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15 posts from May 2005

Content: Rent vs. Own

A discussion on Jim Minatel's blog sparked my interest the other day...  Is there a lesson the book publishing world could learn from the music world? Now that I’ve finished loading all my CDs onto my new MP3 player, I’m about to sign up for a subscription to Yahoo! Music Unlimited. I mentioned this to a couple of people and they said, “You realize you don’t own the songs you download, right?” Of course I do – and that’s the beauty of it!

I look at the various all-you-can-eat music download subscription services as a replacement to the randomness of radio stations. I’ve got 2,700+ songs I already own on my MP3 player. If I only listen to that stuff I’ll never discover something new. If I add another 5,000 or so other songs, rotating some in and out over time, I’ll wind up with the best of both worlds: everything I know I like already, plus the possibility of some new favorites I might never have discovered otherwise. Unlike the radio, where you have to listen to the entire song you don’t like before you hear the next one on that station, I’ll just hit the fast forward button and skip the junk. What’s not to like about a commercial-free, $5/month (introductory price only!) service like this? I might never listen to the radio again.

How does this apply to book publishing? First of all, you have to accept the fact that one day there will be an e-book/e-content device as appealing as the iPod is today. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I realize we’re not there yet. It’s not just the device, but more importantly, the way the content is built for the device. I’m convinced this device/platform will appear in my lifetime though.

Once we get there, will you prefer to own everything you want to read, or simply rent it? I’m likely to have a mix, but with an 80/20 split, rental vs. owned. Why? The vast majority of what I read winds up on a shelf when I’m finished. Most of those books on my shelf never get opened again. I’m off to read the next book and figure I’ve absorbed all I’m going to from the ones on the shelf, except for the true reference books, of course. When I was a programmer I often pulled books back off the shelves to check syntax, usage, etc. Even if you tend to use more reference books than tutorials, for example, wouldn’t it be just as easy to access them from a well-designed electronic format?

What if there was a service like Yahoo! Music Unlimited, but it was for book content? What would you be willing to pay for something like this, knowing you could take all your books/content with you in one small, not-yet-invented, easy-to-use device?


Focus Groups

I have to admit that I’m not much of a focus group fan. They tend to produce such wonderful ideas as New Coke and the Bob user interface. Remember those gems?

It’s been a few years, but I’ve sat through a few focus group sessions during my career. I think the general problem is that focus groups tend to describe what they think they want, not what they really need.

A former employer of mine conducted a focus group in the early ‘90’s, with the goal of discovering more information about the typical computer book user. One of the things we were trying to determine is whether or not customers would pay more for a disk in the back of a book. The focus group results were unanimous: no way would these people pay more for a book with a 3-1/2” disk in the back. According to the feedback, it didn’t matter whether that disk included source code, utilities or the meaning of life itself – it just wasn’t worth a penny.

Interestingly, one of the imprints at that former employer was conducting the same test, only they were doing it with real products in real stores. They produced two versions of the same book: one came with no disk while the other was $5 more and included the disk. Guess what? The one with the disk typically outsold the other version by a factor of 2 or 3. It wasn’t just one title, by the way. They conducted the same test with no less than 10 titles over the course of a year. So much for the focus group results.

If focus groups aren’t that effective, what’s the best way to figure out what the market needs? Rather than trying to determine this in a simulated environment, why not just go directly to the customers at work or wherever they’re likely to use the product? If you’re working on a book about Excel, that means talking with people while they’re working with spreadsheets at the office. If the topic is Java, spend some time with a developer while they’re actually designing and writing the code. This isn’t as glamorous as a full-fledged focus group, but I’m willing to bet you’ll get better information in the long run.


Blog Statistics with StatCounter

Although I don’t regret choosing Typepad as my blogging platform, I have to admit that the base subscription program comes up short on reporting features. I can obtain information on the total/daily number of hits, if that still means much. I can also see where visitors came from and what search phrase led them to me. Beyond that, I either need to upgrade to the next level of Typepad or switch blogging tools…or so I thought.

I recently came across a free tracking/measurement service called StatCounter. After a few simple steps I was ready to insert their HTML code into my template. A running total of the number of page loads appears at the bottom of the right panel of my blog. The counter is nice, but it’s all the other statistics that caught my eye. StatCounter shows things like which pages are the most popular, where people entered and exited your site, where they came from, what keywords they most often searched for, what browsers they’re using, how long they tend to stay on your site, etc. In short, this is way more information than I can obtain through Typepad alone.

Here are a few interesting tidbits for “The Average Joe”:

  • The phrases “average advance” and “average royalties” continue to be the most popular search phrases that lead people to this blog. Approximately 25% of the incoming searches are the result of someone looking for a phrase similar to one of these.
  • It’s still very much a Google world. 90% of the incoming searches are from Google. The other 10% are from Yahoo!
  • 90% of the traffic is coming from within the United States. The top 5 states are California, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Connecticut.
  • Top 3 browsers: IE (45%), Firefox (21%) and Safari (16%).

I plan to check in on my stats every few days and post anything that looks interesting or unusual.


New Gadget: I Finally Bought an MP3 Player

After spending way too long trying to use my PocketPC as an MP3 player, I finally gave up and bought a Creative 40 Gig Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra. I bought it at Fry’s last Wednesday and started filling it up for a California trip last Thursday. I’ve accumulated 300+ CDs over the years, so it’s going to take me awhile to load everything.

Being a cheapskate, I was looking for the most bang for my buck. I bought my son the same model last Christmas and paid about $240 for it – he loves the one I got him. I was surprised to see Fry’s offering it for $199, especially since the 30 Gig model was more expensive. I briefly considered buying an iPod, but I still feel they’re way overpriced. However, I did buy a pair of those nifty iPod ear buds with the money I saved… Bottom line: the iPod ear buds are overrated too. They sound nice, but I wasn’t able to keep them properly seated in my ears.

Once I get all my CDs loaded up, I’m going to look into Yahoo’s new music subscription program. For $7 a month I can download as much as I want…who can resist? I know I never truly “own” the songs I download, but $7 a month seems like a reasonable price to pay for this approach. Even if they raise it to $10 or $12 a month down the road, it sounds like a great service. Creative’s MP3 players are also supported by Audible.com. I’ll probably download my next audio book to the MP3 player instead of my PocketPC.


Author Tip: Ask for Sales and Sell-Through Data

Your book was published a few weeks ago and you’re anxious to find out how it’s doing. You can wait for your first royalty statement, but that might be several months down the road. Another option is to ask your editor for some preliminary information before the statement is due.

Your editor should be able to provide you with an estimate of the number of copies initially put into the sales channels. (This is often referred to as “the laydown.”) The editor should also be able to give you some sell-through information from BookScan. BookScan is a reporting service that gathers point-of-sale data from a large number of retailers. This isn’t 100% coverage of every outlet, but the data still provides good information, especially when compared to other titles – this comparable data can show how your book stacks up vs. other books on the same topic. New BookScan numbers are posted weekly. Your editor should be able to tell you how your book is doing, how it is trending, etc. If there are any significant changes from one week to the next, ask your editor if a promotion might be affecting the numbers. The promotion might be for your book (causing it to sell more) or a competitor’s book (causing yours to drop off).

Don't be like the fellow I met in the airport this week: his wife has written a series of fiction books for a large publisher, who shall remain nameless, and he was complaining that they've received zero sales information since the first book came out two years ago! She got a nice advance for the series and is due a royalty...despite the fact that the first book was published in early 2003, they’ve never received a single bit of sales information from the publisher. Her projects were signed through an agent. I suggested that he start with the agent and find out what he/she is doing to earn the 15% agency fee. Even though I tend to be a critic of agents in the computer book industry, I’m fairly certain they have a good track record of making sure their clients receive royalty statements. I’m amazed that this poor author doesn’t have a clue as to whether her book is selling or not.


Author Tip: The Sample Chapter

The sample chapter might seem like a pointless exercise to a new author, even more so to an experienced author. After all, if you’ve written an acceptable proposal, surely you’ve proven to your acquisitions editor that you have good writing skills. Why do they need a sample chapter?

First of all, the sample chapter will help you (the author) determine if you can write to the series guidelines/template provided by the editor. You might be a great writer, but do you have the skills to write to the appropriate audience? Are you able to deliver on all the key elements in the series? Are you able to provide the right amount of material for each topic in the chapter?

Second, if you’ve never written a book before, you’ll see how long it takes to write a chapter. You ought to be able to extrapolate from that to determine a reasonable, and realistic, writing schedule for the entire book. If it takes you a week to write the sample, don’t assume you’ll be able to write each subsequent chapter in 2 days or less. Also, don’t let your acquisitions editor bully you into thinking you’ll be able to write faster. You know your schedule, your other commitments, etc., better than anyone else.

Use the sample chapter to your advantage. Insist on detailed feedback from the acquisitions editor and/or a development editor. If you’re going to invest your time in a sample chapter, the least they can do is give it a thorough review and help coach you. Be very skeptical if the editor simply says, “hey, it looked great…we don’t have any comments…keep writing!” This could be a warning signal that nobody had the time to look it over and they’re anxious to hit the next manuscript delivery date on the schedule. That could mean a lot of rework for you and the editor down the road.

By the way, be sure to keep track of the amount of time you have to spend reworking the sample chapter to address the editor’s feedback. This will help you gauge the amount of work you’ll be faced with at the author review stage for the rest of the manuscript. However, if the editor does a good job providing high-level feedback, you should incorporate that feedback in the later chapters, making for less author review work down the road.


More on Improving the Brick and Mortar Bookstore Experience

Earlier this month I posted some thoughts on how to improve the brick and mortar bookstore experience. Many readers weighed in, making for an interesting discussion. I’ve been on the road a lot lately and fell a bit behind in my reading. On a flight back from San Francisco the other night I finally got around to reading the April issue of MIT’s Technology Review. It’s a great magazine and one I’d recommend to anyone interested in technology.

The article that caught my eye was called E-Commerce Gets Smarter. It reminds me of the brick and mortar bookstore post noted above. In that post, I talked about some ideas for in-store kiosks and how they could be used to enhance the customer experience. Here are a few interesting related excerpts from the Technology Review article:

The business jargon for this model of integrating retails sales is “multichanneling” – that is, fusing digital services with in-store, mail order, and telephone sales, and with any other retail channels.

By looking at just a few of a customer’s purchases, a retailer will even be able to predict how much she’ll spend over her lifetime, and adjust the deals and promotions it offers her accordingly.

Last year, another $355 billion in retail sales took place in physical stores after consumers had done their homework online. Overall, says Jupiter, for every $1 consumers spend online, they spend $6 offline as a result of research conducted on the Internet.

Many companies set up online stores in the mid to late 1990s, often building proprietary systems that were not integrated with other parts of their operations. Later, harmonizing operations seemed expensive and difficult. It’s only since the economy has improved that some retail executives have been investing more heavily in integrating their sales channels.

I think it’s time for the brick and mortar bookstores to get with it and really leverage this “multichanneling” concept. They’ve got to embrace an online presence in the stores and offer customers services and conveniences the .com’s can’t. As I also noted in my original post, I think this can be done with minimal investment from the bookstores – there are probably plenty of potential sponsors out there who would jump on the opportunity to fund a new PR and marketing program like this.


Microsoft OneCare

Earlier this week Microsoft announced plans for their upcoming subscription service intended to squash viruses, spyware and more. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m highly likely to stick with my Symantec subscription. Microsoft makes great products, but I can’t bring myself to spend money fixing holes they have in their operating system. When a car manufacturer has a serious product flaw you bring the car back in via a recall and they fix it for free. When software companies run into the same problem, they generally issue free patches/updates, which Microsoft also does, of course; but when they add to it with a fee-based subscription service, I’ve really got to say “no thanks”.

Microsoft is an easy target and I’m obviously not alone in this bias against the OneCare concept. David Pogue also recently commented on this one. He says much the same as what I’ve noted above, but also adds that there might be an anti-competition issue here as well. Perhaps, but I figure Microsoft’s program will just force Symantec to make their product that much better, which means I still come out ahead. Yes, I know OneCare could crush antivirus companies much like IE killed Netscape, Word killed WordPerfect, Excel killed 1-2-3, etc. I tend to believe this war is different since so many customers seem to question whether Microsoft (a) can really create a competitive product and (b) is worthy of a subscription payment when they really ought to just fix the problems for free.

What’s your opinion?


Wiley Acquires Sybex

Sybex is a computer book publisher I’ve respected for many years. In fact, when I was programming back in the ‘80’s I learned microprocessor essentials from a book written by Rodnay Zaks himself: From Chips to Systems. I consider it one of the most readable and informative computer books of all time.

As you may have seen in the press release that came out today, Sybex is about to become part of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Many of us at Wiley are in the process of getting to know the staff at Sybex – I’m very impressed with the energy level, product knowledge and general sense of teamwork throughout the organization. There’s a lot of work ahead, but I’m extremely enthusiastic about the prospects of a great Wiley tech program that becomes even stronger with the addition of Sybex.


More on Audible.com

In an earlier post I mentioned that I’ve been listening to the audio version of Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End. It’s the first product I downloaded from Audible.com. Well, I finished the book yesterday. The verdict: Mixed results.

The book itself wasn’t overly inspiring. I’m not sure if I’m lukewarm on this because of the content or the fact that I listened to it rather than read it. The author spends a lot of time going over commonsense things like “success breeds success.” I’m a big sports fan, so you’d think I wouldn’t tire of the numerous examples from the world of basketball, football and baseball. Wrong. Even I have my limits when it comes to restating the obvious.

One noteworthy takeaway is the point that confidence is the result of three key items: accountability, collaboration and initiative. Again, not earth-shattering, but interesting to consider, especially the way these points were applied against some of the more meaningful examples.

The audio format was convenient. I listened to the book on planes, on a treadmill, watching my daughter at her horseback riding lesson, etc. Nevertheless, there’s one attribute of reading a book rather than listening that works better for me: I can easily re-read sections two and three times if necessary. I’m a slow reader and I sometimes have to read a sentence a couple of times for it to sink in. Good luck trying to accomplish this in an audio format. It’s hard to rewind to just the right point.

I still love the fact that I can have a book on an SD card anywhere I take my PocketPC. With that in mind, I’ll probably try this format at least one more time to see if I warm up to it.