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14 posts from January 2006

Freakonomics of the Publishing Industry

My thanks to computer book publishing veteran Juliana Aldous at Microsoft for pointing this one out on her own blog, The Jaldous Journal. I missed it earlier this month, but one of the authors of Freakonomics had an interesting post about the publishing industry. I found the reader comments to be more interesting than the post itself.

Be sure to check out Juliana’s thoughts on this as well, especially the last point she makes in her bulleted list: "Books that sell well at brick-and-mortar stores don’t necessarily sell well online and vice versa."

Excellent observation. Sure, there are plenty of books that do well at brick-and-mortar as well as online, but there are even more that seem to move primarily at one or the other. Sometimes the online success is due to web-based promotional efforts, as Juliana points out. I think other factors can play a role in this as well, including the sense of urgency and cheapskate factors. I, for example, am more inclined to order a book online if I don’t need the content immediately and I would like to take advantage of the typical 30% discount I’ll get from Amazon.

Speaking of the publishing industry, here’s another interesting post from Jon Fine of BusinessWeek. Although it’s about the music business, not book publishing, I think there are many similarities. One reader comment in particular caught my eye: "What has happened to the music business is happening to media as a whole. We are becoming a nation of 'tribes'. The blockbuster era is dead."

It’s all part of the “long tail” phenomenon, right? That’s why we have 73 different flavors of Coke and mass-market advertising is fading away.

By the way, if you liked Freakonomics, be sure to pick up a copy of The Undercover Economist.  I'm about two-thirds of the way through this and have enjoyed every single chapter so far.  Highly recommended.

A Million Little P.R. Boosts

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? Given all the press James Frey and his book A Million Little Pieces are getting these days, I’d have to agree with that statement. Despite all the criticism Frey is enduring, the book remains in the top 5 on Amazon. I also get a kick out of the fact that the Amazon title still includes “Oprah’s Book Club” in it – I wonder how hard she’s fighting to get that phrase removed!

Earlier today The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the topic with an article titled Publishers Say Fact-Checking Is Too Costly. They make a compelling case and state how the fact-checking burden should really fall on the author’s shoulders. One agent, Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management said “publishers could add a clause to the author’s warranty section in their contracts, stating that to the best of the writer’s knowledge the facts in the book are true.” He then points out that if the author is found to egregiously misrepresent the facts, the author could be sued for breach of contract.

Makes sense…until you bring the lawyers into the equation. I’m sure I’m reading this wrong, but the article goes on to talk about an attorney who is representing a reader who is suing Random House because they “failed to conduct a reasonable investigation or inquiry regarding the truthfulness or accuracy of the material.” This lawyer says “he will seek more than $50 million in damages for the plaintiffs.” Note that “plaintiffs” is plural, so I hope that means he’s representing more than the one reader cited in the article.

My favorite quote in the article: This lawyer says, “Nobody can get away with profiting with a product that you represented as something that it is not.”  Well, nobody can profit…except for the lawyers apparently!  $50 million?!

Safari’s Rough Cuts Service

I like what the folks over at Safari are looking to do with this new service. I’m just not sure how it will be received. They’re talking about making manuscripts available to readers before they’ve been technically edited or copy edited. Heck, I see enough of the complaints about technically inaccurate or poorly written books on Amazon and elsewhere, and that’s after the book has been through a full editorial pass. Imagine how high the complaint rate goes up when readers are working with raw manuscript.

It’s nothing new to make manuscripts available for public review prior to publication. We’ve done that before at Wiley and other publishers have as well. However, those reviews are typically done without charging the reader for their feedback. Based on my understanding of the Rough Cuts program, and how it is presented on the Safari site, customers will pay for this service separately from a Safari subscription.

We’re obviously talking about a fairly sophisticated target audience consisting of customers who know what they’re signing up for. Perhaps they’ll figure that the raw manuscript information is no less reliable than some of the misinformation you sometimes stumble across in a set of results from one of the major search engines.

Don’t get me wrong. Again, I love the concept, but I wonder whether enough early adopters will want to pay for it.

Agents, Publishers and Loyalty

If you’re an author and are considering signing with an agent, be sure to read this earlier post. It includes comments from agents and authors, giving you a pretty good feel for the pros and cons of using an agent.

Next, determine whether you want to sign all your projects with an agent or just the next book you’re working on. Most agents will allow you to sign one book at a time with them rather than locking in with them for all your future works. Why do I point this out? It’s due to something my group ran into recently…

One of our acquisitions editors signed a new project with an author who is represented by an agent. This particular author happens to be very loyal to their agent. So loyal, in fact, that when the agent left one agency to join another one, the author wanted the book project to travel with the agent. It doesn’t work that way.

The author signed an agreement with the agent for representation. If the author subsequently decides to switch agencies, the author needs to handle that switch, not the publisher. The publisher had nothing to do with that agreement between the author and agency.

What’s unfortunate in all this is that the original agency doesn’t want to lose the deal and have it signed with one of their competitors. In reality, however, the author doesn’t want to write for that agency now that the agent has moved on. So, the project dies with that author/agency and the publisher is forced to find a new author if they want to proceed with the title.

Before you sign with an agency, be sure to ask yourself whether you’d still want to write the book through the agency if your particular agent happens to leave. Also, before any of you agents out there start coming down on me for this observation, let me also say that every bit of this applies to your editor/publisher as well. If you’ve built a great relationship with your editor/publisher, ask yourself if you’d still write that book for the company they work for if one/both of them leave before it is published. People do tend to change jobs/companies, of course, and it’s better to have thought this through beforehand rather than trying to undo something that’s already underway.

Is Customer Service Dead in the Magazine Business?

It was only a few weeks ago that I mentioned how ESPN the Magazine lost me as a loyal reader due to a gaping hole in their renewal process. They apparently decided it was cheaper to find a totally new customer than to remind me that my subscription had expired.

Earlier this week I noticed that something had gone wrong with my BusinessWeek subscription. I hadn’t received the last couple of issues and I was pretty sure my subscription hadn’t expired. Sure enough, their website confirmed I’m still good for several more months. After e-mailing their customer service department I was told the oddest thing: They had been trying to send me the issues but the post office was returning them due to a “mailing address issue”. They asked me if the address they had on file was still valid. I told them it’s the same address I’ve been at for the past 10 years and that every other magazine (except ESPN!) managed to get through just fine.

That’s not the best part. Their last reply said that they are “resuming service” for me with the next issue and extending my subscription for the missing issues. OK, the last part of that makes sense, but “resuming service” for me? Hello… Would it ever have occurred to them to let me know they were suspending my service to begin with?! I’m not sure at what point they made that decision, but they could have either e-mailed or called me first, especially since they have all my contact information in their system.

What’s up with in the magazine world? Are they feeling so much pressure from all the online content sites that they’ve radically dialed back their customer support and customer retention efforts? It sure seems that way to me.