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
The design is reminiscent of the environment I discussed in this posting about the Espresso Book Machine. Here are my thoughts, which are also posted to the comment thread at TeleRead, so you can just go read them there….
I think this idea is viable, but only in the concierge/bookstall (like those that specialized in particular kinds of books in early printing) sense. It would make a great ground floor of a paper bookstore. The design makes sense as a place to WAIT, but not to browse. Bookstores are places to browse, cafes are places to wait — indeed, that’s all Starbucks and other coffee places think about in the design of their stores, in terms of making it pleasant to wait for a drink.
I don’t think on-demand bookstores are as practical as Moriah believes they will be. The estimates of wait times for a POD book always assume optimal performance and perfect demand (no more orders than the book machine can make in any given time), when retail is a highly inefficient setting characterized by long waits whenever business improves. See: http://booksahead.com/?p=329. It’s never “GOOD TO GO,” but usually “you’ll need to wait a bit longer.”
The question not addressed here is the cost of the space and technology for selecting the book one would like printed. If all the espresso seats have a screen, each sharing one-fourth of a workstation and there is a need for more than two POD machines, the upfront cost of the design would run somewhere north of $45,000, with ongoing costs for leasing the machines, point-of-sale systems and so forth. I’m not sure that is going to make sense to a retailer.
Nolan Bushnell gave a speech about the future of retailing at Digital World in 1994 that anticipated this scenario. It assumed people would go to places to browse, then order for home delivery. That model didn’t come to pass, because there was no link between browsing costs assumed locally and the potential revenue from actual sales (one could go online and order from someone else for a better price). The bookstore of screens ONLY doesn’t really enable browsing — which I think will take place from home.
“This agreement means that titles that have been generally unavailable for a century or more will be able to go back into print, one copy at a time,” Paul N. Courant, U-M librarian and dean of libraries said in a statement. Books will be produced in softcover and delivered directly to buyers by BookSurge. Interestingly, books scanned as part of the library’s Google Book partnership will be made available through the Amazon service—the “war” anticipated by so many is merely an early skirmish to establish the terms of partnership in different fulfillment settings, if you ask me.
This is a phenomenally interesting announcement, since it anticipates a completely new market for out-of-copyright books and, potentially, library revenues. POD systems are, as I’ve explained elsewhere, more likely to be offsite services that fulfill orders than to be located at bookstores or libraries. The economics and the practicality of serving more than a few customers an hour in high-demand times make this clear.
With a library of 400,000 books, the typical sales for any given title will be ones and twos a year, but could, as U of Michigan director of scholarly publishing Maria Bonn said in the press release, reach 100 copies for “bestsellers.” The prospect of so many older books being available again makes my bibliophilic skin tingle and shows that digitization is also a path to increased paper-based reading.
Photographer Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt have broken new ground in publishing with what can best be described as “event books” as far back the early 1990s with their 24-hours books. Their latest, The Obama Time Capsule, sets the stage for a new kind of book publishing, a participatory book created in part by the people who buy it.
Rick, whom I’ve known for many years, called me a couple weeks ago to talk about The Obama Time Capsule and the unique site he’s created where buyers can personalize and add photos to the book. (Disclosure: Rick gave me a complimentary copy to personalize for this article.) Having captured days in the life of the United States, cyberspace, and many countries and states in photo books, he decided to try a radical experiment in print-on-demand publishing.
“It’s not available in any bookstore,” Smolan said as we began talking about The Obama Time Capsule. “The challenge—I made the challenge intentionally—I wanted it be all print-on-demand. Whether you customize it or not, it’s a great book.” He assembled photos taken by photographers and friends, most unseen before the book appeared, combining them with essays and infographics that make the book an entertaining read. My kids, both teenagers, flipped right past the personalized parts of the book I ordered and read the main text and photo essays with real interest. Few books grab their attention that way.
It’s a fantastic memento of the election for a Democratic family like ours, but it could easily be personalized for any number of other institutional uses. A kindergarten teacher could place her students pictures and art in the book to use as a teach tool that engages during the next election cycle (one page allows a drawing by the buyer, or their kid, to be inserted among other drawings by kids). In the long run, though, The Obama Time Capsule will be remembered as setting the standard for participatory books about many topics.
Some sites have dismissed the effort as pure novelty, like placing one’s face in a fake Time magazine cover, but I think The Obama Time Capsule marks an intriguing beginning in publishing, because it represents the kind of service an artist can provide in a deeply mediated society. Smolan has created a frame through which readers can look at the Obama candidacy and election with touches of their personal experience to memorialize how they personally shared in the experience.
“It’s not the point of the book to be Zelig-like, morphed into a picture at the inauguration,” Smolan said. Rather, The Obama Time Capsule site, which buyers can visit after purchasing the book at Amazon, lets readers add their name to the cover, e.g. “Rick Smolan, Jennifer Erwitt and The Ratcliffe Family.” Inside the book, buyers can customize the dedication, add their pictures to montages of campaign events and supporters, and insert an image on the back page (to the right, I am the fat guy with the microphone, I was asking a question of Sen. John Edwards at the time). It’s the kind of subtle participation by readers that will make the book stand out on their bookshelf or coffee table: “Look, that’s you.” Then, the book carries the story forward.
The result is a book that, while framed by Smolan and Erwitt, embodies a personal statement about the buyer’s feelings about the 2008 campaign.
Some folks will say this is part of the “cult of Obama,” but that isn’t the point. The same kind of book could be produced based on any event in history. Woodstock. The 1989 Revolutions. 9/11. The 2004 Election. Those are just a few of the kinds of events that people participated in, directly or as spectators at a distance, that they would like to memorialize and make their own in some small way. They’d also like to share that perspective with others by giving a book composed in part by themselves to a friend or family member.
Of course, there are many subjects and situations that could be trivialized by this approach to publishing, which is why I think the artist driving the title is critical to the success of a book, even one personalized by each reader. For example, it would be easy to imagine all the people who tinted their Twitter avatar green in order to show support for the Iranian Green Revolution wanting to memorialize that uprising and congratulate themselves for their support for it. Only after the movement faltered and the green tint disappeared from many Twitter pages would that have been seen to be trivializing serious events for the Iranians who actually were protesting. Authorship, as Smolan practices it, wouldn’t stoop that low. The public disdain earned by someone who did try to exploit self-congratulatory “revolution” supporters would, at least, force them to acknowledge the shallowness of the publication. This is why authorship and editorial judgment—accountability—remains important.
People make symbols of things all the time. In this case, the creative force is provided by an author and, through a templated Web services, provide readers the opportunity to participate in the making of an historical document. Smolan likens The Obama Time Capsule to a memory book his mother kept about John F. Kennedy in which she also kept her children’s grade reports and pictures. That earnest act of commemoration inspired Smolan and shows how even “ordinary people” can contribute meaningful frames for collective acts of creativity.
I recommend The Obama Time Capsule for anyone who was involved in the 2008 campaign or who simply want to remember the election of our first black president, among the many reasons there were to celebrate the results last November. Your personal touch will make the book a unique memento that will last for generation. It shows what photographers, writers, editors, coders, and readers can create, a lasting document of value.
A couple notes on the book quality. The book, which is printed by Indigo Press in Seattle in conjunction with Lynda.com, Blurb.com, Amazon EC2 cloud services, and Hewlett-Packard, is bound in a personalized cover on very high-quality Sterling Ultra Digital acid-free paper. It’s made to last.
One hectoring review dismissed the book as not original because many print-on-demand and self-publishing services exist (this in response to a comment by one of the sponsors of the book, not the author’s statements). That seems to have willfully missed the creative role of the author in this book.
For those of you new to print terminology, a “perfect binding” does not mean a binding without flaws. Rather, it is a type of paperback binding that uses glue to hold the pages in place within the cover. The article does not discuss questions of how to facilitate browsing for more than one reader at a time, which I examined at length, but it does seem that the primary market has been self-publishers who visited the Northshire Bookstore to have copies of their own books published.
It’s my opinion that we will memorialize many events, even conversations, in printed form once efficient print-on-demand is available. That may be a bigger business than the eternal backlist business publishing envisions for P-o-D systems.
Myriad self-publishing sites and services are competing for authors’ and publishers’ business. Blurb.com, a San Francisco company, has introduced an intriguing PDF-to-book service that lets customers use the design and layout application they prefer to create a PDF that may be used to produce the printed book. Moreover, the company offers templates for use in Adobe InDesign, one of the most advanced document design applications available (the one I prefer) and easily followed guidelines for setting up pages, books and cover designs in other applications.
This kind of templated design service is essential to making books that look good, which is one of the keys to selling books, which customers do judge by their covers, the quality of the paper and design.. Blurb can produce books of up to 440 pages using standard paper and 160 pages using premium paper stocks. Pricing is listed here.
New York Magazine’s Devouring Culture Vulture writes about the fall launch of print-on-demand book machine, Espresso Book Machine 2.0, reportedly at the McNally Jackson Books store in New York City’s SoHo district. It’s a “contraption [with] Willy Wanka-ish machinations” that enchanted writer Boris Kachka. Made by On Demand Books, the $75,000 machine, which will be leased or sold to booksellers, is similar in appearance to the tortilla machine at a Chevys Restaurant—buyers get to watch their book being made while they wait.
“Think of the store as a hub where the supply chain collapses,” On Demand Books CEO told Kachka. That’s a tantalizing vision, one that the blogger muses “means less shelf space, which means fewer New York stores go bankrupt due to astronomical rents.”
Yes, and no. Let’s think this through. The catch in On Demand Books’ plan, according to the blog, is the lack of new titles. It currently has access to “millions” out-of-copyright books (only if On Demand has access to Google’s library) and 175,000 backlist titles. I am pretty sure that, if there is a way to make money with on-demand, publishers will go along for the ride. There’s another challenge to consider.
The machine is designed with the production and binding gears exposed to entertain the buyer. That’s brilliant, if you ask me, but it is a short-lived novelty. It isn’t destined to become the 21st century shopping experience that was the Red Goose Shoes golden egg, which adults still remember going to get along with a new pair of shoes as children.
The ESB 2.0 can “print, bind and trim a 300-page book in less than four minutes.” It handles books of up to 830 pages, which presumably take longer. The ESB 2.0 cool-factor is one that will wear thin when buyers, say around the holidays, have to stand in line to wait for their books. Ten people waiting in line at a bookstore will be through the transaction and out of the store in a few minutes, while the tenth person in line waiting for an on-demand book would wait 45 minutes while the machine churned through the workload. That’s assuming each customer buys only one book. Then, we’re talking the tedium of the DMV, with tortilla machines. Lots of tortilla machines.
My kids looked at the Chevys tortilla machine a few times, but mostly they hang out at the table and eat chips when we go now. There is no free chips-and-salsa at the bookstore to help kill the time while your books print.
The obvious answer is “get more Espresso Book Machines.” That will become more economically viable over time and the machines will get faster. A $75,000 machine with a five- to seven-year life will cost a bookseller between $9,000 and $15,000 a year, before supplies like paper are factored in—the ESB’s per-page cost is described as “a penny,” which has a marketer’s ring to it.
With more than three ESB machines, we’re no longer talking “small bookstore.” A store with five to ten machines would be more likely to have increased its costs than reduce them. What about browsing copy costs for those “millions” of books? Even if you display the browsable copies on screens in the store, you’ll need lots of screens and people will still want to browse printed books.
The economics of publishing and the venues in which we consider and buy books will change dramatically, perhaps so much that the bookstore looks nothing like MacNally Jackson today. On-demand will be an important factor in the book market. Where books will be produced, whether they will be available on-demand at a local store—or even if that helps reduce the inventory a bookseller has to keep on hand to facilitate browsing—is an open question.