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.

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

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

Smashwords opens B&N channel for self-publishers

Late Friday, Mark Coker of Smashwords sent the following via email:

Smashwords has signed an agreement with Barnes & Noble to distribute Smashwords
ebook titles, all of which are self-published or from small independent presses.
As you might imagine, we’re thrilled.  Until today, it was difficult if not impossible
for independent authors and publishers to gain such mainstream digital distibution.
Now with Smashwords, virtually any author, anywhere in the world, can receive
broad distribution for their ebook. Additional distribution relationships are
forthcoming.
The Smashwords service is completely free.  We pay the author 85% of the net
proceeds and we take 15%.
We originally hoped to do a formal press release on this news rather than release
it late on a Friday afternoon, but we needed to give our 1,200+ authors and publishers
advance notice so they can prepare their titles for distribution.  It’s tough
to ask 1,200 people to keep such an exciting secret a secret, thus the preempted
press release and my email to you.  We currently publish about 2,600 titles,
double the number from just four months ago.  The books should be listed at B&N
properties within the next 30 days or so.
We posted a link here to inform our authors about next steps:  http://www.smashwords.com/distribution

Smashwords has signed an agreement with Barnes & Noble to distribute Smashwords ebook titles, all of which are self-published or from small independent presses.

As you might imagine, we’re thrilled.  Until today, it was difficult if not impossible for independent authors and publishers to gain such mainstream digital distibution. Now with Smashwords, virtually any author, anywhere in the world, can receive broad distribution for their ebook. Additional distribution relationships are forthcoming.

The Smashwords service is completely free.  We pay the author 85% of the net proceeds and we take 15%.

We originally hoped to do a formal press release on this news rather than release it late on a Friday afternoon, but we needed to give our 1,200+ authors and publishers advance notice so they can prepare their titles for distribution.  It’s tough to ask 1,200 people to keep such an exciting secret a secret, thus the preempted press release and my email to you.  We currently publish about 2,600 titles, double the number from just four months ago.  The books should be listed at B&N properties within the next 30 days or so.

We posted a link here to inform our authors about next steps:  http://www.smashwords.com/distribution

This is a very significant turn, though one that I suspect will be followed by more Smashwords partnerships. The simple fact is that self-publishers are as much a part of the mainstream publishing market as any small house. The barriers have fallen and many authors will test the market without a deal with a publisher upfront. Smashwords makes the market entry very easy and preserves 85 percent of after-retail revenue for the author.

It’s another inventory that, at least now, BN.com and associated readers (Plastic Logic and iRex) can offer directly to readers. It seems certain that Smashwords titles will be available soon in other major online bookstores.

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.

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.

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