Dave Taylor -- One Smart Guy!

Tinkering with the Publishing Model

Have you ever read a book, put it down and come to this conclusion?: “Gee, there were 7 or 8 really valuable things I learned from this, but I had to read through 300 pages to catch them all.” Although I sometimes feel this way after reading certain business books, the issue probably isn’t exclusive to that category.

A few years ago I thought I found a solution: I subscribed to one of those programs where they send you a packet of book summaries every month. I was disappointed in the program for a number of reasons, but most importantly because I felt the summaries weren’t much more than a marketing piece for the book. I often didn’t come away feeling as though I really got the gold nuggets that made up the heart of the heart of the original work. Maybe the summary publisher couldn’t convince the original book publisher to give up all the unique content for a relatively modest secondary income stream. Worse, the book publisher might have feared that the summary product would cannibalize sales of the original book. Either way, the summaries themselves weren’t all that inspiring. Despite this experience, I’m convinced that the right summary product could be created and that we just need to work out the approach and distribution model.

Let’s say there’s a $20 book out there that promises to teach you the 11 secrets to sales success. You’re an aspiring salesperson but don’t have the time or interest in reading 300 pages to find those 11 gems. The book sells for 30% off at Amazon, or $14.00, but that discount still doesn’t offset the fact that you’re too busy to read 300 pages. Now, what if the publisher also offered a 3-5-page summary of it for $10? You get the exact same secrets found in the original book, but without all the other narrative and background information. I’d buy this product in a heartbeat, at least for some of the reading I do each year – I’m guessing this would translate into 6-10 purchases per year for me on business-related titles, maybe more since I’d be able to read them so quickly.

I recognize that this product isn’t right for everyone. Some people want to read all the supporting narrative, especially as it helps tell the whole story. Then again, what if you discovered after reading the summary above, 4 of the 11 secrets were very interesting and you wish you had more information on them? Perhaps you could scale this program out so that this particular book summary has 11 additional summary documents, each of which can be purchased separately. Maybe they’re each only $1, which means you could buy the original summary ($10) and 4 add-on’s ($4) for the same price you would have paid for the printed book at Amazon.

I see these summaries/components as e-book products, by the way. They would require some sort of digital rights management wrapper to prevent unauthorized reproduction/distribution. There’s also a transaction fee associated with this sort of program. Bear in mind that I’m just tossing out round numbers here…the financial model might have to be somewhat different than what I’m proposing.

Let’s say you read the $10 summary and still feel like you’d be better served reading the entire book. What if you could “upgrade” your summary, buy the original book and a credit is applied so that you don’t have to pay full price?

Again, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. But I think it could be an interesting model for certain areas of content distribution. What’s your opinion?


Dave Taylor

An interesting idea, but a few reactionary thoughts.

First, I surmise that many business authors in particular would be insulted that you think their great work can be boiled down into 3-5 pages. Perhaps 20-30 pages, but 3-5? Of course, some books can be boiled down into a one page summary neatly and save you the hassle of slogging through the work (I just finished the terrible book "BLOG" and a one-page summary would have been plenty enough for me, thanks kindly. But that's another story!)

The second thought is how this proposed model would work if you got a 100% credit against the purchase of the full book / audio book if you can show proof of purchase of the Executive Summary Edition? Then it would be a nice way to dip your toe into the intellectual stream of the author without committing to the entire product. Like it, you buy the entire work. Don't like it, you're only out a few dollars.

The bigger problem isn't one that you're tackling here, though, Joe. To me, the fundamental challenge of navigating all the thousands of potentially interesting titles that come out each year, coupled with the millions of books published in the last century, is this: what's worth reading? And that's where things like your "My Favorite Books" (I have a similar list on my blog) and word of mouth are so powerful. And as a publisher, you should be darn interested in what Kathy Sierra explores with such depth: turning a book into a passion, a best seller.

That's where Blog Or Die (aka The Red Couch) is such an interesting experiment, because there's a clock ticking on a contemporary title of this nature, and while Shel and Robert are talented writers, it's still a long haul to get a book out the door, and as was so painfully obvious in Hewitt's BLOG book, miss the temporal window and you have an out-of-date and increasingly irrelevant work. So hat's off to Robert and Shel for being so public about the writing process, but it's hard enough wrapping up a work with a half-dozen on the editorial team. Make it a few thousand and it's going to be veerrryyy interesting to see how things turn out.

Joe Wikert

Dave, you're right about the length, although I'd prefer the 20-30-page range you're talking about to some of the full books I've read. Let's just say the core points could probably be boiled down to something closer to 10 pages than 300 pages.

Regarding the upgrade feature, it would be great if the entire summary price could be applied to the book's price. In my original example, you pay $10 for the summary of a $20 book. The goal would be to structure the upgrade program so that you only pay an additional $10 for the actual book. So in the end, you've paid $20 total for both the summary and the book. That's certainly more than you would have paid for the book alone on Amazon, but I doubt I would use the upgrade option very often.

I agree that word of mouth, "my favorites" lists, etc., are very important these days. But that's true for any type of book (print, e-book, etc.), so I don't consider it a unique problem to this model.

Finally, on your last two points: I think Kathy's postings have been very insightful, both on my blog and her own. And yes, Robert and Shel's "Blog or Die" project is definitely going to be very interesting. In addition to their own postings about it on The Red Couch, I plan to provide periodic updates from the publisher's side here as well.

Michael Miller

I can't see it. There's lots of "modular" content on the web, but people don't seem to be willing to pay for it -- nor does it seem to negatively affect sales of traditional printed books ("p-books", if you want to lingo-ize it).

I also don't see e-books (I really hate this lingo) as being anything more than a distraction and money drain at the major publishing houses. Regular people (i.e., consumers) are not demanding e-books, and not buying them when offered. It doesn't seem to matter what kind of content you're talking about, or how much of it; e-books are the latest solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

Joe, you've been around long enough to remember all the different "new media" formats that were supposed to toll the death knell for the traditional printed book. (Sorry, I mean "p-book.") Back in the late 1980s it was the "book on disk," essentially a big text file on floppy disk. Publishers dumped millions into these things, which the buying public stayed away from in droves. Then in the early-to-mid 1990s it was the multimedia book, a text file on CD-ROM accompanied by pretty pictures and a few lame audio or video files. Again, publishers dumped millions into the format, afraid that the p-book would soon go away, and again the public managed to ignore them. Now it's the so-called e-book, and it's the same deal. Publishers are dumping millions into them, cutting-edge techies are wetting themselves about how "cool" they are, but the general public couldn't care less. Makes you wonder what the next big thing will be that will portend the end of print publishing as we know it.

P-books have continued to exist in their current format for hundreds of years for a reason. They provide a decent amount of information in a convenient, portable format. And, if the author does his/her job, the book conveys more than just raw information or common knowledge; there's the added value of which information is selected, and how it's explained.

My primary concern for the future is pricing, where publishers in all areas (but in the world of computer book publishing, especially) seem to be ignoring one of the historically appealing parts of the book equation, and driving prices through the roof. Let's hope the continually increasing prices don't kill the industry as high CD prices did to the music industry. (And, no, it wasn't illegal downloads that did it; it was a combination of high CD prices and lousy, uninteresting artists.)

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Joe Wikert

Mike, I agree that printed books are going to be around for a long, long time. I'm not suggesting that they'll go away with the summary model outlined in my post. Instead, I'm just offering up an alternative to the weak summary products that exist today. If these summaries truly conveyed the key points of the book, I think they would do quite well. Sure, the majority of the readers out there will continue to buy the regular book, but I'll bet there are enough people out there to make this model work. Plus, it really wouldn't be that expensive to implement and test.

Michael Miller

Not that I'd ever try to supress innovative ideas (no, not me), but I do tend to be somewhat skeptical about ideas that generate from publishers rather than from readers. My old mantra still stands: "Think like the customer." Are you getting a lot of emails from potential customers asking to buy short, condensed, "best of" summary-like e-books? Somehow, I think not. Is there a need not currently being served? That, indeed, is the question.

Joe, you remember all the learning theory stuff that Chuck Stewart used to bring to the table, about how different people learn different ways -- some learn by reading, others learn visually, and so on. Well, my experience has been that the largest part of the market learns by having someone else do it for them -- that is, by not learning at all. These are the folks who don't buy books or watch videos or do computer based training or anything; they let their neighbor or the tech support guy (or me, if they can get me on the phone) solve the problem for them. It's possible that you might be trying to reach these folks with this particular concept, which could be futile. These folks won't ever read a book (or an e-book), no matter how short or how cheap. It's just not their nature.

My experience, not that it's definitive, is that book people like to read books. Now, one can make better books and longer books and shorter books and books in different colors and books at different price points, but whatever you make, they're still things that book people like to read. I've seen lots of book publishers throw lots of money away trying to produce products for non-book people, but the best investment has always been a better book for their core audience of book people. It's lot more efficient (and profitable) to sell more stuff to the people who already buy your stuff, rather than trying to convert the unconvertable.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Joe Wikert

Valid points, Mike. I was really trying to speak as more of a reader than a publisher with this one though. I know I'd buy this product, but maybe I'm the only likely customer...

Michael Miller

Joe, I guess my main point, if in fact I had one (always hard to tell), was to ascertain whether this is something that had any sort of consumer demand. I don't know how it is at Wiley these days, but back in the old Macmillan Publishing days, the editors didn't really have a lot of contact with consumers, so we never really knew what the consumer wanted. We thought a lot about what *we* thought might be cool, or what the author might like to do, but very little about what the consumer was asking for. (And I don't count the guys who post on message boards as typical consumers; the average reader isn't that pro-active.) Not that the out-of-touch problem is unique with computer-book publishers; most employees in any industry quickly become part of the industry rather than remaining part of the customer base. Not a criticism of you or Wiley in particular, just a decades-old observation. It's very easy to mistake us for them, and our interests (as producers) for the interests of the consumer.

So, to the question at hand, is this something that you've had customers asking for? Or, more to the point, how do you guys listen to customers these days?

Joe Wikert

Hi Mike, great questions. This definitely isn't anything I've done extensive research on. In fact, I'm trying to use the blog to toss around ideas like this and get feedback from anyone who is tuned in. You're right that the interests of the people reading this blog probably don't accurately map to the interests of the overall marketplace. However, if an idea doesn't resonate with anyone here, that might not be a good sign for it overall.


Finally...someone else who isnt drinking the traditional book publishing koolaid...

I am so in agreement despite what the authors and publishers might think...

Most book ideas probably could get chunked into relatively short ideas that could be priced much more inexpensively than current books are...and this would make the option of reading something online or on a PDA type device more reasonable.

Does one want to read Tolstoy on a computer or PDA...Hell no, but half the business books out there in the marketplace are 3 page ideas with 200 pages of filler wrapped around it. This is just so that it can get a spine and get noticed on a bookstore shelf.

Kids are running from books as fast as they can in the same way they are running from music CD's. Their free time is not spent reading books...they dont do research in books.

What they know is that they have tools at their disposal to find what they want when they want it so that they can dip in and out of things and get information that they need.

I think the book will exist for fiction long term, but frankly more short fiction will begin to get readership despite the fact that almost nobody buys books of short stories now...people do like to read them. Beyond that, non-fiction is going to get blown up by online alternatives of content delivery. The key will be providing relevance and that is not what search engines do perfectly yet.

But branded content can do that (store brand and publisher brand, for example)...

Pricing for content is being pushed down by consumers due to the pervasiveness of content online which is generally free...look at the music business and you will see what is likely to be a preview of the coming challenge in the book business. The music industry is privately predicting music stores to be basically gone in 5 years or so...5!

Those in the book business need to get in front of this...Joe, I like the fact that you are thinking about this that way.

I know that I have rambled around in this post, but there's a comment in here somewhere...

Joe Wikert

Thanks John. I can take comfort knowing that there are at least two customers for this sort of content delivery: you and me! Seriously, I think it's one of those models that could be relatively inexpensive to test. If it doesn't work for one or two books, kill the idea and move on to the next one...

Michael Miller

John does have a good point about our tendency to cram every single tech-related idea into the same old format. Does every consumer-oriented idea have to be 300 pp. long? Does every programming-related idea have to be 800+ pp. long?

I did a book once for a publisher who shall remain nameless that I proposed as a 200 pp., $14.95 book on viruses and spam and whatnot for the average computer user. The publisher didn't want to do fifteen-dollar books, so the thing morphed into a 500 pp. book at $34.99, with much more technical information than the average consumer user wanted or needed. It tanked. Basically, it had about 200 pp. of worthwhile info in it, stretched into the publisher's 500 pp. format. Bad fit of topic to format.

There are probably lots of consumer (non-technical) focused ideas that don't warrant 300 or 400 pages worth of coverage. Then again, if we get too short, we're writing magazine articles. There's probably a workable ground somewhere in the middle -- if publishers get past the onus of low-priced books.

I don't know of a single publisher, Wiley included, who likes books under $20. (Most Dummies books are priced at, what, $21.99?) Back in the golden age of computer book publishing, there were *lots* of $19.99 and lower books. There are few books today at these lower price points. (There are some notable exceptions, such as Pearson's "5 Bucks" series and some of B&N's proprietary titles -- any idea how well these books do?)

We got hooked on higher prices in the late 1990s, and haven't returned to reality since. Lower-priced books at a lower page count might attract some of the readers we've lost over the past half-dozen years. It's worth considering.


I guess I feel like we can start moving lots of stuff away from this print "book" sooner rather than later if we simply consider the fact that the only reason for it is for merchandising purposes at a bookstore or other retailer. Clearly by looking at the online stores, we can sell content be it 5 pages or 500 pages...availability is a big issue for authors but this way the inventory is virtual and therefore always in stock...might solve lots of channel issues and pricing issues. right now the big retailers are using their retail brand clout to disintermediate the business via self published stuff and that forces the book brands and author brands into a secondary position. authors should be concerned about this, but print publishers must participate in this process to compete.

Joe Wikert

You’d think Amazon would be one of the ideal retailers set up for sales and distribution of these smaller non-print format books. Then again, they already offer quite a few brief e-books, but I hear anecdotally that sales are weak. What does that mean? Are customers just not really interested in paying for short pieces of content like this, as Mike suggested earlier? Maybe. I tend to think the larger problem is that we still think of e-books as nothing more than print books delivered on an electronic gadget. We’ve got to figure out how to leverage the platform/device, and that means layering the content so that readers can scan through some sections while also being able to easily drill down deeper in others.

Here’s another way to think about it: What would the web look like if it were invented by the publishing industry? My guess is it would be laid out in a sequential access format where to go from website “A” to website “D” you’d first have to pass through websites “B” and “C”. Thankfully that’s not the case and we’re able to randomly go from one site to something completely different, without having to wade through all the sites that were built in between. We need to apply fresh thinking to this and figure out how we can turn content into a product that’s irresistible on a handheld device. I’m convinced there’s a solution here…

Michael Miller

I still don't understand the desire or wish by some within the industry to move away from printed books to something electronic, when the public clearly doesn't want this. They're not asking for it, they're not buying what's out there. Where's the demand? What problem is being solved with an e-thing? Yeah, maybe B&N doesn't want to stock so much "wallpaper," but it's that wallpaper that people come into the store looking for, and what they buy on impulse when they're there. Not a whole lot of impulse sales at Amazon, I'd wager...

Joe Wikert

Hi Mike. You and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum on this one. First of all, I’m not trying to move away from printed books. In an earlier reply I noted “printed books are going to be around for a long, long time.” I still feel that way. What I’m trying to do though is look at other (additional) ways to distribute information. In some cases, yes, it might replace a printed book, but I’m talking about a small percentage of the market.

It’s interesting how we all perceive initial demand differently after a new product has been around for a while. My opinion is that the world is full of very popular products which the market expressed little (or no!) demand for prior to their invention. For example, how about the personal computer? I don’t recall everyone wandering around in the late 70’s and early 80’s saying, “Gee, if only I had a personal computer, I could become wildly productive.” In fact, if you recall, many of the so-called experts at the time were dismissing the need for “computers for the masses”. Even the early PCs were perceived as hobbyist-only devices or toys. It took a killer application, the spreadsheet, to put the market into hyper-growth mode.

Another example is the handheld computer. The early ones were a complete joke. Remember Apple’s Newton?! Not only were people saying nobody needed or wanted something like this, but poor sales of the Newton only helped prove their point. So why in the world would a little company called Palm decide to try it again in 1996? Because they had a vision and a great approach. The form factor was perfect and the applications mix was ideal for a portable device. I first saw Palm at DEMO 96 and was so impressed I ordered one on the spot.

Lastly, how many people back in the late 70’s and early 80’s were begging for a completely new music distribution format? I don’t know about you, but I had a wall full of vinyl and loads of cassettes. Would anyone want to spend a small fortune on a new player? Worse, could you really convince consumers to re-purchase everything they already owned just to move to a “digital format”? As it turned out, the answers to both questions was “yes”.

I’m not saying this book idea has anywhere near the impact potential of these three examples. What I am saying is that it’s very dangerous to look exclusively at current customer demand and draw conclusions. Wasn’t there a famous quote by the fellow who first headed up the U.S. Patent Office?… Many, many years ago, I think he said something like “everything that can be invented has been invented.” Just as he was wrong, I think there will be changes in our business down the road to show that there’s plenty of room for invention and creativity.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)