The Bookends, Pt. III

….continued from previous entry

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

A la carte and the Apple tablet

Wired‘s Brian X. Chen has a vision of Apple’s tablet with an interesting angle: The potential for a la carte pricing of books. It’s not a new idea, but his point about college students being excited about buying individual chapters of a textbook rather than the whole book rings true to me.

Would publishers consider pricing a textbook by the chapter? I doubt it, but this is something their primary customers may respond to, giving publishers an opportunity to experiment profitably. After all, if a textbook in paper costs $80 and can be broken into 15 $5 chapters that can be sold separately to more buyers than could or would buy the whole book, the possibilities become intriguing.

Offering chapters as free promotions is old hat, of course. What about rewarding buyers of chapters with rewards that encourage more purchases? If, after buying three or four chapters, the reader gets the whole book or credits toward chapters of another book by the same author, that could be an interesting twist.

The rest of the article anticipates Apple’s wiping the competitive table with Amazon’s Kindle and solving the world’s problems with tablet-of-destiny. Chen suggests that application-based delivery of books is a good idea. It isn’t because it represents the ultimate form of DRM–a book that won’t play unless the customer complies with strict rules about the device, application and codebase of the iPod Touch operating system. Apple, unlike Amazon, does not provide forward compatibility for applications or, if iTunes is any indication, will not curate a customer’s collection of e-books for redownloading if the file is lost.

The writer confuses a monolithic distribution technology with convenience. Texts, however, need to be portable to be useful and profitable on the lower price readers expect to pay for e-books. Portability is good for readers, writers and publishers.

Moreover, Chen is eager to see Apple fix e-book pricing with “arm twisting.” That perspective ignores the fact that Apple’s interests are in selling the device (and content that runs on that device, and only that device) but not necessarily with the interests of authors and publishers who need greater freedom to explore creativity than a universally low price point for e-books would allow.

Writing improv as service

Name Your Tale, a site operated by writers Nick Faber, Jeremy S. Griffin and Jenny Nicholson, introduces a novel approach to engaging readers: They write stories in response to suggested titles submitted by the audience. It’s improv performance brought to the (Web) page.

The group writes 100-word stories for audience titles including, at this writing, “I’m Banging a Chinese Chick,” “Her Hair Always smelled of Crayons,” and “Laser Heart.” The writers also promote “microfiction” and “flash fiction” at the site. I’m not a fan of the “flash” label for fiction or groups, since they are simply forms of improvisation brought to new media and venues, but they can call it whatever they want.

It is easy to imagine on-demand books generated by a session at the site or by readers who assemble their favorites, including titles they suggested, for permanent collection in a paper book. I’ll be writing more about this “event publishing” this afternoon.

Clever idea. I think they can grow this into an interesting and strange imprint.

via GalleyCat

Old readers discussing new books

Mike Shatzkin describes the results of a question he asked the audience at NYU yesterday:

So, with time running out, I got the indulgence of the organizers to ask the crowd a couple of questions. The first one was: “how many of you read ebooks.”

Two hands went up. Two.

The next question was not worth asking. But I sure got a dose of new information to ponder.

There is a saying about eating your own dog food. Everyone talking about e-books needs to be reading them or admitting that many of them are unreadable. Books went through an evolutionary period when many poor copies of a title obscured the value of well-made and edited titles. With e-books, the formats are awkward to begin with, and the poverty of the technology is amplified by the badly converted texts, not to mention a lot of bad texts.

Readers will lead this change. That is doubly true of publishers who wish to lead a change toward digital texts, they need to read first and ask more of their titles before trying to sell them.

Reviews are still king

As long as you don’t handle negative reviews the way Alice Hoffman did, they remain the most effective way to reach and engage potential buyers, eclipsing Twitter and Facebook, according to Ad Age‘s Abbey Klaasen. Reviews offer fully explained reactions to products purchased by real customers in contast to the fragmentary telegraphic conclusions posted to Twitter and other social messaging sites.

The challenge for companies is finding a way to listen effectively to buyers when they write reviews on blogs and at commerce sites. Here are the four “right ways to user reviews,” from the article:

  • Embrace the feedback — find a way to actually listen and digest the customer’s ideas inside your company.
  • Tout your customers’ favorites — they can tell other customers better than you can.
  • Incorporate customer service (yes, use reviews to identify problems and solve them for customers).
  • Don’t stop there — let reviews grow into communities.

All of these ideas are critical to publishing success, as well.

Using Twitter and blogs to drive book sales

Charlotte Abbott writes about the increasingly perennial question, does blogging and Twitter marketing help drive book sales. She points to several anecdotal examples of sales increases, and raises some interesting questions.

As co-founder of, and the author of the influence algorithm used by, BuzzLogic, I do believe it is possible to measure influence within networks. However, it takes a tremendous amount of information and an expensive infrastructure to do it right. In the case of Edelweiss, one of Charlotte Abbott’s examples, they have sought to correlate blog and Twitter mentions of books to sales, which is a blunt cause-and-effect measure that can be fruitful, if you want to believe there is a linear relationship between “buzz” and sales. The problem is, a bad buzz produces the inverse result in many cases.

If we believe a survey Abbott points out, 56 percent of respondents (self-selected) buy books based on their readings of blogs, it implies that positive buzz has a positive correlation to sales, so there must also be a negative correlation or, at minimum, a smaller positive correlation between negative buzz and sales. I am certain blogs have influence, but measuring that influence remains difficult.

The case of Hugh MacLeod, whose excellent new book, Ignore Everybody, is in the Amazon Top 25 in its first weeks on the market, is, I think, a special case of a blogger and artist with a strong following who is benefitting from his intimate relationship with his audience. It would be very hard to replicate his accomplishment without having laid the foundation with a multi-year relationship, as Hugh has.

It will be a long while before anecdotal evidence leads to an inspiration that reduces answering this complex question to a science. In the meantime, we can all be certain that blogs and Twitter, as well as other social channels, are tools we must begin to use and understand as we sell books.

Ouch! Elsevier admits payola for positive reviews

InsideHigherEd.com has caught Elsevier’s textbook marketers in a payola scheme, which the company admits and has said violated its own rules, encouraging contributors to post positive reviews at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. In an email, the company offered $25 gift cards from Amazon in exchange for positive reviews.

The company’s director of corporate relations issued a statement:

“Encouraging interested parties to post book reviews isn’t outside the norm in scholarly publishing, nor is it wrong to offer to nominally compensate people for their time, some of these books are quite large. But in all instances the request should be unbiased, with no incentives for a positive review, and that’s where this particular e-mail went too far.”

So, Elsevier just put a toe over the line…. Right. With new restrictions on blogger payola coming from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, these “little slip-ups” could cost a company dearly. Don’t pay for reviews and make sure all forms of compensation are disclosed, including free books.

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

Where games are going, books will follow

Follow the gamers, they know. Electronic Arts COO John Pleasants told VentureBeat: “If you believe all games will eventually be services — as I do — then the idea of game teams that make a game, ship it, and then do something else goes away. They will now ship and day one begins when the customer gives feedback to the live service. The way you distribute will be different. The way you charge will be different. There will be more permutations in pricing. Merchandising will be much more important. Co-marketing will be much more important. You have to have persistent identification and entitlements for a user, no matter where they are or in what game they’re playing.”

This is the prescription for book publishing. Not all books will be online services, but all books can tap Web services to connect readers to more than just the text. Think Books-as-a-Service (heck, let’s call it “BaaS” and go fishing).

Authors can accomplish much of this on the Web Continue reading