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December 29 2010

17:30

2010: The Year Self-Publishing Lost Its Stigma

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For over a decade I've been speaking at conferences about self-publishing to audiences of dejected, rejected authors. There was always a stigma associated with self-publishing, with many people considering it lower quality vanity press.

But this year, new faces appeared in the crowd: agents, editors, and publishers eager to understand self-publishing. Why? Self-publishing books has finally reached the mainstream, with enough success stories to make it a legitimate part of the publishing world.

Here's more about this and other trends in 2010, plus some crystal-ball gazing into what's coming in 2011.

  1. Self-publishing lost its stigma
    rinzler.jpgIn today's tight traditional publishing market, agents, editors, and publishers are now encouraging authors to test market their book by self-publishing. Yay! Self-publishing has finally lost its stigma. So if you've been dissed by agents in the past, 2011 might be your year to try again. Alan Rinzler is a longtime acquiring and developmental editor at major publishing houses and an independent editor with private clients. "Literary agents have been the missing link for self-published writers trying to break through into mainstream publishing," he states in Literary agents open the door to self-published writers. "But new attitudes are taking hold, especially among younger up-and-coming literary agents."
  2. Ease of tech attracts traditionally published authors to go indie
    Technology companies have been wholly responsible for providing tools that let authors easily publish in print and on e-reading devices. "Many of our indie e-book authors are outselling, outmarketing and outpublishing the traditional publishers," says Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, who in 2010 helped indie authors publish and distribute over 20,000 e-books. "Self-published authors are finally gaining much-deserved respect, not only from the industry, but from readers as well." Coker adds that the 60-80% earnings from the retail price of their books "has caused many traditionally published authors to go indie." I like a core group of proven e-book creation and distribution solutions, but keep looking to technology companies and partnerships. Just a few to note are Issuu, BookBrewer, and Monocle with its associated Bookish reader.
  3. The social graph makes conversations and recommendations easier
    Social_Media_optimization.jpgAuthors conversant with social media tools will get even more of a leg up in the coming year from technology services. "There's a lot of buzz about reading moving onto digital devices, but people don't talk as much about the consequences of such a shift," says Trip Adler, CEO and co-founder of Scribd. "It's much easier to share what you are reading if you are already reading on an Internet-connected device with your whole social graph right there. Over the next year, you'll see a lot more books, short stories, poems, and other written material recommended to you by your friends and through your likes and interests." Authors who understand this will cultivate relationships with bloggers and other curators who can make their voices heard above the fray. Among interesting offerings here is BookGlutton, which lets readers and reading groups converse inside a book via a widget. Possibilities are vast: authors can upload and discuss them with a virtual writing group. Reading groups, classrooms, and book clubs can discuss books uploaded from the web or from Feedbooks.
  4. Online communities and curation continue to grow
    storify.pngOnline writing groups and communities like Red Room and Figment are increasingly valuable resources for authors testing ideas and looking for input. For readers, they can provide much-needed recommendations. Twitter and Facebook are also venues for recommendations from trusted bloggers, blogs of peers, famous people, or sources in vertical markets. For literary books, Goodreads provides a really nice social media platform":http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2010/goodreads-takes-next-step-in-social-reading/ in their community of more than 4 million readers. Their iPhone/iPad app (over 30,000 downloads) has an integrated e-book reader, rating system, buying, progress reports. They also launched a free author program that lets you upload, sell, and even promote e-books. Look for sites that offer similar services in niche and genre, and more product innovations that make curation easier, like the ones MediaShift's Roland Legrand mentions in his recent post on Storify.
  5. Content-rich, relevant tools for marketing are still emerging
    Karen LelandIn addition to participating in communities and wooing bloggers, Karen Leland, president of Sterling Marketing Group notes that "one of the most exciting developments in 2010 was the expansion of multimedia into the everyday promotion of books and businesses. YouTube has become the biggest search engine outside of Google. In 2011 I think driving book sales with content rich, relevant video placed on YouTube and embedded in blog posts will expand as a leading source of driving awareness of a self-published book." This kind of marketing also improves book discovery with the proper use of metadata.
  6. But book designers are still frustrated
    Joel FriedlanderJoel Friedlander aka The Book Designer has been frustrated in 2010 by too many competing formats and not-quite-ready-for-prime-time design technologies and standards. "My biggest hope and expectation is that we will get better tools for creating e-books in 2011. Great strides are being made in EPUB and other formats but the device engineers and software coders need to finish developing and hand the tools over to the designers. We are eager to use them to create beautiful books and quality experiences for readers." Good news for Friedlander and other design warriors, EPUB3 is scheduled for review and approval in May 2011, and it's got lots of bells and whistles.
  7. Out-of-print titles continue to be revived, shared, and sold
    bookscanning.jpgFor authors with a stack of out-of-print books, 2011 will be the year to get them into e-book format and recreate an income stream. Among others, the non-profit Internet Archive will scan and run OCR across texts, convert them to the various formats for use in their library for the print disabled (blind, dyslexic or are otherwise visually impaired), and in the free archive. Or, for a reasonable fee, you can exclude them from the archive and get the files to sell them yourself in all the usual places on the Internet.
  8. The single-purpose e-book reader phases out
    ereaders.pngThe iPad was the first multi-purpose e-reader (besides the web browser). More than one pundit thinks that single-purpose e-book readers are transitional devices, and that, in the future, we'll be reading comfortably on book size-and-weight versions of the iPad by a galloping herd of makers including the ones making devices today. Expect some to fail.
  9. Transmedia "immersive" books and apps become more common
    Transmedia, enhanced, and multimedia e-booksAuthors who can think "writing" and "movie" and "gaming" are going to love transmedia storytelling. Especially when multi-use devices and books in browsers become the norm. 2010 saw enhanced e-books and magazines, learning materials, and apps based on books on the rise. Watch for continuing growth in the number of startups, a la those Multimedia Gulch CD-ROM development days, to help produce these "transmedia properties."
  10. Oh yeah . . . print books
    Author services companies will continue to serve up Print On Demand (POD) books for multi-book authors and the masses of people who just know they have a book in them. It's a great business. Who knows, maybe the Espresso Book Machine will make it into the few bookstores left standing in 2011. But bookstore distribution will continue to be a less viable option to any publisher's income stream as mail-order from Amazon and the other major retailers continue to usurp brick-and-mortar bookstore sales. The new smaller, lighter, better multi-use devices will encourage e-reading. That leaves the rich and privileged to order special limited print editions of books by authors they love. Okay, that may be gazing a few years too far into the crystal ball, but look, some authors are already finding it a trend, nonetheless.

Did I catch them all? What do you think were the most important developments in self-publishing in 2010, and what do you see in your crystal ball for 2011? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Carla King is an author, a publishing and social media strategist, and co-founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website.

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December 23 2010

17:47

iPads, Print-on-Demand Slowly Transform Magazines in 2010

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This revolution is going to take its time.

It's been a year of high expectations but little fulfillment for those who thought 2010 might forever change the way we read magazines. We've seen that disappointing uses of new tools, limited audience interest, and small initial financial returns are going to result in a gradual shift, not a sudden transformation.

The iPad certainly hasn't made print magazines extinct, and in fact some of the early iPad efforts may even have discouraged readers a bit. Other developments in the magazine world -- such as the Cooks Source incident and the growing power of social media -- also suggest still more challenges and opportunities in the year to come.

The Challenges of Innovation for the iPad

The number of print magazines stayed steady in 2010, with 193 launches and 176 closures -- a great improvement over 2009's remarkable 596 casualties, as reported by Folio. In the meantime, readers began experimenting with digital magazines on the iPad following the device's April release. Zinio, a digital magazine provider, had its app in the App Store on the iPad's release day, meaning the digital replica-style magazines Zinio offered could immediately be read on the iPad.

Multiple magazines soon released their own dedicated apps for the iPad, such as Wired's much-touted app, which in June 2010 sold 105,000 copies, exceeding that month's newsstand sales. However, Wired's app didn't repeat that feat in later months, with sales dropping to 32,000 copies by September. Other magazines, such as People and Men's Health, have only achieved 1 to 2 percent of their newsstand sales with their iPad apps, according to Ad Age.

But how happy have users been with these digital magazines, and how rewarding have they been for publishers? A recent study by the Reynolds Journalism Institute found that users rated their reading experience only "somewhat better or about the same" than their use of print media or computers for reading. The users also said they would be most likely to buy news-related apps if the prices were lower than those for print subscriptions -- not the same or higher, as the prices generally now are for magazine apps.

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Users of iPad magazines have also criticized what they see as a lack of creativity and technological savvy in designing usable, intriguing magazine apps for the iPad. Today's magazine apps tend to be dull, clunky replicas of print magazine pages that don't let readers share content via social media or even email. Despite being designed only for the iPad, even Project, the much-anticipated iPad-only magazine from Richard Branson's Virgin Digital Publishing, was disliked by some readers for its awkward interface and its insistence on re-creating the print page experience.

Perhaps some of the reluctance to experiment with new interface designs and multimedia integration comes from a fear of alienating iPad users who might expect a magazine-like experience, including the feel of "turning pages." However, with the iPad still in its early-adopter phase, this seems like the perfect time for experiments that demonstrate to readers that a digital magazine app can offer more than the printed page -- and that the experience can be worth a premium price.

Ads and Subscriptions on the iPad

Advertisers have seemed quite interested in buying space in digital magazines, and publishers are experimenting with new formats for ads. Though window-shopping is usually free, simulating the experience in a new iPad ad included in the forthcoming Cosmopolitan app will cost advertisers $50,000, according to Mediaweek. In the meantime, Apple has launched iAd for the iPad, building upon its use of the advertising tool on the iPhone. It plans to broaden the use of iAd in 2011. The first iAd on the iPad -- for Disney's movie "Tron: Legacy" -- will run in the TV Guide iPad app, among others. More magazine publishers could become involved in the iAd platform as well.

Finally, one of the biggest obstacles to activating and maintaining reader interest in digital magazines is the difficulty of locating an app for a favorite magazine and then somehow getting a subscription to it. So far, Apple charges its standard 30 percent commission on magazine app sales, and requires the use of external subscription management software, according to Folio.

Until Apple develops a more user- and publisher-friendly newsstand, digital magazine app subscriptions will likely be limited. In the meantime, five major publishers -- Conde Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., and Time -- are taking matters into their own hands and developing their own alternative in the form of Next Issue Media, which promises to provide "open standards for a new digital storefront" that will sell magazines and newspapers for a variety of e-reading tools, not just the iPad.

In addition to existing competition from the Kindle, Nook, and Android devices, those e-reading tools might include new tablet devices that run Windows 7. If Apple wants to maintain the loyalty of its early adopters, including many avid e-readers, offering easy access to high-quality magazine content will be important in the coming year.

Magazine Credibility Under Fire

The iPad is obviously the biggest story of the year in the magazine world, but other issues are playing out on the web and behind the scenes. Magazines are reshaping their content and strategies for the digital world, and this is causing a reconsideration of ethical issues that underly the production of content.

The Cooks Source incident this fall underscored the difficulty of maintaining authors' rights to their work in the digital age. The small magazine "for food lovers of Western New England" took a writer's piece on apple pie and reprinted it without her permission. When the blogger complained, the editor claimed that "the web is considered public domain and you should be happy we just didn't 'lift' your whole article and put someone else's name on it."

cooks_source_newFBpage.jpg

Soon after this incident, another small magazine, Dairy Goat Journal, was exposed for using a blogger's photo without permission or payment, or even her name. The bad publicity resulting from these ethical failures creates doubt among the public and even among fellow journalists about the credibility of journalistic content when everything in digital form seems -- but most definitely isn't -- free for the taking.

Likewise, new advertising techniques in both digital form and in print have raised concerns about ethics. Forbes' use of paid blogs from advertisers as part of its online redesign (described here on MediaShift) is just one of many efforts to develop sponsored content for magazines' digital formats. As financial pressures increase, and deals for advertorial and sponsored content online and in print become more appealing, magazines will have to be vigilant to maintain a clear line between editorial and advertising content.

Redefining Magazines

As these experiments continue -- on the iPad, other e-readers, the web, and in print -- magazines new and old continue to challenge the traditional definition of their medium. Juan Senor of Innovation Media Consulting, interviewed earlier this year here at MediaShift, described magazines today as "content propositions": Concepts that lead to collections of multimedia content, rather than strictly to the creation of bundles of paper. Even the Magazine Publishers of America, first established in 1919, acknowledged the changing industry by renaming itself this year to "MPA - The Association of Magazine Media."

Some exciting variations on "magazine media" that we've seen this year include the socially curated, customizable digital magazine and the rise of print-on-demand and web-based options for one-off and independently published magazines.

Flipboard, the iPad app that draws together customized content from a user's social streams and from various major providers, now also includes a few traditional print magazines through its new Flipboard Pages. Unlike most dedicated magazine iPad apps, Flipboard presents articles alongside relevant social media commentary and allows easy social sharing of content, making the content more engaging and participatory. The Flipboard Pages streams are presented first like any other Flipboard article, but then can be opened in a more magazine-like layout, including full-page ads.

Flipboard's combination of the social experience with the magazine experience is compelling, as demonstrated by its early struggles to keep its servers functional to meet demand. Its design suggests a possible path for the development of other magazine-related apps. Clearly, this approach exemplifies the "content proposition" model of magazine publishing.

In the coming year, we'll probably also see more experimentation with tools that are making magazine publishing more accessible to the public, such as print-on-demand and web-based digital magazines. The success of the crowdsourced, print-on-demand magazines 48 HR (now renamed Longshot) and Stranded, as well as the availability of HTML5 web distribution platforms like NoLayout, targeted to indie magazines and accessible on mobile devices, show that with ingenuity and the right tech, crafting and distributing a new magazine is entirely possible, even with limited time and money.

Although 2010 might not have yet delivered on the revolution in magazines that some hoped for and was disappointing in some ways, it certainly demonstrated that publishers big and small are creating innovations that -- slowly but surely -- will remake the industry.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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20:51

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

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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.

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May 20 2010

18:19

'48 Hour' Births Crowdsourced, Print-on-Demand Mag in Public

The first issue of 48 Hour Magazine, though printed on old-fashioned paper, is one of the most technologically interesting magazine projects today.

The staff of 48 Hour Magazine sent off its finished "Issue Zero" to MagCloud, a print-on-demand service, at noon on May 9 after a harried two-day submission, editing and design process. Following weeks of building buzz about the project, primarily through Twitter, the editors announced the issue's theme, "Hustle," at noon on May 7. Contributors then had all of two days (hence the "48 Hour" title) to send in their writing, photos, art and infographics around that loosely defined concept.

Using not only social media, but also a custom-built content management system and a live video stream, the editors, all experienced writers and creative types, crafted a polished magazine through methods that re-imagined the standard magazine publication process from beginning to end. As they describe it, the magazine is "a raucous experiment in using new tools to erase media's old limits."

Making a magazine in two days clearly isn't for every publisher, but the 48 Hour Magazine project demonstrates that even this old medium can be reinvented with technical savvy and creativity.

A Social Media Strategy

The 48 Hour staff began by using their website to solicit the email addresses of people interested in contributing to the magazine. The result was over 5,000 responses. They chose to spread the word about the project primarily through Twitter, avoiding the use of Facebook for the project, partly due to the site's recent privacy changes.

"I love the connections Facebook enables, but it seems to have little to no respect for its users' privacy, or ownership of their own creations," said Mathew Honan, one of the magazine's editors. Honan said Facebook is increasingly developing a negative public image. "Because of that, the bottom line is that I don't want our brand associated with Facebook," he said. "I think Facebook diminishes our brand by association. There are better, less onerous ways to make social connections happen online."

The Twitter and word-of-mouth marketing strategy seems to have worked. Within that short 48-hour period, the editors received over 1,500 submissions. An intense editing process distilled these to just 70 pieces that fill 60 pages.

Technology on Deadline

Prior to the announcement of the theme, editor Sarah Rich said that managing the submission and editing process was her biggest concern about the project. "We have a workflow plan, but we have to be adaptable enough for it to break down and get rebuilt on the fly if the flood of submissions necessitates it," Rich said.

Sure enough, challenges arose. Some submissions didn't make it into the content management system due to technical difficulties. They required individual attention. "That sat like a time bomb until the end of the process, when our copyflow processes got very low-tech," said Alexis Madrigal, another editor on the project.

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Anyone wanting to watch the live video stream of the magazine's editing processes probably found errors on the streaming site as well. One of the editors' tweets sent not long before the submission deadline read, "Sorry about the @ustream feed going down. We're just scraping by, bandwidth-wise." But having a transparent, publicly visible editing process turned out to be not just a technical challenge.

"There is a very real tension between transparency and efficiency in these situations," Madrigal said. "In the editing process, you have to say negative things sometimes, and people are not comfortable saying them in front of a camera. In the future, we're going to have defined spaces for video and then 'black boxes' that are camera-free. We know that the magazine itself is only part of what we're doing."

Next, Issue One...and More?

The magazine part of the project, though, has been quite successful so far for a print-on-demand magazine. Over 1,400 copies at $10 each had been sold as of May 14, all via MagCloud. (One recent hiccup is that CBS, which airs a show called "48 Hours," sent a cease and desist letter to the magazine regarding its name.)

The profit from the small markup the staff added to MagCloud's printing charges will be divided among contributors, put away as savings for the next issue and used as a grant the magazine will administer. (A full explanation of the magazine's effort toward financial transparency, plus an amusing and "handy" pie chart, is on their blog.) The editors are also working on getting the magazine into bookstores in the U.S. and abroad.

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Madrigal also points to the "positive externalities" of the staff's work, including providing inspiration to the thousands of people who participated in the project. "I think that participatory global experiences that bring people together around the act of creation are conceptually beautiful," he said.

Another advantage of the magazine's print-on-demand publication process is the ability to revise and update content as needed. The edition of the magazine being sold through MagCloud as of this writing is actually version 0.1, in which some contributors' names have been corrected and added, and a couple of typos were fixed.

In addition to the magazine's print product, its staff is also posting some of the work from the magazine online. Some people who sent in submissions not selected for publication have suggested on the magazine's blog that their work could be posted on the magazine's website instead.

Madrigal said that probably won't happen, but that the staff is exploring other kinds of online opportunities for the next edition.

"I think we'd like to make our project broader: We'd like to be a high-speed experimental media lab. And that will extend far beyond just doing magazines in two days," he said.

In the hands of the 48 Hour crew and others willing to experiment and take risks, perhaps not only magazines will be re-imagined by "using new tools to erase media's old limits."

Photo of staff by Sarah Rich. Photo of magazines by Mathew Honan.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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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.

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