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.

Challenge to Chris Anderson: Put some substance behind “Free”

Chris Anderson posts over at the Inside Google Books blog about his decision, along with publisher Hyperion, to give away free copies of his new book, Free. He suggests that selling hardcover and paperback copies will be helped by his promotional use of free copies, and that may very well be. He reports the book will hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #11 this week, which suggests that some physical copies are selling, too.

Okay,that sounds good, but it is necessary to back the argument up with hard facts, which I found the book did not provide, but the book’s sales could. I challenge Chris and Hyperion to release a full accounting of the book’s budget and resulting sales, as well as Anderson’s indirect earnings from the book, so that all of us who have read Free with interest and some skepticism can see for ourselves the financial results of this grand experiment. If the free Free release is not simply a marketing stunt, this disclosure should demonstrate that there is a profitable model and one that, when compared to Anderson’s earlier books, resulted in more sales revenue than when he was not giving away free digital copies.

One important point to echo from Chris’ post: He argues that everyone loves physical books and that they won’t go away, pointing to his own children’s love of the page. “My very digital kids feel the same way: they may never read a printed newspaper, but they love physical books as much as I did when I was their age.” My daughter has repeatedly told me she dislikes the Kindle compared to reading a book, because of her enjoyment of the tactile and visual pleasures of the page. I agree with Chris and his  kids and my daughter that paper books are here to stay. The question is whether digital books will augment the author’s ability to focus on writing new works rather than simply marketing and milking old ones.

Digital edition price flexibility is not optional

I’m not saying price e-books the same as paper or hardcover editions, but, in response to Rex Hammock, I do think publishers should be thinking in terms of the benefits of greater investment in the production of e-books. Likewise, this posting is a reply to Slate‘s Jack Schafer, who argues that, unless publishers embrace the $9.99 price point, they will be “Napstered.”

As I’ve argued before, the future of business isn’t a price point, but management of value delivered and the cost of delivering it.

Rex responded to a comment of mine the other day, on his posting “Yet one more mystery about the enigmatic book publishing industry,” thusly:

Thanks, Mitch. I appreciate your deep knowledge of this topic. However, I don’t believe you can equate the investment necessary to improve the design of an e-book text with the costs outlined… (read it all, the whole comment thread is worthwhile).

In my reply to Rex, I wrote:

Rex, I’m not suggesting they are the same costs, just that the publishers shouldn’t be looking at this solely in terms of how cheaply they can get an electronic version out. Better copy and enhanced reading experience will make a positive difference in the marketplace.

But, to make my point, let’s take a hardcover as an example….. The paper and printing costs of a $24.95 hardcover are somewhere between $4.60 and $6.00. Except for huge bestsellers, at least a third of the copies produced at that cost will be returned, so the real cost per book because it is in paper and distributed through physical channels is close to $9.50 (including shipping costs both ways). If I sell the books at a 45 percent discount, I’m making $13.72 per copy sold before any costs (incidentally, this is about what Amazon pays publishers for bestseller Kindle titles sold for $9.99). After accounting for returns and the cost of production, my top-line profit is roughly $4.22. I still haven’t paid my G&A, editors, author advances, or for marketing. I might spend less than $2,000 for marketing (there goes the profit from 500 copies sold) many of the titles on my frontlist.

Publishers run a very slim margin, on the first 10,000 copies of that hardcover, they will lose money. Sanford S. Bernstein analysts estimate publishers earn only 26 cents per paper book sold and $2.15 per electronic copy sold. But that doesn’t mean they’d make money on the first 10,000 electronic copies of the same book because the cost structure is different. It’s only when both books make it past their first season and become backlist titles or, if all the stars align, become runaway bestsellers, that I make money. It’s the fact e-books can sit in an eternal backlist and be sold in dribs and drabs for years that make them truly economically magical.

Now, if I chose instead to produce the book as available in electronic format with substantial enhancements (a fully hyperlinked index and TOC, as well as a style sheets for multiple formats and screen geometries, for example), it might take a designer and editor an additional $5,000 to $10,000 to produce the electronic book for the “major” electronic platforms.

For argument’s sake, let’s say I did spend $10,000 on the electronic designs. Compared to the cost of the first 10,000 hardcover books, it looks cheap, but unless I have real clout as a publisher or a proven bestselling author I am still getting only about half the revenue for e-books sold on Amazon. If I sell in other venues and formats, I have to spend some of my own money on marketing to get attention that Amazon delivers simply by being listed in front of so many potential buyers. The typical publisher, then, will probably see top-line revenue close to the $2.15 per copy sold in “earnings” identified by Bernstein’s analysts.

In the end, I only get a margin that after I market my book and the sales channel “dips their beaks” comparable to the physical book top-line, so if I reduce my list price from $24.95 to $9.99, I make less per copy sold before any other costs. Therein lies the reason that open formats, self- and on-demand-publishing, and competing channels are critical to the evolution of publishing, because the price of selling digital stuff remains prohibitively high despite all the prevailing thinking that it is “free.”

In electronic copies, there are no returns. There probably ought to be, since a lot of books and magazines ship for Kindle with egregiously bad unproofed copy (why The Atlantic, which I wrote about today, would not proof its Kindle edition, is beyond me). I get to keep more of my top-line profit as an electronic publisher, but it will still take sales of several tens of thousands of copies to break even on an e-book, particularly if I’ve paid an advance to the writer.

This all supposes there is a reason for the publisher to participate in the process, that there is a good reason for authors to work with editors and marketers. That’s a separate debate, one publishers need to recognize no one takes for granted anymore.

Practicing what he preaches: Chris Anderson’s Free book

Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, is available on Scribd for free for a limited time. It is a great promotional strategy for the paper and e-book editions of the book, but it doesn’t answer the question about how to make “free” a sustainable price. The book ventures to answer the question, though I haven’t found substantive answers other than the idea that, once you have an audience, it can be milked.  The limited free access on Scribd may be enough to convert free readers to paying readers, so that they can actually put the text to use, but beyond the promotional value of the short-lived giveaway, it is hard to see what changed. That would make Free a temporary price, not the inevitable answer to building great businesses.

Meghan Keane reports that Anderson answers the tough question with: “Give away the book. And pray.”

Great, a faith-based solution for publishing is exactly what we need.

UPDATE: Publishers Weekly reports that Anderson doesn’t promise any answers for publishing.

Gladwell, Anderson and Godin: All wrong for the typical writer

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, has a new book, “Free,” coming out in July. It’s not free, it costs money. Malcolm Gladwell, who has written many books that have contributed to one-word business-speak, wrote a review of Anderson’s book in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He didn’t like it. Now, Seth Godin, another author of many books, says Malcolm’s wrong.

It’s a guru slap-down!

With all due respect, they are all wrong to one degree or another. Each also is partially correct. Casting this discussion as an either/or is misleading, the trivialization of the real issue by people who no longer have to worry about making the first step into publishing. For a writer, though, giving away books is not the solution to jump-starting a career as a published author (there is a big difference between being a writer, which anyone can do, and being an author, which anyone can also do), it’s the beginning of building a living, a small business that, in all likelihood, will never be a big business.

The future of business will not be built on a price point, but the value delivered and the cost of delivering it. This isn’t a binary challenge that will be answered by giving away news and entertainment. Gladwell accurately deflates Anderson’s sweeping statements, which were laid out in a Wired feature last year, “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.” In his review of the upcoming book from Anderson, Gladwell writes:

His advice is pithy, his tone uncompromising, and his subject matter perfectly timed for a moment when old-line content providers are desperate for answers. That said, it is not entirely clear what distinction is being marked between “paying people to get otherpeople to write” and paying people to write.

The first sentence is clever and could equally be applied to Gladwell’s definitive answers to questions about decision-making in “Blink” and “The Tipping Point.” A simple statement, such as this from Anderson’s Wired article can be very attractive to desperate publishing executives seeking to compete with the rapidly declining cost of publishing, which kicks aside barriers to competition from virtually anyone on the planet:

The new model is based not on cross-subsidies — the shifting of costs from one product to another — but on the fact that the cost of products themselves is falling fast. It’s as if the price of steel had dropped so close to zero that King Gillette could give away both razor and blade, and make his money on something else entirely.

Gillette adds blades to its cheap razor refills to justify high prices, not because it is cheaper to add blades to the Mach III. Low costs are exploited to raise perceived value (now, with 50 blades!) and profit margins. It would be nice to think industry works solely in response to economic formulae out of the goodness of executives’ hearts, but life doesn’t work that way, even when everyone is “pursuing their passion.”

Gladwell’s last sentence, which is in bold above, cuts to the explicit assumption in Anderson’s article, that the cost of products is falling so fast that prices become irrelevant. This is true for media markets only if you believe that people will no longer earn a living from their work, which they apparently will have to give away to get attention. Gladwell is correct that at some point, people need to get paid to produce work on a consistent basis. Doing journalism, for example, is expensive. The people doing it for free will eventually realize the value of their contribution and ask for compensation or simply quit and go back to the work that makes them a living (they may, of course, continue if the effort yields political or social prominence, but they will never trade a living for influence with no path to a good living, and we get crooked press and politicians out of that market configuration).

Yes, as Seth Godin argues, “In a world of free, everyone can play.” We can all play writer, but when does becoming a writer actually become a living? If we’re going to assume that all writing will be made and delivered at no cost to the reader, how will the writers put a roof over their heads, food on the tables and kids through college? Writing has never been a great living, but it was a living if one worked hard at it. “Free” only Continue reading

Agents, advances and the “long tail” going negative

Mike Shatzkin has an excellent piece today on the evolving role of agents in publishing. His notion of the writer and agent as business partners is important to keep in mind as authors seek the help of an agent. Business tends to be focused on the short term, quarterly results; in publishing, the advance has been the focus on the agent’s efforts, since most books never earn back that advance and it represents the only opportunity for the agent to share in revenue. That needs to change in the midst of a radical realignment of the industry. Long-term partnerships with adequate rewards for everyone involved will have the time and energy needed to solve new publishing challenges.

I’ve never used an agent and am fairly satisfied with the result, because I have not seen much creativity in deal structure in comparison to the agreements I’ve made with publishers. As long as an author is willing to pay attention to the details of a contract, up to date on the current standard for a deal in the market, and uses a lawyer to review the contract, I think the agent can be a wasted expense. However, if an agent can find creative ways to multiply revenue streams and increase the author’s share, they can be invaluable.

The alternative, of course, is to self-publish, about which Shatzkin makes an interesting observation:

But in addition to shrinking, publishing advances are taking on much more of a power law configuration, with concentration at the top and a long tail of books getting less and less (and extended by mushrooming self-publishing where the “advance” is actually negative; it’s a cost!)

The “long tail” of book publishing used to end closer to the base of the X axis of a graph and north of the $0 line (fewer authors made a minimum of positive revenue). Now, it goes on twice as far and dips well below positive revenue, with authors spending their own money to start sales of their books. Too often, when authors follow Chris Anderson’s “long tail” thinking, they envision a positive contribution to their bank accounts no matter where they fall on the power curve. The reality is that nothing is free, as Malcolm Gladwell explains in a devastating critique of Anderson’s new book, “Free,” in the latest issue of The New Yorker. How to exploit “free” transactions to drive real revenue is the problem Anderson misses and Gladwell dismisses.

For many authors today, the “advance” is their investment in the book. If they fail to embrace that investment with the support of marketing and sales efforts it deserves, they are simply throwing their money away.