Book and Reading News

Surprisingly, I agree with Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, was speaking to the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival yesterday, when he said:

“There won’t be newspapers, magazines and TV programs. There won’t be personal, social communications offline and separate. In 10 years it will all be online. Static content won’t cut it in the future.”

That’s true, but what is missing from this analysis, albeit it is pruned to a sound bite of a thought, is that interaction will augment those “traditional” media rather than replace them. A book will be a discussion, but it will also be typical for a book to be sold in paper form, with new ways to enter the conversation promoted therein. E-books will be discussions and static texts, blending the authorial statement with the discourse about those ideas.

Media evolution isn’t a zero-sum game. Media flows together, with some channels rising to prominence while others take on new roles.

Author & Publisher Strategies

Author mills and first-time novelists

Ashlea Ramey writes about the risks of working with companies that promise to publish or sell your books. She suggest that some of these services can be helpful, but that many are running on empty promises.

Relates to my posting, A million little author presences, on the emerging class of services hoping to attract authors to their fee-based services that promise to promote sales of books and rights.

Book and Reading News

Noted News and Opinion, June 23, 2009

A few of the postings and articles that crossed the wires worth reading today:

Kindle Myths, Misinformation responds to yesterday’s GearDiary posting about Amazon download limits. Frankly, defending Amazon could become a full time job for a large team of people, and it appears to be iReaderReview’s gig. More power to them. However, when I sent a query to Amazon PR about the download limit story, I got no response, and “no comment” isn’t a barrier to reporting claims by a customer who has spoken to customer service and documented his inability to download Kindle titles. iReaderReview claims the accusation has been retracted (“Number of downloads is not restricted. Even the person who started this rumor is admitting as much now.”), but provides no pointer to the retraction. In fact, as explained in my previous posting, Dan Cohen published a clarification that makes clear limits do exist—he has been told by Amazon employees that a title may not be downloaded to an undisclosed number of devices. This, apparently, after several ass-covering fibs, like “the server failed.”

If you are going to make a statement, such as “the person who started this rumor is admitting as much now,” you should back it up with a link. If you exaggerate, you should rethink why you write, because it’s not helpful to spread disinformation. The article goes on with some valid points and a lot of keyboard diarrhea about claims, many fabricated from the writer’s agenda, against Amazon. Let Amazon defend itself, report the truth to the best of your ability, Switch11 (the writer at iReaderReview). Moreover, drop the questions of Amazon’s being “evil,” because no one can make a factual statement about a company’s moral and ethical condition—it will always be a matter of opinion until people die because of willful indifference. Not going to happen with Kindle issues. TeleRead, summarizing several of the things about which Amazon should be criticized, agrees that the iReaderReview article is a misplaced screed.

If Switch11 is an Amazon employee writing, and we can’t know because we don’t have a name to check (“Hello, Amazon, does ‘Switch11’ work there?”), the company should put a muzzle on them until they learn to stick to the factual truth and leave customers to discuss their experiences freely.

Rob Pegoraro of The Washington Post reviewed the Kindle DX this past Sunday. He finds it wanting, despite its strengths, because of price and some of the restrictions it introduces because of limited support for non-Amazon formats and DRM. His observation about the amount of storage in the DX, “how many books do most people need to carry at once,” is shortsighted. If we’d said that a PC would one day ship with a Terabyte of storage in 1990, it would have sounded crazy, but we find ways to fill all the memory we can get.

Teleread finds a Sony Reader app that lets users customize the device. Paul Biba points to a cool tool, PRSCustomizer.

There is a ton of e-book information and plentiful links to related reading at The Know Something Project.

GalleyCat points to NPR’s call for best beach books of all time, which will be featured online and on-air on July 30.

ReadWriteWeb writes about its discussion with iRex CEO Hans Bron, who is talking about the company’s focus on the business-to-business and professional markets. They talk about the DR 1000‘s note-taking capabilities, iRex’s announcement it is working on color readers, and the missed opportunities by iRex because it does not have an e-book store.

I think the challenges iRex face include: Lowering the price of its devices, especially the Wacom-enabled products; Providing better note organization (I don’t agree that handwritten notes are “easier” than typing on a Kindle, as ReadWriteWeb argues—both are hard to use; Keeping its customers focused on current product, rather than trying to compete on future versions, such as a color e-reader, because it freezes buyers considering what they offer today.

The Mirror has video of the Cool-er eBook device. No review, just a walkthrough of the device features to music. Gizmodo had a review of the $250 Cool-er in May.


Follett expands digital book distribution partnerships

Follett Digital Resources, book distributor and developer of a desktop e-reader application for the K-12 and library markets, announced the signing of 10 new publisher partners who will offer books through the company’s Titlewave and Titletales commerce sites. The deals bring the total number of e-book titles for K-12 and libraries available from Follett to more than 52,500. The Follett Digital Resources technology allows e-books to be checked out to individual readers, and is integrated with the company’s library management software.

The publishers joining the network, which include Macmillan US and Perseus, are:

Author & Publisher Strategies

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

Book and Reading News

Tools of Change going to Frankfurt

O’Reilly Media will present a one-day conference, Tools of Change for Publishing, the day before the Frankfurt Book Fair in opens this October in conjunction with Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical (and whose father wrote the excellent and indispensable In Cold Type) and the Book Industry Study Group. Interesting to see that Michael Tamblyn, who recently joined Shortcovers (Shortcovers making moves, hiring for clout), is on the keynote list.

Frankfurt Book Fair Press Officer Thomas Minkus said in a press release: “Addressing the subject of digitisation and the new business models arising from it are key to the future success of our industry. Digitisation and the building of new business relationships are what draw people to Frankfurt.”

Looks like a good way to spend October 13th in Frankfurt.


Don’t fear rising Kindle prices, don’t accept arbitrary pricing

Aaron Pressman blogs that “As feared, Kindle prices appear to be rising.” Kindle prices are certainly changing, but the increases don’t mean any of us have to buy the books being offered. It only means that diversity is inevitable in this marketplace, because the increasing number of higher-priced mainstream titles will be met by growing numbers of alternative offerings at other prices. Some folks want to boycott anything that costs more than $9.99 on Kindle. Let’s be clear, the format isn’t what determines pricing, it’s the cost of the research and writing that went into the book.

Indeed, the statistics Pressman points to indicate that while more books are being priced over $9.99, 69.5 percent of all the books on the Kindle store sell for $9.99 or less. Only 10 percent of those books are the sea of public domain books that are repeatedly copied and uploaded in poorly formatted version for $0.99 or less. In that margin between 99 cents and $9.99, a majority of books published for Kindle are delivering value to readers at a very low cost, because there is no longer the cost of production and inventory associated with paper books. The cost of the book’s production itself is actually a small share of the cost of a book at retail, it’s the massive return rates of books—typically over 50 percent—that keeps prices high.

Then, it is the discounting of books that cleaves most of the profit from even the biggest bestsellers. As Pressman notes in his posting, a copy of Big Russ and Me, by the late Tim Russert, is available in paperback for $5.58 in paperback, $9.18 in hardcover (originally $24.95) today, because they have been remaindered. In electronic publishing, where a copy of a book is never produced until it is sold, there is no remaindering. So, Russert’s book in the Kindle edition sells for $9.99 all the time.

Big Russ and Me Kindle edition is an "excluded product"
Big Russ and Me Kindle edition is an "excluded product"

What’s especially interesting to me, as someone interested in how books will be sold in more egalitarian ways, the Kindle edition of Big Russ and Me is an “excluded title” in the Amazon Associates program. A blogger who is an Amazon Associate cannot link to the Kindle version, but can link to the paper or hardcover editions. That’s a subtle but important level of control that skews the sales of books few people acknowledge.

Is $9.99 for the Kindle edition of Tim Russert’s book an arbitrary price? The reason the paper and hardcover editions of Big Russ and Me are available for less is that they cost money to keep on hand. They actually eat away at profits while sitting on the shelf of a warehouse somewhere or, at least, that is how publishers do bookkeeping. What would make more sense is a situation where the Kindle version, because it is not competitively priced with other editions of the book, were repriced to make it more attractive. That would require, though, that the publisher to have not created this big pile of remaindered paper copies it would rather sell. So, the pricing is arbitrary, but “justified” in the publisher’s business calculations. The reader gets stuck with the bill for the publisher’s inefficiency.

However, if another author had spent, say, ten years working on a comprehensive history of the Gulf War and had assembled an electronic book that included all the writing, photos and archival data she’d collected, why not price it higher than $9.99? The paper edition of such a book, which could be thousands of pages long and include high-resolution photos sell for much more, not because it was printed on paper, but because it was an artifact of great scholarship and beauty. The project may have cost her $60,000 in travel and research expenses, let alone what it cost in time to write the book. For argument’s sake, let’s say it cost $120,000 to produce this richly documented history. At $9.99 a copy, she would have to sell about 18,000 copies (given the 45 percent share of revenue paid to Amazon) just to break even. But at $24.95, break-even would come at approximately 9,000 copies—and all this assumes she self-publishes. A publisher would only add costs that increased the break-even point into the 30-, 40- or 100-thousands of copies.

Since we can assume that people do not publish to lose money, although they may freely write without compensation for love or dedication, it would be against the reader’s best interest to demand that any title they purchase be priced at $9.99. More than half the time, at current price distribution, they’d be paying more than the price the author sought and in cases where a book’s costs were high but the rewards for the reader comparably high, the reader would be underpaying for the book and likely preventing the author from working on her next title. Spending ten years paying back the cost of a book isn’t the way writers want to live; it’s like having to build a house from scratch on your own dime, then letting someone else live in it while you pay back the cost of the materials.

Pressman points at the “horrendous” price of ScrollMotion’s books for iPhone, but at least there are 100,000 new titles for the iPhone to choose from because of those prices. If you don’t want to pay those prices, find one of the obviously plentiful alternatives to the Scrollmotion version of those books. Don’t tell others that they can’t buy them. Call them foolish for paying those prices instead.

If we demand that anything formatted for an e-reader be no more expensive than $9.99, the real opportunity of the “long tail,” which describes a market where a small readership can sponsor highly focused writing that serves their interests or a hit can grow by word of mouth among grassroots readers, will be lost. A while back, I addressed how the real cost of journalism could be covered by readers dedicated to getting great reporting could be covered at a relatively low cost per reader. That means putting the premium on the ideas contained in a book.

Pressman says he wants the Kindle to succeed, which puts a premium on the device and format. I want to see publishing change and diversify, which means there will be many price points for myriad titles that were never before available to readers. A $9.99-only world would lead to less diversity of ideas, even as it looked like greater fairness to readers.

The Reading World

Noted Opinion, June 21, 2009

A couple of articles crossed my radar today. Some thoughts….

Zombie Publishers, a nice philippic by Morris Rosenthal with a video interview with Harlan Ellison that’s worth the link alone. I’ve been approached about writing the kind of slap-dash book by “contributors” that he describes by a surprisingly wide range of well-known publishers, it’s not a feature of “bad” publishers, it’s becoming the norm. Like Rosenthal, I don’t like the trend. Ultimately, he’s making the argument that paying a writer to write well is a worthwhile investment or, if you are contemplating self-publishing, writing well is worth the effort. Yes!

Democracy’s tough, but Amazon’s role isn’t pure as switch11 argues over at iReader Review. First off, I agree with the initial points made in the article, that Google v. Amazon, Kindle v. Sony Reader, Plastic Logic v. Kindle DX are all distractions from the real transformation of the publishing market. They are sideshows, as I wrote yesterday. However, the article then veers into the ideologically charged topic of “democratizing publishing” an identifies enemies of progress. The author throws unfocused charges about misinformation from publishers and “other sites, and bizarrely characterizes Scribd as an enemy of democratization, apparently because it will “let Publishers determine pricing.” “People who are stuck in the past” are also enemies of progress; I’d argue they are barriers to, but more likely poised to become victims of, progress. There is also discussion about misinformation, which is rampant in this market, though it seems to me to be coming from many different sources, not just the enemies identified in the posting.

Stay grounded during an industrys evolution
Stay grounded during an industry's evolution

Switch11 goes on to say that Amazon’s position in the market is essentially “democratic,” even though it acts as a pricing arbitrator. Governments that set pricing ruin economies. Amazon is making useful early suggestions about pricing but is smart enough to know it must let prices find their own level. Building on the Amazon qua democratizing hero, Switch11’s argument goes: “Publishers are used to the status quo i.e. they control what gets published, they make the lion’s share of the profits, we read what they decide we should read, and so forth.” There is also the standard “we are at the beginning of a revolution” rhetoric, but really, it’s an evolution. Revolution is what is happening in Iran. In publishing the krill shrimp that were authors and small publishers suddenly are equals in the food chain with industrial publishing whales. The big question now is what to do with all the blubber in the old system, and that’s Switch11’s point, though it is buried in a lot of finger-pointing.

Kindle didn’t start this change, desktop publishing and cheap printing exploded the economics of the publishing industry in the 80s, as did the Web in the 90s. Self-publishing innovation has dramatically expanded the number of titles published in paper each year, with more than 10 times as many titles published in 2008 than in 1990 (a link to this coming, in the growing BooksAhead statistics pages). That’s an order-of-magnitude change in paper titles published. You won’t see one often. We’re early in a long change, but not a competition between aristocratic publishers and the reading public, rather it’s a rising tide of competition within publishing, from all corners of the map, that cannot be accommodated by existing distribution and marketing infrastructures.

Putatively, anyone can reach an audience with a book, in either paper or electronic form. The reality is that it is hard to reach a large market, but the economics continue to change. For this market to develop most efficiently, a distributor like Amazon cannot be setting prices. Instead, all publishers should be free to set prices and let the market work out what the right price is for each intellectual product out there. My guess is that Simon and Schuster’s price experimentation with Scribd will be useful as an exercise in facing reality, as Amazon has set the market’s expectations at $9.99 for a recent bestseller. But even Amazon doesn’t enforce a single price point. One price doesn’t fit all, and it’s good that we’re seeing price-based competition in the market. What we really need, in addition to that, is more innovation in the idea of what a book is. We haven’t even scratched the surface of how texts and culture will change as a result of innovation.

Switch11 writes that “by 2012 we’ll be living in a world where the majority of the power and benefits lie with readers and authors.” With publishing margins in low single digits, it’s clear we live in that world now. What will continue to change is the number of people and companies that will be publishing for a profit, as well we’ll see a flood of quality free publishing efforts that seek other compensation, such as social influence, political power and commercial relationships with an audience. If we’re going to measure the success of this “revolution” by the shuttering of publishing house offices, that is the mistake.

There is no enemy, and no need for enemies, just for more participation.

The Reading World

Reconstructing Dialogue: Publishers’ new jobs

The 140 Characters Conference this week, hosted by Jeff Pulver and attended by many of my friends, spawned a lot of discussion about the nature of communication, even though it was often cast in the terms of economics, both monetarily so and in relation to intellectual brevity. Publishers Weekly observed a conflict between long- and short-form discussion as well as the potential poisoning of the economic well because of too much commercialization of Twitter.

We do love competition
We do love competition

This is simply another variant on the professional/amateur, journalist/blogger arguments of earlier years, but it has legs, because it frames a debate about which side should “win,” which is excellent fodder for conferences and columns, blogs and short statements on Twitter or Friendfeed. It misses the point that all media blends over time, rather than one media appearing and replacing another. These conflicts are sideshows, albeit apparently enjoyable sideshows, to the larger, subtle changes that are altering our world.

It is not the case that all thought can be reduced to 140 characters, as it is fashionable to claim these days, so the challenge—one that is going to be partially addressed through the evolution of books and social software, is to create a consilience of long- and short-form dialogue, so that ideas that are explained at length in one venue, such as a book or Web page, can be extended and discussed in shorter forms that gracefully integrate with the long-form. Also, the short form needs to be artfully connected to long-form thinking, so that the two experiences are not separate, as they are today, which creates false dichotomy between the parts of discussions.

Hashmarks and search don’t heal this rift, they simply organize the boundary between long- and short-form parts of human communication.

Many worlds in a view
Many worlds in a view

Practices of the mind and social behaviors that “bridge” this gap are helpful, but remind me of the guard towers along the Berlin Wall—everyone on both sides spoke German (and a different second language, ideologically charged, which was the real communications problem). The fact that there is dialogue across these boundaries is the exception that proves the rule of opposition between long and short forms.

We need flow (see Jerry Michalski‘s declaration of a desire to be accessible and useful from the early blogging days), we need consilience. Formats need to be completely permeable, semantically connected and, wherever you are, on a page, in a book, in Twitter and IM, to serve as channels out of one place and its ideas to others. That’s what the Semantic Web will look like, and we haven’t seen even a glimmer of how vastly different that will really be.

We’re adding channels, which is not a zero-sum game. It’s not necessary for one mode of communication to defeat another. The current e-book format wars are yet another example of a useless conflict, because none of the formats supports real dialogue. They are just replicating the close experience of paper books, with barriers to sharing ideas, annotations and conversations (note: the plural is necessary) within the text.

When this argument about the “best” channel for all communication gives way to reasonable discussions about all channels, we’ll be making progress toward a semantic infrastructure that doesn’t trap people and their ideas in a single format.

Bonus Reading: Tom Foremski offers this assessment of the Internet, it “devalues everything it touches, anything that can be digitized.” Yet, that doesn’t mean there’s no value on anything on the Internet, only that the traditional services and processes for gathering and distributing value in information need to change. Tom writes, “Is this a bad thing? No, it is just what it is, just as gravity just —neither good or bad.” It also means, I might add, that the old ways weren’t necessarily bad or good, just what happened to evolve in response to technology and human culture. Highly recommended.

The Reading World

Financial Times: Google’s railroading cartel

The Financial Times‘ Lex column (registration at site required, but free) makes the rhetorical point:

Imagine that in the 19th century the company furthest advanced laying US railroads was given the right to build all future rail lines. The public might have gained from the new services, but ultimately been left at the whim of a powerful monopoly. Now take the deal between Google and the publishing industry to create a digital market for out-of-print books – some 40 per cent of all those ever published. However laudable such a goal that may be, it raises anticompetitive issues too.

The article lays out clearly and simply why the Google Books deal with libraries is flawed. Rather than creating and exception to existing copyright and intellectual property restrictions, the outcome of the legal confrontation should be a general and open system for any company that wishes to scan books under terms acceptable to authors or other rights holders.

The deal is based on a scenario that is too good to be true. Google is only here to help, the company says, yet is it sweeping up rights that could be abused. Readers face a potential future where, because it is impractical to compete with Google, other e-book providers simply don’t try, giving Google free reign to raise prices on access to books, whether one at a time or through an all-you-can-read subscription service. It could choke off libraries’ access to these books, because Google circumvents their relationship with the reader or raises institutional prices too high.

For free culture activists, it should be clear that the settlement in effect grants Google a degree of control over access to library collections it has scanned that is functionally similar to holding a renewed and extended copyright on the works.

It is also questionable whether the potential for advertising in library-accessed books is a good idea, since it commercializes what had been a public good and, potentially, creates a commercial filter based on advertisers preferences for certain ideas and information. If faced with reading an uncontroversial history of, say, the Iraq War, which is free at the library through Google Books and one that, because it has no ad revenue support carries a fee, the least-privileged in society would probably opt for the free choice. That’s a kind of commercial Big Brotherism we need to engineer out of e-libraries.

The takeaway: Google is being granted a cartel position in the intellectual marketplace, which the FT believes is bad for competition. “Google’s ingenuity does not give it the right to surround itself with an impregnable digital moat,” the column concludes.