Category Archives: publishing business

You Really Want to Be an eBook-Only Author?

You try telling Jonathan Franzen his next novel isn’t actually being printed:

What also gets squeezed, or I should say what gets squeezed the most, is the ability of publishers to continue printing books on paper. As Crain says, “It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books.” I added the emphasis, but I think it’s pretty obvious that it has to be there: as I noted above, one of the forms of control at stake in this haggling over price points is the publisher’s ability to determine how or even whether to release eBook versions alongside the printed product. If Amazon is committed to wresting control over price points for eBooks, it’s also exerting indirect control over what the profit margins have to be for printed books to compensate for the losses incurred over eBooks. Being print-first (organizing one’s whole production chain from acquisition to fulfillment around the print copies of a book) may end up being a luxury no publisher can afford.

Granted, there’s a lot of sense here (in fact, it’s a great post), but given that it took a generation for authors to even warm up to the idea of having their books done in paperback original, I’m guessing it’ll be a while before the idea of only being in electronic print sits well.

Beyond the very real, very sensible cultural reasons for keeping print alive (remember how Amazon disappeared everyone’s copy of 1984?), with POD technology and printing advances in general it’s become cheaper and cheaper to do a print run, which also makes me think publishers won’t be ditching those printed books any time soon. If publishers really want to stay in print–even at a highly symbolic 2,000-copy print run–I’m sure they can find ways to do it. After all, how cool would it be to have a $50, author signed, gold-plated, personally numbered, anti-Kindle edition of . . . you get the idea.

And then there’s this:

Mass culture hooked us on stockpiling: units cheap enough to buy without regard to need, constant advertising and prods to purchase for the sake of purchasing, a huge but barely differentiated menu of products—all these factors, the basic DNA of the culture industry in the classic sense, are now playing out under new circumstances as a desire to fill our hard drive with more music than we will ever listen to, television shows or films that we may never watch, and now with text files we’ll probably never read.

Jacques Attali’s bizarre little study Noise details some of the more abstract consequences of the economics of stockpiling (e.g.), but the concrete point that is somewhere in his analysis is that stockpiling is pleasurable in a way that even purchasing is not. The very process of searching for and acquiring difficult-to-find media—whether that is in the bowels of a used bookstore or on a bitTorrent site—is inherently pleasurable and does not diminish very much with repetition, or even with failure. You might always find it tomorrow, and if you find it today, there will be something else to find tomorrow.

This may be the salvation of the publishing industry, although generally we’re wont to fill our hard drives with electronic media because when you download it from iTunes it costs a good deal less than comparable physical versions. (And we’ve just learned publishers don’t really like really low price points for their books.) Perhaps subscription download systems, which seem to be working out well for audiobooks, are workable model for ebooks in the future.

The NYT's Pay Wall and Newsday's 35 Subscriptions

Levi Asher isn’t believing the NYT’s declaration that it’s going to build a pay wall:

New York Times management knows that a web paywall is a bad business move right now. The market is not strong for paid content and there is no foreseeable way they will profit from this. Erick Schonfeld from TechCrunch ran the numbers, and his findings are quite conclusive. Even in the best case scenario, the added revenue from a few hundred thousand annual subscription fees will not add up to a significant amount on the New York Times balance sheet. And it certainly will reduce pageviews.

Meanwhile, the major Long Island newspaper Newsday’s recent payment plan has just been inadvertently revealed to be a disaster. 35 subscriptions sold. Total.

I say the New York Times is fronting with their paywall press release. They have no plan for really risking their advertiser revenue, for exactly the reasons TechCrunch states above. The real goal of their press release was the press release itself.

The New Ways to Reach Readers

readingKevin Smokler has an excellent op-ed at Publishing Perspectives on how authors and publishers need to think in order to reach readers. I don’t agree with all of it, but the basic message is right on target: “Don’t ask readers to buy a book based on trust. Find a compelling way to preview it for them, and mass produce that.”

What we need is the equivalent of an “MP3 format” for fiction: a modest snack-sized dabble of new books and stories, capable of the same ubiquity that the MP3 has brought to recorded sound. Say what you will about how hard the 21st century has been for the music business, it remains an unparalleled golden age for music fans where exploration, discovery and kaleidoscopic fandom has never been easier nor more culturally encouraged. That record labels have not found a way to stay in business despite this bounty is both their own fault and a mistake book publishers should not repeat.

Now I’m not one to claim that multimedia is the way to go. There are few things that turn me off from a book than a movie-style “book trailer” (heck, I don’t even like trailers for most movies). Likewise, I don’t really care if you’ve documented your book with a behind-the-scenes photo shoot or have written a series of witty limericks that you accompany on your banjo.

Books’ main strength always has been–and continues to be–that they are unique in our entertainment universe because they are almost universally composed of nothing but written words (and other associated typographical symbols). If you look around, that’s a pretty unique asset these days. It’s clearly reason why I like reading so much. In terms of previewing books, marketers need to figure out how to work with this, not against it.

As to how to best do that, this, in my opinion, is great advice:

The hard reality of our time and our business is that there are a lot of books, and they compete with a lot of other attractions (and distractions) for your customer’s time and money. Plus, your best customers — avid readers — are actually less hungry for “shiny new books” than you think and already have more than enough books to fill their reading lives, most likely, until death. Given how many great books most people already own, ”new” and “fresh” by themselves are not alluring, and “new” without “why” is mere ballast.

This is absolutely true. I already own way too many books, but I’ll always buy another book if the book really excites me. If I can be convinced that this book in my hands has the right to jump to the head of my to-be-read pile because I really, really want to read it right now, then at that point the price of buying it new becomes just an afterthought.

But all the time I read marketing pitches that don’t come close to giving me this sensation. It’s true: they just trot out the cliches of the new and the fresh without giving me any sense of why I would want to experience that particular title.

From my own experience, I can say that Google Book has been very effective in serendipitously recommending me book that I not only browse but also end up purchasing. If a marketer could figure out how to harness my search terms to give me previews of upcoming books, I think that would be powerful indeed. By that same token, well-written, trustworthy criticism often is a much more powerful draw to new books than anything I get from marketers. That’s not to wholly discount marketing or to say that there aren’t marketers out there who do excellent work, only that there are other avenues than the standard techniques being used right now.

Though I’m generally on Smokler’s wavelength in this piece, I disagree rather strongly with this contention of his:

Trust: There is now an entire industry of online services, radio shows, MP3 blogs and music festivals, designed to expose like-minded music fans to new artists. We in publishing don’t have this, at least not as formally. Most readers trust book recommendations from friends long before those from publishers, editors, critics or even booksellers. Thankfully, the technology now exists to make those relationships both visible and workable. It would require significant investment from many competing interests, but imagine what a Netflix or iTunes of fiction could do for the reading experience, where books are put in play with other cultural interests — film, music, television — and you can quickly discover that a love of Mad Men might be a strong predictor for a love of Walker Percy.

Publishing quite definitely has an online collection of taste-purveyors that is at least as formally entrenched as the film or music industry’s. One of the biggest compliments I receive on this site is when people tell me they bought a book because I recommended it, or when people tell me that they’ve discovered countless new books through this site. And I know that this blog is far from being the only one that provides this service for readers.

Beyond blogs and other sites that have sprung up from the grass roots, we book-lovers also have more formalized taste-recommendation engines. Smokler is right to say that these engines have helped consumers discover new music, films, etc, but I disagree completely that we don’t also have this for books. The major online booksellers and other interested parties are clearly already doing this. If we don’t have one that is as widely recognizable as NetFlix is for movies or iTunes is for music, that’s because no one single player has managed to dominate the industry, and that’s a good thing. A world where Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, Borders, and Google Book all compete to recommend the best books to me is a much better one than one in which just one of these entities dominates the taste-recommendation market.

More Books You Won't Read in the U.S.

Lewis Manalo, the buyer for Idlewild Books in NYC, must be doing a good job. Though I’ve never been to the store, by all reports Idlewild has a great selection of world literature.

What’s more, Manalo has penned an op-ed where he describes his efforts to get books–often great works of world literature–that have never been published in the U.S. into the hands of his customers. At the very least, this is evidence against the claim that “culturally insular” Americans don’t want to read beyond their borders:

Telling your bookseller that you’ve tried every other shop in the city before you’ve tried his won’t gain you any sympathy (I’m thinking, “Why, after all, didn’t you just try mine first?”) but I always do my best. In those few instances when I can’t produce the book, the customer always has to ask, “Why not?”

Though the answer is usually that the book is out of print or out of stock, very often the book is not American and has never been available in the United States. Since I started working at Idlewild, it’s very often the case that the book has never been published here. Now, in the face of all of these requests I can’t meet, the paltry amount of world fiction printed in the U.S. has become a personal embarrassment. For every customer who asks, “Why doesn’t the shop have more titles by Mian Mian?” “Only two titles by Cendrars?” or “Where is all the Clarice Lispector?” I can only offer an apology.

Of course, for about 50 suggestions for what classics of world literature need to be published in the U.S. right this minute, go right over to The Quarterly Conversation’s winter feature Translate This Book!. Featuring the likes of Chris Andrews, Susan Bernofsky, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Margaret Jull Costa, it’ll definitely make you wish more translated literature was available in the U.S.

The Borders “In-Stock Guarantee”

Given that over the past year or so I've never actually found the novel that I'm looking for in Borders, I could make a killing here:

Borders, which earlier in the year struggled to keep books in stock as it reduced inventory levels, has introduced a new holiday program under which the retailer will provide free shipping on any item listed on Borders.com that is not carried in a store where a customer is shopping.

I understand this is all a ploy to get me to buy more books at Borders, but it is kind of nice to know that, if I put forth the effort to drop by Borders on my lunch break, I wouldn't have to be disappointed when I found that, in fact, I'd just wasted my time since The Charterhouse of Parma isn't something they carry.

Wal-Mart/Amazon Price War

Interesting:

NEW YORK – An online book special offered by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is turning into a full-fledged price war with Amazon.com.

Wal-Mart got things started Thursday, offering $10 prices on such upcoming hardcover releases as Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” and John Grisham’s “Ford County,” a cut of 60 percent or more from the regular cost. Wal-Mart will also offer free shipping.

Amazon.com, the largest online bookseller, matched the $10 price, prompting Wal-Mart to take its offer to $9. By Friday morning, Amazon.com also had priced the books at $9.

The price cuts come at a time when Seattle-based Amazon.com and other sellers have been charging just $9.99 for e-books, a price that publishers worry is unrealistically low . . .

On Correlating Sales and Quality

Nina Siegal has gone through the Publishers Weekly bestseller list since 1900 (I didn't realize PW kept stats this long) and attempted to correlate sales with literary quality and longevity. The results are as follows:

The period we might call the “Golden Age” of bestseller fiction came in mid-century. As I got into the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I was surprised to find myself highlighting not one or two recognizable titles every couple of years, but three or four sometimes in a single year. In 1961, for example, Americans were reading, or at least buying, The Agony and the Ecstacy (#1), Franny and Zooey (#2), To Kill A Mockingbird (#3), Tropic of Cancer (#6) and Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (#10). That’s a pretty high-brow reading list compared to 1994, when three of the top ten bestsellers (#4, #7, and #8) were by Danielle Steele, and others were John Grisham (#1), Tom Clancy (#2), James Redfield (#3), Stephen King (#5) and Michael Crichton (#10). . . .

The bestseller in fiction took a precipitous turn in the 1980s towards what might be termed the “throwaway read,” a novel with a shelf life of yogurt. Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to be quite as true with nonfiction bestsellers. America’s nonfiction bestseller lists still have some pretty hefty titles. This week, for example, the nonfiction bestseller list included Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, both complicated and voluminous works.

Trying to read the bestseller lists as a crystal ball is always going to be a bit of a crapshoot, but it's hard to look at what Siegal finds here and not see some kind of trend toward less good books dominating the bestseller lists more and more post-1970.

This is obviously a huge subject open to lots of influences, but the first thing that came to mind when I saw Siegal's picking 1980 as a pivotal year was that this was right about when corporatization really took over publishing. Of course that still leaves open the question of if the general U.S. culture was driving changing values in the publishing biz or vice versa, but there does seem to be a real change starting right around 1980.

There's also the question of what bestsellers actually represent. That is, widespread developments over the past 40 years have changed the way books become bestsellers; a big-name literary prize like the Pulitzer might have been enough to ensure sales 40 years ago, but now sales are driven in different ways. That is, what works at Costco is going to be different from what worked as an equivalent mass market phenomenon 40 years ago.

Caveats aside, Siegal has pulled together some interesting information for people who like to agonize over this sort of thing.

I would say that The Late Age of Print would be a huge help for people trying to figure out how the business side of publishing worked to change any correlation between quality and sales. In discussing Siegal's findings, Andrew Seal points out Making the List by Michael Korda as another useful book in understanding what the bestseller list tells us:

There are sources which answer, to a limited extent, some of these questions, and I'm reading one of them now. Michael Korda, an author and publisher, wrote Making the List in 2001 (which I excerpted a little from yesterday), and it has some nice, very double-spaced commentaries on each decade of bestseller lists, starting from 1900-1909. Mostly, he just points to a few titles from each year which left a slightly less delible mark on the American cultural scene. But he also offers a few notable developments in the history of publishing, such as the marketing of the first crossword puzzle book, which was the first "non-book," or book not meant to be read, to be sold in actual bookstores. These kind of moments I'll try to summarize in a later post, as well as a few broader-scope meditations (like the excerpt posted yesterday) which Korda offers on historical trends or consistencies he has seen over the years. Korda also mentions a couple of other titles of similar subject, and I'll try to track those down and summarize them as well.

The Life of Print

There's a lot to agree with in Eric Obenauf's "print is alive" article in The Brooklyn Rail, even if none of his arguments strike me as novel. Nonetheless, this is a pretty good summation of why corporate publishing is in disarray:

Such efforts expose a key fundamental flaw within the mindset of modern corporate publishing: the perceived role of the book in today’s society. In the past, because of the necessary evolution required to actually create one, coupled with an ambition to deliver a valuable artifact to the world, a book was imagined by publishers as a means to both inspire and inform culture. Now the opposite is occurring. In a flagrant attempt to compete with Internet culture, to crash books into the marketplace on hot button topics from steroids to celebrities, from political scandal to political ascension, corporate publishers aim now to meet immediate demand. If a book about teenage vampires becomes a bestseller, then the hustle is on to find and market a series about pre-teen vampires. And because of this constant rush to the market with books that have the shelf-life of a bruised tomato—in hardcover, with supplemental cardboard cut-outs that stand in chain store windows and usher customers down narrow sales aisles—this ideology has influenced the ebb and flow of the industry. A worthy book that has been crafted over several steps and patiently delivered with care is outshined by a gossip memoir by a B-list celebrity’s cat-sitter.

So yeah, print shouldn't try to be an ebook. And really, the electronic market is probably the proper home for all that gimmicky garbage: that'll save a lot of time and expense on getting rid of these books when their fad ends, and the fact that none of them will actually be actually printed will lead to less material waste.

But what of the future of printed books that really do deserve to be printed?

If there is any lesson to be learned from the work of Jacek Utko and his newspapers, it is that we live in an age where a newspaper in Estonia can be better designed and more successful than a newspaper in the United States. This is a time where independently published books—such as works by Europa Editions, Seven Stories, or tiny Bellevue Literary Press—can edge their way onto bestseller lists in major U.S. cities. Today, books released by Akashic, Soft Skull, Melville House, and City Lights are selected regularly as Editor’s Choice picks by the New York Times. These publishers are taking some creepy, run-down entertainment and putting it to the highest possible level of art. Without gimmicks. These are outfits run by a handful of dedicated individuals, without advertising budgets, a personalized sales force, or the vast web of contacts that larger houses depend on in getting word out about a book.

I agree, although I don't think this is really that novel. Small to mid-size publishers have always been the ones with enough interest in literature as art to stick behind an author like Beckett, even if his masterpieces took years to sell 1,000 copies. The difference now would be that the industry is far more corporatized and vertically integrated than ever before. That, and the traditional media's penchant for acting as though only a handful of the largest publishers matter, gives off the misimpression that all the important authors are handled by the biggest houses. That isn't the case, though. Small and mid-sized publishers are still the ones by and large discovering the talent; yes, every now and then a major house will do the same, but far more common is for them to buy off talent once a smaller press has done the legwork of bringing an author along.

I do have to take issue with this, though:

With the economy in the crapper, the American people are becoming more thrifty consumers, better able to discern what we want from what we need. Chain stores such as Barnes and Noble are realizing that books aren’t necessarily as profitable as home furnishings and are already redirecting themselves along that path. Meanwhile, the healthiest bookstores are the independents which have earned a reputation over the years based upon their own quality of taste and concern.

Sadly, no. After watching indie after indie close up in the SF Bay Area (which I am often told is one of the best markets for literature in the entire nation) I cannot endorse the idea that indies are the healthiest bookstores. Just a couple weeks ago I watched Black Oak Books die, and if quality of taste and love of literature was at all correlated with bookstore success, then that would not have been possible. Yes, some indies are surviving, but that has more to do with innovative business models than with some special indie juju. At any rate, the healthiest bookstore today isn't any indie, it's Amazon.

Invest in Books

PW reports that the stocks of booksellers and publishers are beating the Dow Jones index by about 25% this year:

Led by a remarkable rebound by book retailers, the Publishers Weekly Stock Index jumped 23.9% in the first six months of 2009, easily beating the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which declined 3.7% in the January through June period. Borders Group, whose stock spent the end of 2008 trading below $1, had the best performance on the PWSI with its share price skyrocketing 820%, as investors expressed more confidence that the company has a chance to successfully turn around its operations.

There you have it. Books are vital to our economic recovery.

Amazon Applies for Patent to Advertise in Your Kindle

The patents are here and here.

Speculation thereof here:

Before everyone gets in a huff, let’s consider Amazon’s intentions with these patent applications. Surely they would never allow advertisements to be placed in books which you have purchased legitimately at full price, so let’s put that out of our heads. But what if you could take a few bucks off the cover price at the cost of a few contextual ads relating (if possible) to the book’s content? Personally, I wouldn’t mind — partially because I don’t use a Kindle or intend to any time soon, but more because it’s a no-lose situation. Amazon wouldn’t risk alienating its loyal Kindle base with dirty tricks like this, so it’s safe to assume it’ll be at least somewhat opt-in.

An abundance of free or reduced-price content would widen the appeal of the reader — I imagine many people are put off e-books by the idea that they are not getting their money’s worth. As offensive as the idea of inserting ads into a book is to me (and surely to the average reader), it’s almost certainly part of a value proposition which increases the utility of these expensive little buggers.

Of course, there are a lot of precedents for advertisements in books. That said, I think I’d rather pay full price.

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