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26 posts from March 2005

MGM vs. Grokster

The case of the content owners vs. the file-sharing software companies is all over the news. Given that I make my livelihood as a publisher, you might be surprised to hear that I’m pulling for Grokster on this one…

I’m a big believer in technology and innovations resulting from new technologies. I think it would be a huge mistake to create unnecessary barriers that might prevent the next giant leap forward in content distribution. By the way, it’s interesting to see Sony on the content side of the table, fighting against innovative distribution technologies – weren’t they on the opposite side in the ‘80’s, claiming that their VCR’s didn’t infringe on copyrights?

Although I’m not a gun advocate, I agree with the old saying that “guns don’t kill …people kill.” The same logic applies to this debate: Software companies don’t steal intellectual property…people steal intellectual property.

It’s one thing to install a file-sharing program on your computer. It’s another thing when you elect to use that software to cross the line and illegally share copyrighted material. Yes, I realize that most of the download and file exchange activity going on these days involves copyrighted material. If you’re downloading or exchanging copyrighted material without permission you’re breaking the law, period. Don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you. Anyone doing this is as guilty as the guy that robs the local liquor store.

So how do we fix the current problem? To start off with, let the software companies create their programs. They’re not the problem. Secondly, the content companies need to continue prosecuting anyone they find illegally redistributing their content. They need to be more visible with their efforts, though. People aren’t going to stop doing this until they feel there’s a high likelihood they’ll get caught and fined.

How about reversing the power of the peer-to-peer networks? When one person gets busted for illegal downloads, offer them reduced fines for ratting out other thieves, anonymously, of course. Publicize this program so that the cheaters don’t know whether they’ll get caught by the authorities or turned in by their friends.

Where do you stand on this issue?


What’s the Future of Amazon’s A9?

I’m apparently not the only one who’s not using Amazon’s A9 search tool. A recent AP article said that “A9 ranked 41st in popularity among search engines in February, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, attracting only a fraction of visitors to Google or Yahoo.” I realize A9 has some cool bells and whistles in it, but I rarely stray from good old, plain vanilla Google for my searching.

The article goes on to ask whether 41st place is anything to get investors excited about, especially in such a crowded space where the leaders are constantly innovating. I would tend to agree… But Jeff Bezos is wicked smart and I’m sure he’s got plans to make it more impactful and widely used than it is today.

Is it possible that A9 could evolve into a fee-based search utility? What if you could use it to search the entire list of titles available on Amazon? I’m not talking about the limited way you can access snippets of a book from A9 through Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” program. I’m talking about complete access to every page of every book that Amazon sells. Totally unlimited.

What’s the financial model? Maybe it would be a monthly rate that allows you to do “x” maximum searches per day/month.  A per search fee might apply if you exceed that maximum. There could be several tiers offered, the same way you can pick from several cell phone calling plans. A9 would then divvy up the monthly proceeds based on which pieces of content were viewed.

Yes, all sorts of DRM and security measures would have to be in place to prevent unauthorized duplication and distribution of the content. I’ll bet the harder part would be getting all the publishers to agree to the terms and fees. What do you think?


The Wall Street Journal on Author Platforms

Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote an interesting article on author platforms in today’s Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, the article is only available to online WSJ subscribers. That’s OK though because much of what is said in the WSJ was covered in an earlier post here entitled “What Makes a Bestseller?”

The article cites a couple of good recent examples of how authors use their own connections, e-mail address databases, etc., to maximize sales. He goes on to say that “the focus on platforms is a byproduct of strained publicity budgets.” I’m not sure that’s totally true. After all, wouldn’t an author want to leverage their platform even if the publisher is spending a lot of money on other PR efforts?


Building a Direct Relationship Between Publisher and Reader

Like just about anything in life, a “direct relationship” can produce good results or bad results. On the good side, it can cut out a middleman who seems to do nothing more than increase the overall cost (and therefore, the final price) of the product. On the bad side, that “middleman” might be adding more value to the formula than the producer or the consumer would like to admit.

Most publishers don’t seem to have a very good direct relationship with their true customers, the people reading their books. Why is that? It’s mostly due to the fact that the publisher views their job as one of developing and producing the best content available, not providing the outlet for customers to buy those products. That made more sense when it seemed very few people would buy a book without being able to flip through it first. Amazon (and others) have proven that’s not a requirement though – there are plenty of ways to use a website and entice a customer to make a purchase without ever touching the product.

When I buy online I’m often doing it to take advantage of the deeper discount. Just about every book is 30% or more off online, so why pay full price at a brick-and-mortar store? (The answer for most people is “convenience”, of course.) What if you could get an even better deal buying direct from the publisher?

Consider this hypothetical situation: A publisher decides to launch their own “frequent buyer club” where you’ll get a better discount (X%) on each book if you promise to purchase some minimum number of books (Y) over the course of a year. Each transaction is conducted via the web, directly between the customer and publisher.

There’s at least one other critical factor in this decision: the size and diversity of the publisher’s list. My interest in a program like this is directly proportional to the breadth and depth of the publisher’s program. The broader the title list is from that publisher, the greater the likelihood I’d give it a try.

How about you? Would you consider signing up for a program like this? If so, what would the values have to be for “X%” and “Y”?


Why I Won’t Buy Another HP iPAQ PocketPC

I started using a PDA in 1996. The original Palm Pilot was a great device and virtually reinvented the category. I was a loyal Palm user for 8 years. I upgraded a couple of times and was generally quite happy.

Last year I decided the Palm platform was fading and the PocketPC was the future. I went out and bought an HP iPAQ 4355. This is a great little device and one that’s worked flawlessly for me from the start; I’m able to connect via WiFi even if I don’t have my laptop handy. I also put all my meeting notes, business plans, etc., on it, along with audio books, MP3 files and more. So why am I such an unhappy customer? It all has to do with Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 2003, Second Edition and HP’s decision to not support it on this device.

Windows Mobile 2003, Second Edition was released last year. It includes a number of useful features that I wanted to take advantage of on my iPAQ. For example, the ability to toggle between landscape and portrait display mode is built into Windows Mobile 2003, Second Edition. (I’m aware of at least one third-party add-on that does the same thing, but I tried it and it was clunky at best.) Despite the fact that the iPAQ 4355 model was only a few months old and was an “Editor’s Choice” in most of the handheld magazines, HP decided to not support Windows Mobile 2003, Second Edition on it. I’ve been told by Microsoft that they can’t really control the hardware vendors. (That seems hard to believe, don’t you think?!) HP officially told me I should consider upgrading to a newer model in their iPAQ line. WRONG! I’m not giving HP another nickel.

Think about it: When was the last time you bought a brand new, state-of-the-art computer and within 3 months it was made obsolete by a new version of the operating system? I’ve never had that problem with a computer and I never had that problem with the Palm platform. Why do Microsoft and their hardware partners think they can be so arrogant about this? OK, no need to reply to that…I already know the answer.

As the saying goes, I’m voting with my wallet next time and it won’t be for an HP product. It’s also unlikely I’ll stick with the PocketPC/Windows Mobile platform. I might pry open my wallet later this year…any suggestions on a good alternative?


Kathy Sierra on “Just-in-Time Learning” vs. “Just-in-Case Learning”

Bestselling author Kathy Sierra has an interesting post on the motivations behind learning. She contrasts the just-in-time approach to the just-in-case one. Her point is that just-in-time is generally more effective. Unfortunately, most of us have learned via the just-in-case model. Most books are also structured around the just-in-case model, if you ask me.

The best advice in her post has to do with overcoming the limitations of just-in-case learning. It’s something she does very effectively in the Head First series.


Michael Hyatt’s Corporate Blogging Rules

Michael Hyatt is the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers. His Working Smart blog is a good one to keep an eye on. He’s a very forward thinking executive and is encouraging Thomas Nelson employees to join the blogosphere. In fact, his latest post talks about plans for a corporate blog aggregator site.

He lists three objectives for the site, but his last one is my favorite: To give people a look at what goes on inside a real publishing company. That’s been one of the goals for my own blog. However, my posts are from the publisher’s perspective alone and only represent one piece of the larger puzzle. I’m working on some of my colleagues from other departments (e.g., marketing, sales, etc.) and I hope to see their blogs launch shortly.

Later in his post Michael presents the “Thomas Nelson Blog Terms and Conditions”. Few companies have taken the time to establish a formal blogging policy like this. I applaud what Michael Hyatt is doing and I look forward to the launch of the Thomas Nelson aggregator site. Won’t it be great when every company has a site like this and we’ll be able to peek inside, see what makes it tick and learn a little more about the people behind the scenes?


Why Not?

I finished reading this book last night. (Yes, it’s called Why Not?”) It caught my attention because of a review I read about it in a magazine a few months ago. The description on Amazon was interesting and the customer reviews were favorable. Although I found a few interesting tidbits, I’d give it no more than a “B” overall.

The most interesting concept they presented was the notion of “Would Flipping It Work?” where they consider solutions “the other way around”. A good example of this is what they propose with 900-xxx-xxxx phone numbers. When you call one of these, your phone bill gets charged. Could you imagine a scenario where the opposite would occur: you receive a call from a 900 number and your phone bill gets credited? How about with the dreaded telemarketer? If a telemarketer calls your home and you listen to their pitch you’d get a credit on your phone bill.

Although most of us wouldn’t opt for this, there’s probably some percentage of the public who would. Further, it would help offset the difficulties many telemarketers now face with all the “Do Not Call” registries across the country. Other examples in this chapter opened my eyes to interesting options that open up when you completely turn things around.

Although this book won’t make my favorites list, I plan to be a frequent visitor to the outstanding companion website. The authors refer to it as the “Why Not Open Source Movement” because they built it as a place for everyone to post new ideas and critique ideas from others. There are loads of ideas already on the site and more are being posted every month. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite sites, and yes, they do offer an RSS feed.

Even if you don’t find ideas that are directly related to your own business, you’re sure to find some that will spark your imagination. For example, check out the suggestion for an audio-in jack in cars (something I was complaining about recently!) and the great idea for a better brake light system.


Selecting a Publisher: Finding the Right Editor

In an earlier post I talked about how areas of expertise come into play when selecting a publisher. Today’s post outlines some thoughts on finding a good editor and what sort of questions an author should ask. I believe the task of finding the right editor, and therefore the right publisher, comes down to three things: referrals, enthusiasm and experience.

Referrals

What sort of a reputation does this acquisitions editor have? If it’s a good one, find out why. You’ll want to know if the reason that editor is held in high regard matches up with the attributes you’re looking for. As I mentioned in my earlier post on agents, references are as critical a part of this decision as anything. Perhaps it goes without saying, but be wary of any editor who has a hard time providing references…

Enthusiasm

Editor enthusiasm might seem like an odd characteristic for the short list. Nevertheless, it’s important for an editor to show they are excited about your project. That enthusiasm carries through to the various editorial and sales meetings where they have to pitch your idea. If they don’t sound overly interested on the phone with the author, how much are they likely to evangelize the idea to the sales and marketing departments?

Here’s a question every author should ask his or her acquisitions editor: How important is this book to your overall program? Get them to tell you whether they consider this to be one of the most important 3-5 titles they are currently working on (i.e., their “A-list”). If they say “yes”, ask them to prove it. Keep in mind that only about 15-25% of all books make the A-list list in any editor’s program. Maybe this project is really a mid-list title and isn’t going to make anyone’s A-list. That’s good information to have as well. The important point is to make sure that the editor’s expectations are in line with yours.

One editor may be tied up on a major release and although your title is important, they have other more high-priority titles above it. If it’s not on their A-list, maybe you should talk to an editor from another publisher to see if it will get more attention there. All other things being equal, I’d rather have my book signed with an editor who has it on their A-list (and can prove it) than somewhere else.

Experience

Acquisitions editors are always asking author candidates about their background, writing history, etc. What’s wrong with authors asking editors the same type of questions? How long have you been in the business? Do you specialize in any areas? What are your top-selling titles? Who are your best authors? What makes them so great?

Perhaps most importantly, you need to decide whether this person is someone who truly wants to work with you, not just on this particular book, but as a partner going forward. If this project goes well, are there others the editor might have in mind for you? The best author-editor relationships I’ve seen over the years seem to have one common theme: The authors speak highly of the editors who look at the bigger picture, not just a single book. They want to work in partnership with the author to build a franchise together.

Finally, if you’re still on the fence with an editor, ask them this one: Can I talk to the publisher and gauge their interest in this project? Whether it’s a phone call or an e-mail exchange, that line of communication should always be available. Take advantage of it!


Revised Editions of Computer Books

One of the more common customer complaints over the years has to do with the cost of buying a revised edition of a computer book. Readers sometimes note that the changes from one edition to the next are relatively minor. They want to know why they have to pay full price for the next edition when it contains much of the same information as the current edition.

There’s never been a simple solution for this problem. Publishers could take a page out of the software business and offer discounted upgrades to registered users. That’s probably never happened up to now because of:

  • The processing costs involved, especially when weighed against the net price if the customer’s “upgrade” discount is fairly deep,
  • The publisher risks alienating the bookstores and other channel partners by taking the next transaction direct to the customer, cutting out the retailer, and
  • It’s hard to say how many customers would even consider this as a viable option.

Rather than working towards a solution with a printed book, should an electronic upgrade product be considered? If you could get a PDF of the next edition for $5 or $10, vs. the original printed book price of $30 or $40, would you consider this alternative? What if that PDF included revision marks to show what’s new in the revised edition? What if the “upgrade” featured a second PDF file that highlighted only those chapters/elements that have changed? That way you could quickly scan through this smaller file to quickly get up-to-speed on the differences between the two editions. I could see where this might work in some cases, but it’s far from a perfect solution.

On a related note, Syngress has experimented a bit in this area with their “1 Year Upgrade/Buyer Protection Plan”. This is purely an online solution, but one that they’ve been playing up on covers for a few years. I don’t hear much buzz about this and you generally don’t even see customers refer to it in online reviews.

Is this really less of a problem than it’s perceived to be?