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.

The app-ification of publishing

Publishers Weekly‘s Craig Morgan Teicher has a long feature, “The App Boom Hits Publishing,” which reads like an article from Digital Media, my old newsletter, in the early 1990s. There’s a kind of Lotus Eaters quality to it, as it requires you believe application-based e-books solve the e-publishing problem.

The article revolves around repurposing existing content, such as crosswords and foreign language phrase books, by making them interactive, which is an excellent and relatively simple strategy if you have the right kind of titles on the shelf. It goes so far as to conflate that kind of title with any title that might be digitized.

The article makes the case that any book can be turned into an application and associates the ePub format, an e-book format designed to provide open cross-platform readability, with applications that are proprietary and closed. It’s a mistake to think that applications, which rely on functional code to enclose a text, are open or that they will survive the relatively brief period of time when e-books have not been published in a standardized format that can be read in a variety of applications. It’s a bandage on a heavy wound, one that, if future e-book readers cannot access the books people buy today, will alienate readers from e-books because they will seem increasingly unreliable.

Yes, Apple’s App Store is a big deal and a lot of applications, including e-books, are selling there. But the model isn’t predicated on the application, rather it is thriving on the fact that all iPhone apps run on all iPhones. Portability from one phone to the next, so that buyers don’t find they cannot access their data after upgrading their iPhone, is the key to the app model’s success.

Texts wrapped in code become incompatible with all but the operating system and hardware that it was written to run on. Texts need to be portable, so that books remain useful. Amazon’s willingness to deliver a Kindle book over and over to new reader devices is the right way to assure readers they will be able to access a proprietary format, but it is also the cost of that proprietary format for the distributor.

If a publisher is going to publish “in an app” today and abandon the reader and customer support when they move on to the next application platform, they are risking losing each customer they are spending to win today.

Re-purposing is a stop-gap strategy.

Adding value means more than digitizing a book.

Putting your book into a proprietary format dilutes the value of the book to the reader, because it diminishes the utility of the text over the long term.

Enough said.

E-books aren’t just digital pages

Follow the Reader‘s Susan Ruszala writes that she’s not bonding with the Sony Reader she received from the company recently. The problem reduced to a few words is, the digital book does nothing new or special. Publishers need to realize that a book converted to digital format is still less than a book, a “flat tire,” as Alan Kay describes badly designed technologies seeking to replace an existing technology.

Susan suggests book-club pricing schemes, and that may be an attractive way to bundle the choice of a few books out of the gate. Audible used to do something similar, letting people choose five books when signing up for a year of service, but that’s not the problem.

The problem is that e-books over-promise and under-deliver. They don’t do anything a book does, other than display words. They don’t help readers understand the text better and they don’t even show readers where they are in the book, which they can assess with a glance at the pages in the book. She suggests a calculator that tells how long, at one’s current reading pace, one will take to finish a book.

How about a simple volumetric display, a kind of at-a-glance view of how far through the book the reader is, so you can see there is only a third of the book or some such easily understood view of progress?

Susan concludes with: “I believe there’s a real danger that their curated and edited content won’t be as widely consumed as it could be—and that is a far bigger danger.” I think that’s missing the point. Curation, which means helping people find their way through books or ideas, and editing, which means working to improve the quality and authority (by vetting for accuracy), does add value. Just scanning a book, especially without adding the benefit of experience since it was published in paper—what if the author has learned a lot, or that the whole thesis they wrote about, is wrong—is what will make a book stand out from any other words packaged for the page.

Interestingly, though most people don’t understand it was so, this exactly the same problem publishers had in the early centuries of print.

Springer’s e-book efforts paying dividends in tight economy

Springer Science and Business Media, one of the largest scientific and business publishers in the world, is pushing hard into the e-books market, the Financial Times reports. The company’s main goals are lowering price with electronic publishing and to ensure titles are available ubiquitously, according to Cynthia Cleto, Springer’s global product manager for e-books told the FT.

Notable in the article is the fact that academic publishers are seeing much higher sales rates in e-books as a percentage of total sales than trade publishers, who typically see sales of e-books accounting for three percent of annual revenue. Budget constrained libraries and universities are opting for electronic formats to save money.

The FT characterizes Springer as “ahead in [the] academic e-book market” with 22,500 titles available in e-book formats though there are no comparative statistics offered for other publishers. Along with other publishers, Springer is calling for a standard format for e-books so that it can publish for many platforms with one format.

Soon, Amazon, Apple and Google will not be e-book competitors

Observing a market in development, such as the e-book business today, teaches the thoughtful analyst one thing above all else: No company is making investments that lead to failure. They only fail by mistake, by placing too large a bet on one direction the market might take. Amazon is no more at war with Google than it is with Apple. Yes, they are competing for dominance. But neither company would kill itself over this one vertical within either of their much broader businesses.

Amazon can drop the Kindle hardware to sell more books on an Apple device or through Google Books. Google could embrace the Kindle format, as well as the Mobipocket format that Amazon owns. Apple could provide hardware to serve up both Amazon and Kindle books. Microsoft, as the odd-man out and dominant operating system player is least like to control the high ground in any of these markets, because it holds the largest share of revenue generated by consumers today.

None of them will destroy the rest of their business to control the book publishing market, which is worth only $46 billion annually according to the most optimistic estimates. Mobile phone hardware, search engine marketing and advertising and PC operating systems are all larger markets than books, though one could argue that publishing has the greatest potential to drive revenue if managed perfectly. It is easier for any of these companies, however, to sell hardware, advertising and operating systems and development tools than to undertake the challenges of publishing.

Instead, these companies are jockeying for leadership, which will allow them to dictate their share of the resulting market for e-books, e-magazines and e-anything that generates revenue. Eventually, and I believe it will not be long, Amazon will yield to Google, making its book available on Kindle, or by licensing its formats to Google to sell independently of Amazon (but sharing revenue when the Google-scanned books are sold in Amazon’s Kindle Store). Apple will sell hardware, driving sales of e-books through any channel that provides books that run on its hardware. Likewise, Microsoft, which know it has lost the high ground in electronic publishing, will cede publishing revenues in exchange for support of its OS by the widest range of e-readers.

Only Google and Amazon are so decidedly at odds that they cannot work together. One of Microsoft’s most profitable divisions has long been and remain its Mac software unit. Everyone else in the e-books market has only their long-term survival at the center of their calculations, and none of them depend on dominating 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

Kindle’s “unitasking” and the task of book publishers

Thomas E. Weber, editor of SmartMoney.com, has an excellent essay at paidContent.org today about his experience of reading on an Amazon Kindle. His key argument, one that publishers need to take heed of, is that the ability to focus on a book when reading on the Kindle is the device’s greatest strength. He calls it “unitasking,” which is a consequence of the multi-tasking we are told is essential in the information age. I’d just say that with a book, concentration is rewarding. It gives wings to ideas, lets your mind escape your world into the minds of others.

As publishers seek to capitalize on these devices and the devices evolve to provide color and video features, though, Weber cautions that books could be over-designed to their detriment. Simple, straightforward presentation of text (even when it is enhanced with social features, video or graphics, and interactive annotation) is the hallmark of good book design, even with e-books.

TV’s changing, with good news for books

Katherine Rushton of TheBookseller.com has an interesting piece on the impact of the BBC’s increasing focus on dramatizing novels.

The television business worldwide is changing, because the criteria for a “hit” program is no longer necessarily founded on the success of the first 13-weeks of a program’s life, after which the producers see how long they can carry the show. Instead, complete story arcs are being pitched and sold to studios and distributors who will make money from advertising on the networks, fees from downloaded episodes and boxed sets of seasons or the whole show. ABC’s “Lost” and “Life on Mars,” which was an adaption of a BBC minseries, and SciFi’s “Battlestar Galactica” are exemplars of this new kind of programming.

These shows also lend themselves to book adaptations and tie-ins. Rushton suggest that books will be turned into programming more often, and that is true. But programs can also be turned into books, as the “Star Trek” series, X-Files and so forth have spawned large and small publishing franchises.

The era of the story arc in television will be a boon to publishing.

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