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7 posts from November 2011

The Paperless Book, by Todd Sattersten

Today's piece is a guest blog post from Todd Sattersten. Todd is the author of our TOC publication, Every Book Is a Startup. I love the points he makes in this article and I think it's an important read for everyone in the publishing industry:

Stephen Colbert opened his October 25th, 2011 show with his normal exuberance. He bragged about his special early access to the iPhone, the iPad, and the iV (a product that feeds the Internet directly into your veins and assured us a short wait of six moths before its release). The release of the Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs would be no different as he pulled the 600-page biography from behind the desk, but Colbert immediately became perplexed.

The single finger touchscreen swipe on the cover didn’t turn pages. When you turned the book upside down, the picture didn’t reorient. Colbert complained there was no place to plug in his headphones so he could listen to it. And then he tried to activate the voice recognition by touching the bottom of the cover, “Tell me about Steve Jobs. Where is the nearest church or camera store?” He ended the segment saying that the device would be soon released with "a revolutionary softcover." The jokes played well to the geekish sensibilities of the studio audience, but I am not sure even the show’s writers knew how well the sketch described the confused state of book publishing.

Steve Jobs will serve as a prominent road marker on the path from atoms to bits. The decision for Simon & Schuster to hold the digital release two weeks to match the physical release even after the death of Jobs is worthy of a Harvard Business School case. And at the same time, the fact that the majority of people will still use paper to read the story of the individual who did more to bring computers to desktops and laptops of individuals around the world should not be lost. 

Colbert’s poking fun at the Issacson biography repeats again a meme that we in the publishing industry should be gravely concerned about—our customers don’t know what a book is anymore.

In July 2011, I published an experimental project with O’Reilly called Every Book Is a Startup. The project was meant to poke at the boundaries of traditional publishing. The book was created around the idea that new material would be released over time, culminating in a finished work early in 2012. Readers would be encouraged to constantly give feedback about the material. The pricing was dynamic, increasing slowly to match the amount of the material available released, but once purchased, a customer received all future updates for free.

We are only using one distribution point at the start of the project, oreilly.com, because the distribution system for electronic books is not designed to allow an ebook to be updated and released again. You might remember one of the side effects of the Amazon’s 2009 recall of 1984 was that after the book was restored to their system, customers found their bookmarks and notes had disappeared. 

We unfortunately found the same problem with our release strategy. Wonderful publishing startups like Readmill and SocialBook that have created the possibility for readers using epub files to highlight important passages and share those with others back through the web, but when a reader of Every Book Is A Startup loaded a new edition, their digital artifacts suffer the same fate as the readers of 1984, the loss of their old thoughts as I presented them with my new ones.

I have been hesitant to call Every Book Is A Startup a book because of the expectations people hold for a book: a finished work, written from a position of singular authority, available in some way in a physical form. What I never expected was how strongly the qualities of a book would be brought forward from the physical to the digital. Digital books have been designed to carry forward the same atomic quality of immutability of physical books. As I reached out to my colleagues in the working in the world of ebooks, the consensus was that no one had considered a reality where an author given the ability to distribute directly and virtually cost-free would consider updating their work and the consequences that might have. 

Bits and atoms don’t behave the same way, but we have built the next step forward in publishing like they do.

The trouble to this point is that a book is a book.  Stacey Madden used precisely those words to title an essay in the inaugural issue of Toronto Review of Books that describes this predicament. "I do not mean to argue the advantages of paperbound books over their electronic counterparts," says Madden. "The contents of both are, for the most part, the same, and the differences lie mainly in medium. I am simply pointing out a semantic fact. E-books are not 'books' but digitized compositions." She firmly believes the book’s 550 year old meaning that connects both form and format should be maintained. "Before a collection of human thoughts is transformed into what we call a 'book', it is merely a story, a manuscript, a document, or a text." Madden points to the need for more of us to see the difference between a book and its electronic counterparts.

Now, Madden writes further about the poetic qualities of the book and declares the superiority of the bound volume for its weight, smell, and ability to act as apartment furnishing. This judgment undermines the broader point and shows from another perspective the real trouble we are in.

The people who love books for what they are and what they have been are grabbing for their hardcovers and their paperbacks and saying "This word belongs to us." The digerati paving the way with wireless tablets and social networking recommendation services are trying to say, "You don’t understand, we have books and we have made them way better." This is messy and leads to confusion.

We are living through a time in book publishing where words fail us, a situation that we should all find some irony in given the products we sell. We need some new language that describes what happens and, more importantly, what is possible when the words are separated from the paper. Those two things need to be separated so we can build systems and infrastructure that supports the new capabilities of the technology.

For several decades, what we know today as a car was referred to as a horseless carriage. It was easier to describe what this new invention as what it was not, rather than what it was.

Maybe, there are books and there are paperless books. I know it is a little awkward, and you want to ask yourself, "But what does that mean?", but when you remove the paper from a book, it becomes so much easier to see the possibilities.


Content Lessons Learned from NHL GameCenter LIVE

I'm a huge hockey fan and even though I pay Comcast extra for the NHL Network I only get to see a few games a week, most of which don't interest me. I want to see my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they're not on the cable channels frequently enough. I'd like to have access to every Penguins game and the only option for that is NHL's GameCenter LIVE subscription. It costs $169 though and, being a cheapskate, I resisted signing up...till now.

I coughed up $169 over the weekend and I'm glad I did. Now that I've used the service for a few days I've discovered there are a number of lessons GameCenter can teach those of us who manage other types of content:

The ongoing value of the direct sale -- When you sell direct you capture 100% of the transaction. There's no middleman. So now the NHL has a direct relationship with me and I'm no longer some unknown customer with Comcast in the middle. The NHL now has an excellent opportunity to upsell to me, especially since they'll quickly discover my preferences.

Trust your customers -- I was amazed to discover that I could use my GameCenter account on more than one device at the same time. That means I can watch one game on my iPad while another is playing on my computer. I'm assuming this means I'll be able to share my account with my son (who's also a big NHL fan). If so, we could both watch the same or different games simultaneously. That was a very pleasant surprise, btw, as I expected them to lock the second device out. Think of this as the equivalent to a DRM-free ebook. I'm sure the NHL doesn't want me posting my account credentials for anyone to use but their system is loose enough to surprise and delight. I can't wait to watch two games simultaneously (on different devices) when a couple of good ones are on at the same time! Btw, this is how all types of content access should work. But with all the restrictions and limitations we encounter every day in the digital world I was blown away to see how liberal GameCenter's access policies are. This makes me like them and their product even more. Trust is an amazing thing, isn't it? :-)

Make sure your content is available everywhere (including direct!) -- This sounds so obvious but it's so frequently overlooked. Sure, some of the NHL content was available to me via cable but I wanted more. Are you only making your e-content available on the "big" sites? Are those sites reaching all your potential global customers? Probably not. Once again, that's why you need a strong direct sales presence and the ability to serve that content globally.

Make sure it's on every platform -- I can watch games on any of my devices. That includes Mac, Windows, iPad, Android phone, and yes, even my Blackberry Playbook. Are all of your ebooks available in EPUB, mobi and PDF? Those are the key three today and if your content isn't available in all of those formats you're definitely missing some platform opportunities. More importantly, when a customer buys your product do they receive it in all those formats? Unless you're selling it directly as a multi-format product (like we do on oreilly.com) I'll bet the answer to that is no. Don't force your customers to buy mobi today and epub separately tomorrow, for example. That's irritating. Give them all formats in one transaction. This once again underscores the importance of having a strong direct channel. After all, you're probably safe assuming the big e-tailers are only going to offer the format that best suits their needs, not the customer's.

Pricing shouldn't be a race to the bottom -- At first that $169 price tag sounded awfully rich to me. But the more I looked into the service the more I realized it's actually quite reasonable. That's mostly because the NHL is delivering a very high quality product without the limitations found in other services (e.g., MLB's AtBat). All the games I care about are featured and the video is somewhere between standard and high def; pretty remarkable considering it's coming in via wifi. Every ebook doesn't have to be $9.99 or less. Consider your product's overall value proposition before you give in to the pressures of a low-priced solution.


Kindle Device License Limits Are Stupid

There, I said it. I'm betting most consumers and quite a few publishers don't realize that Amazon has limits in place to prevent you from loading one Kindle ebook on more than 6 devices within the same account. You're probably wondering why I have so many devices connected to the same account. The answer is simple: I like to test new devices and the old ones become hand-me-down's to family members. They all remain on the same account though.

Amazon has a default maximum of 6 devices for any given Kindle ebook. Once you try to get it onto the 7th device you're greeted with an error message saying, "License Limit Reached", and they nudge you to buy another copy of the product. No way. I already bought it once and I'm not buying it again.

This is yet another example of why DRM sucks. Someone decided 6 was a magical number and so no title can be read across more than 6 devices. Sure, I could de-register or maybe even just delete the book from one or two of my older devices but why should I have to?!

Limitations like this, including DRM in general, are evil and should be done away with. Amazon and publishers, please start trusting your customers and eliminate stupid barriers like this. You're not protecting your revenue stream this way but you're doing a terrific job of irritating your customers and reminding them that you don't trust them.


Fluidinfo CEO Terry Jones on API's & Why Publishers Should Offer Them

Publishers and authors obviously have a sense of how they intend their content to be used but what if there are other ways of accessing and consuming content that publisher and author didn't even consider? It reminds me of that great Henry Ford quote: "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'a faster horse'." The point is sometimes we just don't know what we want. That's where exposing content via API's can help. As we talk about in this interview with Fluidinfo CEO Terry Jones, APIs enable developers to work with your content like a box of Legos, building solutions you may never have dreamed of. Key points include:

  • What's an API?  -- Just as user interfaces enable access to information by users, API's enable access to information by programmers.  [Discussed at :54]
  • The "read-only" model is not the future -- Publishers have grown accustomed to a one-way communication. We produce content but generally don't let users enhance or modify that content. That may have worked well in the print world but the digital world demands more. As Terry notes, the real world is "writeable." [Discussed at 5:15]
  • Publishers are just starting to recognize audience signals-- There's value in not only detecting these signals but acting on them. [Discussed at 10:55]
  • Reading has always been a social activity -- Much takes place in isolation but think about why page numbers exist, for example. [Discussed at 12:10]
  • How do you manage control in an open API access model?-- It's not as scary as you might think. There are plenty of control mechanisms that can and should exist when exposing your content via API's. [Discussed at 13:45]
  • Mobile changes everything -- Simple paywall access via a browser isn't the best solution. Mobile offers a completely new opportunity to distribute and monetize content...but it has to be done correctly, of course. [Discussed at 18:50] 
  • Why not just offer access via HTML5? -- HTML5 is a delivery good delivery mechanism but API's are more like offering a toolbox for building even more powerful solutions. [Discussed at 28:16]

Jesse Potash on What Make PUBSLUSH Press Different

PUBSLUSH Press has been described as "a Kickstarter for books." That's a fair comparison to some extent, but as their founder Jesse Potash points out, there already is a Kickstarter out there and they already offer some book projects! PUBSLUSH isn't simply some new self-publishing option. They're approaching the model differently and are taking some bold steps to help eradicate global illiteracy. Key points include: 

  • Crowd-funding vs. non-profit publishing  -- In the Kickstarter model the funding can be used at the author's discretion but with PUBSLUSH the funding is primarily used in "the first stage" of the publishing process.  [Discussed at 1:00]
  • Traditional editors are welcome -- PUBSLUSH not only allows editors to come in and extend offers to PUBSLUSH authors...they actually encourage it! [Discussed at 2:19]
  • Authors are never charged a dime...ever-- They're not really a self-publisher and they're far from a traditional publisher. PUBSLUSH simply falls somewhere in between the two. [Discussed at 3:10]
  • PUBSLUSH is all about discovery -- Despite the large number of titles published every year PUBSLUSH can help solve the discoverability problem. [Discussed at 3:47]
  • Community reviews are one of the features that make PUBSLUSH special -- The role is to "review, share and fund." [Discussed at 6:10]
  • Linking publishing with literacy -- For every book they sell they donate another one to a child in need. How awesome is that?! [Discussed at 11:30]


Fran Toolan of Firebrand Navigates the Challenges of Content Management

In the old days (say, 2006!) it was easy for publishers to completely handle all aspects of content management internally. Now it's more challenging thanks to seemingly ever-changing tools, specs and platforms. Firebrand Technologies founder and president Fran Toolan recently sat down with us to discuss a variety of content management topics. Key points include:

  • "Publishers can't outsource QA"  -- Regardless of what's done in-house vs. out-of-house, quality control rests squarely on the shoulders of the publisher. [Discussed at 1:00]
  • Metadata needs to move in sync with the content -- One of the more common problems Fran sees is the disconnection between metadata and the product's content. [Discussed at 2:55]
  • New formats could easily displace existing ones-- Despite the popularity of EPUB and mobi, for example, the barriers to entry for new formats are actually pretty low, particularly if we're talking about browser-supported formats. [Discussed at 3:44]
  • HTML5 is likely to win out over native apps -- Apple's walled garden approach is driving app developers away and HTML5 offers plenty of power and flexibility. [Discussed at 4:55]
  • Don't look for a one-size-fits-all solution for devices and platforms -- Just as Kindles lend themselves so well today to long-form reading and iPads more so to short-form reading, tomorrow will probably feature devices that are tailor-made for specific applications and users. [Discussed at 7:08]
  • HTML5 could very well become Amazon's "escape hatch" -- We love to complain that Amazon doesn't support EPUB but HTML5 might represent their best way forward. [Discussed at 10:30]
  • NetGalley is doing well...-- ...but I still find that most publishers don't understand the value of digital early release/review. [Discussed at 14:25
  • Rights remains a very important area publishers are overlooking-- Ebooks make it easy to quickly to sell globally but publishers aren't managing their rights effectively to track and fully leverage the opportunities. [Discussed at 17:43]


What if Every eBook Could be Returned for a Full Refund...At Any Time?

Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library has been getting a lot of buzz since it was announced last week, and rightfully so. I posted my own thoughts about it as a publisher on the O'Reilly Radar blog; click here to read my opinion and the community feedback. Some supporters of the program have mentioned it will be a great way to try before you buy. In other words, borrow the book for a week or two and if you like what you read you'll probably want to buy the book, not just borrow it. I can see that happening...sometimes. But I don't think that's the best way to encourage more ebook sales.

First of all, each of the ebook vendors offer samples of books. I always download and read the sample before I make a purchase. Samples have saved me from making a number of bad purchases. But I've often found the samples are way too short to tell whether the book is right for me. That's where an unconditional, money-back guarantee should come into play.

That's right. Why not have a no-questions-asked, complete refund option for all ebooks? I'm not talking about the return-it-within-seven-days-of-purchase Amazon offers for Kindle content. That's not good enough. I want the reassurance I can get a full refund if I buy it today and don't even start reading it till a year from now but then decide it stinks.

Is that crazy? We don't think so at O'Reilly. Here's a link to The O'Reilly Guarantee. You wont' find any fine print with exclusions that limit your right to a full refund. Btw, as the publisher at O'Reilly I can tell you I see all the email exchanges between customers and our customer service team. Very few people ever ask for a refund. In fact, our customer service team sometimes offers refunds when customers don't even ask for them and most customers reject the offer.

It's interesting how this works. We stand behind our product with a very simple "absolute satisfaction" guarantee. And believe it or not, customers aren't banging down our doors asking for their money back. Why? I think it's the same reason why we've been so successful with our DRM-free stance: We trust our customers. Pretty novel concept, isn't it?

By forcing you to make your product return within 7 days of purchase that retailer is telling you they don't trust you. Perhaps they assume you're a speed reader and are just looking for a free ride by gaming the system and reading a book in less than a week. That's too bad. A little trust goes a long way. Will some customers abuse the system? Absolutely, just like they do with DRM-free content. But the vast majority will not only do the right thing, they'll also become more loyal to you because you trust them.