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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.

Wiley on Fortune List Again

For the second year in a row, my employer, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., has been named to Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For".  I came to Wiley through the Hungry Minds acquisition in 2001, which means I've been a Wiley employee for 4+ years now.  I can honestly say that Wiley is one of the very best companies I've worked for in my career.  The senior executive team is second to none and publishers are given the freedom and encouragement to run their own business as they see fit.

Congratulations to the entire Wiley team for being part of such an outstanding organization.

Digg It

I’ve always been a fan of slashdot, but I was tipped off to Digg not to long ago and I wound up adding it to my list of homepage tabs in Firefox. What’s Digg? As they state on their site, “Digg is a technology news website that combines social bookmarking, blogging, RSS, and non-hierarchical editorial control. With Digg, users submit stories for review, but rather than allow an editor to decide which stories go on the homepage, the users do.” Hooray! That’s pretty much what I mentioned I was looking in my Moving from Print to Digital post last month.

It appears that Digg is growing by leaps and bounds. It’s also getting a lot of press. For example, here’s a story about Digg in today’s Wall Street Journal.

I now find myself doing more Digging than slashdotting. Yes, the risk is there for a bogus story to float to the top, as noted in the WSJ article. But, I love the fact that the items I’m scanning on Digg are the ones that come the most highly recommended by the community, not driven purely by some algorithm or based on advertising revenue potential.

Getting Caught Up

Although I use Bloglines as my RSS aggregator, I often let some of the feeds build up, resulting in a stockpile of unread posts going back many weeks. I finally spent some time reading a lot of the older feeds. Here are a few things I came across that caught my eye:

The Long Tail – A blog by Chris Anderson of Wired magazine. If you didn’t catch the original Long Tail article in Wired, be sure to read it here. The article thoroughly covered the concept, so I’m curious to see what more he can add with the book.

Jon Fine of BusinessWeek writes about how a “content consortium” could “put the screws to Google.” Interesting thinking, but there are two reasons I don’t see this happening. First, it would require all these different companies to work together, putting aside their individual agendas for the benefit of the larger group. Second, and related to the first point, it would also require all these different companies/egos to agree to one set of financial terms. Right. Let me know how that works…

Robert Cringely’s Stop the Presses! offers insight on not just how content is moving from print to online, but the challenge faced by traditional magazines as they deal with a content presentation model that doesn’t allow for us much advertising as print.

Satellite Radio and the RIAA

cnet has an interesting article about the ongoing friction between the various digital radio operations (satellite radio, Internet radio, etc.) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Many of the newer satellite radio devices offer the capability to record individual songs for later playback on the device. It’s no different than time-shifting a television show on a DVR, right? Or is it?…

One person records The Beatles Let It Be on their XM2Go satellite radio and another person downloads the song off iTunes. The first person gets the song “for free” as part of their monthly subscription to XM Radio. The second person pays 99 cents for the song. The iTunes user gets a “certificate” to prove they truly “own” the song, but the reality is both people can play it back anytime they feel like it. As a consumer, I like the satellite radio model; as a publisher, I have to wonder if the RIAA has a legitimate beef.

Sure, it’s always been OK to record songs off the radio under the protection of “fair use.” Digital technologies and devices make it much easier to create high-quality copies than you previously could with a cassette tape, for example. As much as I’d hate to alter the satellite radio financial model, something’s got to give to make this more equitable for the recording artists.

Yahoo Widgets

I posted on this gizmo before Yahoo purchased it, when it was known as Konfabulator. I got carried away with it back then, installing way too many widgets, and wound up bringing my system to its knees. Despite my addiction to the Widgets program, I actually have to use my computer for silly things like forecasting and writing business documents, so I wound up uninstalling it.

I got curious again when Yahoo announced their purchase of Konfabulator, so I reinstalled it as Yahoo Widgets…and I’ve reinstalled and reinstalled and reinstalled. Every time I launch the engine I get a Visual C++ runtime error. I sent Yahoo support a message a couple of weeks ago but no reply. Based on what I’m seeing on the message board, I’m not the only one running into this problem.

I love Yahoo and I hope they’ll get this problem fixed soon. This utility rates extremely high on the cool factor – if you haven’t tried it yourself, do so right now. Let me know if you run into the same runtime error I’m encountering though…