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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 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.