“Authors must blog” and other truisms displaced by an evening with Pynchon

I’m about halfway through Inherent Vice, which I’ve been waiting for like a sinner waits for confession, because a good novel cleans the soul. I am thinking about why great writers’ works are important, even when some of their books are treated as toss-offs compared to more momentous efforts. In this case, a mystery novel, a private dick story with a psychedelic twist may not seem as big an effort as Mason & Dixon or Against The Day to some, but for the aficionado of a particular author’s work these “second-tier” efforts are the zest and riff that make a jazzman not just cool for the college crowd but skull-ringingly great regardless of who is listening, square or not.

I got to thinking, between hits of Doc Sportello and The Golden Fang, about the meme of the moment, that “publishers are on the lookout for authors who blog” and how that is interpreted by many to mean that all it takes to win a publishing deal is a blog—the story or non-fiction pitch will just fall into place once the contract is signed. Shortened to the quick, the same logic makes all bloggers writers, which conflates the genre with accomplishment.

No, publishers don’t think that every writer needs a blog (even though some may think its easier to source book material from blogs), but it’s convenient to sell the idea to the masses that would like to have published a book and think that authorship is like being an executive on teevee, just one sexy tryst and then another cut-throat meeting before cashing the daily paycheck and leaving for a night on the town, the kids stowed with the nanny and plenty of time for sleep and a visit to the gym between 6 AM and Eight-in-the-morning when the dry cleaned suit appears and it’s back for another romp at the office. If we are all going to live that life, sooner or later the con is going to end. No, writing and instant success because of a new technology, as though Shakespeare would have fallen flat if the words had been scratched on stones, are antithetical realities.

Thomas Pynchon never blogged a word in his life, that we know of. He may have written the Wanda Tinasky letters in an age before everyone could be a wit with a keyboard ,though not necessarily a wit, but so, too, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed pseudonymous letter writing, and Ol’ Ben certainly agreed with Dr. Johnson that only a blockhead writes for free. Authorship is a kind of work that is different than writing, it involves intent and rigid self-criticism, or a very good editor. If you have a blog, the route to publication is certainly shorter today, but that doesn’t mean the work is “writing,” except in the sense that we indulge ourselves in writing a journal or to a friend.

The point is, dear reader, that the story of e-publishing is all glitz and revolution designed to justify readers’ investment in hardware that, to date, does nothing to transform reading beyond addressing a certain breed of convenience. The story is embellished with how-to books that proclaim “you too can be a best-selling author, your buttocks massaged by nymphs and sensually inspired favors of the Muses pumped into your bloodstream in only two hours a week” and e-reader product horse races that, while they signify capital investments and marketing with a furious vengeance, do not represent the innovation that will transform the market for reading. In the end, it will take an author to transform reading using new tools that we haven’t encountered, yet.

This is a market increasingly fed with truisms that, when you read someone like Pynchon, whether you like his work or not, makes the e-reading promotional tactics sour in the mouth and anyone can taste the treacle they are. Then, we can see that how-to articles and product reviews of devices are marketing of feel-good drugs instead of the story of hard won accomplishment.

Pearson’s digital pay-off still awaited

Pearson, the British publishing group behind Penguin, The Financial Times and a growing educational assessment and testing business, reported first-half financial earnings yesterday. Share prices gained nine percent on the day, well ahead of the rest of the market. Some digging in the report and presentation raises some interesting questions.

First, the FT, which saw 18 percent growth year-over-year in online subscriptions, is losing more paper subscribers than it is gaining online subscribers (roughly 20,000 new online subscribers versus a loss of approximately 24,500 paper subscribers). However, the shift to digital is insulating the group from the steep losses due to advertising that has hit the newspaper industry generally. Total revenue for the FT declined only 13 percent year-over-year. That is good news in this newspaper market.

What’s missing from the report, though, is information about digital subscriptions to the FT on the Kindle. The newspaper currently ranks #2 in British newspapers and #6 in U.S. newspapers with an overall Kindle Store sales rank of 25,586. By contrast, And Then the Roof Caved In, an account of the financial crisis by CNBC’s David Faber has a Kindle sales rank of 820 (sales figures as of this writing). This tells us little in specific, but draws an intriguing picture. Pearsone-booksales

Likewise, Pearson’s e-book sales charts look great (see right) until the lack of a scale sinks in. Certainly, e-book sales have increased by at least an order of magnitude year-over-year. Any given month of 2009 would account for 70 to 100 times 2007 sales. The chart starts from a minute number of units sold in 2004 and ends with a towering but unspecified number of e-books sold in the first months of 2009.

Best guess, the company is still seeing total sales of e-books that account for less than 1.5 percent of total book sales. Penguin’s sales increased eight percent, though the first half of any year represents less than a quarter of the total sales in a year, as the second half, particularly the beginning of school and the holidays, generate the vast majority of sales. The gain bodes well for Pearson’s second-half.

The short story, though, because there is no highlighting of e-book successes, is that Penguin and Pearson have no break-out e-book and digital newspaper story to tell, yet.

Noted in the graphics of the presentation: While Pearson featured seven iPhone application views, two iPod views and the Sony Reader in its slide about its digital market presence, Kindle was absent. Think a bit about that. Seven iPhones. No Kindle. On one slide. It’s a message that Amazon execs will catch.

Does this mean “free” is working?

Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, will no longer be free on Kindle. It will be $9.99, only until August 21. But, buyers get a free copy of Anderson’s previous book, The Long Tail (currently listed at $9.56). Does this mean “free” strategy is working? Does the price go up again after August 21? If so, this is the first book to pursue a mark-up strategy as the title fades to the midlist.

Amazon won’t allow associates to link to the offer, so the free offer certainly collapses part of the value-chain, the online word-of-mouth marketing component, that we all thought was important to e-books. I still think Hyperion and Anderson need to do a full disclosure of the accounting for the title and the ancillary revenue it produces.

Random House UK caught in e-royalties stupidity

The Bookseller reports that literary agents in Britain are steering clients away new deals with Random House UK over different royalty schemes offered to authors based on their sales potential. Lower-selling authors are being offered between 17.5 percent and 20 percent royalties on e-books compared the emerging standard royalty of 25 percent for electronic editions.

A publisher wishing to build a stable of successful authors should not begin the relationship by offering them less than a “proven” author for electronic rights, because the inventory risks are lower with e-books and, more importantly, the authors’ online efforts on behalf of new books can produce far greater results than traditional marketing. If publishers are concerned about sinking costs into the paper publication of new books, they should start the titles out on an e-book and on-demand release and make decisions about paper editions based on the success of these less costly editions.

By “stupidity” in the headline, I mean a lack of judgment.

Pricing guru: “price cannibalization should be the least of a book publisher’s worries.”

Rafi Mohammed, a specialist in pricing, has an interesting posting at TheWrap about the reasoning behind the pricing of e-books. Well worth a read. A critical statement, one that points to changes needed in publisher thinking is Mohammed’s comment that “Since e-book sales were somewhat of an afterthought, in most book contracts today, authors receive a lower royalty for an e-book compared to a hardcover sale.”

E-books cannot be an afterthought. The publisher needs to be engaged with the author’s interests, as well. If more can be made from e-books, because the production and returns costs are so much lower, it is time that this new format and channel become the focus of profit-making decisions. Price the e-book to sell profitably, make deals with authors that move physical books based on actual demand, which can be impacted by the availability of e-book versions.

Typically, publishers and authors think of e-books as cannibalizing trade paper and hardcover books, but Mohammed points out that the resale of hardcover books, which does cannibalize sales, is not an issue with e-books. Therefore, you can price an e-book lower without diminishing sales. Instead, those early readers can become evangelists without simultaneously competing with new sales of the book.

I continue to believe that, once the e-book is established, a wide range of prices will be acceptable, based on the audience for information and the services that can be embedded in books that raise their value to readers over time.

Amazon strikes UofMichigan reprints deal

Amazon’s BookSurge print-on-demand (POD) service has agreed to make up to 400,000 out-of-copyright titles in the University of Michigan library system available for sale as reprinted POD books.

“This agreement means that titles that have been generally unavailable for a century or more will be able to go back into print, one copy at a time,” Paul N. Courant, U-M librarian and dean of libraries said in a statement. Books will be produced in softcover and delivered directly to buyers by BookSurge. Interestingly, books scanned as part of the library’s Google Book partnership will be made available through the Amazon service—the “war” anticipated by so many is merely an early skirmish to establish the terms of partnership in different fulfillment settings, if you ask me.

This is a phenomenally interesting announcement, since it anticipates a completely new market for out-of-copyright books and, potentially, library revenues. POD systems are, as I’ve explained elsewhere, more likely to be offsite services that fulfill orders than to be located at bookstores or libraries. The economics and the practicality of serving more than a few customers an hour in high-demand times make this clear.

With a library of 400,000 books, the typical sales for any given title will be ones and twos a year, but could, as U of Michigan director of scholarly publishing Maria Bonn said in the press release, reach 100 copies for “bestsellers.” The prospect of so many older books being available again makes my bibliophilic skin tingle and shows that digitization is also a path to increased paper-based reading.

UPDATE: In related news, Harvard University Press seems to be headed toward distributing e-books on Scribd.

Plastic Logic e-reader will feature AT&T 3G

AT&T will provide broadband connectivity to the Plastic Logic e-reader, the companies announced today. Details about the way customers will pay for broadband service, however, were not announced. In the past week, Plastic Logic has filled out key components of its ecosystem, announcing that Barnes & Noble’s e-bookstore will be the exclusive seller of books to the Plastic Logic device (though it will support books acquired in other channels, the BN.com store will be the built-in source of e-books) and this alliance with AT&T, which is also the provider of data voice and data services for Apple’s iPhone.

This is s win for AT&T as much as for Plastic Logic, as Sprint and Verizon had also been discussed as potential broadband providers.

Plastic Logic’s device is being pitched as a business tool that has the benefit of providing e-book, newspaper and magazine subscription access. That’s a very different point of entry than the Amazon Kindle, which has come to market as a pure “consumer device” designed for the typical reader. It suggest the device will be priced higher than the Kindle when fully configured, but the low-end configuration will probably come to market at or below the Kindle 2’s price.

Since the Plastic Logic device also features Wi-Fi connectivity, it could be the case that 3G service will be available only on a monthly subscription basis through AT&T, similar to the iPhone data plan. If that is the case, and I get the strong feeling it is as I look at the positioning of the Plastic Logic device, then we can probably expect wide-area 3G networking to be a checklist item among the upgrades available for a monthly fee discounted to unlimited AT&T data service for the PC (which costs about $70 a month on average). The iPhone data plan, which is $30, is the likely model.

The question is, how much data will the Plastic Logic device be using on a typical day. If most subscriptions are fulfilled over Wi-Fi when the device is charging, wide-area service would be trivially inexpensive—unless the device is more oriented toward Web surfing than currently described. A Plastic Logic data plan could be less than the iPhone plan.

A Plastic Logic spokeswoman said details of wireless pricing will be released closer to the early 2o1o launch date.

Barnes & Noble moves, embracing Google and Plastic Logic

barnes-noble-e-books-oBarnes & Noble, which introduced its iPhone e-reader back on June 29, launched a vastly expanded e-book store today. The announcement of the “world’s largest bookstore” is actually a combination of several existing catalogs, Barnes & Noble’s previous e-book listings, the ereader.com site and the Google Book Search catalog for a total of 700,000 titles, which may be read on iPhones, Blackberry, PC and Mac client software.

The application, largely a re-skinned version of the Fictionwise e-reader application it acquired, is useful (the user agreement references the ereader.com site as the source of user support). BN.com will store books for repeated downloads. There is no information about limits on simultaneous devices or download limits on the site.

The big news is that Plastic Logic has signed on to link its e-reader device that will ship in early 2010 to the BN.com bookstore, a relationship that BN executives described as “exclusive” during a conference call. This means we can probably expect format conflicts between Kindle and Plastic Logic. Oddly, there was no comment from Plastic Logic about this partnership, which draws a significant battle line in the e-book market.

While B&N has endorsed the $9.99 price point for frontlist titles and bestsellers, the store features books ranging in price from a dollar (including many $4.99 books from Barnes & Noble’s imprint, which has specialized in cheap editions of classic literature) to much more expensive e-books discounted from the hardcover or trade paper price, but well above $9.99. Flexibility in pricing will likely be one of B&N’s competitive strategies with publishers.

DRM is prominent in the application. The manual deals immediately with how to enter an “unlock code” for DRM’d titles.

Usability note about the app on most platforms (iPhone version pictured at right): Once installed, the application displays the title page of the user manual, but doesn’t explain it is a user manual or provide any navigation cues. They should fix that. It would be better if the first thing the app displayed was an “add books” dialog that walked the user right a reading experience of their own choice. Manuals, even good ones, are so 1990s. If your app isn’t intuitive, it needs more work. The PC version of the application opens to the user’s library, which is prepopulated with Last of the Mohicans, Sense and Sensibility, Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary, Dracula, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and the user manual.

Strange bargain alert: Windows PC users who download and install the B&N e-reader app get six e-books (all pre-selected by BN.com-described above) free, but the offer apparently isn’t available for Mac users.

In the irony department, the fact that Chris Anderson’s book, Free, which is free on Amazon and Google Books, doesn’t appear in the B&N e-books search suggests that while the site is operating it is not being actively managed with the care one would expect. Either that or it’s a judgment by Hyperion, Anderson’s publisher, that B&N’s store won’t have a material impact on one of its important titles of the season.

There’s no way of telling whether BN will get great traction with the e-book initiative unveiled today. We know free reader applications get a novelty bump in downloads, sales from those downloads aren’t guaranteed. BN may benefit from launching the first business day after Amazon bungled the Kindle 1984 “refund,” but was anyone really waiting for another e-reader before jumping into this kind of reading? No.

DRM isn’t dead, it is always regrouping

Several triumphal postings that the RIAA has declared DRM “dead” have been proved wrong. It turns out the Recording Industry Association of America’s spokesperson was not speaking emphatically, but ironically, in reply to a question, “DRM is dead, isn’t it?” The anti-DRM crowd rushed to affirm the truth of the statement, but, unfortunately, DRM isn’t dead. It’s regrouping. The simple fact is that most people, when offered a convenient form of playback with lock-in at the device level, so that they see playback on a particular device as a benefit, are perfectly content to have DRM content.

iTunes continues to encrypt movies and many songs, for example. Amazon’s movie and TV downloads are locked to an application for untethered playback but can be streamed in a browser, making it’s DRM a compromise that splits the difference for most buyers—Mac, Linux and smartphone users can’t play an Amazon movie when disconnected from the store, but the Windows crowd is happy. Amazon’s Kindle is a DRM system that interoperates with its e-books, as are various applications running on the iPhone. DRM is everywhere, often presented as a compatibility benefit rather than a anti-copying system.

I am not arguing for DRM, so please don’t assail me for doing so. The point is that when anti-DRM activists crow about the RIAA’s slowly having learned that treating customers like criminals is a “victory” for open access, they create the impression customers no longer need to ask the question, “Will this play on any device?” In the book world, DRM is so deeply engrained that it is likely most of the e-books sold in the next five years will become inaccessible due to changes in devices and supported formats, DRM being just one of several factors that will change as the market matures.

Compatibility, particularly forward compatibility, should be the key benefit sold to readers. If you are going to sell an e-book today, make sure you are prepared to make it work on future platforms or be prepared for customers to drop your brand and books like hot rocks when they learn others do provide forward compatibility. The easiest way to ensure that compatibility today is to avoid using DRM. Enough said.

Amazon and Apophenia

TeleRead‘s Paul Biba has a useful critique of Amazon’s repeated poor handling of e-book and Kindle-related customer issues. I think, though, that he has gone from suggesting improvements to exercising the tendency people have toward apophenia. His conclusion that Amazon’s failure to staff its organization with publishing industry veterans is the cause of all these issues results from aggregating disparate events and imposing an overriding pattern to explain them. It’s not an accurate portrayal of Amazon’s organization. While few on the team have previous experience with e-books and e-readers few of those people exist (though Amazon hasn’t hired several legitimate e-book vets I know who have applied), the company’s problem is not that there is no publishing industry savvy on board.

However, the teams that run the Kindle business are split between the book sales side of the company, the book acquisition team and the Kindle development team. Contending perspectives and responsibilities that seem to be at cross-purposes sometimes result in the isolated and apparently boneheaded decisions Biba correctly identifies, all of which Amazon ultimately learns from and generally does not repeat.

Amazon could use some more experience with rapid innovation and publishing generally, but that’s the same challenge faced by every company that has stepped into a yawning chasm of opportunity to find early success.