Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 03 2012

13:53

Can E-Books Succeed Without Amazon?

E-book author Victoria Hudson doesn't like Amazon or the power it seems to wield with independent writers.

She didn't want to sell her book and short stories on its Kindle Direct Publishing Select program, something she calls "too restrictive to authors." Instead she chose an alternative book distributor based in the San Francisco Bay Area called Smashwords.

"I want my work to be available in as many places as possible," she said.

In the e-book market, Amazon.com is the biggest name in the game. But, as criticism mounts -- especially from people who believe that Amazon, and specifically, it's KDP Select Program, can hurt rather than help writers -- alternatives like Smashwords are on the rise.

But can an independent author afford to bypass Amazon, especially when it provides so much exposure to self-published e-books? So far, the answer isn't a clear one.

The Criticism

Most of Amazon's criticism comes because of the KDP Select program. For most authors at the Kindle Store, books are usually split between two prices -- 99 cents and $2.99. At $2.99, Amazon's take is only 30 percent with 70 percent going to the author. At $2.98 and below, the author's take is only 35 percent.

But the KDP program offers more visibility on Amazon if authors agree to give their book away for free for five days during a 90-day period. The author must also sell exclusively at the Kindle store for those 90 days. While the subject is a hot topic on the Kindle boards, many authors are already a part of the program in hopes of getting momentum and their title climbing the Kindle charts. "Charts are everything for Amazon publishers," said Erica Sadun, an independent and traditionally published writer. "Chart position gives you momentum."

kindlelibrary.png

Authors are also asked to loan out books for free at the Kindle Owners' Lending Library for a chance at a pot of $600,000.

"Successful books are not in this program," Sadun said. "It's the ones trying to get market traction and trying to climb those charts." It is one of the few ways that people can successfully market a book that would have no market otherwise, she added.

Questions sent to Amazon for comment on the KDP Select program and its new publishing arm went unanswered.

Amazon Alternatives

While that may be true, some say that Amazon's heavy-handed attitude is hurting independent authors, and writers are looking for alternatives to the Amazon juggernaut.

Hudson, a writer from Hayward, Calif., has a chapter from a future book distributed by Smashwords as well as "No Red Pen: Writing, Writing Groups and Critique," a handbook on giving better writing critiques.

"Smashwords was an easy way to get the electronic version out to a lot of markets," she said.

Mark Coker created the Los Gatos, Calif.-based Smashwords four years ago after trying to get his own book, "Boob Tube," published.

"The more I thought about the issue, the madder I got that a publisher has the power to stand between me and my potential audience," he said.

Now Smashwords has more than 37,000 authors and publishers and 100,000 e-books in 32 countries -- with a 60-85 percent royalty for authors.

Coker doesn't like the KDP Select program because he questions its fairness. "It's using self-published authors as pawns as a broader campaign to wage war against retail competitors," he said. "If it wasn't for the exclusivity requirement, I would be a big supporter of KDP Select. I love the idea that an author can receive payment when it's borrowed."

The exclusivity also hurts authors, he said. "We lost 6,000 to 7,000 books around the Christmas season," he said. "Yes, in three months you can bring that book back, but you have lost any momentum that you had."

Despite his dislike of some of Amazon's practices, Coker holds no animosity toward the company nor does he suggest writers have any. "For those authors who do not work with Amazon out of principle, that's not a behavior I would encourage," he said. "Authors should be everywhere."

BookBaby.jpg

Another alternative to publishing on Amazon is Portland, Ore.-based BookBaby, which has a $99 "self-publishing made easy" option which formats e-books, offers cover design, and has a better-known sister company called CD Baby that sells independent music. It distributes its books to the iBookstore, Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble's Nook, Sony Reader and others.

"We are taking nothing from the back end and passing on 100 percent of net royalties, so authors get to keep all of the money they earn," said Brian Felsen, president of BookBaby. "Our payments are timely and transparent, and we pay immediately upon receipt from our partners."

Hyperink is a new kind of e-book publisher, one that comes with $1.2 million in venture capital funds and seeks out experts to write targeted e-books.

Kevin Gao, a co-founder of digital publisher Hyperink, said his company looks at search engine data, book sales, and tables of content to find out the hottest book topics. "In general, there are two types of authors: professional writers who are freelance writers interested in writing e-books and experts with an area of expertise," he said.

Gao said the year-old Hyperink launches about 100 titles a month on Kindle, Kobo and the iBookstore, and royalties to authors typically run 25-50 percent. But if experts need help organizing material or their thoughts, or the company needs a quick-hit e-book, Hyperink finds freelance writers to take on the task.

Zach Demby, a 28-year-old writer from Oakland, Calif., answered one of Hyperink's initial calls for writers. He penned an 8,000-word study guide or "quicklet" for the book "Freakonomics" and was paid $200. He received no royalties.

"I just found them on Craigslist," he said. "They paid a flat fee plus royalties ... But I didn't expect any royalties." Now with pay rates cut, Demby said he would rather put his efforts into more lucrative freelancing and his own work.

A recent Hyperink call for writers stated it was looking for new freelance writers to take on 5,000- to 8,000-word quicklets ranging $80 to $130 plus 15 percent royalties.

Gao said rates for writers have gone down on a per-word basis since its launch. "There's a lot more supply and a lot of writers out there looking for work," he said.

Amazon's New Publishing Twist

While the alternatives to Amazon exist, independent authors would be wise to watch what the online retailer is doing. Amazon is reinventing itself and becoming a traditional publisher, making it more difficult for writers to ignore the company on principle.

While the Kindle Store still handles the majority of e-book sales, Amazon has been busy creating its own stable of authors. It began its own publishing arm, Amazon Publishing, last May and published 122 books last fall. The publishing house now has six imprints: romance, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, international authors, emerging authors, and how-to books. Would-be authors can now submit their book proposal directly to Amazon.

The courting of authors could easily edge out both publishers and agents by offering a direct-to-print service.

"The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader," Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon's top executives, told the New York Times. "Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity."

Barbara E. Hernandez is a native Californian who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has more than a decade of experience as a professional journalist and college writing instructor. She also writes for Press:Here, NBC Bay Area's technology blog.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

January 20 2012

19:00

Matthew Battles: It doesn’t take Cupertino to make textbooks interactive

Absent the glamour of the black mock turtleneck, Apple’s Thursday event, held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, still came bearing flowers of rhetoric, lovingly transplanted from their native soil in Cupertino’s sunny clime. One such rhetorical staple, the feature checklist, made its appearance about nine minutes in. Usually, the checklist is used to contrast Apple’s latest magical object with the feature set of lesser smartphones or other misbegotten tech tchotchkes; it was more than a little eye-popping to see the same rhetoric of invidious comparison used against the book in full — that gadget which, as senior VP Phil Schiller reminded us, was invented (in its print incarnation) back at the end of the Hundred Years’ War.

As Schiller ticked down the list, for feature after feature — portability, durability, interactivity, searchability, and currency — the book earned a big red X. Curiously, Schiller didn’t let his earlier observation of the antiquity of books undermine his critique on the grounds of their durability; not only the technology of the book, but many actual tomes survive from Gutenberg’s era; and when older formats are taken into account, far older books are still with us. It is comparatively difficult to imagine an iPad of today, much less an app designed to run on one, still in use two hundred, five hundred, a thousand years hence.

In a more focused sense, Apple’s critique of the textbook is valid. But the problem with textbooks isn’t that they’re books per se; it’s that they’re overdetermined, baroque in their complexity and ornamentation.

Modern textbooks are monsters — heavy, unwieldy, battened on siloed content. They’re like ’90s-era computers, loaded with bloatware that blunts their processor speed and complicates their interfaces. Already, today’s textbooks rarely come as paper-only devices, but include (for significant extra licensing fees) websites, online editions, networked assessments, and interactive assignments. For the wired child, these electronic ancillaries solve the portability problem; for the less prosperous or fortunate pupil, the backpack is still very heavy.

The major education publishers have become massively efficient inhalers of content, capturing licenses for images and objects held in museums around the globe, hiring phalanxes of MAs and ABDs to craft mazes of matrices, rubrics, and quizzes, and deploying batteries of sales reps to market-test every page, every image, every checklist. It’s a prosperous model — and as Tim Carmody evocatively documented at Wired yesterday, this prosperity has enabled education publishers to leverage their way into trade publishing and other media. It’s no wonder Apple is taking aim at them.

The iPad is an extraordinary device, but it’s hardly the first avenue multimedia has taken to the classroom. The filmstrips and 16mm movies of my childhood could be engaging experiences too — and they could be time-fillers for addled, overstretched teachers as well. Schiller made a sentimental play to this constituency, opening his presentation with a series of excerpted interviews in which teachers sang the sad litany of challenges they face: cratering budgets, overcrowded classrooms, unprepared, disengaged students. The argument that Apple — founded by dropouts and autodidacts — is fundamentally motivated to change this set of conditions is as ludicrous as the notion that the company could ever hope actually to do any such thing.

The textbooks demonstrated in yesterday’s event were lovely and compelling — and they looked strikingly like current textbooks. Roger Rosner, who heads productivity software for Apple, gave a tour of Life on Earth, a title created in conjunction with E. O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life project; after playing the book’s cinematic introductory sequence, he swiped through pages featuring familiar modalities of intertextual braiding and layering: things like tables, block capitals, and callout boxes, which derive from mid-20th-century rotogravure magazine production — only sprinkled with videos, animations, and interactive images, in Apple-controlled formats, subject to development cycles originating in Cupertino (and routed through Shenzhen). At one point, he dove into a microphotograph of a cell to pop out a rendering of a strand of DNA. The helix shimmered invitingly, but disclosed none of its secrets.

Here’s the thing: Interactivity doesn’t exist. More properly, everything is interactive. We use the catch-all term “interactivity” to brand as novel the qualities exhibited by digital objects striving to be like real-world objects. But chairs, raindrops, sandwiches, and envelopes are also interactive — in their own evolved ways. Books in fact exhibit rich interactive habits, evolved to engage us in peculiar ways (and increasingly, these very features are counted as bugs).

Digital objects, too, evolve their own ways of reaching out to meet us halfway. The spell of the real makes us strive for a specious virtuality, to try fashioning uncanny appendages for objects that live in databases and go to work in networks. Tellingly, it’s at those uncanny intersections where digital objects most strenuously try to emulate objects in the real world — books, shelves, desk blotters, gaming tables — that Apple’s legitimately vaunted design sensibility breaks down. For its part, a pop-up animation of a lipid molecule might be enlightening — or it might merely be twisty and pretty. That’s why I almost want to say that, those heartfelt teacher testimonials at the start of yesterday’s show notwithstanding, it’s not the book Apple is trying to replace — it’s teaching.

Tools exist — they’re getting more powerful everyday — that allow us to treat digital objects as digital objects: to collect and organize them, to fashion stories from them, to turn them into bespoke devices uniquely tuned to unlocking the world’s mysteries. Apple wants to offer us those tools as well. Yesterday’s event also introduced iBooks Author, a free app for building iPad-native textbooks like Life on Earth. But increasingly, such vital aggregates can be engineered in classrooms, hacked together on the fly by teachers and students learning and teaching collaboratively. I’m thinking in particular of Zeega, an open-source toolkit for collecting media and telling stories, which is in the midst of development in association with metaLAB, the research/design group I work with at Harvard — but a host of other such tools exist or are on the way.

We can never count Apple out — the company’s visions have an implacable way of turning into givens — but the future is undoubtedly more complex. There will still be overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers, and shrinking budgets in an education world animated by Apple. But I prefer to think of teachers and students finding ways to hack knowledge and make their own beautiful stories to envisioning ranks of students spellbound by magical tablets.

Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History and cofounder of HiLobrow. He is a program fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where he works for metaLAB, a research and design group investigating the arts and humanities in a time of networks.

16:00

This Week in Review: The SOPA standoff, and Apple takes on textbooks with ebooks

The web flexes its political muscle: After a couple of months of growing concern, the online backlash against the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA reached a rather impressive peak this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so I’ll break it down into three parts: the arguments for and against the bill, the status of the bill, and this week’s protests.

The bills’ opponents have covered a wide variety of arguments over the past few months, but there were still a few more new angles this week in the arguments against SOPA. NYU prof Clay Shirky put the bill in historical context in a 14-minute TED talk, and social-media researcher danah boyd parsed out both the competitive and cultural facets of piracy. At the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel framed the issue as a struggle between big content companies and smaller innovators. The New York Times asked six contributors for their ideas about viable SOPA alternatives in fighting piracy, and at Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that piracy actually has some real benefits for society and the entertainment industry.

The most prominent SOPA supporter on the web this week was News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who went on a Twitter rant against SOPA opponents and Google in particular, reportedly after seeing a Google TV presentation in which the company said it wouldn’t remove links in search to illegal movie streams. Both j-prof Jeff Jarvis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram responded that Murdoch doesn’t understand how the Internet works, with Jarvis arguing that Murdoch isn’t opposed so much to piracy as the entire architecture of the web. At the Guardian, however, Dan Gillmor disagreed with the idea that Murdoch doesn’t get the web, saying that he and other big-media execs know exactly the threat it represents to their longstanding control of media content.

Now for the status of the bill itself: Late last week, SOPA was temporarily weakened and delayed, as its sponsor, Lamar Smith, said he would remove domain-name blocking until the issue has been “studied,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor until some real consensus about the bill can be found.

That consensus became a bit less likely this week, after the White House came out forcefully against SOPA and PIPA, calling for, as Techdirt described it, a “hard reset” on the bills. The real blow to the bills came after Wednesday’s protests, when dozens of members of Congress announced their opposition. The fight is far from over, though — as Mathew Ingram noted, PIPA still has plenty of steam, and the House Judiciary Committee will resume its work on SOPA next month.

But easily the biggest news surrounding SOPA and PIPA this week was the massive protests of it around the web. Hundreds of sites, including such heavyweights as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, BoingBoing, and WordPress, blacked out on Wednesday, and other sites such as Google and Wired joined with “censored” versions of their home pages. As I noted above, the protest was extremely successful politically, as some key members of Congress backed off their support of the bill, leading The New York Times to call it a “political coming of age” for the tech industry.

The most prominent of those protesting sites was Wikipedia, which redirected site users to an anti-SOPA action page on Wednesday. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ announcement of the protest was met with derision in some corners, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and PandoDaily’s Paul Carr chastising the global site for doing something so drastic in response to a single national issue. Wales defended the decision by saying that the law will affect web users around the world, and he also got support from writers like Mathew Ingram and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who argued that Wikipedia and Google’s protests could help take the issue out of the tech community and into the mainstream.

The New York Times’ David Pogue was put off by some aspects of the SOPA outrage and argued that some of the bill’s opposition grew out of a philosophy that was little more than, “Don’t take my free stuff!” And ReadWriteWeb’s Joe Brockmeier was concerned about what happens after the protest is over, when Congress goes back to business as usual and the public remains largely in the dark about what they’re doing. “Even if SOPA goes down in flames, it’s not over. It’s never over,” he wrote.

Apple’s bid to reinvent the textbook: Apple announced yesterday its plans to add educational publishing to the many industries it’s radically disrupted, through its new iBooks and iBooks Author systems. Wired’s Tim Carmody, who’s been consistently producing the sharpest stuff on this subject, has the best summary of what Apple’s rolling out: A better iBooks platform, a program (iBooks Author) allowing authors to design their own iBooks, textbooks in the iBookstore, and a classroom management app called iTunes U.

After news of the announcement was broken earlier this week by Ars Technica, the Lab’s Joshua Benton explained some of the reasons the textbook industry is ripe for disruption and wondered about the new tool’s usability. (Afterward, he listed some of the change’s implications, including for the news industry.) Tim Carmody, meanwhile, gave some historical perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to education reform.

As Carmody detailed after the announcement, education publishing is a big business for Apple to come crashing into. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained that that isn’t exactly what Apple’s doing here; instead, it’s simply “identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them.” Still, Reuters’ Jack Shafer asserted that what’s bad for these companies is good for readers like him.

But while Apple talked about reinventing the textbook, several observers didn’t see revolutionary changes around the corner. ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow noted that Apple is teaming up with big publishers, not killing them, and Paul Carr of PandoDaily argued that iBook Author’s self-made ebooks won’t challenge the professionally produced and marketed ones. All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka did the math to show the publishers should still get plenty of the new revenue streams.

The news still brought plenty of concerns: At CNET, Lindsey Turrentine wondered how many schools will have the funds to afford the hardware for iBooks, and David Carnoy and Scott Stein questioned how open Apple’s new platforms would be. That theme was echoed elsewhere, especially by developer Dan Wineman, who found that through its user agreement, Apple will essentially assert rights to anything produced with its iBooks file format. That level of control gave some, like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, pause, but Paul Carr said we shouldn’t be surprised: This is what Apple does, he said, and we all buy its products anyway.

Making ‘truth vigilantes’ mainstream: The outrage late last week over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s column asking whether the paper’s reporters should challenge misleading claims by officials continued to yield thoughtful responses this week. After his column last week voicing his support for journalism’s “truth vigilantes,” j-prof Robert Niles created a site to honor them, pointing out instances in which reporters call out their sources for lying. Salon’s Gene Lyons, meanwhile, said that attitudes like Brisbane’s are a big part of what’s led to the erosion of trust in the Times and the mainstream press.

The two sharpest takes on the issue this week came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and from Columbia Ph.D. student Lucas Graves here at the Lab. Friedersdorf took on journalists’ argument that people should read the news section for unvarnished facts and the opinion section for analysis: That argument doesn’t work, he said, because readers don’t consume a publication as a bundle anymore.

Graves analyzed the issue in light of both the audience’s expectations for news and the growth of the fact-checking movement. He argued for fact-checking to be incorporated into journalists’ everyday work, rather than remaining a specialized form of journalism. Reuters’ Felix Salmon agreed, asserting that “the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.” At the Lab, Craig Newmark of Craigslist also chimed in, prescribing more rigorous fact-checking efforts as a way for journalists to regain the public’s trust.

Reading roundup: Not a ton of other news developments per se this week, but plenty of good reads nonetheless. Here’s a sample:

— There was one major development on the ongoing News Corp. phone hacking case: The company settled 36 lawsuits by victims, admitting a cover-up of the hacking. Here’s the basic story from Reuters and more in-depth live coverage from the Guardian.

— Rolling Stone published a long, wide-ranging interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as he awaits his final extradition hearing. Reuters’ Jack Shafer also wrote a thoughtful piece on the long-term journalistic implications of WikiLeaks, focusing particularly on the continued importance of institutions.

— Two interesting pieces of journalism-related research: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo described a Facebook-based study that throws some cold water on the idea of the web as a haven for like-minded echo chambers, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote about a study that describes and categorizes the significant group people who stumble across news online.

— In a thorough feature, Nick Summers of Newsweek/The Daily Beast laid out the concerns over how big ESPN is getting, and whether that’s good for ESPN itself and sports media in general.

— Finally, for those thinking about how to develop the programmer-journalists of the future, j-prof Matt Waite has a set of thoughts on the topic that functions as a great jumping-off point for more ideas and discussion.

January 19 2012

16:30

The day the bookshelf shook: Four lessons for news orgs from today’s Apple iBooks announcements

Apple’s New York education event — smack in the middle of the book publishing world — has concluded. You can see coverage from The Verge here, but the main takeaways are a new version of iBooks that enables great-looking interactive textbooks; a new Mac app called iBooks Author that promises to make it much easier to assemble and publish ebooks; and a new iTunes U app that makes it easier for universities and schools to create and distribute an entire course’s worth of material, from lecture videos to readings to assignments.

The focus was on education, and Apple faces some significant hurdles in getting their products into actual schools (where textbook and technology purchasing are constricted by forces bureaucratic, fiscal, and otherwise). But in truth much of what Apple announced was squarely aimed at further disruption of the publishing industry — in this case, the book publishing industry, already facing disruption from Amazon and ebooks more broadly.

So what should someone in the news business take away from today’s announcements? Here are four ideas I think are worth keeping in mind.

News organizations: Now’s the time to figure out how to jump on the ebook bandwagon.

As I wrote the other day, ebooks as a platform have been limited by the relatively clunky process for converting a stack of text into an attractive digital product. It’s not impossible, of course — it’s just a pain.

Today’s announcement of iBooks Author promises to make that process a lot easier. (Although just for iBooks, of course — in most cases, of course, you’ll also want to publish to the Kindle.) Particularly for news organizations — which typically have lots of good art to go along with their longer-form content — pulling together an attractive package could now be a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Or, to put it another way, something done routinely in-house instead of farmed out to a contractor.)

How will news organizations react to that newfound ease of publishing? What are the ebooks already lurking inside the heart of the newsroom, just waiting to be unlocked? Is it a compilation of all a newspaper’s restaurant reviews? A popular columnist’s collected works? A compendium of all the paper’s stories about the local high school football team, player profiles and game stories, full of big art? Several years’ worth of gardening columns, filtered to focus on what grows well in the local soil? A local band book/database that includes MP3 samples from each? An expanded version of the 100 Biggest Local Businesses section the biz desk puts out once a year? A detailed guide to the local public schools, aimed at people new to area?

In the print book era, deciding to try one of these ideas would involve estimating the potential audience, deciding whether it’s worth investing the time to design it, guessing at a print run, figuring out how to get it in the hands of local retailers, and a host of other complications. But with ebooks — if publishing those ebooks is uncomplicated, just a few more steps than hitting File -> Save As…, built around common templates — what kinds of value could be unlocked?

“Book” content can be episodic too.

One of the standout new textbooks announced today was E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, the Harvard professor’s attempt to rethink the biology textbook. Aside from what wisdom it will bring about the Mesozoic Era, perhaps its most interesting element is that it is being released chapter by chapter. The first two chapters are available for download now; the remaining ones will be available later at an “aggressive” price.

Think of Charles Dickens, whose books were famously serialized and left crowds hanging out at the New York docks for a new chapter to roll in to find out what happened to little Nell.

News organizations have traditionally thought of books — when they’ve thought of them at all — as something to be assembled after the fact. Maybe it’s a 10-part series that gets massaged into paperback form after the newsprint run is over. Or it’s a recap of the local football team’s championship season.

But news orgs are really good at producing episodic information. And if books like Wilson’s begin to train readers that books can start incomplete and fill in over time, the technology’s already there — in iBooks and on the Kindle. (The tech book world is already ahead of the game here; books about programming languages now regularly appear first in “beta,” for instance, and O’Reilly’s Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto is adding chapter over time — in part in response to reader feedback.

Once books stop being only finished, whole things — when they can also be works in progress, works in development — the possibilities for journalists open up. Imagine a book on the health-care reform debate that could be updated with each twist and turn, adding profiles of the players, daily news updates, legislative summaries, and more as the story developed. Imagine if buying a book was less a purchase of a contained story and more a statement of desire — “I’m interested in this subject and I want to have all the important news and analysis about it delivered to me, in the place I’m used to reading.”

“Publishing” is becoming a convergence of technologies and workflows.

As Apple showed off the process of making ebooks with iBooks Author, what stood out for me is how much it draws on all the disparate workflows that you could lump under “publishing.” There was a bit drawn from word processing, a little from layout design, some from presentation-building, a touch of web-page building, and even a little drawn from app development. (The preview-on-an-attached-iPad comes straight from Xcode, the app you use to build iPhone, iPad, and Mac native apps.) And of course, I haven’t even mentioned all the (important, duh) work that happens before iBooks Author gets launched — namely writing and editing.

It’s a mish-mash of styles. It looks, at very first glance, that iBooks Author does a good job of making it all user friendly, but it’s a reminder that “publishing,” as an act and as a field, pulls together a full liberal-arts curriculum’s worth of skills. Those whose abilities cover a wider range of those skills will do well; those who stick to one part of the process had better be really good at it.

Desktops and laptops are out of style.

There’s no reason, technically, why there couldn’t be a version of iBooks for the Mac. (Or the PC, for that matter.) But Apple has stuck to its guns: Reading iBooks is something you do on your iPhone or your iPad, not a desktop or laptop computer. (And today’s presentation went even narrower, focusing squarely on the iPad. For people who think a tablet would duplicate the kind of work they can already do their MacBook, today should help nail home the differentiation.)

I can’t imagine news organizations need any further evidence that reading is going to keep moving from big screens to smaller ones, from stationary to mobile. But judging by a lot of news sites’ abysmal mobile experiences, maybe they do. So here’s one more data point: Apple’s investing big in a creating a new kind of reading experience for a new kind of content, and they’re completely ignoring every desktop and laptop computer in the universe.

January 17 2012

13:30

A GarageBand for ebooks: Simplifying publishing could mean a flood of new content

It’s not just the platform — it’s the tools.

That’s the line that kept coming to mind this morning as I read this Ars Technica scoop on what Apple has in store for its press event in New York Thursday. Here’s Ars reporter Chris Foresman:

While speculation has so far centered on digital textbooks, sources close to the matter have confirmed to Ars that Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books — the “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak — and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.

…[A]uthoring standards-compliant e-books (despite some promises to the contrary) is not as simple as running a Word document of a manuscript through a filter. The current state of software tools continues to frustrate authors and publishers alike, with several authors telling Ars that they wish Apple or some other vendor would make a simple app that makes the process as easy as creating a song in GarageBand.

We’ll see on Thursday, of course — but making ebook publishing easier has the potential to have a significant disruptive impact on information industries.

The first disruption of the web, after all, was making it possible for people to publish online without caring about money. Ebooks have already allowed a new generation of small-scale (and large-scale) publishers to reach an audience — sometimes for money, sometimes just for passion. But the process of ebook publishing today reminds me a bit of the early days of blogging, when publishing online was possible but still a pain.

The web as a platform dates back to 1991, and nerds like me were publishing personal webpages not long after. But it took the development of tools like Blogger, Greymatter, and Movable Type — nearly a decade after the web launched — for the power of personal publishing to start to be fulfilled.

Doing it by hand meant learning HTML, then manually FTPing an updated .html file to a remote server. It wasn’t outrageously complicated, to be honest — but it was enough of an obstacle to keep most folks from writing online. When tools reduced personal publishing to typing words in a box and clicking “Post,” a whole new universe of potential contributors was suddenly ready to pitch in, and you saw the blogging explosion of the early 2000s.

And further improvements in tools — think Tumblr and Twitter — have brought even more people to publishing. For a host of creative endeavors — think desktop publishing, motion graphics, video editing, data visualization, coding — it’s the arrival of tools or frameworks that abstract away complexity that marks when they move from niche to mainstream (or at least slightly more mainstream).

While there are many hundreds of thousands of them published every year, books have historically been the most constrained form of publishing. Getting a book into print usually convincing an agent, then an editor, then a publishing house that your work was worthy — and that’s before trying to convince the Barnes & Nobles of the world it should have a place on their shelves.

Ebooks have blown open that world of exclusivity — but the ease of use still isn’t there.

There’s a long list of tools that try to make ebook creation easier, from big names (Apple’s Pages, Adobe’s InDesign) to smaller ones (Scrivener) to open source alternatives like calibre. But it’s still a complicated enough business that there’s a healthy ecosystem of companies offering ebook conversion services.

That task is made more complicated by the format divide between Amazon, which uses a proprietary .mobi-based format called AZW, and most other ebook platforms, which tend to stick to a flavor of .epub. My girlfriend is a book editor (buy her books!), and that’s given me a front-row seat to the still-frustrating world of ebook conversion and formatting. The world of iBooks is particularly frustrating because its greater multimedia and formatting capabilities. (The Kindle keeps display options significantly simpler. Although that too is changing with Format 8, the engine that runs underneath the Kindle Fire and, presumably, future tablet Kindles.)

Here are a few questions to ponder as we wait to hear the details from Apple on Thursday:

Will ease of ebook authoring come with greater ease of ebook publishing? Once you have a properly formatted file, getting your ebook in the Kindle Store is a breeze. That’s not true of the iBookstore, where — perhaps inspired by Apple’s app-approval process — it can take weeks from submission to first sale. That’s kept some publishers from jumping on Apple’s bandwagon, particularly in the journalism world where a couple weeks’ wait can have a significant impact on a work’s timeliness. If Apple wants to make the production process easier, will it also make its go-to-market process easier?

Will there be an iBooks for Android? The Kindle and Nook platforms have the advantage of living on multiple types of devices: both on their own e-ink and tablet devices and on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. Apple’s iBooks thus far lives only on iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads. If they’re aiming at widespread adoption in schools, sticking to Apple-only devices could be a hindrance. Apple’s bitten this bullet before, putting out a version of iTunes for Windows when it became clear keeping music purchasing Mac-only was a recipe for irrelevance. An iBooks for Mac seems like an obvious next move, but are sales of non-iOS smartphones and tablets sufficient to also spread the platform in new directions?

Will this new tool publish in multiple formats or simply create iBooks? Apple’s platform is in either second or third place in the ebook race, well behind Amazon and possibly behind the Nook. Will Apple see a new easy-to-use tool as a way to support its ebook platform — by pushing more content into it — or as a way to gain widespread usage by also supporting the bigger Kindle market? The former would support iBooks; the latter would support Apple’s Mac business, since presumably the software would only run on Macs.

Apple’s gone both ways on this before. GarageBand creates MP3s that will play anywhere; iWeb creates webpages that can be uploaded to any server and viewed in any browser; iWork apps will export into the more popular Office formats like Word’s .doc and Excel’s .xls. In each of those cases, Apple supported market-standard technology because the market had the power. But for years, music purchased through its iTunes Store famously included DRM that only let it work on its industry-leading iPods.

If ebook publishing really does become super easy, how should news publishers fit it into their workflows? Imagine it really did take just a few clicks to get a work onto an ebook platform. What would it make sense to publish there? Should every three-part newspaper series be turned into an ebook? Should every sports season produce a newspaper-generated ebook made up of the year’s game stories, player profiles, and so on? Should a compilation of a newspaper’s restaurant reviews be pushed out as a $2.99 ebook each year?

To the extent that news publishers have dipped their toes into ebooks, it’s been for only the most special projects. But if publishing is dirt simple, what other kinds of content should find its way into the paid-content marketplace? And, on the flip side, how would publishers (book, news, and otherwise) respond to an even greater flood of competing content than the ebook world has already produced?

January 03 2012

16:34

Daily Must Reads, Jan. 3, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs


1. The Internet changes how we remember (Scientific American)

2. Larry Downes: Why Best Buy is going out of business...gradually (Forbes)

3. The verified Twitter account for Rupert Murdoch's wife was fake (ReadWriteWeb)

4. Volkswagen turns off Blackberry email after work hours (BBC News)

5. Laura Hazard Owen: What's 2012 holds for book publishing (paidContent)



Subscribe to our daily Must Reads email newsletter and get the links in your in-box every weekday!



Subscribe to Daily Must Reads newsletter

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

16:34

Daily Must Reads, Jan. 3, 2011

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs


1. The Internet changes how we remember (Scientific American)

2. Larry Downes: Why Best Buy is going out of business...gradually (Forbes)

3. The verified Twitter account for Rupert Murdoch's wife was fake (ReadWriteWeb)

4. Volkswagen turns off Blackberry email after work hours (BBC News)

5. Laura Hazard Owen: What's 2012 holds for book publishing (paidContent)



Subscribe to our daily Must Reads email newsletter and get the links in your in-box every weekday!



Subscribe to Daily Must Reads newsletter

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

February 21 2011

15:00

McSweeney’s latest love note to newspapers: The Goods

If I was looking for an easily identifiable trigger for my love of reading, it would most likely be devouring Peanuts (and later Calvin and Hobbes) in the Sunday Star Tribune as a kid. (Whether that had anything to do with my decision to work in newspapers is harder to trace. Though it may have had something to do with Clark Kent.)

Mac Barnett, the editor behind McSweeney’s The Goods, had a similar experience. “One of my big memories as a kid, on Sundays, my dad would peel off the funny pages as he would read the newspaper,” Barnett told me. “I think that trained me to have a certain fondness for the newspaper. I don’t think kids have that now.”

That may be Barnett’s guiding principle as he oversees The Goods, an update on the classic kids page and McSweeney’s latest love note to newspapers, which debuts today. Though unlike the acclaimed (and gorgeous if you never got a look) Panorama, The Goods is going to be published on the regular thanks to a syndication deal with Tribune Media Services.

Instead of a Jumble and Family Circus, The Goods offers things like a vision quest, a secret-language-creation center, and Abraham Super Lincoln, defender of truth and justice. (Probably not to be confused with the vampire-slaying Lincoln.) It’s something akin to updating or “re-imagining” a classic film or old TV show: taking the markers and elements you liked and giving it a contemporary (and hopefully improved) spin.

In an email to readers, McSweeney’s described The Goods as “a half-page comics/puzzle/goofy-writing serial, both child-pleasing and heartache-relieving, and meant to appear in a newspaper much like yours.” The Goods will feature weekly material from an ever-rotating group of artists and illustrators, including Jon Adams, Laurie Keller, Sean Qualls, Mo Willems, and Jennifer Traig, to name a few.

When Panorama was in its development stages Barnett suggested to Dave Eggers the idea of a kids page to add another layer to the magazine-turned newspaper experience. “We wanted to present a lot of ideas that could be broken out or just completely stolen or used by newspapers for their benefit,” Barnett said.

Eggers has not been bashful in talking about his affection for print and how it connects to literacy in kids. In creating Panorama, Eggers and the McSweeney’s team offered up a collector’s item as a blueprint to help the newspaper industry. The Goods is a step further, though not one that was originally planned. “There wasn’t any intention to start a syndicated section,” Barnett said. “But I think we were all eager to do it.”

And now they’ve got to find newspapers eager to take them, papers that hopefully haven’t trimmed back too many pages and have room to add The Goods alongside Mark Trail and his friends. Success here likely hinges on getting papers to buy in and convincing parents: “You like McSweeney’s — so might your kids!” In their email to readers, McSweeney’s encouraged its fans to contact the features editor at their local paper and offer up The Goods.

“I think part of my job overseeing this is making sure that the content of The Goods is high, and respectful of kids’ intellect, but that the books they’re connected to will be good too,” Barnett said.

Barnett said the authors and illustrators working on The Goods are already familiar with the evolving tastes in children’s books and are trying to develop material that is smart and funny to kids. So yes, it may be goofy — there may in fact be ice cream cones riding motorcycles and talking animals — but it also includes a healthy dose of facts about U.S. vice presidents. Something like The Goods can show that newspapers care about kids, and maybe leave a window open to reading beyond the comics page, Barnett said.

“I would love for kids 10-20 years from now to have fond memories about The Goods,” he said.

September 21 2010

16:00

Foreign Policy quickly turns daily dispatches from northern Afghanistan into its first ebook

Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, wrote a piece for the new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports on how she relaunched the magazine’s slow-paced website in 2008, turning it into a vibrant, go-to place for international news and commentary, ramping up the amount and variety of content published everyday. The site now runs multiple daily feature stories and a network of notable blogs (as compared to a single story “every day or so” and just a single blog before the relaunch).

To Glasser’s credit, FP is still experimenting. Foreign Policy is now promoting its first ebook, Waiting for the Taliban: A Journey through Northern Afghanistan. The book is a compilation of daily dispatches filed by war reporter Anna Badkhen from April of this year. It’s available on Amazon for $2.99.

Glasser commissioned the pieces after Badkhen received a grant from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting to return to Afghanistan, where she did reporting in 2001, 2002, and 2004. The grant covered Badkhen’s substantial costs (translators, drivers, satellite phone). Glasser said that when Badkhen finished her series, the work felt like it could fit into the broader genre of travel literature — perhaps making a better read as a book than as individual postings. But any such book would need to be published quickly, given the timeliness of the material. “We thought, well, that’s exactly where ebooks are going and should be going,” Glasser said.

This first ebook is a good test case for Foreign Policy because the investment it required was relatively low. The work got a second edit mainly for clarity, consistency, and structure by Badkehn’s primary editor, Britt Peterson, who said the work “translated well” into book form. Badkhen wrote an introduction. All that was left was production, which Amazon handled.

“We don’t know how many copies we can sell,” Glasser told me. “We’re trying to understand what kind of business [ebooks] can be.”

For now, Amazon is serving as publisher of the book, which means they handled conversion of the text into Kindle format (Foreign Policy sent them a Word doc) and cover (with input from FP editors and Badkhen). Amazon is also taking the lead on promotion, sending out email blasts and featuring the book for likely buyers on the site. Slate Group, which owns Foreign Policy, will take a cut of the sales. Badkhen will also get a share. Badkhen and Glasser wouldn’t disclose the exact percentages.

Amazon hasn’t released initial sales numbers to Foreign Policy yet, but Glasser pointed out the book cracked the Amazon Bestseller list for paid Kindle books its first weekend (the 9/11 anniversary), sliding in around slot 50. As of today, Badkhen’s book holds the number one slot for all Amazon books in the 20th Century world history section and the Middle East travel section. Those rankings are updated hourly, so it’s difficult to say what kind of overall sales the book is pulling in.

Badkhen noticed that people who have bought her book have also bought books unrelated to foreign policy (like this thriller in a small Texas town). “I think my excitement comes from the idea that I’ll reach an unexpected audience,” she told me. “As a journalist, I believe my job is to reach as many people as I possibly can. A lot of times we’re preaching to the choir.”

This isn’t the first time a magazine has repackaged content for a quick-turn ebook. For instance, Newsweek published, A Long Time Coming, shortly after the 2008 presidential campaign. That book was written by Evan Thomas, using the reporting of several Newsweek staff writers from the trail. Unlike Waiting for the Taliban, Thomas’ book was later published in print format. Foreign Policy’s model is straight ebook.

Glasser and Badkhen, who have both written books (Badkhen has a book coming out in print this October, also on Afghanistan), agreed that ebook publishing and book publishing are miles apart. Glasser’s book on Russia, Kremlin Rising, was considered a “quick turn” — which in publishing terms meant it still took six months to make it to bookshelves after editing was complete. “The whole world can be reinvented between January and June,” Glasser said. “It was an agonizing wait.”

July 30 2010

23:35

4 Minute Roundup: Kindle Gives Amazon More Bang for Less Bucks

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

In this week's 4MR podcast I look at the surprising success of the Amazon Kindle e-reader in the wake of the hit Apple iPad tablet. While many people expected the iPad to impact the e-reader market, instead the major players cut prices and Kindle sales tripled in the past month. Plus, Amazon announced a new line of Kindles that will cost even less -- with no touch screen or color. Book publishing veteran and MediaShift contributor Dan Brodnitz talked with me about Amazon's successful sell-everywhere strategy.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio73010.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Dan Brodnitz:

brodnitz full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Amazon's new $139 WiFi Kindle for pre-order at Amazon

Amazon debuts new Kindle design, with Wi-Fi only version at MarketWatch

Amazon - Kindle Sales Growth Tripled Since Price Cut; E-Books Pass Print at PaidContent

Amazon sells out of Kindle at CNET

Tablets Are On The Rise But Don't Count Out E-Readers - Or Amazon at PaidContent

What does Amazon.com's rosy ebook news mean? LA Times' Jacket Copy blog

Amazon Mobile Sales Topped $1 Billion In Past 12 Months at PaidContent

Wasn't the Kindle supposed to be firewood? at CNET

Amazon - Kindle titles outpacing hardcovers at CNET

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you the future holds for the Kindle:




What's the future of the Amazon Kindle?online surveys

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

June 10 2010

19:14

Want Your Self-Published Book in Stores? Weigh the Options

The rise of online book retailers means that self-publishers have better access to customers than ever. But many authors still want to be on bookstore shelves. The good news is that you don't really need traditional distribution to get into bookstores.

The Databases

logo_bowkerlink_220x103.gifWith your ISBN and bar code from Bowker in hand (read my previous post that told you how to get control of your own ISBN), it's time to register your title and your contact information in their Books In Print and Global Books In Print databases. Registering with BowkerLink is the first step to enabling the industry to discover your book, and it's free.

Ingram is the largest book wholesaler and distributor in the world and if your book is not listed in their ipage ordering system, it's simply invisible to booksellers. You must have 10 titles a year to be accepted into their program, but this article shows you three ways to get in through the back door.:

  1. Create a relationship with a traditional distributor whose titles are listed with Ingram, and send them an inventory of offset-print books.
  2. Print your book on-demand with the Ingram-owned company Lightning Source, and you're automatically in.
  3. Use a self-publishing services company to list your book with Ingram.

No matter whom you distribute with, a 55 percent discount is standard. (You can offer less, but expect few takers.) When calculating your profit margin, factor in printing, shipping, postage, returns and start-up costs like editing and design -- all the costs of doing business. Don't forget ongoing costs like marketing and publicity, giveaways, promotion and accounting. Direct sales is certainly more lucrative than traditional distribution and you give that up when you sign an exclusive distribution deal. So why bother?

Traditional Print Book Distribution

In traditional distribution you (the publisher) prints a large number of books with an offset printer. The books are sent to a distributor who wants to sell mass quantities of your book to wholesalers and retailers.

Unfortunately, your book isn't really sold until it's bought by a consumer, so when -- not if -- your books are returned (a sad fact about the industry), the distributor then returns them to you.

distributors.jpgThe well-respected Independent Publishers Group has a new branch called Small Press United (SPU) and, if you're one of the fewer than 20 percent accepted into their program, they will present your book to resellers next to offerings from the mainstream press. Also consider Publishers Group West (PGW) and Baker & Taylor (B&T), the most important distributor to the library market.

Big distribution companies have not been eager to work with self-publishers, but that's changing. Still, it's easiest to get in through membership in the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) or the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN). Both are worthwhile organizations for self-publishers thanks to their seminars, advice, discounts, and community.

But don't rule out a smaller distributor who specializes in your niche or genre, especially if you need help with design, editing, e-book conversion, and other tasks in order to publish your book. They may be more dedicated and more effective in providing you with personalized service over the years. As with the self-publishing services companies, you pay these distributors; but since they must maintain a good reputation with booksellers, they carefully vet their authors. Check out IPBA's Distributor/Wholesaler Directory and this list of Top Independent Book Distributors to start.

The downside? You relinquish the opportunity to sell your print book and your e-book direct to the consumer. Measure that benefit against the potential benefits of having hired a sales force, paired with your ongoing promotion efforts, to make your decision to go this route.

POD Distribution With Lightning Source

ls_logo.jpg

The newer print-on-demand distribution model works like this: If a brick-and-mortar bookstore customer asks for your book, the bookseller finds it in the ipage Ingram database and places an order. Lightning Source prints it and sends it to the store, where the customer picks it up.

These days, customers are more likely to order from an online reseller, which cuts out the middle step. In this model, the customer orders a book from the online reseller, who sends the request to Lightning Source, who mails the book directly to the customer on the reseller's behalf.

Along with many other advantages, there are fewer returns because booksellers don't have to order several and wait to see if they sell. You don't have to worry about returns with print-on-demand.

POD Distribution With a Self-Publishing Firm

lulucswc.jpgEven the most basic, do-it-yourself self-publishing services companies -- think Lulu, CreateSpace and Wordclay -- offer services that includes an Ingram database listing for your book in your publishing company name. But since booksellers are definitely not flocking to what they consider the vanity presses in order to stock their shelves, make sure the publishing house name on the spine is your own. (See my previous article, The Pitfalls of Using Self-Publishing Book Packages.) They may -- invisibly to you and the customer -- use Lightning Source or another POD subcontractor to print and send it, which is fine, but realize you're paying a little more for this service.

A Middle Path

Before you seek out traditional distribution, you might ask yourself if you really need it. Many authors are more easily served by direct sales and POD distribution of print and e-books. Think of these options, for example:

  1. Using your website for direct sales via an online store.
  2. Back-of-room sales at personal appearances.
  3. Consignment deals with local booksellers and retailers in your niche.
  4. Using Lightning Source for both printed books and PDF-formatted e-books sold to stores and online retailers in U.S., Canada and Europe.
  5. Using Smashwords and Scribd for e-book sales in many formats for many e-readers (See my previous article for details on How to Pair Scribd and Smashwords for an Ideal E-book Strategy.)

You may be one of the many authors who missed the news that you can get into the Ingram database by printing on-demand with Lightning Source, or the newer news that self-publishing services companies now include this in their packages, too. (Yes, do keep looking for even newer news in this quickly evolving industry.) But do not miss the fact that you are responsible for the marketing and promotion that will create a buzz and sell your book.

The defining fact about traditional distributors is that they vet their work, whereas POD services companies will print and distribute almost anything. A traditional distributor will have opinions. Their reputation is on the line and they want to work with like-minded independent publishers dedicated to success. You should consider them a partner. Until then, an on-demand distribution solution should suffice.

Carla King is a publishing and social media strategist and co-author of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Workbook, which grew out of experiences leading workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and on her website.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

April 07 2010

17:00

Word of mouth trumps advertising for the kids these days

This chart sums up as well any the kind of shift that the “engagement editor” in your newsroom is trying to address. It’s from the April issue of the book-industry newsletter Publishing Trends (copy posted here) and it’s survey data asking book buyers how they became aware of the books they’ve purchased. Each bar represents a different age group, moving down from oldest (61-plus) to youngest (under 20).

For the oldest cohort, new books get discovered twice as often from an in-store display than through a recommendation from a friend. But for the youngest group (age 21 and under), a friend’s recommendation is a more common the path to a sale than those nice tables up front at Barnes & Noble. And the same trend line applies to the generations in between, too: The younger you are, the more likely it is that you learn about books through your social networks — online or in person — rather than through traditional promotion channels. (Note that print book reviews, bestseller lists, and direct email marketing from publishers and retailers also get less effective the younger the target audience — while a recommendation from an in-store sales clerk gets more effective.)

This shift is obviously a challenge for book publishers in particular and marketers in general, but it’s also a challenge for the news industry. Getting your content into the personal streams of your audience — where they can and hopefully will want to share it with their friends — is to 2010 what those “Make this site your home page” pleas were to 2002. And it’s more evidence that speaking with an institutional voice rather than a human one is not going to be effective with younger audiences.

16:00

The Gutenberg Parenthesis: Thomas Pettitt on parallels between the pre-print era and our own Internet age

Could the most reliable futurist of the digital age be…Johannes Gutenberg?

Possibly. Or, definitely, if you subscribe to the theory of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that the post-Gutenberg era — the period from, roughly, the 15th century to the 20th, an age defined by textuality — was essentially an interruption in the broader arc of human communication. And that we are now, via the discursive architecture of the web, slowly returning to a state in which orality — conversation, gossip, the ephemeral — defines our media culture.

It’s a controversial idea, but a fascinating one. And one whose back-to-the-future sensibility (particularly now, with the introduction of the iPad and other Potential Game-Changers) seems increasingly relevant: When you’re living through a revolution, it’s helpful to know what you may be turning toward.

On hand to discuss the theory further, at an MIT-sponsored colloquium late last week, was Professor Thomas Pettitt of the University of Southern Denmark, who has focused academically on the Gutenberg Parenthesis and its implications. (More on his work, including links to papers he’s presented on the subject, here.)

At the talk, Professor Pettitt discussed, among other things, the implications of the book as an intellectual object — in particular, the idea that truth itself can be contained in text. For the Lab’s purposes, I wanted to hear more about the journalistic implications of that idea — and what it means for our media if we are, indeed, moving into a post-print age.

I spoke with Professor Pettitt and asked him about those implications — and about, in particular, the challenges to a notion of normative truth that they suggest. Here’s what he told me; a transcript of his thoughts is below.

There are things going on that are related changes. The big revolution with Gutenberg changed, or was related to big changes in other aspects — for example, the way we look at the world and the way we categorize things in the world. And if the same thing is happening now, and if we are reversing that revolution in these things as well, then this idea can predict the future. Because we are going forward to the past.

And with regard to things like truth, or the things like the reliability of what you hear in the media, then I think, well, in a way we’re in for a bad time. Because there was a hierarchy. In the parenthesis, people like to categorize — and that includes the things they read. So the idea clearly was that in books, you have the truth. Because it was solid, it looked straight, it looked like someone very clever or someone very intelligent had made this thing, this artifact. Words, printed words — in nice, straight columns, in beautifully bound volumes — you could rely on them. That was the idea.

And then paperback books weren’t quite as reliable, and newspapers and newssheets were even less reliable. And rumors you heard in the street were the least reliable of all. You knew where you were — or you thought you knew where you were. Because the truth was that those bound books were probably no more truthful than the rumors you heard on the street, quite likely.

I often tell my students that they should start their literature work, their work here, by tearing a book to pieces: Take a book, take some second-hand book, that looks impressive — and just rip it to pieces. And you can see that it’s just made, it’s just glued, it’s just stitched. And it’s not invulnerable. It’s just that someone’s made it. It doesn’t have to be true because it looks good.

And that’s what’s happening now. What’s happening now is there’s a breakdown in the categories. Yes. Informal messaging is starting to look like books. And books are being made more and more quickly. Some books seem to be like they are like bound photocopies. You can make a book — you can do desktop publishing. We can no longer assume that what’s in — we’re not distinguishing so much: ‘if it’s in a book, it’s right,’ ‘if it’s in writing, it’s less right,’ and ‘if it’s in speech, it’s less reliable.’ We don’t know where we are.

And I suppose the press, and journalism, and newspapers, will have to find their way. They will have to find some way of distinguishing themselves in this — it’s now a world of overlapping forms of communication. People will no longer assume that if it’s in a newspaper, it’s right. Newspapers are spreading urban legends, some of the time. Or at least now we know that they pass on urban legends. And the formal press will need somehow to find a new place in this chaos of communication where you can’t decide the level, the status, the value of the message by the form of the message. Print is no longer a guarantee of truth. And speech no longer undermines truth. And so newspapers, or the press, will need to find some other signals — it’s got to find a way though this.

And it might do well to take a look at rumors and, sort of, more primitive forms of the press in the 16th century and the 15th century. How did people themselves — when there were no books, how did people sort out the truth? How did they decide what they would rely on and what they wouldn’t rely on? It’ll be a — it’s a new world to find your way around. But that new world is in some ways an old world. It’s the world from before print, and the identifiable newspapers.

March 16 2010

14:00

The Boulder way: A bookstore’s experiment with microdistribution

The “Recommended” section at the Boulder Book Store, an independent bookseller in Colorado, features a mix of titles and genres. And also: a mix of distribution models. Among the traditionally published works on display stand a smattering of print-on-demand titles — many of them being sold on consignment by authors from the Boulder area.

They’ve paid for the privilege. The store charges its consignment authors according to a tiered fee structure: $25 simply to stock a book (five copies at a time, replenished as needed by the author for no additional fee); $75 to feature a book for at least two weeks in the “Recommended” section; and $125 to, in addition to everything else, mention the book in the store’s email newsletter, feature it on the Local Favorites page of the store’s website for at least 60 days, and enable people to buy it online for the time it’s stocked in the store.

And for $255 — essentially, the platinum package — the store will throw in an in-store reading and book-signing event.

“Most people will come in at one of the higher fee amounts,” Arsen Kashkashian, the store’s head buyer and the architect of the program, told me. “That surprised us.” In fact, when the store first began charging its consignment authors back in 2007 (the fee-structure idea emerged when the store’s employees found themselves “inundated with self-published books, and there was a lot of work involved and not much reward”), its staff “thought people would grumble and complain” about the charges. But authors, Kashkashian says, have been generally grateful for the opportunity to sell and promote work that might otherwise be seen and appreciated only by their friends/spouses/moms: “‘I want the marketing, I want the exposure. I worked so hard on this project, and you guys are the only ones who could help me with it.’”

And the books are selling. Not flying off the shelves…but sauntering off, steadily. In the first week in March, Kashkashian told me, the store sold 75 consignment books — which, given the store’s 40-percent cut of those sales, and the authors’ fees, accounted for 3 percent of the store’s total revenues for the week. Part of that number, Kashkashian believes, is attributable to the authors’ efforts at self-promotion, which amplify the store’s own marketing strategy. “Some are blogging, some are on Twitter, some just trying to get out there by word of mouth,” he notes. “They’re working their networks, whether it’s online or offline. They’re kind of learning how to do it.”

The networking takes place offline, as well. The readings and signings are proving particularly popular, says Liesl Freudenstein, a buyer at the store and its consignment coordinator — not only among authors, but among Boulder’s residents more generally. “It’s great community involvement,” she notes. “These are mostly local people, people within 50 or 100 miles, and they bring their family and friends.”

It’s that kind of outside-the-box-store thinking — building and fostering engagement around unique content — that independent booksellers “need to do right now to survive,” Kashkashian says. They need, above all, to find ways “to tie themselves into the community.” Sound familiar?

Indeed, bookstores are like news outlets in more ways than the simple fact of their existential endangerment. The world of book publishing is experiencing a restructuring that is similar — and in some ways parallel — to the power shifts taking place in the world of journalism. Bookstores themselves don’t just facilitate access to information; they also provide an editorial filter for that information. Just as The New York Times is a curator of content as much as it’s a creator of it — assigning significance to news stories via (web)page placement, story length, headline size, etc. — bookstores curate their own content via in-store placement, “Staff Picks” sections, and all the rest.

If you’re an author whose book has been placed on a bottom shelf in the back corner of a store — that sad little no-man’s-land beyond Self Help, right next to the bathrooms, where the lighting is bleak and the odor bleaker — your book, however brilliant it may be, probably won’t be selling too well. You might be better off bypassing the middleman, the bookstore itself, altogether: using print-on-demand and then self-marketing, publishing direct-to-Amazon, embarking on a DIY book tour, etc. In short, taking advantage of the kind of hybrid marketing the Boulder consignment model represents — for bookselling and beyond.

That model hints at something authors often don’t have much of: recourse. Another route to attention/money/impact — an apparatus that bypasses entirely the publishing house’s traditional infrastructure. It suggests, in its way, editorial and distributional independence for book authors — the kind enjoyed by, for example, bloggers. Transform the distribution model, and everything else transforms along with it. In the past, to be a successful author, you generally had to be a published author, with everything that title suggested: an author whose book was determined to be worthy of publication costs (printing, distribution, marketing, etc.) by editors who knew enough about market appetites to make the determination. In publishing’s increasingly DIY world, though, the Boulder model — one that charges authors for, essentially, microdistribution of their books — makes increasing sense. “In the last few years, a professional-looking project has become much more attainable for people,” Kashkashian notes. “And once authors have a professional-looking book to sell, the selling itself becomes more feasible.”

Even published authors, Freudenstein says, are availing themselves of the store’s consignment service. She points to a Boulder-area author who’s signed to a local imprint…and yet, in the DIY style, also sells her books on consignment at the store. “She’s out there hustling,” Freudenstein says, “trying to make it happen — rather than relying on the publisher to make it happen.”

Photo of Boulder Book Store by Jesse Varner used under a Creative Commons license.

February 24 2010

17:50

Book Publishers Welcome Apple Pricing, Mixed on iPad Features

In the aftermath of Apple's January announcement of the iPad, people dished on the iPad name and pundits debated whether a tablet that didn't have a camera, multitasking, or Flash support could compete. But book publishers zeroed in on a different set of questions.

These included how the iPad's iBooks app and accompanying bookstore might shake up e-book pricing and the competitive landscape; whether the iPad launch will give e-books the boost they need to break into the mainstream; and how the features of the iPad's iBooks reader stack up against expectations.

I spoke with several e-book and book publishing pros after Apple's announcement to get their impressions of what they saw and their thoughts on what the iPad might mean to electronic book publishing.

Many in the industry are excited to welcome a new big e-book retailer to the market. There's little question that Amazon and its Kindle have dominated the scene, with more than 3 million units sold so far.

Angela James, executive editor, Carina Press

"The Kindle sells books," said Angela James, executive editor of Carina Press, Harlequin's new digital-first imprint. "I've seen the royalty statements and the digital units move."

But while there is appreciation for what Amazon has done to launch the e-book market, there are also concerns and some complaints. Many publishers hope the iPad will shake up the field. This desire for change was borne out just two days after the iPad announcement, when Amazon and Macmillan engaged in a brief, wild, and unusually public test of wills. The backstory of this dust-up highlights some of the key factors retailers and publishers are wrestling with.

Macmillan vs. Amazon

Shortly after Apple's announcement, Macmillan's books disappeared from Amazon.com, aside from links to sales by third-party booksellers. The next day, John Sargeant, Macmillan's CEO, placed an ad in Publisher's Lunch that gave the Macmillan side of the story.

At the core of the dispute was Amazon's desire to keep prices for e-books low versus some publishers' desire to nudge prices up and also regain some control over how consumers perceive the value of e-book titles.

Amazon's Kindle store sells most e-books for $9.99 -- a heck of a deal for titles that are often priced at between $25 and $30 in hardcover. Amazon has kept prices low in part by using an unusual model that often ends up paying publishers more than the Amazon sale price.

Here, in rough terms, is how it works: Publishers set a "Digital List Price" (DLP) for their titles -- typically at or close to the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for the print edition. Amazon then pays the publisher a percentage of that price for each Kindle e-book sold rather than a percentage of the actual sale price. So if a book has a $30 DLP and Amazon pays the publisher 50 percent, the publisher's payment would be $15 per sale, even though Amazon is only getting $9.99 from its customer.

This seems like a sweet deal for publishers. But not all publishers are comfortable with what this approach might mean over the long term. Some are concerned that $9.99 is just too low. They fear readers will get used to that price and Amazon will eventually pull back on its subsidies, leaving print books devalued and publishers' e-book margins slashed.

At the iPad announcement, Apple had already lined up five participating publishing houses, including Macmillan. While the exact terms they'll receive isn't public, it's generally expected that the arrangement follow "the agency model" -- the same terms Apple uses for sales in its App Store. In the agency model, publishers are free to set their own prices and Apple takes 30 percent from each sale.

Let's say the publisher sells the e-book version of a $30 hardcover for $14.99. After Apple's cut, the publisher would receive a little over $10 per unit sold, which is roughly 70 percent of $14.99. This is around two-thirds of what they might have received from Amazon.

You rarely see a company fighting to receive less money per sale, or retailers insisting they pay more per sale. But here's how the Macmillan ad explained what they feel is at stake:

The agency model would allow Amazon to make more money selling our books, not less. We would make less money in our dealings with Amazon under the new model. Our disagreement is not about short-term profitability but rather about the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market.

Shortly after pulling Macmillan's titles, Amazon capitulated and released their clearly irritated side of the story. Over the next week, two other publishers -- HarperCollins and Hachette Book Group -- indicated that they'd also be pushing for Amazon to switch them to the agency model. And it's expected that many more publishers will follow.

One result of all this could be additional retailers jumping into the fray. Hadrien Gardeur, co-founder and CEO of Feedbooks.com was optimistic about how that might play out.

"It seems as though we may be moving from a world where retailers compete on prices to a world where the publisher will fix the price, all the different retailers will have the same price, and it will be up to the publisher to innovate and try different prices and see what will work best," Gardeur said. "If we have a fixed-price model, we'll likely get much better innovation and more retailers. We can really create an ecosystem with this kind of model, where with the other model it was very hard for smaller retailers to compete."

While there is some concern in the industry that this approach could lead to higher e-book prices and slowed e-book adoption, Gardeur was confident that competition would quickly bring prices back down again.

Looking for a Breakthrough

In addition to more retail competition, the industry is hopeful that Apple's entry will help grow the e-book market. While Kindle sales have shown some of the promise of e-books, Peter Balis, director of digital content sales for John Wiley & Sons, said e-books currently represent roughly 1 percent of most publishers' revenue.

"Apple has an incredible track record of late of converting consumers to digital adoption," Balis said, citing the iPod. "If anybody has the power to follow up on the great work that Amazon has already done to create the tipping point, it's Apple."

Roger Stewart, editorial director of McGraw-Hill Professional, said the key to the iPad's success as a reader may lie in the fact that it's a multi-function device.

Roger Stewart, editorial director, McGraw-Hill Professional

"The reason publishers have long believed the iPad would have the potential to be a game changer is not because it was designed to be an e-book reader," he said. "It's a game changer because it does everything else well and, by the way, it also happens to be a great e-book reader. Most people are reluctant to pay $300 for an e-book reader, but if the reader is just part of the device that you bought for all those other reasons the barrier goes away."

Apple also brings with it a trusted retail presence -- one of the very few that can compare to Amazon's. And the design of the iBooks reader, which hews closely to the look of a print book, appears well-positioned to bring new readers to the e-book market. The simplicity of the iPad may make it effective at helping publishers reach mass market readers who have yet to make the leap to digital books, according to Gardeur.

Andrew Savikas, VP of digital initiatives at O'Reilly Media, wondered whether, by focusing on the iPad, publishers weren't overlooking the larger opportunity, including a well-established platform a base of more than 50 million potential customers who use iPhones and iPod Touches.

"Most of what the publishers seem to be looking for in the iPad...is a large scale market for digital books with a platform that provides the opportunities for rich media and has reasonably attractive payment terms, including the ability for publishers to set their own price," he said. "All of that has actually already been part of [Apple's] existing App Store really since it launched." After we spoke, O'Reilly announced that they've sold 100,000 e-books to date through the App Store.

For Savikas, the development of the mobile web as a platform for readers has the potential to be the larger trend, with the iPad representing one of many devices that will make this possible.

Savikas said the iPod Touch and iPhone are creating "a new, larger market that judges the quality of the product based on very different attributes. They don't care about the quality of paper or the smell of the book. What they care about is convenience -- the fact that it's just a part of a device that's already a huge part of their daily life, the fact that it's a device that's connected to the web and to all the other things that they use on a regular basis."

First Impressions of the iPad

These predictions aside, many publishing folks were only modestly impressed with what they saw of iBooks in the Apple demo. Feedbooks' Gardeur, for example, felt that Apple had tried too hard to create a look and feel that evoked traditional books.

"Always displaying a bookshelf or replicating page turns, for example, can get annoying after a while, and I don't think it's really necessary," he said.

He was also disappointed by his first glimpse at the iBook's typesetting. "There's not even hyphenation on the page," he said. "If you're designing a reading system I think it's much better to offer optimized typesetting and really create something that's beautiful and easy to read rather than trying to replicate pages in a real book."

Although most readers don't think in terms of kerning and leading, Gardeur's concern was that when they start reading, they'll be able to tell that something's wrong, even if they're not sure why.

Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, was impressed by the iPad's hardware, but disappointed by its software.

"I think that this is an evolutionary step, not a revolutionary step," he said offering a list of features he was sorry not to see, including highlighting text, annotating, advanced search, and social media tools built into the reading experience.

"Really, all they've done is replicate the book experience on a digital device," he said. "It's begging to go so much further."

One of the most obvious differences between the iPad and the Kindle is their screens. The Kindle features a monochrome display that uses E-Ink. The iPad uses a backlit full-color display that has publishers envisioning all sorts of possibilities for adding vibrant visuals. While this approach looks impressive, particularly in a demo, no one outside of Apple knows how well it will wear over time and whether reading The Brother's Karamazov on your iPad might turn out to be a lovely but ultimately eye-aching experience.

However the iPad reader performs, it's certain to be improved over time, and Amazon and other competitors are expected to raise their games as well.

"It's a time of huge upheaval for publishing and a time of great innovation for devices," said Carina's James. "It's an exciting time to be both a reader and a publisher, on the cusp of discovering what digital books can do. Even though they've been around for decades, they're still in their infancy."

Dan Brodnitz is a writer and content strategist. He is a past publisher at Sybex, John Wiley & Sons, and O'Reilly Media. He interviews working artists about their creative process at about-creativity.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl