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September 2008

21 posts from August 2008

Dear XM: No Means No!

Xm Boy, this guy was right.  I finally decided to cancel my XM radio subscription and I had to jump through countless hoops over the past couple of hours. As the other blogger notes, there's no way to terminate the service via the XM website.  You have to do it on the phone.  And if you want to see just how screwed up XM is right now, call their 1-800 number and see how long it takes to talk to an actual human being.

I figured out a trick to help speed things up though.  I called earlier tonight and went through the phone menu options to cancel and gave up after spending almost 30 minutes on hold.  I grabbed dinner and came back for round two.  This time I chose the option to activate a phone, not cancel an account.  It was still a 10-15 minute wait but it did the trick...or so I reality, the fun was just beginning.

My first conversation was with a woman who spoke broken English and asked me to verify my name, phone number, address and account. She also wanted to know why I'm canceling and I told her it's because (a) there are too many commercials on the talk radio stations, (b) the music channels seem to be recycling the same stuff even more frequently than they did originally and (c) several channels are now deactivated over the weekend, including a few I used to listen to late at night on Fridays and Saturdays. 

She was courteous enough and said she needed to transfer me to a different department.  I asked her if I was going to be put on hold for awhile and she said "no" and that she'd be on the line with me.  In fact I wound up on hold again for another 7-8 minutes and she periodically checked in to see how I'm doing.

Next up, broken English-speaking woman #2.  She asked what she could do for me.  I asked her if she happened to speak at all to the first woman about my account.  She humbly acknowledged that yes, the first one told her I wanted to close the account.  She then asked me to verify all the things the first woman had me verify.  Frustrating, but at least it seemed like I was getting closer...

Representative #2 also kept telling me about all the great new services I can expect when the Sirius merger is complete.  I told her there's nothing she could say that would cause me to change my mind.  She decided she was up for the challenge and offered me 3 more months at $4.99/month.  I said no.  She chuckled and then changed the offer to 3 more months totally free.  Again I declined.  I think she finally realized she had met her match; after all, just how bad does a customer want to leave you when they turn down 3 free months?!

She said I'm paid up through September 18th.  It doesn't matter though as I've already packed up the receiver as well as all the cords and antennas and put it all in a drawer.  I seriously doubt I'll go back.  I finally realized I'm better served by the thousands of songs on my 80-Gig Zune.  Farewell, XM...

LibraryThing, Shelfari...Whatever

Confused First Amazon bought Abebooks, which already owned a portion of LibraryThingNow Amazon buys LibraryThing competitor Shelfari.  Of course neither of these social networks for books talk to one another, nor do they interoperate with any of the other ones out there.  That's why I have a LibraryThing widget on my Publishing 2020 blog but the iRead app is on my Facebook page.  This means that as I read and review a book I have to update both services.  I started using LibraryThing first so it's always my top priority and helps explain why my iRead list is often out of sync.

In the immortal words of Rodney King, why can't we all just get along?  Seriously, there's no good reason why I should have to manage multiple services that are so darned similar.  If I read a book I should be able to enter the info about it in one place and have it picked up everywhere.  Tim O'Reilly makes a wonderful plea for interoperability in this post but I'm not holding my breath waiting for it to happen.

So here's my question: Since it's highly unlikely we'll get all these services connected, why doesn't some enterprising developer take this opportunity to create an uber-service that does it for us?  Wouldn't it be great if this uber-service provided access to all the data from the book-related social networks and allowed you to create a variety of customized widgets that could be easily dropped in to any/all websites, including Facebook?

Feedbooks is an excellent analogy. Their "newspaper" service lets me combine multiple RSS feeds into one Kindle e-book that I can easily (and wirelessly) update with one click.  It's completely changing how I utilize RSS feeds and a model that lends itself to all sorts of interesting solutions.

eBook Pricing

Money29/09 Update: If you're interested in the ebook pricing debate you'll want to register for the online TOC conference we're hosting here at O'Reilly on October 8, 2009.

Does anyone know how to price an ebook?  That's a great question Tom Masters asked yesterday on his Future Perfect Publishing blog.

I gave my opinion during a Kindle webinar last week and then was asked a follow-up question about it at the end of the session.  I stated that I think Amazon is onto something with the $9.99 price point they charge for most Kindle editions and that I've clicked away from two potential purchases when I saw their prices were more than $9.99.  (Clayton Christensen's latest book is the one I'm particularly disappointed in since I'd love to read it but it's currently a $19.58 Kindle edition.)

The webinar attendee's follow-up question was, "do you feel that $9.99 price ceiling applies to all types of books?"  To be honest, I was only thinking about the kind of books I tend to read, which are mostly trade titles with print prices in the $15-$30 range.  The attendee was particularly curious about more specialized books, for example, highly targeted titles aimed at engineers, lawyers and other professionals, not the ones with more broad appeal like I tend to read.  Great point...I hadn't considered these other areas and it's clear that highly specialized content like this currently comes with a premium price tag.  So yes, I can see the logic for Kindle editions priced at more than $9.99, but I probably won't be buying any of them.

As I thought more about this and read through Tom's post I realized there's a problem with the logic we're all currently using for this debate: We're just talking about quickie ports of print books to e-formats.  If nothing else is added to the equation it's hard enough to justify the same price as the print book, let alone something higher.  But that's the key.  I'm still a big believer that as the e-content world continues to evolve we'll find ways to add more value to our products, so that an e-book offers a much richer user experience than the equivalent print book (if we can even say there's an "equivalent" print book at that point!).  When we reach that stage there should be no problem charging more than $9.99 for these products, but we're nowhere near that point yet.  (See my note about social networking capabilities in Tom's post for an idea of what I'm looking forward to.)

The Booksquare on ePublishing

Booksquare Kassia Krozser is at it again on her Booksquare blog.  I have to admit that Booksquare is one of my favorites, mostly because it makes me think.  Her latest post about e-publishing, e-rights, e-sales, etc., hit some very important points.

Her article talks mostly about Terry Goodkind's decision to place his book's e-rights with someone other than the publisher who he signed his print rights to.  At first glance most authors might think, "hey, I should stop signing my e-rights over to my (predominantly print) publisher and get a deal like Goodkind did."  My advice: If you can, go for it...but be sure to think about the entire deal, not just the e-book royalty rate.

What am I alluding to? First of all, any book's rights are less valuable to a publisher if they don't include the e-component.  For example, let's say I'm willing to pay an author royalty rate of x% for print copy sales and the deal also includes all e-rights to the book.  If the author/agent comes back to me and says they want to keep the e-rights to potentially shop around elsewhere, I have to admit I'm inclined to counter with a lower print royalty rate, something less than the original x%.  After all, I based my original x% on the assumption that I'm the only publisher promoting, selling and building this brand, where "brand" could be title, author, etc.; the more diluted the brand promotional effort becomes, the less value I see in the deal, hence the lowered royalty rate for print copy sales.

Secondly, I always feel it's important to restate the obvious in these situations.  Here's the basic royalty calculation formula:

Author royalties earned = Royalty rate X Net revenue/unit X Units sold

So if I have a 10% royalty rate and the book nets the publisher $10 for each copy sold and we sell 3,000 copies in the period, the author just earned $3,000 in royalties (10% X $10/unit X 3,000 units).  Perhaps that other e-publisher will give you a 20% royalty.  The question you have to ask yourself is: Will this other publisher move the same volume?

One of the myths of the e-publishing world is that all books are on a level playing field, so you'll sell just as many with publisher X as you will with publisher Y.  This simply isn't true, at least not in most cases.  This is very similar to the complicated world of Google search results.  Just because you love chocolate and you launched a website all about chocolate doesn't mean you'll immediately climb to the top of the Google results for a search on "chocolate."

We're still in the infancy phase of e-publishing, but as this area continues evolving many of the same rules will apply.  Marketing and promotion are two keys.  When you walk through a physical bookstore all the titles on promotion are the ones that jump out at you.  I'm talking about books on endcaps, tables and other displays that really catch your eye.  Placement in these slots comes at a price and titles promoted like this generally produce much stronger sell-through results (vs. when they're not on promotion).

You don't have endcaps and tables in the virtual world, but you still have important promotional tools that help boost sales.  Just look at any e-retailer's site and you'll see them: Links to related titles, buy X get Y, other customers also like this book, e-mail blasts, etc.  The print world has a lot of titles in it but the e-world will ultimately have many more, so without the use of promotional tools how will individual titles rise above the noise?

These things all have a way of achieving equilibrium over time.  And since the e-publishing world is in such a state of flux it will be fun watching this equilibrium take place in the years ahead.  That said, rather than blindly signing over e-rights to a publisher, it's always a good idea to ask them how they plan to exercise and maximize ownership of those rights for you.  It's fair (and wise) to ask your editor/publisher what e-formats will your book be available in, for example.  The answer to that question might be even more important than the royalty rate offered...after all, even the highest royalty rate imaginable still produces zero income if the books aren't offered in e-format.

P.S. -- Speaking of publishing blogs...  I recently came across two great ones that I wanted to share.  The first is by Jeff Rutherford, a publishing PR expert I've bumped into several times over the past year.  The second is called View From the Publishing Trenches and is written by publisher/author Walt Shiel.  I highly recommend keeping up on both of these wonderfully insightful industry blogs.

Self Publishing Today Blog

Books4 I've covered numerous aspects of the self-publishing world here on the 2020 blog and I try to point out new and interesting resources for authors interested in self-publishing.  So when I got a note from Ray Robinson of Dog Ear Publishing I was thrilled to hear that he recently launched a blog of his own.  His blog is called Self Publishing Today and he's already written quite a few insightful posts.  I also like that he's taking broader posts about the publishing world in general and applying a self-publishing lens to them to present his point of view.

For example, check out this one where he takes one of my earlier posts about the 10 things editors/agents hate and puts it under the self-publishing light.  He also attended my recent Kindle webinar and applied a self-publishing perspective with this post.  (Btw, if you missed the Kindle webinar you can still listen to the archived audio and download my slides here.)  If you're interested in keeping an eye on the self-publishing sector be sure to grab Ray's RSS feed.

How Can Book Publishers Remain Relevant?

Businessweek Sarah Lacy feels she has the answers in this BusinessWeek article and I think she makes some good points.  She presents five important lessons book publishers need to learn from "the new web", as she puts it.  Here are my thoughts on each of her five points:

Make it social.  Amen!  In fact, social network capabilities are something I've been pleading for Amazon to consider when developing Kindle version 2.0, 3.0 and beyond.  I especially love her point that "social networking could do for book clubs what Scrabulous did for fans of Scrabble."

Take book tours out of the stores.  A couple of points here.  First, Sarah is wrong to abandon the bookstores.  I believe a better approach is one that leverages all potential platforms and locations, including bookstores. Secondly, if you're not familiar with BookTour you should check it out as soon as possible.  BookTour is an excellent example of a service you can use to coordinate all types of tours, including ones involving bookstores.  After all, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water!

Create stars -- don't just exploit existing ones.  Excellent, excellent point here about how we often focus too much on proven winners and not enough on the up-and-comers.  I'm particularly intrigued by this suggestion from Sarah and I wonder how other authors would respond to it: Require as part of the contract that the author blog, speak on panels, attend events. Give them incentives for delivering—say, through Web traffic or the number of followers they amass on Twitter.  I'm not so sure her multi-book agreement approach will take off though.  After all, few books are a guaranteed hit, even ones from an unproven author with what appears to be a promising platform.  So how many publishers are prepared to commit to more than one title from the start?  Sure, it happens, but if the first book is a flop the next one (to fulfill the agreement) is likely to be painful for everyone.  On the other hand, if the first one's a hit I'll bet the author would prefer to renegotiate a better deal on the next one.

Go electronic from the get-go.  I'm sure there are still plenty of old school publishers that work exclusively with hard copy as Sarah describes, but that's not how things operate in my world.  In fact, the Professional/Trade division of Wiley that I'm part of has developed a state-of-the-art production process that depends on electronic files from authors.  That's one of the reasons my colleagues were able to produce the first book available on Apple's 3G iPhone, for example.

Make e-commerce even easier.  Another excellent point.  I can't wait for us to get to the vision Sarah describes here: Take the titles far beyond—through one-click widgets appended to blogs, Facebook pages, and other sites across the Web. Link these tools directly to PayPal and Google Checkout. Think: one-click purchase, not one click takes you to Amazon.  It will probably take longer than we'd like to get there, but I'm convinced we will.

Internet Advice for Authors, Courtesy of The Penguin Group

Penguin Thanks to Wiley colleague Alan Rinzler for passing along the info for this post...  Penguin Group USA offers a free 64-page document called Internet Advice for Authors: Getting Started, Getting Online, and Getting Noticed.  This is an excellent resource for any author who doesn't know the first thing about websites, blogs as well as building a solid author platform and online presence.  It's great to see a major publisher sharing this sort of information with the world, not just their own authors.

The Faith of Barack Obama, by Stephen Mansfield

Faith of barack obama Over the past 9 months I've gone from being somewhat of a McCain fan to more of an Obama supporter.  I'm convinced a McCain administration will be nothing more than a third term of George W. Bush and, yes, I'm looking for change.  I'd like to see more substance behind the "change" Obama always refers to, but I'm also curious about his religious beliefs and the journey that led him to Christianity.

With that in mind, The Faith of Barack Obama, Stephen Mansfield's latest book is right up my alley and it didn't disappoint.  As you might imagine, Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a person who pops up frequently throughout this book.  Prior to reading Mansfield's work I considered Wright nothing more than an unfortunate footnote from Obama's past who managed to surface at the wrong time.  This book caused me to look at Wright and Obama's relationship with him in a completely different light.

I still feel Rev. Wright was an overzealous minister who didn't do the best job of emphasizing the right aspects of the key points he's tried to make over the years.  Exhibit A is all across YouTube, for example.  And as a white person who's never attended Trinity United my comments are easily dismissed by Wright supporters.  Nevertheless, I feel he crossed the line too many times, so shame on Obama for not parting ways with Wright many years ago.  I don't plan to run for public office but I'd quickly move on from a church/pastor who regularly expressed such a twisted view of the world.  The fact that Obama stuck with Wright for so long really does say a lot about the senator, I'm afraid.  But what benefit was Wright expecting when he's spewed that sort of venom anyway?  He's so full of anger and lacking in forgiveness....gee, maybe he ought to read The Shack!

The bottom line is Rev. Wright probably pictures himself as a modern day Martin Luther King, Jr.  He isn't though, and time will easily prove this point.  If Rev. King were in Wright's shoes today I'm quite convinced he'd take a much more diplomatic approach and would be more embracing and far less antagonistic.

The Faith of Barack Obama isn't just about Rev. Wright though, of course.  The book does a great job taking the reader through Obama's youth, exposure to multiple religions and how he eventually become a Christian.  It also exposes some of the warts in Obama's beliefs, including coverage of how he voted against a bill to protect the lives of babies who managed to survive late-term abortions.  Wow, how heartless must you be to vote against something like this?!

One of my favorite parts of the book was chapter 5, Four Faces of Faith.  The author uses this chapter to contrast and compare the religious beliefs and paths of Obama, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.  At first I felt this was nothing more than filler but I have to admit it's fascinating to look at all four of these political heavyweights through this sort of lens.

Finally, I think Mansfield very effectively captured Obama's critique of George W. Bush with the following excerpt: You rose on the strength of a vicious use of faith.  You then baptized a greedy conservative agenda and called it God's will.  Along the way, you labeled us Democrats as somehow antifaith.  Now, your political faith failing you, your religious base abandoning you, it is time for you to go away.  A new faith, based in the genuine compassion of the Religious Left, is waiting in the wings.  Step aside, and let us heal what you have broken.

We'll never know if that's really what Obama thinks but it sure sounds right to me, a guy who twice made the mistake of voting for George W. Bush.  I'm still leaning towards Obama but I'm not 100% committed as I'm waiting to see who he picks for a VP (please, not Evan Bayh!) and what specific plans he has to fix the limping economy.  This book has also helped open my eyes a bit wider as I realize the faith part of the equation isn't as clean and simple as I previously thought.

P.S. -- If you'd like to read an extended sample of The Faith of Barack Obama, click here to download the PDF version the book's publisher (Thomas Nelson) graciously allowed bloggers to post. The Magazine Industry's "Napster Moment"?

MygazinesLet me start off by saying that I firmly believe is a blatant copyright infringer and deserves whatever penalties it might eventually receive.  I say "might" because it's an offshore operation which means it will be tough to hunt down and hold anyone accountable for the website's activities.

My concern isn't about whether mygazines is legal or not (it's not), but rather about how the magazine industry should respond to it.  The music industry crushed Napster because the major labels couldn't come up with any other solutions.  I tend to agree with most of the points made by both Ian Da Silva in this Wikinomics blog post as well as what The Motley Fool has to say in this article (although I certainly don't agree with the Fool's suggestion that this is "the end of publishing as we know it"!)

This is a golden opportunity for the magazine industry to see how a Napster-like platform for periodicals could and should work effectively.  Mygazines is essentially doing e-content R&D for the entire magazine industry; I just hope the industry takes the time to study and understand the results before they look to kill the service.

I took a quick look at mygazines and immediately felt like it would be worth paying a subscription for, provided all the content was legal.  I've been letting most of my magazine subscriptions lapse because I find more up-to-date info online and I can't justify the price.  That's one more set of eyeballs each of those magazines just lost for their advertising income.  So in addition to possibly getting mygazines shut down, why not figure out how this model could actually help rebuild readership and advertising income?

If a coalition of magazine publishers managed to intervene and kill mygazines, but take it over in the process, would that be a good thing?  Possibly.  Would I pay $5/month to have access like this to several magazines I'm not currently subscribing to?  Absolutely.  In fact, if they build in the right social networking capabilities it could easily become an extremely popular alternative for a lot of customers.  I just hope the magazine industry takes the time to learn what it can from this before they focus on crushing it.

P.S. -- Speaking of magazines, I have a short update to the BusinessWeek subscription I let lapse earlier this summer.  They stopped sending issues shortly after I posted that note back in June and I have to admit that I miss the service.  I'm greatly disappointed that it's not offered on the Kindle but a renewal offer I received over the weekend has tempted me to return.  The deal is $20 for a full year's worth of issues.  I'm pretty sure I can't say no...

P.P.S -- Well, it turns out the slick folks at BusinessWeek were simply trying to pull a fast one on me.  Upon closer inspection this new $20 deal is only for six months, not a full year.  When I balked at $40 for a year some wisenheimer there apparently decided to toss a "$20 for six months" offer at me instead.  Silly me...I almost fell for it!

WildFire Marketing

Wildfire marketing Rob Eagar, founder of WildFire Marketing, recently sent me a message asking if I'd check out an audio file he created to help authors with media interviews.  I finally managed to carve out some time to listen to Rob's file and I highly recommend it to any author who looking to leverage media interviews to promote their book.  Rob also offers a written transcript of the file if you'd prefer to read it rather than listen.

The WildFire Marketing website offers a lot more than just this helpful information about interviews.  Check out this extensive list of excellent resources Rob offers for free.  He also writes a blog where he provides additional thoughts on how authors and publishers can sell more books.  Great stuff.