stories that make me think, give me book reviews that acknowledge that I read across the spectrum, let me read about reading…oh, and make it linkable so I can engage in the conversation as necessary.
Oh, and don’t limit your publication to the Kindle or Sony e-Reader or iPhone or Stanza or any one device or platform or style. If someone wants this in physical format, make it print-on-demand. Put it in bookstores.Let your customers decide how they want to read your products. We’re very smart people. We can figure this stuff out on our own.
I know what you’re thinking: how can we afford to do this wonderful thing? Subscriptions alone won’t cover the costs. No, not at first, maybe not ever. Amazon certainly has enough cash to kick in, Sony could help, heck, Google is dripping money (as is Microsoft). Various publishing houses great and small could contribute. Booksellers, too. Make it an industry-wide initiative to come together and introduce great reading to readers.
Is this a big, crazy idea that will take a lot of time and effort and smarts? Of course. A girl can dream, right?
So here I am, in London, part of a country with neither the Sony eReader nor the Amazon Kindle, yet dinner conversation turned, as conversations often do, to the fact that the Sony eReader will soon be available in the UK. I think that’s just cool, even as I think, “What’s taking so long, Sony, Amazon?”
Let me tell you: awareness of the Kindle, particularly, is great, and people show great interest in the concept when they see an ereader in the wild. I’ve been gone more than I’ve been home for the past few weeks, and I’m getting lots of curious questions. Number one, so far, is “can you make the type bigger?” I can, I say, I can.
Then there’s last week. Four women, four Kindles. I kid you not. Tell me, what’s the percentage of Kindle ownership in your peer group? I should note, four women from different parts of the country (at least one state in the middle) with different kinds of jobs. The ebook revolution is a slow but steady build, not a crazy now-you-don’t-see-it-now-you-do sort of thing. This is definitely a revolution that will not be televised.
Another conversation was about how ebooks are great, the Kindle is awesome, yet, damn, those prices. This one, started by a reader who gets her fair share of books free, yet would be buying even more if the prices weren’t so darn, well, insane. This is not an uncommon conversation. I know, I know, you think the prices are just fine, but I contend you’re living in the publishing bubble.
This coincides with an email discussion about the price of ebooks. Nobody knows the optimal price, but then I wonder how much of the conversation is sheer academics versus real life experience. I loaded up the Kindle before my journey, and, as I browsed for a good variety of titles, found myself price shopping (for books! I know.). I mean, even I look at the relative value of bits and bytes versus a product I can’t, for lack of a better term, recycle. This is a conversation that needs to be had on a serious level, involving real readers. Anyone ever ask us about ebook prices?
Then there’s the rather amusing piece from Persona Non Data about “Kindle Sex: Publishing Strategy” (not amusing as in the author is naive, amusing as in the topic is uncomfortable for some). Turns out there aren’t good numbers from Amazon about erotica sales for the Kindle. You have to love that this information is so very tough to find; heck, you can’t even get to erotica as a category when you browse using the Kindle. I go back to my peer group. Good sales numbers there. One publisher I spoke with suggested rocket launch-like trajectory since the launch of the Kindle.
Here’s a truth: ebooks sell far better than numbers from traditional publishers indicate. This is because there’s a huge market for erotica out there. Women buy erotic ebooks instead of purchasing physical books because, well, if you’re female and over thirty, you’ve been taught that good girls don’t go there. Actually, good girls do. They just do it under the radar. This is good and bad for the ebook industry.
Bad because there are powers dictating pricing and availability who are out of touch with real ebook consumers (granted there are those who are both in touch and responsive to these concerns — I salute you!). While I believe there are many factors that will contribute to the adoption of ebooks as a mainstream reading choice, I remain more convinced than ever that success is dependent on decoupling ebook prices from print book prices.
Reactions to ebooks continue to fascinate me. I have encountered a few “smell of books” people, but even they see the practicality of loading up a reader when traveling. “Oh,” they say, “that makes sense.” Especially now that airlines are more aggressively charging for overweight luggage. Have you ever had to redistribute your books at curbside check-in to reduce the heft of your suitcase?
I am increasingly convinced that ebooks are not going to be the next big thing. While every pundit waits eagerly for signs of an ebook “surge”, ebooks will increase market share in a slow and steady way. By the time it’s noticed, ebooks will simply be part of the mainstream reading mix. It’s closer to reality than you think.
I worry about that lack of consumer input in the epub standards debate.
I remain ever-convinced that the publishing industry doesn’t really know what’s going on out there in consumer-world; if they did, then they’d see how ebooks are being purchased and read by real readers. If you limit your definition of the average ebook reader to tech-savvy, male, or living on the West or East coast (or Austin), you really don’t understand this market.
It is important that we don’t confuse the failure of devices with the failure of ebooks. Devices, as is their nature, come and go as consumers try them on and deem them worthy or unworthy. That most e-reading devices haven’t caught fire isn’t a reflection on the market for electronic books. It’s a reflection on the failure of device manufacturers to understand the final link in the book chain. I am intrigued by the fact that the discussion about ebook standards and devices is taking place without the input of the key — the key — constituency: readers. Anyone ever ask them what they want?
No seriously, anyone ever ask the average ebook reader what she wants? This is where the music industry missed the boat. They were all about this standard, that standard, this DRM, that DRM, this device, that service, and in the meantime, the music consumer was like, “Dudes, we’re happy with MP3. Give us something that works with what works for us. We’re cool.”
So while the industry fiddled, music consumers gave up on the industry. They had something that worked just fine for them, yet, sigh, the music biz kept on trying to find something else. Anything else.
Please do not be confused. The consumer was once a placid, almost passive, beast. No longer. You cannot tell the consumer what they want and then expect them to desire it. No, no, no. Please, if you want to be successful, look at what is already embraced by the consumer — you don’t have to accept that as the standard, but you must surely build upon those successes. You are no longer in charge.
I’m going to say something that might hurt: nobody cares about your proprietary system. Consumers — for those who haven’t been paying attention, they remain the ones who pay for your product — want it to work. They want it work whenever, wherever, however. They don’t care that you’re debating standards and devising the “best thing for the industry”, because, well, if it isn’t the best thing for the readers, who gives a rip if the industry is singing hosannas? If you don’t have a market, a serious market, then the debate might have been exhilarating, but the outcome is moot.
Readers, baby, readers.
It is instructive to consider what is happening in the already-existing, already-robust ebook market. You know the one, where normal readers are already purchasing and reading ebooks with a vengeance? The one you keep pretending doesn’t exist while it flows right on by? The one of your are poaching for talent? The one that is making money. Without benefit of a Kindle. Without a Sony eReader. Without special software or technology or standards or even, praise be!, major corporate backing (imagine what this industry would be if some big publishers had gotten religion in 1998). It may not be the mega-market we were promised all those years ago, but it’s market on the way to becoming mature.
And from that market, we can discern key points of success:
Portability — Successful ebook publishers “print” their books in formats that work across platforms and devices. Mostly, avert your eyes, o weak ones!, as PDF files. PDF is a good format for ebooks (Harlequin you lost me with your new Adobe whatever…couldn’t activate it, the server was down, and I associate the experience with cranky frustration). Sure it doesn’t have all the crazy DRM stuff that you seem to love, but it has that ease-of-use that really attracts consumers. I can read a PDF on my laptop (Mac), on my work machine (PC), and, hopefully someday!, on my iPhone. PDF works on still-used-by-many Palm Pilots and boringly-ubiquitous Blackberries (though these latter devices don’t necessarily handle PDF with grace and ease). At a bare minimum, the future must contain ebooks that are as trouble-free and device agnostic as PDF.
The recently released .epub standard promises this level of flexibility, except, well, even though publishers provide the .epub files, the sellers get to convert the files to proprietary format. It’s like, wow, wipeout! You get a standard but it’s only a conduit for passing the files to sellers instead of a way to make the reading world a better place for readers (I don’t want to make light of the reduced burden this single standard places on publishers; it’s a great thing). If publishers are serious about ebooks — and I believe they are — then they need to fight for end-user standards and devices that use them.
It will be suicide if a commonly held standard is not adopted and utilized consistently across the industry — from publishers to reading systems. Do not make it hard for consumers to enjoy books; do not make the mistake of trying to force proprietary standards or a type of DRM where one isn’t needed or wanted. Already it’s happening: despite the announcement of the standard and subsequent industry enthusiasm, the Kindle, the first e-reader that could provide unfettered access to .epub texts, uses its own proprietary format. Is it really so much to ask that I get to choose when and how I read an ebook?
Don’t I, the consumer, deserve the flexibility to read a book I’ve purchased in the manner I deem most suitable? Who are you to tie me to a device or platform. Would you do that with paper books? Would you really say that the couch is fine, but the bathtub requires a second purchase? Your customers are not criminals.
Chunks and Alternative Content — Some books lend themselves to chunked information, chapters, sections, even paragraphs. If you want to know how to attached beaded board to a wall, do you really need to buy an entire tome dedicated to home remodeling? Or do you just need that one section and maybe a video? Ditto for computer books. Since O’Reilly’s Safari program began, we have reduced our household purchase of doorstops…books bought because some of the information was necessary, but that information was only available if you bought all the useless stuff surrounding it.
Ebooks are not “books” and the information doesn’t have be presented in the same old format. Live a little, respect the content, have fun. Re-visioning content to make it more relevant and usable is a really good thing.
The ebook of the future will almost certainly take different forms as the information demands. There will be straight text, there will be hyperlinked text, there will be rich text, audio, video, and mash-ups of sorts. Technology won’t change books, per se, but technology will allow books to become all they can be (sorry, couldn’t resist). But this will only work if the books continue to meet the above basic standards.
And books? What are books? Shouldn’t this really be about information? While I am certainly talking about books in the context we all know and love, any future standards must consider other forms of content. Perhaps we should recall that as we look to the future, we are not talking about “books” as much as we’re talking about “story”.
Reasonable Prices — Ebooks are not the same thing as, physical matter wise, hardcover or paperback books. Consumers — real consumers, the ones who talk about buying ebooks, who buy ebooks, and who simply don’t understand why publishers don’t understand the differences in product — don’t like paying hardcover and trade paperback prices for ebooks.
What is even more amusing is that ebooks are priced competitively with physical books that offer a higher degree of flexibility, portability, and readability. What up? Are you trying to build a market or kill a market?
These are the things that must be considered if you want to succeed in the world of epublishing. It is one thing to be dominant in your industry as it exists now, but, like all other industries, changes are happening. You may not have the luxury of recovering from a slow start, a botched beginning.
I like the debate about ebook standards and how the future might work, but I worry about that lack of consumer input. I am an ebook consumer. I have been reading ebooks since 1998 (which, to some, makes me a latecomer). I read in varying circumstances…shouldn’t I have a voice?
It is not surprising that Amazon has told publishers that it’s their POD (print-on-demand) service or no sales through Amazon. It is surprising that, well, anyone is surprised. Did y’all think Amazon was buying Booksurge for the fun of it? What other outcome did you expect?
Readers don’t care if a book ships from a massive warehouse or is, quite literally, hot off the press.
I am not joking. While the publishing industry worries about Google (and I am still convinced that working with search engines to optimize access to your content is in the best interest of everyone) and watches while Barnes & Noble moves further into traditional publisher territory, Amazon is amassing what is essentially a secret army. Amazon is a business, and like real businesses, engages in actions that further Amazon’s goals. Not yours…unless your goals dovetail with Amazon’s.
Businesses are not nice, fuzzy creatures that cuddle with you in the dark of the night and believe in fairy tales.
Your content is being locked to their device. Your content is being locked to their service. They get to set the terms — if the music industry hadn’t been so busy fighting consumers, they would have stroked their bearded chins and considered the fact that they lost the ability to dictate terms to a vendor. Apple owns the market; until that changes, well, the labels are victims of their own hubris. They fiddled, Rome burned, and a new empire emerged.
Your fear of piracy mirrors the actions of the music biz. You’re locked into format and device. While the Kindle isn’t near as popular as the iPod, it’s building a fan base. Sony eReaders consumers are locked out of the Amazon store. Other readers are locked out. You have allowed customers to become disenfranchised, and, unless my crystal ball is playing tricks on me, there will come a time when Amazon “encourages” you to explore new pricing structures.
POD is a lovely niche market right now, but the potential is incredible. The cost of creating a one-off book is within the range of most consumer pocketbooks. The process creates a shipping delay that is nearly transparent to consumers — if they’re ordered from Amazon, they know it takes a few days to get the book. Readers don’t care if a book ships from a massive warehouse or is, quite literally, hot off the press. They just want the book they want, when they want it, you know the rest.
It’s an incredibly retrograde step. All our recent talk about mass customisation entirely depends on open, independent manufacturing and distribution platforms - the opposite of what Amazon is trying to force on its suppliers. I have to say that we did see this coming, but it doesn’t excuse a clearly monopolistic and unethical action on Amazon’s part. We’ve yet to hear anything in the UK, but we’re going to be watching developments in the US with a keen interest.
Amazon’s monopolistic ways should give publishers all the more reason to get serious about the .epub format at the consumer level and experiment with alternatives to DRM, which is better at protecting monopolies and near-monopolies than at safeguarding books. When, oh when, will the book business catch up with the music business and back off from DRM and proprietary formats? Amusingly, Amazon is now the second-biggest seller of online music or close to it, partly because—guess what?—it is selling nonDRMed MP3s. Time to apply the same commonsense to e-books? Amazon’s share of the pie might not be as big as with DRM, but it’ll be a bigger pie, given all the hassles DRM creates for consumers. Jeeze. Ingenious rascal that Jeff can be at times, who’s to say that a 19th-century Bezos wouldn’t have sold oil lamps designed burn only his oil and able to illuminate only Amazon-blessed books?
Writers Weekly apparently broke this story wide open. As a niche publisher working almost exclusively in the print-on-demand, the Booklocker team (Booklocker is owned by the same people who run Writers Weekly) are faced with a choice: work with BookSurge — a company that didn’t do right by Booklocker in the past — or lose the Amazon sales. And, of course, like most other savvy publishing businesses, Booklocker must still work with Ingram’s Lightning Source.
And it is unclear how this will play out with Lightning Source. Amazon, surely, doesn’t want to mess with its Ingram relationship, and Ingram has built a pretty solid base of Lightning Source titles. Right now, it seems like only the straight POD houses are losing their “buy” buttons. Here’s guessing this is an opening salvo, not the final word.
Yes, I think that working with multiple vendors is a good thing, and, yeah, it’s going to cost companies more to convert books to multiple formats, but it sure beats being locked into a single provider. Right now, if you’re buying and selling in the online book market, you’re buying and selling with Amazon. This means you’re using their service, paying the fees they set, and smiling through the pain.
On the positive side, well, you can officially say that POD has come into its own.
It’s like we invented the written word, and we decided to only write books.
Anyone cringing? Feeling a twinge of guilt? Sort of thinking “that’s me, that’s what I’m doing”? Then, “But, hey, books are the be-all and end-all of storytelling, I’m cool.”
No worries, mates! That quote wasn’t directed at you. Jane McGonigal was talking to gamers. Talking about the idea that they have, uh, confined their medium to the screen (or box, take your pick). During her fantastic (who knew there was a “Soldier Boy” dance) SXSW Keynote, McGonigal stressed the importance of bringing alternate reality as practiced in games to the reality the rest of us think we’re practicing. She believes the latter can lead to more happiness in the former.
Having experienced the latter, I think McGonigal’s approach makes sense. It is perhaps revealing that the leaders of the discussion about the future of storytelling are gamers. The gaming industry has not only grasped the necessity of good story as part of their future, but has made huge strides in incorporating new ways to tell stories into their world.
(As an aside, the gaming industry has also realized the importance of using story to build stuff like character, teach leadership skills, and find happiness.)
Television and movies, obviously, have a huge stake in storytelling (stop laughing, it’s true! Not everything is Paradise Hotel.), and they have certainly taken steps toward expanding their stories beyond film. While what was done with Lost worked really well (and that is a tribute to solid backstory leading into current story), most extended storytelling falls flat, doesn’t do the job of convincing the participant to suspend disbelief, or feels like an extended commercial. There hasn’t been a lot of telling in the stories perpetuated by these groups.
Naturally, another group that has taken a leadership role in alternative storytelling is advertising. Man, have they gotten the religion. Sure, it’s a messy, poorly executed religion, but you’re seeing advertisers take on storytelling as a way to sell stuff like never before. Like motion pictures, the clear object is selling, so the execution never quite feels organic. While I’m sure most advertisers will see the negative rate of return as a deterrent in the not-to-distant future, I expect we’ll see a lot of clunky attempts to merge storytelling with soap-selling before that happens.
One of the key problems with today’s Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) is that they are largely marketing driven. More on that in a moment.
Hmm, seems like there’s another group who could jump on that same bandwagon. Give me a minute…
Oh right. The publishing industry. Wow. Man. Think about it. An entire business focused on storytelling. Whether it be non-fiction or fiction, all product for this industry is about story. Of course, yeah, all that story seems to be limited to…books.
Books are great. Without books, I’m not sure I’d know where to turn. I can only spend so much time with my laptop (though I am totally intrigued by McGonigal’s new game The Lost Ring — if it’s a sport nobody else has mastered, maybe I have a chance) (ps, If you don’t hear from for a while, well, I’ve succumbed.). Books are so important to me.
But so is story. And I’m not unique. Books require a very specific time and space commitment. But our species — great and small — needs story in many times and spaces. We need story to help us achieve our own goals, to meet our own needs.
I know that Penguin UK is — brilliantly — stretching the boundaries of story in ways that other publishers are still dithering about in endless meetings (there is a lot to be said for trying, failing, and learning valuable lessons, then repeating the cycle). In fact, their long-rumored foray into ARGs was pretty much confirmed at this year’s SXSW (oh sure, the fact that one of the top firms in the world is working with Penguin could be red herring, but I believe we have something incredible just over the horizon; in the meantime, look for more excitement from this place in the next few weeks.). But, well, wow, short of the short stories being posted online by some publishers, I’m not getting a sense that the one industry that owns the territory is all that eager to hold its ground.
Think about it — books are not dying off, but readers are migrating to other venues. Non-readers are picking up on storytelling due to new forms (think of that age-old divide between oral and written word). New technology allows the story to expand in many ways: multiple authors, multiple storylines, multiple media.
Your attempts don’t have to be ARG great as much as they need to be thinking book plus. Or book and beyond. Or book, well, that’s one way to get this story out.
However, a caution. Today’s ARGs fail their audience in a singular way: they are limited in duration. One-time campaigns. Task-driven versus brand-driven mentality.
Put another way, they are funded by short-term marketing budgets. Imagine, if you will, an engaged, passionate audience. An audience willing to go to incredible lengths to play this game. Then the game ends and, wow, can you believe this, the audience is sent into the twilight? McGonigal acknowledged that this was a limitation of the current business model — and all but challenged the audience to find a better model — but, wow, I mean, you have all those people. And you let them go?
Good authors know that you always leave them wanting more, leave them actively seeking more (and, no, I’m so not talking about endless sequels featuring barely noticeable secondary characters). Now is the time for the publishing industry to stand up and show what real storytelling encompasses, saving the book business along the way.
Though I hesitate to make predictions, I’ve always been a bandwagon sort of girl, so here is mine for 2008 (what? too late? never.): 2008 will be the year that ebooks go mainstream. In the ten years I’ve been writing about epublishing and ebooks, the dual stories of the ubiquity of ebooks and the death of the novel have made headlines, the latter surely more than the former.
People outside the publishing industry are talking about ebooks.
In 1996, Hardshell Word Factory was established as an epublisher. In 1998, I wrote a profile of Mary Z. Wolf, the former author turned publisher who had bought Hardshell from its founder. And, in 1998, the Romance Writers of America was roiled by the first of its continuing internal battles about epublishing and how the format fits into the organization. If I thought the pitched battles then were hardcore, I soon realized they were nothing compared with what was to come.
The RWA’s problem, from my perspective, is that both sides wanted epublishing to be something it was not. The traditionalists applied traditional publishing standards and mores to a new, often experimental medium. The epublished group often touted facts and figures that were more predictions than reality. The issue of epublishing has been a polarizing force for the RWA; it is my belief that unhealed wounds have stagnated the organization’s ability to apply logic and foresight to non-traditional publishing, leaving many RWA members unprepared for the future.
Mixed up in the epublishing/ebook argument is the question of how one reads these books. Starting with the brick-like Rocket eBook and continuing to the Kindle, ereaders remain the annointed killer device. If only people would realize it, you know?
Seriously, it’s not about the device, though if I were asked to sit down with someone who has lots and lots of money, I’d be happy to design the perfect ereader (Steve Jobs, if you need my phone number…). eBooks are a growing force in the market. If you poke around outside the New York publishing industry, you will soon find that normal Americans are reading ebooks. Weirdly (or perhaps happily), many don’t realize that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Detractors of epublishing believe that bound and printed book is the perfect machine; they cannot imagine that anyone would willingly spend hours in front of a computer screen or staring at a reading device. Many of these detractors worry that new technology will kill the old. These are the folks who need to take a very strong chill pill.
The first step to understanding is ebooks is the realization that this is the modern world: you do not have to have an either/or mentality. If you like your books in print format, buy and read your books in print format. If you like your books in electronic format, ditto. And if you’re like an increasing number of humans who like variety and flexibility, the reading world is your magical realm.
eBooks complement print books. They are not a challenge, they are not a replacement, and they are not trying to kill the novel.
Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle has, if anything, introduced the notion of ebooks into the mainstream of reading. Before I was someone babbling about foreign concepts; last week, a colleague who resides more comfortably in the tried-and-true of technology pulled up an article and told me, rather excitedly, that the Kindle thing I’d mentioned was cited as one of the technological great leaps forward for 2008.
My word: not good enough. Computer magazine mashing up the top tech stories of the past six months: gold.
The Kindle is just a vehicle. The Sony Reader is just a vehicle. My lovely iBook (which is still going strong after all these years) is vehicle. Your cell phone is just a vehicle. Your [fill in favorite handheld PDA here] is just a vehicle. All of these tools are how readers access books to read. Fiction, non-fiction, long books, short books, snippets, and more.
The only thing that can kill the mainstreaming of ebooks is the publishing industry itself. As major music companies finally put the nail in the coffin of DRM (finally Sony might do something right with its massive software library), publishers must do the same. Tying books to hardware makes no logical sense. Limiting my ability to read a book that I’ve legally purchased on the device of my choice only frustrates me. The music biz has been twisting in the wind for a good decade now because they’ve spent so much time trying to stop the future that they’ve lost the audience.
People outside the publishing industry are talking about ebooks. The conversation is no longer of the “huh?” variety, but rather of the “I think I’m going to check this out” and “You know, I can take a dozen books on vacation” variety.
I don’t think ebook sales with eclipse print book sales anytime soon. There are many reasons for that. But I do believe that 2008 is the year the conversation changes. My next question is: can the industry embrace the future?
Bubbling under the surface of various discussions about entertainment media is the question nobody in the industry wants asked: what is the value of what we’re selling to our customers? With physical media, it’s easy enough to point to a book and say, “You get all that and more!”
The device I choose today might be different tomorrow.
With digital media, consumers are scratching their heads. Especially since the fashion is to make the use of digital media less flexible than physical media. It’s a particularly interesting question for the book business — how do you go from a culture that encourages, on various levels, sharing to one that makes it a crime to trade reading material?
Think about it: it is expected that people will pass on favorite books to friends (”read this, you’ll love it”), we accept as a given that used bookstores will introduce readers to new authors, heck, even the library has an aura of free (though I would like to remind all readers that this is not the case; we need to be aware of how libraries are funded and make sure that funding is protected). I’m not just talking about sharing books between friends — I’m talking about sharing books between family members and even devices.
If I cannot easily move content between my laptop (which, contrary to popular belief, I don’t take everywhere) and my iPhone (in theory someone will develop a killer reader app) and my Kindle (Santa might bring one, you never know) and some other device to be named later or developed next week, then what good is that book? I am a huge re-reader. I am a flaky consumer. The device I choose today might be a different item tomorrow. You cannot trust me.
Ebooks are not a one size fits all concept. Some readers are enjoying long-form fiction in that format. Others are looking for short reads. Some find the ease of electronic reference materials to be a lifesaver — the husband has been a happy camper since joining O’Reilly Media’s Safari program. Not only has he reduced his purchase of doorstops — doorstops that become obsolete when software changes — but he’s able to find answers to nagging questions instantly.
Notably, sometimes he’s working at his desktop, sometimes he’s working on his laptop, sometimes I allow him the pleasure of using my machine (this gives him the opportunity to note that my memory and storage are nowhere near his. which in turns allows me to note that it’s getting be time for a new laptop). O’Reilly offers him the right amount of flexibility at a reasonable price.
I cannot overemphasize how important this flexibility is. Why would any consumer want to pay physical product prices for less freedom of use? Restricting use lowers the value of the product to the customer. Of course, restricting use also lowers potential sales as explored in a recent AP article about ebooks:
When major publishers sell e-books, they encrypt the files with so-called DRM, or digital rights management, technology. It keeps the buyers from passing on the files to others, at minimum. DRM sometimes does other things as well, like preventing printing, or setting an expiration date after which the book is no longer legible.
DriveThruRPG abandoned DRM in 2005. Customers hated the hassle of dealing with it, and it didn’t offer very good protection against piracy, Wieck said. Now, the site sells unprotected PDFs with a faint “watermark” with the customer’s name on every page. Sales rose 30 percent after the change.
There is a belief that DRM is the only way to fight piracy. Not true. There is also a belief that every pirated version of book is a lost sale. Also not true. Here at BSHQ, we have had two (two!) documented instances of DRM authentication failures in the past month (and don’t get me started on the frustration that happened when the totally unnecessary iTunes authorization server failed, delaying my happiness with the iPhone for a day). The authorization servers failed in both instances. Products paid for, not usable, more hassle for us, the people who’d fulfilled our end of the bargain than necessary.
Will I be buying ebooks that require use of Adobe’s Digital Reader or whatever it’s called again? No. My enthusiasm ebbed when I had to download and install special software. It waned when I received repeated failure to authenticate, try again later messages. It completely disappeared when Adobe’s customer service told me that resolving my problem would require a phone call during specific business hours.
Yeah right. Digital rights management should not make my life harder. This is a valuable lesson for all publishers to learn. I don’t want to be a pirate. I am more than happy to pay for convenience and ease of use. I am lazy. In the case of these books, I was making an impulse purchase — I had no real need for the books nor did I plan to purchase them in physical format. Had this experiment worked to my satisfaction, I would likely make the same type of impulsive purchase many times in the future.
This is the price of entertainment: customer satisfaction.
What are you giving the customer versus what are you taking away? In the case of O’Reilly’s Safari, you gain up-to-date reference books in a flexible environment for a reasonable monthly fee. In the case of DRMd ebooks — whether they be from a publisher or via Amazon — you get device lock-in and lack of flexibility.
I might be the odd one out here, but I do not believe that ebooks will “replace” physical books, at least in my lifetime. I see the two as complementary. It is very important to stop seeing the two as competition. It’s time to focus on reality: different formats require different pricing structures, royalty models, and marketing strategies.
On an unrelated note (but hey, gotta fit everything in today!), I was greatly (greatly!) amused by the attempts of the Associated Press to find a new angle on the ebook story:
But if you look away from the mainstream publishing industry, e-books are already a success in a few niches, where they are giving rise to new ways of doing business. The standout example is role-playing games, but buyers of college textbooks and even romance novels are warming to e-books.
Even romance novels? Oh, man, where have you people been? Do you honestly think that Harlequin’s decision to offer its entire frontlist in electronic format was the result of an overnight decision? No, sillies. Harlequin has been watching the ebook market carefully over the past ten years and realizing that there are a lot of romance readers out there who are happily buying and reading ebooks.
These readers have been flying under the mainstream radar for far too long, but trust me when I say that ignoring this customer base means ignoring the real readers. Oh, and this relates to price on a most basic level: these readers have a set of price expectations that fly in the face of conventional publishing wisdom (I think Harlequin is still setting prices too high, but I also think they’re experimenting wildly…and that’s fine by me, they’re going to find the right mix of technology and pricing). The authors of these books also have a new set of expectations: they are accustomed to receiving 30 - 40% of every dollar earned by their publisher.
Ebooks will probably be the de facto choice a half dozen or so generations down the line. Today’s ebooks are a consumer choice. To buy electronic or to buy print (or to avoid making the purchase at all) is dependent on a set of factors unique to each individual. It is incumbent upon publishers to remember this — and to consider the price paid by the customer in money, time, and flexibility when making these books available.
I am cranky. You’ve been warned. So I’m minding my own business, or, rather, minding other people’s business as I cruise the Internet when what has to be one of the dumber notions to cross my screen appears. Given the stuff I read online every day, this is really saying something.
Devices don’t make pirates. Unreasonable barriers make pirates.
In what has to be a desperate attempt to find a new angle on the now-waning Kindle story, a few writers have speculated that the Kindle can spark book piracy. Yeah. That’s what the world needs to worry about. The Kindle and piracy. Uh huh.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of faith in the ingenuity of my species. There has always been and will always be a percentage of humanity that believes it’s better to live outside the law. Even though Amazon made it near-impossible for people to share books with members of their own family, I believe that there are busy little beavers out there trying hack the Kindle’s DRM. And, frankly, the way the DRM on this device has been implemented, there’s a certain level of begging people to thwart the system.
The music industry — and to a large degree, the motion picture business — really screwed up when it became obvious that consumers wanted to access music online. Rather that making it easy and affordable for customers to get the music they wanted in the format they wanted, the music industry spent a good decade, untold millions, and countless hours of meetings trying to create a standard or process or method that worked for the industry.
Had the music biz thought, “Wow, we should listen to the people who want our music”, I would wager that piracy would be a much smaller problem. By continually and repeatedly erecting concrete blast walls and — you gotta love this approach — treating all customers like criminals, the music industry turned piracy into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If iTunes has taught us anything, it is that flexible, easy-to-use, affordable music will get people to open their wallets.
You know, this is so obvious that I feel kind of dumb saying it. Again. Devices don’t make pirates. Unreasonable barriers make pirates. Most people are happy to pay for convenience — and let’s all be perfectly frank here: pirating books is not necessarily the most fun thing you can do on the high seas (it’s also not that hard if you’re seeking current releases). If it were easy for me to get all the ebook formats I can purchase on the Kindle, man, I’d be ordering two (one for me, one for the husband, we don’t share well).
If book piracy increases, do not blame the Kindle. It’s shooting the messenger. Blame Amazon and the publishing industry. I can’t download a book from the eHarlequin store and store it on my laptop and a Kindle. I have to buy the Kindle version. This means I have to commit to my reading device when I make a purchase. That’s just wrong.
I can’t buy a PDF ebook from another retailer and easily read it on the Kindle. Amazon, maybe not fully grasping the beauty of the iPod, has chosen to try to lock device to retailer.
Bad move. Very bad move. I am a grown human with a decent job. I pay my taxes on time (or rather, someone in my household ensures I am not committing a crime). I read like I breathe. I take far too many books on vacation. I am never more than five feet away from reading material. All I ask is that the people whose job it is to get books to me (you know who you are) make it as easy as possible for me to read those books.
I am tired — tired!! — of reliving the Beta versus VHS scenario. I don’t want to buy any media in any format while living in fear that my hardware (or software) will be obsolete in a year. I am not a pirate. Never have been, look lousy in an eyepatch (also horizontal stripes? Let’s get real.). Is it so hard to understand that treating the customer like someone who is giving you money for goods and services is a good thing?
The Kindle will not spark book piracy. Pirates aren’t nuts about putting several hundred dollars into a device unless the return on investment is worthwhile. As long as the publishing industry, and this includes Amazon because I am convinced they worked more with the industry than the consumer on the Kindle, treats its customers like pirates, these same customers will decide that that publishers don’t value them.
That’s what sparks book piracy, gang.
Piracy lives in the DNA in some people. But most of us just want to get our entertainment media in a convenient, affordable manner. Rather than building better pirates, maybe more time should be spent on creating happy customers.
So, yeah, you’re thinking that the Apple announcements yesterday were interesting. You’re thinking, wow, I didn’t want to spend a month’s worth of book money on a phone, but, hey, they lowered the price. Or maybe you’re thinking you didn’t need a new phone. But everyone can use an iPod. Especially since iPods are now more versatile than ever.
Put on your magic thinking cap and make the best of this technology.
I mean, to be more versatile, they’d have to work in the shower.
I admit it. I wanted an iPhone for my birthday. Didn’t get one. Okay, fine. But, through one of those twists of fate that can only be called fortuitous, the battery on my iPod has decided that it’s simply not interested in this mortal coil. At the same time, I’m seeing my super-cute pink phone as a liability. How can you take me seriously when my phone is pink*?
Practical is (almost) my middle name. Great timing, never my forte, has shone upon me. When Steve Jobs announced the new “i” product line, I can well imagine that every person in the book industry sat up and took note. Finally, we all said, a product for us!
Truly, nobody was left out of the food chain. Except maybe distributors, but that’s only until the inevitable hacks come online. Do not worry, people who get the books from the publishers to the customers. Your day is nigh.
Let us count the ways the new iPod can make book people happy (most apply to the iPhone too, plus you can call your mother):
Readers: Ah readers, the people who keep this whole crazy business afloat. How often have you been out shopping, only to find that you are unable to make an informed decision: this book or that book? Well, let’s glance at our most trusted website and get the necessary information. Ah, that book.
A transaction well done.
Readers can use the native WiFi connectivity to connect to the web, check email (provided the email is web-enabled), and find information. This is good for readers. It’s also good for…
Authors: Hello. YouTube enabled right out of the box. Book trailers, check. Also, remember the iTunes store supports PDF files. Oh my, the possibilities are endless. Your blog? Just a browser address away. And what are the people saying about your new book? Let’s check with the…
Reviewers: It’s all very well and good when someone is sitting safely at her desk, reading your profound analysis of a novel. But isn’t even sweeter when that person is standing in a bookstore, trying to make a major decision. Your words of wisdom can lead to a purchase of a book, in real time. Is there any greater joy than knowing you’ve given back to an author who gave you so much (or, perhaps, is there any greater joy than knowing you saved a reader ten bucks…while steering said reader to something much more worthy?)?
Finally there is a device that brings together the holy trinity: readers, reviewers, and…
Booksellers: Dudes, WiFi. Offer it. Make sure your customers can connect to the web and find books. Then you can sell them stuff. I mean, who can walk into a bookstore and walk out empty-handed? Nobody.
Make sure your store is iPodTouch/iPhone friendly. That person who looks like he’s sending illicit text messages? He’s really checking out the title of William Gibson’s latest book (Spook Country, unless you’re reading this in the future). Look…there he goes, over to the correct spot in your store.
Ah, life is good.
Hmm. Seems like I forgot somebody. You have readers, authors, reviewers, booksellers, ah, right…
Publishers: This is it, kids, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Finally you can be part of the fab online world. You have the technology — and the means to bring together all of the elements that lead to the goal. Yes. Books and customers. Has there ever been a better moment than this?
Think about it. Content, video, audio, links, more links, more audio, more video, more content. The iTunes store. Magic. Gives you chills, doesn’t it?
There are some catches here; there are always catches. All of you crazy kids who thought that optimizing your website for some obscure version of Internet Explorer was the be-all and end-all of HTML? Clean up your code. Make sure you look like a million buck in Safari, the native browser (ah, Apple, throw the Firefox contingent a bone…Safari is, well, nice, but Firefox? You could rule the world.).
You need to think freedom (and, if you’re believing you’ll make a bundles on wireless charges, free). You need to put on your magic thinking cap and look at how you can make the best of this technology without veering into the world of obnoxious.
Also, remember that as much as we all like to pretend it isn’t so, there are only so many shopping days until the major gift-giving season is upon us. Think of all those bright and shiny and happy faces opening their new iPods/iPhones/possibly cooler device to be released between now and then. Don’t you want to be part the magic?
* - Of course, knowing how much I spend on shoes, how can you take me seriously at all?
One of the great features of the Booksquare/Medialoper complex is the awesome production studio. It’s not unusual for the team (cats, humans, squirrels, random strangers) to go straight from the conference facilities to the microphone to talk about the big ideas of our era. Luckily for you, cooler heads often prevail the next morning.
Except this time. Kirk Biglione interviewed author Timothy Sykes about his experiences with self-publishing and print-on-demand for Medialoper. Then Kirk thought, “You know, that chick who writes for Booksquare has a lot of opinions on this topic.” A glass(ish) of wine later…voila! Or maybe…two for price of one. Part one of the podcast is Kirk’s interview. Part two, well, you’ve been warned.
It is not a surprise that traditional entertainment companies are turning to the Internet to find new talent. In fact, the surprise would be if they weren’t. Not only is the web a great place to showcase talent, but it also gives editors, agents, producers, whomever the opportunity to observe fan reaction.
Self-publisher works for a certain type of author.
Over at Literary Kicks, there’s a lengthy discussion about the dysfunctional nature of (literary) fiction pricing. I use the parentheses because while the site’s focus is literary fiction, the problem is widespread. I’m sending you there to read that discussion; I want to hone in on something various respondents mentioned.
Behind the scenes, a lot of discussion goes into the format for a particular book. For much genre fiction, the choice to go with mass market paperback is almost reflexive. Other titles, especially if they’re being positioned as something not-quite-genre, might get the trade paperback original treatment (TPO for short). Then some authors are graduated to hardcover — the be-all and end-all of publishing.
On the literary side of the publishing spectrum, the traditional choice was to start with hardcover. As you read through the Literary Kicks on Literary Kicks, you’ll understand why: review attention, library sales, even appearance. These are all serious considerations (though, in all honesty, these days, the review thing is more myth than reality.).
Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press started me thinking when he broke down the numbers between releasing a new-to-the-world author in hardcover versus trade paperback:
That’s why you’re seeing fewer and fewer hardcover debuts. There is virtually no existing audience for that writer. So a great review could come through, and you could break even on the hardcover from institutional sales to libraries, but 500 human being have read that book, and when the next one comes you, you’ve 500 fans, not 5,000.
Days later, I read an article about the new deal between Chronicle Books and Blurb.com. For those who somehow missed out on the Blurb.com love last year, it’s the latest, greatest print-on-demand house. Blurb puts out a gorgeous product. Think POD coffee table books.
[Side note: one thing that is quietly emerging in the POD world is the rise of the specialized POD service. Blurb, for example, isn’t geared toward novel-length works. BookSurgeis more for novels. SharedBook targets yet another audience, an audience seeking to go from web to print. This one-size-doesn’t-fit all approach allows the industry to grow while meeting a wide range of customer needs.]
This deal is unusual from the get-go (or maybe it’s usual and I’ve been living under a rock). Chronicle will be steering not-ready-for-primetime authors to Blurb. For their efforts, Chronicle will be receiving a, shall we say?, fee from Blurb for the referral. The author will be positioned to grow an audience with a highly professional looking print product. Chronicle, wiping its brow with relief as the author develops a fan base, can then swoop in and sign said author to a major label deal.
For the type of author seeking to publish with Chronicle, given the type of books published by Blurb, this might be a really good fit (it might also convince the author that it doesn’t need the publisher at all, but that’s another issue entirely). For the rest of the publishing world? Well, Newsweek, citing the story of “niche” author E. Lynn Harris — apparently the publishing industry thought the African-American market couldn’t generate sales — this as an opportunity for authors “…to woo a large audience.”
While I am enthusiastic about the Blurb product, I am not convinced that the Blurb approach is right for authors like Harris, much less other authors. Prices at Blurb start at $12.95 for a 40-page trade paperback. Yeah, you read that right. Forty pages. The customer for this product is not your basic novelist. Maybe a cartoonist or comic book artist could find a profitable niche here, but the long-form writer isn’t going to go in this direction.
On the other hand, as noted by Publisher’s Weekly Calvin Reid (quoted in the article), there are more than a few authors the publishing industry is “…hesitant to take on without an existing sales record.” While it’s a sad truth, the reality is that authors increasingly need to show they can sell books before they get a publishing contract. In other words, it helps if you walk through the door with a fan base.
That is why I strongly encourage a good website, blog, something to help you build that core audience that will jumpstart your sales when your book is released.
But as I read the story on Blurb and Chronicle, I kept thinking that there’s building audience and then there’s building audience. Self-publishing works for a certain type of author, but self-publishing a book is just a (expensive) first step. The hard part comes when you have to sell the books you’ve published.
[BS: The BS team is taking a well-deserved rest cure, but that doesn’t stop the fun around here (nothing stops the fun around here). We asked Malle Valik of Harlequin to discuss her company’s recent decision to release their full frontlist in ebook format. More specifically, we asked her to address the question of “who buys ebooks”? Fullish disclosure here: the question arose at a recent conference where, buoyed by just a drop of wine, we argued quite forcefully with a gentleman who assured us that women — especially women who don’t reside in major coastal cities — don’t read nor buy ebooks. Naturally, this statement runs counter to everything we know about ebook customers.]
We decided to go to 100% frontlist for a couple of key reasons. First our readers are buying eBooks and have been asking for a wider selection of titles. Also, we strongly believe that digital is a growth area for all publishers and the more titles offered by all publishers the more the eBook market as a whole will grow. As a result we are releasing more than 120 title a month. 120 is our frontlist, and then we publish some exclusive products (Spice Briefs and the Harlequin Mini) and put together bundles of backlist. That frequently adds up to 140 titles a month.
Women don’t select technology because they think it is cool; they embrace technology when they understand the benefits. The Harlequin customer is a woman; the fact that we are the first publisher to offer our complete frontlist as eBooks really shows that women are keen for this format because they understand the benefits – convenience, immediacy, portability and no need for more book shelves! What if it’s 2:00 a.m. Monday morning in the middle of snow storm if you suddenly experience a reading emergency [BS: Reading emergencies happen far more often than some people realize. You want to see abject panic? Steal all books from the house just as an avid reader is nearing the conclusion of her current book. Do not try this without proper safety equipment]? For example, you have finished reading Susan Mallery’s Silhouette Desire and have nothing else to read. You recall she also has a single title out from HQN. Voila! You can buy it, download it and start reading it without having to get changed, get in your car and drive. Immediate pleasure!
eBooks are very well-suited to the needs of female readers; in fact, as we were entering this field in October 2005, the major eRetailers were encouraging us because romance was the fastest growing genre in eBooks. And the main reason for this is that romance readers are women; and the majority of these readers are avid readers. These are women who pack 10 books in a suitcase for a 4-day trip.
[BS: It helps the Harlequin is pricing their books just below the price of the print editions, plus discounts. eBook customers want pricing structures that reflect the format of what they’re purchasing; avid readers like those discussed by Malle invest serious dollars in books every month.]
We are very excited by ongoing developments in the eBook market that bring in more readers. New devices and marketing expertise are great. We are still waiting for the “tipping point” when eBooks become as universal as downloading music!
Nothing like the first Monday after a lovely vacation to get the creative juices flowing. Hmm, that is so not true. The Monday after a lovely vacation is spent contemplating the possibility of the permanent vacation. Why, oh why, must we work to eat? Shouldn’t life be free?
It’s all about the mailing list.
Alas, life is not free. Do not see this as sad; see it as opportunity. Yeah, that’s taking it too far. Sorry. Still thinking mai tais and snorkeling. Let’s try again. In today’s world, artists and producers (writers and publishers) need to be creative about their business. Like it or not — and it seems most publishers, especially, are in the not column — consumer habits are changing. Thus business needs to change.
Right before the BS team hit the islands, major changes happened in the music industry. Radiohead, currently without a recording contract, self-released its new album and allowed customers to choose how much they would like to pay. One source pegs revenue at $10 million, with an average price per album of eight dollars. Not bad, considering that the cost of distribution of this product was very cheap — it’s all digital with no messy pick, pack, and ship associated with it. Okay, some ship, but why quibble.
Oasis, another reasonably popular band (though very much past their heyday), is also without a major label deal. So are Nine Inch Nails. Oh, and Madonna made it official: she’s getting big bucks from LiveNation and dumping Warner Brothers. The Madonna situation is very different from the others and is thrown into the mix just for fun. What is interesting is that the three bands have determined that they can cut the middleman.
The article noted above (here, for reference) compares the Radiohead experiment to the failed Stephen King experiment of a few years ago. As far as analogous situations, it’s probably the only one that comes close. I’ve never thought that Stephen King’s experiment was well-considered or well-executed. Good idea, needed refinement. He is one of the few authors who could pull a Radiohead and succeed. It would be hard, but he has the fan base necessary to make this work.
It is important to note that the $10 million that Radiohead earned went straight to the band. Though there are clearly fluctuations as some people paid more, some paid less, this means they moved over a million album units worldwide during their initial release. By way of comparison, Kanye West — a more mainstream (as defined by me based on ubiquity and airplay) artist — moved 957,000 units of his album in the first week. Most musicians don’t see numbers in that range. Like the publishing industry, the superstars sell lots and lots of product, but the majority of artists don’t.
Another key point to note is the average price paid by the consumers: eight dollars. Again, there are fluctuations that must be considered. Radiohead has a fairly rabid fan base, the kind who support their band like a religion, despite the lack of popular approval. Think about it: how much Radiohead do you hear on the radio? Yet this group, when given the choice, valued the media at a lower price point than most albums.
Part of this is the media. Fans weren’t getting a physical object, so why pay for the packaging and storage? Part of the calculation was the value of the music. Note that many of these fans will also see this band play live the next time they tour. The recorded music has a certain value to the fans, but the live performance has a different value. And the merchandise? Well, that also has value to the fans as well.
In addition to sales, Radiohead also did something really major. They added to what I imagine is a fairly impressive mailing list. As Kirk Biglione noted (over the aforementioned mai tais), they made a direct, ongoing connection with their customers. Sure, some of the sales were related to the novelty factor (Kirk’s, for example), but a percentage of those new-to-Radiohead customers will be buying the next release. The tours and merchandise will benefit from this experiment.
So where did Stephen King go wrong? Well, I imagine that he built up his mailing list via his experiment, so if he did that much, then it was surely worth the time and effort. Never underestimate the power of the mailing list. Since the model for his experiment was an online serial that would be published as long as a certain percentage of the audience paid into the system, that would be the fatal flaw. King should have set a minimum for access, especially since this serialized novel was a bonus for his readers. Let’s face facts: most readers prefer physical product to digital.
And making payment optional devalued the product somewhat. Creating a subscription model — you get this book, serialized over a period of time for this price — would have made for a far more interesting (and I’d wager, successful) experiment. Another benny? Offering the finished book as a physical product at the end of the serialization. Discount to the subscribers, full price to the new readers. Heck, throw in some autographs and you have fans and publicity all over the place.
And when it came to the finished book, King could have self-published (though he might not want to deal with the associated overhead) or gone through a traditional route. Unless I miss my guess, the sum total of King fans out there exceeds the number of fans who would participate in the serialization experiment. Publishers get the willies when they think they’re selling something that has already been exploited, but this is Stephen King. He’s going to make both immediate and long tail sales. Anyone not willing to take this risk is going to lose in the new media world.
Not every author is Stephen King, just as not every band is Radiohead. Musicians are seeing free downloads as a way to build a fan base. Even with the costs of touring, most make their money live than via album sales. Authors, naturally, don’t tour in the same way (this is a good thing, as you know if you’ve attended live readings; different skill set). So it’s time to be creative, even if it’s just baby steps.
Can you offer serialized content to readers? Why not? Are you going to get money for this content? Probably not. You can try, but my guess is that the money will flow for more established authors or publishers who employ this model. Advertising on your website might work, but you have to work long and hard to build up the numbers to support that approach.
But if you’re an author trying to build a readership, then giving it away for free might not be the worst idea. Yeah, I can see the look of fear thanks to the magic of the Internet. If you’re serializing and building a mailing list — and let’s face facts, you need to build a mailing list now, not later — then when you do sell that book, you’re way ahead of the game. Not only do you have a group of readers who like your stuff, but you have a way of communicating with them.
Like I said, it’s the mailing list, baby. It’s all about the mailing list.
Some of your are thinking, “Why is she so obsessed with this strike?” Others, I hope, are seeing the appropriate parallels between what is happening with the Hollywood writers and you. Authors are surely noting that these writers are fighting for better compensation. Publishers are seeing that, as with music, creative talent has leverage.
It is interesting that, despite being the oldest of entertainment industries, the publishing industry is lagging behind its siblings when it comes to online exploitation. I see this as a chance for publishing professionals to get it right while the music and film businesses engage in serial mistakes. Even the gaming monolith has done a better job than the other two.
Other sources are picking up on the idea that this strike will offer opportunity for online content creators and providers. There are many interesting thoughts out there — ranging from “it was a good idea when I started” to “yeah, but…”. Today, we’re dealing with the former.
The Writers Guild of America has issued “strike rules” (thereby destroying my last cherished belief about anarchy and labor), and there are prohibitions against writing for online/mobile media as it pertains to “struck” companies. Some stories I’ve read refer to this as “wiggle room” in the rules (why is today a quotes day?). Actually, it’s nothing of the sort. The WGA holds a contract with the various members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (”AMPTP”). Since many members of the AMPTP have gone on a media-outlet buying frenzy, yeah, those outlets are party to the rules:
With regard to programming made for non-traditional media (such as the Internet and cellular telephones), this Rule prohibits writing services performed for a struck company in connection with new programming intended for initial release on non-traditional media and the option or sale of literary material for this purpose.
And while it’s possible that some online outfits might eventually become signatories to the “Minimum Basic Agreement” and writers might justifiably be cautious about writing for non-signatory companies, these discussions are focusing on the wrong point.
Focusing energy on writing for online outlets shows an alarming willingness to maintain the status quo. While the proposed Guild residual rate of 2.5% of every online dollar is interesting and possibly quite lucrative (depending on how the credit roll), writers should also be looking at ways to maintain a higher level of compensation and creative control related to their work. Yes, this requires that the writer either partner with the business savvy or develop business acumen. It’s okay. It’s legal.
The current model dictates that the producers “own” the show. Flip it around and turn the producers into distributors (currently, some wear both hats) and you’re seeing a different compensation model. Residuals are just one avenue for writers rather than the end game. Companies like Break.com are soliciting writers because they see the potential for quality content.
The money? It’s still uncertain how much, how long, when. Some of these online companies are funded by parents with deep pockets — and a willingness to pay for talent and quality content.
The WGA cannot enter into agreements with every online video startup and given the the fluid nature of this market, it might not be in the best interest of anyone to be bound in this manner (which is what the producers are saying, though their gist is different). But guidelines can be drafted, utilized, and, best of all, revamped as the market grows, settles, contracts, grows, and wanders off in new and interesting directions.
There is one certainty in this new world: he who owns the content, owns the content. Once upon a time, artists found it more efficient to give away the rights they should keep. In today’s changing world, it makes more sense for artists to adopt a stingier attitude.
Last week’s reception for Amazon’s Kindle was, to put it kindly, rough. I admit it: I was expecting something more exciting. Something more egalitarian. Something I could put on my Amazon Wishlist. Good thing I’m an eternal optimist. I really do think a good e-reader is important to the world, and here are two reasons why.
Save trees, money, space. All with one device.
One of the so-called perks of being a book reviewer are the books. They just keep on coming. Lots and lots of books. More than I can ever read, even though I really want to curl up with all of them. I love the serendipity involved with plunging my hand into the overflowing baskets of books (a misguided attempt at organization…will I never learn?). But man, talk about waste.
I am flabbergasted by the amount of money publishers spend in the often vain hopes that a book will be read, reviewed, and talked up to the point of hitting the viral scale. Every physical book mailed to a potential reviewer costs publishing houses money: printing costs, those fun little cover letters, envelopes, postage and shipping.
Oh, and don’t forget the unscrupulous reviewers who take these “free” books and turn around and sell them on eBay. Gotta love that kind of business ethic.
Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to distribute Kindles to reviewers, with easy access to electronic ARCs. Yeah, I can hear all of the traditionalists out there screaming, “No! I must have my book book!” Forget them. In a world where costs never seem to decline yet technology offers such great opportunity, why not rethink the review copy supply chain?
Publishers would save money in the long, I am convinced of this. And while I am not a proponent of Digital Rights Management (DRM) as it is used by most entertainment companies — why is the inclination to make electronic media less user-friendly than physical media? — I think that when it comes to locking down review copies and preventing ARC reselling, the Kindle’s misguided DRM system is just dandy.
Wow, so many good things going on here. Saving trees, saving money, reducing the stacks in my office, giving reviewers an easy way to pack lots of books for tropical vacations (you realize that books weigh pounds and airlines are getting meaner about overweight luggage, right?), eliminating a form of piracy. The good news goes on and on.
Plus, it would introduce the Kindle to a great range of readers…the voracious ones.
Then there’s the other key market for the Kindle. This one is a bit trickier, given the way the educational system works, but here goes. I have long been convinced that the key to widespread acceptance of e-readers will come from today’s youth. I am not wholly convinced that the Kindle is an ideal device for the educational community (eInk is still black-and-white, and I think today’s students deserve full color), but it’s a great tool.
It’s really kind of sad, watching today’s students as they trudge to and fro. They look like sad turtles, what with all those heavy books and lack of on-campus storage (what we used to call “lockers”). Plus, it seems like you always need your book for homework. We are raising a generation of serious back problems.
Then there’s the cost of physical textbooks — which, especially as the college level, seem to go up, up, up, while instructors require the newest edition for optimal learning. The economics of textbooks is lousy…for the students, school districts, and parents. If we’re serious about educating the next generation to take its place in this brave new world, then we need to think of ways to get books to kids in a practical, economical manner.
Also, see above re: saving trees. See above re: overall cost savings. Even though the citizens of this nation believe that education is important, there are practical solutions to managing budgets. Now the textbook publishers are screaming, “No!” Yes, everyone must change. Textbooks should not be a boondoggle.
I remain unhappy about many aspects of the Kindle — especially the proprietary format — but I firmly believe it can (and hopefully will) usher in positive growth for how we read and distribute books. And sign up me for one of those review copies…that way I can get new pots and pans for Christmas instead.