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.

Smashwords gets Kindle distribution deal

Smashwords, the e-book self-publisher services company, is for real. The company has won a series of distribution deals, including through Barnes & Noble, Sony and Shortcovers e-book stores. Today they added Kindle distribution, paying authors 42.5 percent of the sale list price of their Kindle books.

As an author services play, Smashwords has sped to the front of the pack for e-book authors. Congrats to Mark Coker and team.

Headline 2010: e-Reader device failure

The market knows best, right? Markets are bloody paths to progress. At this writing there are approximately 52 e-reader devices coming to market in the next 12 months. Fifty-two different devices coming to market (Here’s what I wrote about Steve Jobs’ approach to reader devices when there were just 45 e-readers on the horizon). Creative, the maker of MP3 players and computer audio cards, is the latest to announce their impending arrival, Zii MediaBook.

This is the definition of “glut” becoming reality. We can see a glut of e-readers coming and there’s no waving off the Kamikaze piloting most of those e-readers toward the deck. Will they blow up the fuel supply needed to get the next generation of e-reading off the ground? No, but the coverage will likely make it sound like e-reader failures mean e-book failure.

With excessive abundance comes failure, and that spectacular conflagration of hardware products, unfortunately, will dominate the headlines in this market next year as many, indeed most, of these devices are pulled due to lack of sales. They are ridiculously expensive for a market where the vast majority of customers buy one book or less a year—more than 180 million Americans don’t buy a single book in any year.

Many hardware makers will retreat and e-books, not the glut, will get the blame.

Today’s dedicated e-readers sell for roughly 10 times the price of a new hardback book. Most people don’t buy hardback books, so for argument’s sake, let’s say the average price paid for a book by the 120 million Americans who buy a book each year is $12. Amazon Kindle2 and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, both of which sell for $259, cost as much as 21.6 books, which suggests they break the book-buying budget for most people. I don’t want to suggest there is a magic price for reader hardware, because we’ll see some of the new e-readers announced this year selling for $59 next year, because retailers cannot get rid of them. That is a result of fierce competition, but leave it to the press and bloggers to turn the whole process into a mandate on e-books, not the expensive hardware.

This isn’t a horse race, but a complex evolutionary event, that cannot be reduced to headlines. Consider: “T. Rex extinct, world awaits silence of lifelessness” would have made the papers, if dinosaurs had had their Gutenberg.

Yet, it’s a short step from “people don’t want e-readers” to Continue reading

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’s double-duty e-reader

Gizmodo has photos of the new Barnes & Noble e-reader, which will be announced next week. Apparently after running a blurb on the B&N announcement, Gizmodo got the “scoop” direct from B&N PR, because they have a nice set of professional product shots to show you. The news is not news, but staged product release. Fast Company picked up the story and calls the unnamed gadget “more exciting” than most of the dedicated e-readers on the market, as it sports a touch LCD screen below the E-Ink display to facilitate greater interactivity, with color.

The B&N device is intriguing for several positives and an inadvertently negative reason. First, the positives:

The device will run Google’s Android OS, which implies it will have a variety of capabilities beyond simply displaying books. Fast Company suggests users will have “social chat” within books via the LCD screen. I think we like to concentrate when we read, so the kind of chat seen on Twitter or instant messaging would be interruptive. However, if the screen facilitates embedding of comments from friends, which could be entered on the LCD screen and conveyed to an insertion point in the text for later, non-interruptive access, that could be incredibly cool.

The LCD does offer a solution to the lack of interactivity in E-Ink-only devices, but it is much more likely to be useful for playing audio books, shopping for books (clearly a greatly enhanced experience with color and a refresh rate faster than ice melts), and non-book functionality. Here’s the negative side: It is just one of many solutions, though, and the dual-screen form factor seems to scream “this device isn’t big enough for our business model and your needs as a reader.”

The touch screen will make typing much easier than on a Kindle, but isn’t the stark similarity between the LCD portion of the B&N e-reader and an iPhone or iPod Touch underlining what an e-book reader doesn’t do? Should the device ship with Google’s Talk Voice over IP (VoIP) application and a combination of Wi-Fi and mobile data service, that would actually be revolutionary. But why, then, buy an e-reader and not a smartphone if the essential benefit of either is the LCD screen?

I’m actually eager to see this e-reader for myself. Until then, when we will know the price and its actual capabilities, we can only speculate about its ability to disrupt the market. Given the popular belief that e-readers must be cheaper than $100 to win a mass audience, it’s unlikely the B&N e-reader will do all the cool things it needs to to be really revolutionary.

Finally, let’s do remember that B&N is a retailer and discount publisher, not a hardware company. It’s entering a business it does not comprehend, because prevailing opinion says everyone needs to have their own e-reader hardware offering. Amazon’s Kindle, as I’ve written many times, is a temporary phenomenon tied to extending Amazon’s ability to retail books. Both the B&N and Amazon hardware businesses are kick-starting efforts designed to drive the providers’ e-book retailing business, and not likely to result in long-lived hardware products.

We don’t drive cars made by Chevron and Ford doesn’t build cars that burn only one brand of gas.

Cheaper Kindles will seed more digital libraries

Amazon today lowered the price of its U.S. Kindle 2 to $259. It also announced an international version of the Kindle 2 for $279—globe-trotting customers are paying more for a more capable radio, but it’s still $20 less than Kindle 2 was yesterday. The price of e-reader hardware is definitely trending downward. If you imagine the profits from an ever-less expensive Kindle converging with the rising costs of selling Kindle bestsellers below cost, the model makes no sense, unless the purpose of the business is to create digital libraries.

With 45+ dedicated e-reader devices on the market, Amazon absolutely must lower its prices aggressively over the the next year to maintain its market share. But, here’s the question: To what end is Amazon driving e-reader pricing downward? Kindle still delivers a much better buying and reading experience than any of the currently shipping e-readers. Sony’s Daily Reader will be comparable, but it will not be out for another month or more. Next year, Plastic Logic, among others will have a Kindle challenger with built-in wireless purchasing features, too.

AmazonBestcostsRemember that Amazon is still losing money on every bestselling book sold through its store. The company pays publishers about $3.60 more than the list price for a bestseller when sales costs are factored into the expense. If each Kindle accounts for just two bestseller sales, the cost of supporting 3 million Kindles in the market rockets past $20 million (see chart, right, which looked better in Excel. The scale should be 50,000 to 3 million, though this logarithmic curve makes the point that every Kindle sold adds to Amazon’s bestseller costs at $3.60 per title sold).

The goal, at this point, is to get more people invested in a Kindle, or, more precisely, a digital library. It’s more than format lock-in, Continue reading

The Bookends, Pt. IV

….continued from previous entry

In this maddened and maddening stream of real-time communication, from which occasional works of startlingly genuine value do surface, are authors required to engage a community? Is this community-building a keystone service for publishers seeking to survive by adding real value for authors? Can publishers thrive by providing community-like engagement with the book, even if the author moves on to other works? The answer to all these questions is that there is no single approach to writing a book, marketing a book or building an enthusiastic word-of-mouth community. Many authors and publishers will find the investment in engagement pays dividends, perhaps with increasing returns for each title that builds on initial success. Publishers can offer to take up the technical and financial burden of these communities, which can be slight when aggregating dozens or hundreds of audiences, as part of the new service they provide authors, who naturally want to focus on the books they write (books, however, will not be just text, as we’ll see later).

To our peril, we live in the golden age Erasmus described as he joined Aldus’ Academie and reveled in the revival of culture and humanist debate of the early decades of the 16th century: He felt world peace and prosperity was at hand because of the energetic dialogue erupting all around him, very much like techno-utopians see the Internet-connected world in 10 to 20 years. As Erasmus found out by the 1520s, when the Reformation had wrenched his world apart, launching the schism that would kill millions during the 30 Years War, freedom was a messy and dangerous business. After learning that his friend Thomas More, the progenitor of the concept of “utopia” latter canonized a Catholic saint for his refusal to declare Henry VIII the head of the newly formed Church of England, had been beheaded, Erasmus lamented that his times had become “the very worst century” ever, a declaration that anticipated the ironic critique offered up for contemporary contestants for pop cultural supremacy by Matt Groening’s The Simpsons.

The Shack may be the last of a new incunabula, print books that succeed wildly based on online word-of-mouth without providing its own branded online experience. Publishers have discovered how to market with the Web, but not how to extend the experience of reading on the Web. This time around, because technology has distributed opportunities to innovate in authorship, publishing and marketing, there will not be one Aldus, there will be many Aldi.

Even though William P. Young had built many Web sites as a part-time developer, his personal engagement with community once the The Shack hit the best-seller lists has been cursory at best. Yes, his book rocketed up bestseller lists on the tidal wave of emails sent by readers, but the greatest contribution to the word-of-mouth phenomenon was the more than 3,200 customer reviews on Amazon.com, and comments posted on his blog and at the book’s Web site, which is primarily a place to order The Shack with a forum where approximately 9,000 readers have posted 135,000 times about more than 5,300 topics related to The Shack, individual chapters and personal testimonies. Even the 500+ bad reviews on Amazon seem to have helped propel the book forward, because they are cast as polarizing responses to the 2,500 or so positive reviews that a browser must test by reading The Shack themselves. And it doesn’t hurt that, as Motoko Rich of The New York Times put it, “Sales have been fueled by a whiff of controversy.”[i] Young is surprisingly quiet online, investing much more of his time Continue reading

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

The Bookends

IN WHICH WE FIND PUBLISHING AS AN INDUSTRY WAS ALWAYS ONE BIG CRISIS, NOT A GOLDEN ERA ENDED BY THE RISE OF THE INTERNET, AND THAT THE AUTHOR’S ASPIRATIONS, LIKE HUMAN NATURE, HAVEN’T CHANGED. PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION PROCESSES AND TECHNOLOGIES HAVE CHANGED. THE RESULT IS NOT A CRISIS OF PUBLISHING, BUT THE CRISIS OF AN ORDER ESTABLISHED OVER THE LAST 500 YEARS, AS PUBLISHING ROLLS FORWARD, REACHING NEW HEIGHTS.

Inexpensive, well-made and authoritative books let readers “converse freely with the glorious dead.”—Aldus Manutius[i]

“At the new user-driven fundraising site KickStarter, a group of 100 strangers chipped in $30 apiece to self-publish a 100 page book–one page for each contributor.”—Galley Cat Blog, MediaBistro.com, June 2, 2009

Writing is solitary business. Publishing has always been a collective effort that blends authorship, financing, design, printing, packaging, marketing and sales to produce the rare breakout hit, it’s a process that has been simplified by technology without conceding simple answers to the question of how to achieve a profit. The evolution of publishing is laid clear in the story of two books, one that ended the era of incunabula, the first 50 years of print, and another that fulfilled the self-publishing dream in the first decade of the 21st Century.They are the bookends of the paper-publishing era. Neither is a great work that will be assigned in literature or theology classes for centuries after its publication, nor are they particularly well written, but their successes mirror one another and tell a great deal about how publishing has changed and will change, as well as what publishing skills will remain vibrant with the rise of new technology and the reinvention of publishing society beginning in our time.

hypnerotomachiaFra Francesco Colonna was a Dominican friar, the anonymous author of the bizarre and erotic antiquarian romantic fantasy Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Published on the eve of the 15th century in Republic of Venice, the book has become one of the most valuable printed works in the world.  Five hundred and six years later, William P. Young, a church-going salesman and motel night clerk from Boring, Oregon, penned a Christian psychodrama, The Shack, that started out as a photocopied work shared by his friends but found a market online, selling 3.8 million print and e-book copies by January 2009[ii], climbing to the top of The New York Times bestseller list for dozens of weeks[iii] on the strength of Internet “word-of-mouth” endorsements by thousands of readers.

A monk writing in Treviso, Italy, in the 1460s didn’t dream of being published, because there were no publishers. The process and business norms authors and readers take for granted today would take hundreds of years to mature. As Francesco Colonna took up his quill, there were perhaps 50 to 70 printing presses in the world. He could not have dreamed that his allegorical love story would reach print and become “the most famous published work or all time.”[iv] Hynerotomachia Poliphili, as it came to be printed, included erotic images strikingly out of the 15th century mainstream. Colonna must have feared its publication would cost him his place in the church, should he be discovered its author. He would never make any money from the work. His publisher would lose money. Yet, the product of those labors made a work of real art. An early edition Hypnerotomachia recently sold at auction, in a depressed market, for $22,543.[v]

Half a millennium later, a salesman and part-time Web developer living in suburban Portland, Oregon, in 2005 would have little hope of being published by a major publishing house, because the process of getting a book into print had become so hardened, involving byzantine networks of author’s agents, editorial relationships, publisher projections that rule the risks taken each season. The sheer distance a Christian title must traverse to make The New York Times’ paperback fiction bestseller list, a general book category, is as daunting as the chances of publication of the Hypnerotomachia when it was written. Once he started thinking of publishing his photocopied book, what William P. Young found was that he didn’t need, but could leverage, the publishing industry to get his book to sell a million more copies than Continue reading