When customers love the product, but hate your mission, it’s time to change publishing

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a vision for the future of publishing to a group of publishing professionals in New York. Can’t say where it was, yet, but suffice to say it was worth saying and that the message was well received by the thoughtful, albeit skeptical, audience.

Despite the increasingly rapid changes in reading due to technological evolution, the folks with whom I was talking rightly believe that they should not revolutionize their business simply for the sake of revolution, and I was perceived, unfortunately, as a revolutionary. They represented publishers, distributors, supply-chain enablers and book retailers, all of whom need to embrace changing roles as they constantly refine those roles in response to greater information about what is in a book, how books are used and what readers think about the books they purchase, borrow or steal. Having worked in publishing—in many forms and markets—for 25 years, and for several huge publishing companies destroyed by the failure to change, I think my perspective is one of pragmatic realism. Certainly, the publishing industry I arrived in as a newspaper/magazine reporter is largely gone, victim of its failure to evolve with the times, with the reader’s habits.

Darnton 2So, it was ironic, I thought, that my opening remark, that the future has never been brighter for publishing (in this, I completely agree with Seth Godin’s remarks about the future of publishing here—I only wish I was a good a presenter at Seth), was greeted with a sense that I was trying to paint my revolution the color of the audience’s fears about the future of their individual business models. Sure, they were thinking, it’s bright if you don’t have to fire people, change the workflows at publishing houses, in composition and printing shops, and so forth.

Books are healthier than ever, really. According to Bowker, publisher of Books In Print, more than 900,000 books will be published worldwide this year. The United States produces more than five times as many titles as only a decade ago. Moreover, the breadth of the titles has never been greater, with genres and subjects exploding in their complexity. Just as the desktop publishing revolution produced an explosion of magazines and newsletters that transformed the periodical business in the late 1980s, print-on-demand and Web technology, including e-books, have multiplied the number of books, about every conceivable topic. Worldwide, the growth of titles published is growing faster than in the U.S., as it becomes infinitely more efficient to address language and geographically specific marketplaces with printed or electronic books.

Moreover, with more than $100 billion in local U.S. media spending in play because of the fall of the local newspaper, the opportunity to connect revenue with books that engage and sustain hyper-local communities, has never been greater. Succeeding in this market, however, means changing the entire book value chain, eliminating the value chain’s focus on distributors and retailers, turning it instead to models predicated on what the reader wants and values. Reader-centrism is the only viable basis for revivifying existing publishing companies, because every new player in the publishing market is starting their business based on close identification with their customer, the reader.

Now, I want to keep this short, and go on in future postings with more detail. But let’s look at the most recent description of what a publisher does that I was able to find, in Robert Darnton’s new book, The Case for Books. Darnton, the chief librarian at Harvard and an accomplished author captures what the publisher does as completely as possible:

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

This is the mission of publishing from the time of the scriptoria until the turn of the 21st century, a risk-defined mission based on the high cost of making information available. It is not what readers want today, even though they do still count on many filters to help them choose what to read. The financial risk of publishing today is perceived as minimal, even though it is still quite risky because publishers are clinging to the hit-driven model that requires a book to sell tens of thousands of copies to be a “success.” Let’s consider Darnton’s definition of publishing through the eyes of a reader who can browse the Web, Google Books and myriad other sources of textual, audio and visual information. These people still love books, but they no longer honor the mission that produces many books, as evidenced by widespread dislike of the ideas highlighted in the following version of the quote:
“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”
Let’s break that down in terms of the networked marketplace.

Gatekeepers are no longer valued, they are despised by people who feel they have the ability to judge information and ideas for themselves. As Jacques Rancière puts it in his latest book, The Emancipated Spectator, “There are not two sorts of intelligence separated by a gulf” in a truly democratic marketplace of ideas, there are different perspectives that demand free rein and resent gatekeepers.

No one entity or person can/needs to control the flow of knowledge when everyone can do their little part by tagging, rating, reviewing and commenting on parts of the data flow; this is “crowdsourcing” in the fully positive sense, free from the stain of mob mentality, which can play an important role in an unbridled cataract of information.

Customers, not sellers, decide what will sell—they always have, but industrial production tended to limit the choices and create the appearance of successful planning, which in many cases is exactly what produced bestsellers, though at the cost of diversity, which people value, too.

Professional expertise is, unfortunately, despised because of knavery on the part of pundits, who claim expertise without the hard self-criticism that is applied by professionals. We do need people to help us select what to pay attention to, just as we have always relied on guidance from others when coming into a new environment. That advice can come from friends. However, it often comes from the loudest knaves in the mediasphere.

What reaches readers in a connected networked world is everything and anything that can be transmitted, but few would surrender their opportunity to think for themselves in exchange for a truncated view of reality—let us remain optimistic about people’s judgment and intentions here—but readers don’t want to admit they rely more on experts today than ever before, because they don’t see the world as information overload, rather they perceive they are seeing it all for the first time without restrictions, which is exhilarating, the very source of growth, egalitarian opportunity and the unexpected. That sudden sense of having options is why more books than ever are being produced and sold.

Given that readers today still love books, in more forms than ever, what is a publisher to do? That’s the subject of the next couple postings in this series.

Cross-posted to ZD Net.

Barnes & Noble prices book Nook

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Barnes & Noble e-reader, photos of which were leaked last week, will be called “Nook” and be priced at $259, the same price as Amazon’s Kindle 2. The New York Times has roughly the same details here. Both articles are based in part on ads placed in tomorrow’s edition of the newspapers.

Most interesting is the Nook’s ability to “lend” books to other readers via wireless connection. No details on how permissive the loan capability will be—presumably the owner of the book will not be able to access a loaned title.

There’s also no information about the cost of wireless service, which is expected to be bundled with books sold through the BN.com store, similar to Kindle. But unlike Kindle, the Nook promises access to the Google Books library, which are free; will users have to pay for wireless service to get that access?

We’ll know more tomorrow.

For now, we can only wonder about the naming process that produced “Nook.” Cute, but its rhyming with “book” will confuse people about whether they want a device called a “Nook” or to buy a “nook” version of a book. For digital natives it will be pretty clear. Think about the concept your grandmother would have to wrestle when asking for an e-book at a Barnes & Noble retail store.

BookServer: Internet Archive leaps into book indexing

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, announced the non-profit will launch a cataloging and book search system, called BookServer, that connects readers with copies of the books they want, whether in a library, online or at a bookseller. BookServer is an open alternative to the catalogues maintained by Amazon, Google and others that could connect authors offering e-books directly to readers.

The service is based on an open specification for digital book distribution co-developed by the Internet Archive, Threepress, Feedbooks, OLPC, Adobe, the Book Oven and other organizations, according to the announcement. The system is not designed solely to support distribution of free content, but also books and e-books for sale. It is also several years away from realization, CNET’s Daniel Terdiman reports.

The announcement goes on to say that everyone will benefit:

  • Authors find wider distribution for their work.
  • Publishers both big and small can distribute books directly to readers.
  • Book sellers find new and larger audiences for their products.
  • Device makers can offer access to millions of books instantly.
  • Libraries can continue to loan books in the way that patrons expect.
  • Readers get universal access to all knowledge.

The service was announced by the Internet Archive this evening in San Francisco. Kahle, who founded Alexa (which he sold to Amazon) and the Bookmobile POD service, along with the WayBack Machine service, doesn’t do small ideas. BookServer looks promising. I think it can be the foundation for a lot of interesting reading enhancements. We’ll discuss that later.

B&N will offer iRex device, too

Dropping in from a flu-induced respite to say: Barnes & Noble is trying too hard. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Peter Kafka, BN.com, in addition to teaming with Plastic Logic to sell ebooks, now plans to partner with iRex, maker of an upcoming iLiad device the features 3G connectivity and an 8.1-inch screen, described here. BN.com will be the e-book store for both devices.

We get the “we’re more open” argument already, even though every e-book format comes with DRM and compatibility baggage, but the challenge is not merely to sell books but to establish a platform customers can rely on. That comprehensive experience of reading goodness doesn’t come from a shallow focus across many devices, but deep focus on the reader’s experience with an e-book.

It would be a better use of Barnes & Noble’s modest marketplace goodwill to focus on making one device a stellar experience while supplementing that experience withiPhone and other smartphone e-reader applications than to try to sell and support e-books across a growing inventory of devices. Individually, any one device will require a substantial amount of BN customer support, which they are not well placed to provide, and as a group of devices that still are incompatible with half of the e-books or more sold, they increase the complexity of the customer’s choice. So, if BN.com fails to support the devices, even if it is the manufacturer’s problem, they will lose a customer. If their books don’t work with a device, it’s BN’s problem.

Now is the time for focused investment in a pleasing end-to-end shopping and reading experience. Amazon is already poised to compete with compatibility, so Barnes and Noble has nothing to win by spreading its bets. Factor in the Apple tablet-of-destiny (the Journal also reports today Steve Jobs is all over that tablet), which will run all sorts of e-reader apps at launch, and BN’s strategy looks very dangerous. It could be overwhelmed on the customer experience front, the e-book choice front and in terms of its relationships with marginally committed partners—in exchange for a largely undifferentiated (“we’re as open as anyone”) win if they execute perfectly.

A bookstore with no books, but lots of coffee

Moriah Jovan has a nifty idea for a bookstore annex, of sorts, where people could order and pick-up print-on-demand books. Paul Biba at Teleread picked it up, and there are excellent comment threads on both postings. Check out it.

The design is reminiscent of the environment I discussed in this posting about the Espresso Book Machine. Here are my thoughts, which are also posted to the comment thread at TeleRead, so you can just go read them there….

I think this idea is viable, but only in the concierge/bookstall (like those that specialized in particular kinds of books in early printing) sense. It would make a great ground floor of a paper bookstore. The design makes sense as a place to WAIT, but not to browse. Bookstores are places to browse, cafes are places to wait — indeed, that’s all Starbucks and other coffee places think about in the design of their stores, in terms of making it pleasant to wait for a drink.

I don’t think on-demand bookstores are as practical as Moriah believes they will be. The estimates of wait times for a POD book always assume optimal performance and perfect demand (no more orders than the book machine can make in any given time), when retail is a highly inefficient setting characterized by long waits whenever business improves. See: http://booksahead.com/?p=329. It’s never “GOOD TO GO,” but usually “you’ll need to wait a bit longer.”

The question not addressed here is the cost of the space and technology for selecting the book one would like printed. If all the espresso seats have a screen, each sharing one-fourth of a workstation and there is a need for more than two POD machines, the upfront cost of the design would run somewhere north of $45,000, with ongoing costs for leasing the machines, point-of-sale systems and so forth. I’m not sure that is going to make sense to a retailer.

Nolan Bushnell gave a speech about the future of retailing at Digital World in 1994 that anticipated this scenario. It assumed people would go to places to browse, then order for home delivery. That model didn’t come to pass, because there was no link between browsing costs assumed locally and the potential revenue from actual sales (one could go online and order from someone else for a better price). The bookstore of screens ONLY doesn’t really enable browsing — which I think will take place from home.

Espresso Book Machine going live in New York

Espresso Book Machine 2.0

Espresso Book Machine 2.0

New York Magazine’s Devouring Culture Vulture writes about the fall launch of print-on-demand book machine, Espresso Book Machine 2.0, reportedly at the McNally Jackson Books store in New York City’s SoHo district. It’s a “contraption [with] Willy Wanka-ish machinations” that enchanted writer Boris Kachka. Made by On Demand Books, the $75,000 machine, which will be leased or sold to booksellers, is similar in appearance to the tortilla machine at a Chevys Restaurant—buyers get to watch their book being made while they wait.

“Think of the store as a hub where the supply chain collapses,” On Demand Books CEO told Kachka. That’s a tantalizing vision, one that the blogger muses “means less shelf space, which means fewer New York stores go bankrupt due to astronomical rents.”

Yes, and no. Let’s think this through. The catch in On Demand Books’ plan, according to the blog, is the lack of new titles. It currently has access to “millions” out-of-copyright books (only if On Demand has access to Google’s library) and 175,000 backlist titles. I am pretty sure that, if there is a way to make money with on-demand, publishers will go along for the ride. There’s another challenge to consider.

The Red Goose gave shoe buyers golden eggs

The Red Goose gave shoe buyers golden eggs

The machine is designed with the production and binding gears exposed to entertain the buyer. That’s brilliant, if you ask me, but it is a short-lived novelty. It isn’t destined to become the 21st century shopping experience that was the Red Goose Shoes golden egg, which adults still remember going to get along with a new pair of shoes as children.

The ESB 2.0 can “print, bind and trim a 300-page book in less than four minutes.” It handles books of up to 830 pages, which presumably take longer. The ESB 2.0 cool-factor is one that will wear thin when buyers, say around the holidays, have to stand in line to wait for their books. Ten people waiting in line at a bookstore will be through the transaction and out of the store in a few minutes, while the tenth person in line waiting for an on-demand book would wait 45 minutes while the machine churned through the workload. That’s assuming each customer buys only one book. Then, we’re talking the tedium of the DMV, with tortilla machines. Lots of tortilla machines.

My kids looked at the Chevys tortilla machine a few times, but mostly they hang out at the table and eat chips when we go now. There is no free chips-and-salsa at the bookstore to help kill the time while your books print.

The obvious answer is “get more Espresso Book Machines.” That will become more economically viable over time and the machines will get faster. A $75,000 machine with a five- to seven-year life will cost a bookseller between $9,000 and $15,000 a year, before supplies like paper are factored in—the ESB’s per-page cost is described as “a penny,” which has a marketer’s ring to it.

With more than three ESB machines, we’re no longer talking “small bookstore.” A store with five to ten machines would be more likely to have increased its costs than reduce them. What about browsing copy costs for those “millions” of books? Even if you display the browsable copies on screens in the store, you’ll need lots of screens and people will still want to browse printed books.

The economics of publishing and the venues in which we consider and buy books will change dramatically, perhaps so much that the bookstore looks nothing like MacNally Jackson today. On-demand will be an important factor in the book market. Where books will be produced, whether they will be available on-demand at a local store—or even if that helps reduce the inventory a bookseller has to keep on hand to facilitate browsing—is an open question.

I know, I always sound like a curmudgeon.

A million little author presences

As writers, we seek to develop a relationship with our readers. It can be a relationship of service, one that entertains, one that informs or that argues, among others. Without the relationship, there’s no next step, no story to be told. If you can’t keep the reader’s attention on the first page, they won’t get to the second. The same principle applies on the Web as you sell your book, e-book or site. Publishers share this burden and, if the wish to thrive in the post paper-centric world, will likely focus on this aspect of the reader-author relationship as a key value proposition.

In recent days, I’ve seen a half dozen new places for authors to sell books or list their work in some way in order to be found. Beyond the obvious search engine optimization (SEO) how-to business questions that are answered by other blogs, the proliferation of potential places of presence online confronts the author or publisher with critical questions about how to divide the time and financial resources they have available.

Early in the social media marketing discussion, there was an assumption that a brand had to be everywhere, on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, and a thousand other sites, but now we recognize that the “tradigital,” which mixes evangelical engagement with customers and judicious use of social networking where the return justifies Continue reading