I’ve signed up to “attend” an interesting event, Digital Content Day @ Your Desk, a free virtual conference with what looks like a lively agenda. You can participate online on October 29, from 10:30 AM to roughly 5 PM Eastern by registering here. They are talking everything from DRM to social media.
I am sure this story will be picked up around the e-book-o-sphere as revelatory, proof the e-reader’s time has come: British ebook Reader Becomes Bestseller. It’s a remarkably unchallenged PR effort. Neil Jones, CEO of Interead tells Sky News his e-reader has sold “tens of thousands…in only three months” and that “we are already in profit.” Jones previously described the launch of the COOL-ER as the “iPod moment for ereaders.”
How many tens of thousands? Sky’s Jeff Randall let that slide. What is a “profit” on a device that sells for £189 ($311 U.S) in “every country on the planet“? That’s an expensive launch. If Interead has sold 20,000 devices, for instance, it has $6.2 million in top-line revenue. It’s doubtful that the fully loaded cost of getting those devices designed, manufactured and marketed was less than $6 million. Who knows, maybe they’ve sold 30,000, which would put the device somewhere in the low- to moderately well performing e-readers by sales in its first three months—Kindle sold about 370,000 units in its first year by my estimates.
But an iPod moment? iPod sold 378,000 units in its first year (2001-2002). With Kindle and Plastic Logic coming to market in Britain and worldwide, respectively, in 2010, it’s hard to see COOL-ER sustaining its sales momentum without substantial additional investment in marketing and upgraded designs in the face of both dedicated e-readers and smartphone/PC competition, which will increase dramatically next year.
Scrutiny of these kinds of claims is needed. It has been delivered forthwith.
There is also no clear definition of what constitutes a “bestseller.” Marketers make up lots of this as they go along to regale the press and stupefy customers.
In this maddened and maddening stream of real-time communication, from which occasional works of startlingly genuine value do surface, are authors required to engage a community? Is this community-building a keystone service for publishers seeking to survive by adding real value for authors? Can publishers thrive by providing community-like engagement with the book, even if the author moves on to other works? The answer to all these questions is that there is no single approach to writing a book, marketing a book or building an enthusiastic word-of-mouth community. Many authors and publishers will find the investment in engagement pays dividends, perhaps with increasing returns for each title that builds on initial success. Publishers can offer to take up the technical and financial burden of these communities, which can be slight when aggregating dozens or hundreds of audiences, as part of the new service they provide authors, who naturally want to focus on the books they write (books, however, will not be just text, as we’ll see later).
To our peril, we live in the golden age Erasmus described as he joined Aldus’ Academie and reveled in the revival of culture and humanist debate of the early decades of the 16th century: He felt world peace and prosperity was at hand because of the energetic dialogue erupting all around him, very much like techno-utopians see the Internet-connected world in 10 to 20 years. As Erasmus found out by the 1520s, when the Reformation had wrenched his world apart, launching the schism that would kill millions during the 30 Years War, freedom was a messy and dangerous business. After learning that his friend Thomas More, the progenitor of the concept of “utopia” latter canonized a Catholic saint for his refusal to declare Henry VIII the head of the newly formed Church of England, had been beheaded, Erasmus lamented that his times had become “the very worst century” ever, a declaration that anticipated the ironic critique offered up for contemporary contestants for pop cultural supremacy by Matt Groening’s The Simpsons.
The Shack may be the last of a new incunabula, print books that succeed wildly based on online word-of-mouth without providing its own branded online experience. Publishers have discovered how to market with the Web, but not how to extend the experience of reading on the Web. This time around, because technology has distributed opportunities to innovate in authorship, publishing and marketing, there will not be one Aldus, there will be many Aldi.
Even though William P. Young had built many Web sites as a part-time developer, his personal engagement with community once the The Shack hit the best-seller lists has been cursory at best. Yes, his book rocketed up bestseller lists on the tidal wave of emails sent by readers, but the greatest contribution to the word-of-mouth phenomenon was the more than 3,200 customer reviews on Amazon.com, and comments posted on his blog and at the book’s Web site, which is primarily a place to order The Shack with a forum where approximately 9,000 readers have posted 135,000 times about more than 5,300 topics related to The Shack, individual chapters and personal testimonies. Even the 500+ bad reviews on Amazon seem to have helped propel the book forward, because they are cast as polarizing responses to the 2,500 or so positive reviews that a browser must test by reading The Shack themselves. And it doesn’t hurt that, as Motoko Rich of The New York Times put it, “Sales have been fueled by a whiff of controversy.”[i] Young is surprisingly quiet online, investing much more of his time Continue reading
When William P. Young wrote The Shack in 2005, he intended it as a Christmas present to his friends and family. Unlike Fra Franceso Colonna, he didn’t have to consider the challenge of getting copies made, because he had Kinko’s to duplicate and spiral bind the book before his personal release deadline, December 25th. The publishing world at that late date, on the verge of a crisis, missed one of the biggest best sellers of the decade because the author no longer needs a printer or marketers to take the first steps to winning readers.
Young’s book, the story of a man who, after losing a daughter in a grisly murder, receives a note from God asking the grieving father to join the Holy Trinity for a weekend in the shack where the little girl was killed, has struck a chord with a wide range of people, capitalizing—albeit unintentionally—on the increasing dissatisfaction some Christians feel toward even Protestant church hierarchies and a general sense of victimization in American society. But as Young has said in interviews, it is a work of fiction, not theology, and the attacks on the book as “heresy,” which have come from some quarters of the evangelical community, because The Shack challenges fundamentalist assumptions about Judgment Day and the value of acts of faith based on Biblical rules, such as the Ten Commandments, only helped sell the entertainment as a theologically challenging read.
Young makes up his theological universe with the same creative license Colonna did his portmanteau Italian. God is portrayed as a stout black woman named “Papa,” with Christ turned into a wood-shaving covered Semitic carpenter with a big nose, and presenting the Holy Ghost as an Asian woman, Sarayu, who glows and levitates when speaking. He told The New York Times that he recast the Trinity in order to shake readers’ preconceptions about God: “I don’t believe that God is Gandalf with an attitude or Zeus who wants to blast you with any imperfection that you exhibit.” Young is no theologian, nor a great writer. His reasoning, in the mouth of the Holy Ghost, runs along the lines of Sophistic and Stoical cliché: “Mack, if anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again.” However, the questioning of church hierarchy and recasting of dogmatic rules, laying heavy emphasis on the suffering and faith of the individual, make The Shack feel like a mainline injection of Martin Luther’s preaching, if Luther had had a sense of humor and the worldview of a 21st century Oregonian grief counseling program facilitator.
Like Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, The Shack mines deeply a shaft of a Continue reading
Early evidence, in the form sales figures from The Lost Symbol publisher Doubleday, reported by Silicon Alley Insider, suggests that e-book sales, while explosive on the first day after the book was released, remain relatively small overall. Doubleday says that 100,000 of the two million copies sold so far are e-books. That’s five percent, which means people did not buy e-readers to buy the book, and that smartphone applications weren’t an extraordinary contributor to sales.
So, of the approximately 1.6 million dedicated e-book readers in the market, plus the approximately 3.1 million smartphones with e-reader applications, Dan Brown’s new book sold to two percent of the installed base. That may simply mean that the book isn’t the major hit that was expected. I still think that over time more e-copies will be sold than hardbacks, but paperbacks are the editions that will earn any profits Doubleday finally collects.
Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, which can be translated as “Poliphilio’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” tells the author’s tale of love for a girl, Polia. It takes place in two dreams amidst pagan bacchanalia that celebrate Greek and Roman antiquity, especially the architecture, gardens and costuming that the lustful Dominican monk imagined as he wrote in his cell at a Treviso monastery between 1465 and 1467. Based on hints left in the text and what little is known about Colonna during those years, Polia was the daughter of a nobleman, dead in her teens, whom he had loved apparently unrequitedly. The protagonist, Poliphilio (literally “the lover of Polia,” for Colonna was obsessively loving of every detail of the world that revolved around his ingénue) provides exacting descriptions of every lawn, statue, temple, garment and shoe worn by the object of his love and the many sprites, gods and goddesses that surround her. “Although these scenes were small, there was not the least defect in them, not even the smallest detail: everything was perfect and clearly discernible,” Colonna writes, via Joscelyn Godwin’s translation, approximately halfway through a 40-page description of a triumphant parade, not so much as a justification for his exhaustive cataloging of friezes, vases and garlands in the procession of lithe, voluptuous, nubile and hirsute pagan spirits, but simply as a transition to some 15 additional pages on the virtues of details that perpetually “stupefy” Poliphilio as he is led through his dream pursuit of Polia.
“How many bibliophiles have actually read it is another question, for its textual excesses are enough to deter most readers,” wrote Joscelyn Godwin in her introduction to the book. She was the first translator to succeed in making an English version of the book in 1999, on its 500th anniversary. The Hypnerotomachia, which is vaguely familiar to modern readers as the source of The Rule of Four, a mystical thriller written in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is often celebrated as a farsighted precursor of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a complex modernist linguistic tour de force published in 1939 that combined many languages in a dream discourse. Colonna’s use of languages, in contrast to Joyce’s, is rather limited, with only a few words of Greek and Hebrew appearing as inscriptions on statuary[i]. His real talent, in addition to that friar’s eye for arcane detail, was in his ability to forge new words from Latin and Italian to create his own vernacular, a lovelorn torrent that, as Godwin points out, if translated literally would include sentences such as “In this horrid and cuspidinous littoral and most miserable site of the algent and fetorific lake stood saevious Tisiphone, efferal and cruel with her viperine capillament, her meschine and miserable soul, implacably furibund.”[ii] Nine of those overripe words were neologisms concocted by the writer, none of them has found acceptance in the half millennia since Colonna invented them. His wordplay anticipates the inventive texting of today’s teens and young adults, some of whom have begun writing novels and serial dramas in truncated English, Japanese and Chinese that are delivered to their audiences, mostly friends, by mobile handset. “Viperine,” to be snakelike, doesn’t have the same tone as “LOPSOD,” the texting code for “long on promises, short on delivery,” but both describe a certain danger and untrustworthiness when applied in a narrative.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was definitely not a book for everyone, as few spoke or read Latin in Europe during the 15th century and Italian vernacular was seldom published. The sensuous subject matter could get its Catholic author into trouble with the Holy See due to its graphic content—indeed the Vatican’s copies are reportedly obscured to hide phalluses, pudenda and breasts in the illustrations—and the pagan religion it celebrates. Colonna is only identifiable as the author because he hid his name and a declaration of love to Polia in an acrostic puzzle made up of the first letters of 38 chapters of the book: “POLIAM FRATER FRANCISVS COLVMNA PERAMIVIT (‘Brother Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia’)” according to Godwin.[iii]
By any measure, Colonna was typical of an author in any era, sitting alone in his monastic cell, he wrote primarily for his own enjoyment and hoped the work would be read by a few appreciative readers. Perhaps, he may have thought, it might be copied or quoted by others in the future. Fortunately for Colonna, if he had a thin skin, he lived before the time when an author’s hopes would be dashed by rejection letter from publishers.
The testament of love to Polia circulated in a few un-illustrated copies for the next 30 years before it found its way into print in 1499. Colonna would go on to write an epic poem Delfili Somnium, which did not reach print until 1959, under his own name in the early 16th century before dying at the age of 94 in 1527 while living on a church allowance of food and firewood. He never profited from the Hypnerotomachia.[iv] The book would be reprinted in Venice in 1545, in Paris in 1546, 1554, 1561, 1600,1804, 1880, 1883, 1926 and 2000, in London in 1592, 1888, 1890, 1893, 1901, 1904 and 1973, and in New York in 1976 and 1999, among other editions.[v]
Why then are early copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili selling at auction for tens of thousands of dollars as one of the most collectible books in history and the volume that definitively closed the era of the incunabula, the books printed during the first 50 years of the era of the printing press? It attracted the attention of a team of creative people who turned it into a classic publication. They did more than polish the text, they added substantially to the experience of reading Colonna’s book with a fine layout, clever typesetting and illustrations.
Ornate to the point of tedium, the Hypnerotomachia nevertheless happened to find a sponsor in Leonardo Grassi, a Veronese nobleman, some thirty years after it was supposedly finished on May 1, 1467. But no manuscript is finished, nor is it immune to the feedback of readers or publishers shopping for a risqué classical tale. Despite having dated the completion of the book, it has been shown Colonna wrote much of it later and, possibly, he rewrote some of the book at the suggestion of his editor to make its social and cultural references current to 1499.[vi]
Grassi wanted to impress the Duke of Urbino, whom he addresses in his dedication as “illustrious,” “unconquered” and virtuous, in addition to other superlatives deployed to flatter the Duke in order to gain business and social opportunities for the Grassi family. Grassi did not want his praise to adorn one of the few hundred titles already available, he wanted to present something new, a fashionable work that would stimulate talk at the sophisticated Court of Urbino. Another edition of Virgil, whose work was already available in as many as a hundred editions by the end of the 1400s, would not impress. He turned to Colonna’s odd dream record to surprise the Duke. Grassi also made the extravagant investment in an innovative printer, Aldus Manutius, to create the book known today, which is known for Continue reading
IN WHICH WE FIND PUBLISHING AS AN INDUSTRY WAS ALWAYS ONE BIG CRISIS, NOT A GOLDEN ERA ENDED BY THE RISE OF THE INTERNET, AND THAT THE AUTHOR’S ASPIRATIONS, LIKE HUMAN NATURE, HAVEN’T CHANGED. PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION PROCESSES AND TECHNOLOGIES HAVE CHANGED. THE RESULT IS NOT A CRISIS OF PUBLISHING, BUT THE CRISIS OF AN ORDER ESTABLISHED OVER THE LAST 500 YEARS, AS PUBLISHING ROLLS FORWARD, REACHING NEW HEIGHTS.
Inexpensive, well-made and authoritative books let readers “converse freely with the glorious dead.”—Aldus Manutius[i]
“At the new user-driven fundraising site KickStarter, a group of 100 strangers chipped in $30 apiece to self-publish a 100 page book–one page for each contributor.”—Galley Cat Blog, MediaBistro.com, June 2, 2009
Writing is solitary business. Publishing has always been a collective effort that blends authorship, financing, design, printing, packaging, marketing and sales to produce the rare breakout hit, it’s a process that has been simplified by technology without conceding simple answers to the question of how to achieve a profit. The evolution of publishing is laid clear in the story of two books, one that ended the era of incunabula, the first 50 years of print, and another that fulfilled the self-publishing dream in the first decade of the 21st Century.They are the bookends of the paper-publishing era. Neither is a great work that will be assigned in literature or theology classes for centuries after its publication, nor are they particularly well written, but their successes mirror one another and tell a great deal about how publishing has changed and will change, as well as what publishing skills will remain vibrant with the rise of new technology and the reinvention of publishing society beginning in our time.
Fra Francesco Colonna was a Dominican friar, the anonymous author of the bizarre and erotic antiquarian romantic fantasy Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Published on the eve of the 15th century in Republic of Venice, the book has become one of the most valuable printed works in the world. Five hundred and six years later, William P. Young, a church-going salesman and motel night clerk from Boring, Oregon, penned a Christian psychodrama, The Shack, that started out as a photocopied work shared by his friends but found a market online, selling 3.8 million print and e-book copies by January 2009[ii], climbing to the top of The New York Times bestseller list for dozens of weeks[iii] on the strength of Internet “word-of-mouth” endorsements by thousands of readers.
A monk writing in Treviso, Italy, in the 1460s didn’t dream of being published, because there were no publishers. The process and business norms authors and readers take for granted today would take hundreds of years to mature. As Francesco Colonna took up his quill, there were perhaps 50 to 70 printing presses in the world. He could not have dreamed that his allegorical love story would reach print and become “the most famous published work or all time.”[iv] Hynerotomachia Poliphili, as it came to be printed, included erotic images strikingly out of the 15th century mainstream. Colonna must have feared its publication would cost him his place in the church, should he be discovered its author. He would never make any money from the work. His publisher would lose money. Yet, the product of those labors made a work of real art. An early edition Hypnerotomachia recently sold at auction, in a depressed market, for $22,543.[v]
Half a millennium later, a salesman and part-time Web developer living in suburban Portland, Oregon, in 2005 would have little hope of being published by a major publishing house, because the process of getting a book into print had become so hardened, involving byzantine networks of author’s agents, editorial relationships, publisher projections that rule the risks taken each season. The sheer distance a Christian title must traverse to make The New York Times’ paperback fiction bestseller list, a general book category, is as daunting as the chances of publication of the Hypnerotomachia when it was written. Once he started thinking of publishing his photocopied book, what William P. Young found was that he didn’t need, but could leverage, the publishing industry to get his book to sell a million more copies than Continue reading
We often hear arguments that the age of the book has passed or that, with the advent of e-books, the book is doomed. It makes good copy, just as populist-sounding charges that publishing is “corrupt” does, but none of these arguments recognizes the human cultural tradition that we build on rather than destroy. Is it true that no one listens to radio now that television has reached 50+ years of use? No, we remix our attention and what is valued. Books, both paper and digital, will live side by side.
I write this because of two Fast Company pieces of the last 24 hours, one of which I helped edit for my good friend, Marcia Conner, the other reporting on the possibility that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol could sell more copies in digital form than hardcover. I am sure The Lost Symbol will sell more e-copies than hardcovers over time, if readers don’t find they are disappointed by the book—it’s virtually assured, just as cheaper paperbacks outsell hardbacks. The important question is whether e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will cannibalize hardback sales or be additive. Only a few weeks time will answer this question, as the initial hype wears off and sales become more “normal.” Based on pre-orders, the book has been in Amazon’s best sellers list for 150 days; all those copies were delivered in the last 24 hours. Currently, The Lost Symbol is #1 in both Amazon’s book and Kindle stores. Shortcovers is reporting its biggest sales day in its short history, exceeding its previous one-day sales by 100 percent.
Fast Company‘s Kit Eaton dissects Stephen Windwalker’s claim that e-books will outsell hardbacks, based on day-one figures that are largely guesswork. Eaton suggests that while Kindle sales may be strong, it doesn’t mean that e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will outpace hardcovers. With one million copies sold after such an intense marketing Continue reading
Daniel Menaker, former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker writes in the Barnes & Noble Review about the realities of publishing, including the dynamic and paradoxical pressures of choosing books that will produce a market success. A must read for BooksAhead readers, as it strips away the mythos of publishing to reveal the true business. For example:
4. Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big bestseller. But the bestseller lists paint nothing even remotely like the full financial picture of any publication. Because that painting’s most important commerce color is the size of the advance. The second-most important color is the general level of book-buying. The volume of sales of the No. 6 book on the New York Times fiction bestseller list in 2009 is significantly lower than the volume of the No. 6 bestseller five years ago. Four and three and two years ago, too, almost certainly.
Highly recommended. Read it, think. Menaker describes a rapid tectonic shift to e-reading, over the next decade, which will catch a lot of attention in the e-book blogs, but this is not a column about e-books. It’s about the current limits on editorial investment and their potential to change.
UPDATE: Mike Shatzkin has a typically penetrating and thoughtful piece about Menaker’s article.
Check the BooksAhead industry stats up-to-date pages for the June 2009 totals from the AAP for book sales, e-book sales and audiobook sales, as well as Census Bureau figures for bookstore sales.