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11 posts from December 2008

eDevices: Another Reader's Perspective

Quill Yesterday's post about the BusinessWeek eReader article generated a couple of comments and emails.  An email from reader Kevin Parsons summed things up pretty well and he agreed to let me share it with you here (we publishers should pay particular attention to the points Kevin makes in the final two paragraphs):

A month ago I would have said you were crazy and anti-Amazon, but I think that your current column is right on the money.

Let me say that I am glad I have a Kindle and am certainly getting my money out of it in terms of enjoyment.  But, when my wife upgraded to the 3G and I got her original iPhone, I discovered that there were more ways to read an electronic book than using a Kindle or other e-ink product.

I downloaded Stanza and put it through an extended test.  I have now read about 5 novels as well as some smaller works and magazines that were available, and all I can say is that it is a solid alternative.  The only negative I see so far is that the pricing of new books available for Stanza is far above what Amazon offers.  That needs to change or the publishing industry will go the way of the music industry (but that is a topic for another day).  It helped that right before my trip, Random House made about 10 books available for free and available for the Stanza and other readers.  And since I was going to London, I downloaded some free books by Dickens, Austen and others.

As a reader, the iPhone works very well.  I recently went to London for a week's vacation with my wife and decided to skip bringing any books or magazines and I left my Kindle at home.  The iPhone/Stanza reader was all I had and as it turned out was all I needed.  On the flight back (10 hours on the plane) I did run the battery down late in the flight, but that was an isolated circumstance.

Stanza makes it easy to download on the fly, as well as using the PC or Mac edition over WiFi to upload from a computer.  It works with all of the major formats and once on the reader, allows for a decent amount of manipulation.  It is relatively easy to change font size, the actual font used, background and text color, etc.  In fact, it is actually nice to be able to change the background color on occasion just for something different.  I have found there to be little or no eye strain like I get reading off a PC monitor screen.  The iPhone screen is backlit but not in a way that - for me anyway - causes my eyes to get tired or strained.

Plus, reading on a phone is pretty convenient.  If you have 5 minutes of wait time - sitting in a taxi/train/subway or waiting a table in a restaurant, you can pull it out and read.  No hassle at all.  And while I am talking about the iPhone here, I am sure other smart phones do much the same thing.  When I first got this phone from my wife, I thought that it was a waste of money.  I HATE talking on the phone - so why spend 40 bucks a month for a cell phone?  But it is a lot more than that.  I can put a library in my pocket, and an alarm clock, and a stereo, and a newspaper, and and a video player - oh, and a phone.

I have read over 60 books in the 9 months I have had my Kindle.  I use it for RSS feeds and being a techie, have played around with all of the available tricks and "experimental features" that are on the Kindle. It is a great start by Amazon in that you can use it for multiple functions.  I can read my book and then turn on the browser and at least check the headlines or the latest scores. I can download pretty much any classic I want from Feedbooks or other websites.  It is a great product, but if I was going to pick a personal "gadget of the year" I think I would have to go with the iPhone. 

One other thing I wanted to mention is that with all of the problems that publishing has been going through lately, I have to say that Penguin stands out as a publisher with a vision.  They have an iPhone app available for free that is useful for seeing what is new and has some good features that keep it on my phone.  They have a line of coffee mugs, umbrellas and other products that not only look nice but push their brand name.  I think that is clever marketing.  I also think that smart publishers can compete with even the free classics with a little work.  I like free as much as anyone, but if a publisher makes a book available with added features (introductory essay, annotations, glossary, etc) I would gladly part with my money.  I don't think I am alone in that either.  If I have the choice between a free book and a $5.00 book that I know is the definitive version that the author wanted in print and has a good introduction and endnotes, I would pay for it.  A good example is the Pride and Prejudice Enriched E-book (Kindle Edition) available from Penquin.  It was a free download that I took advantage of but it opened my eyes to what a publisher can do to enrich the reading experience. 

Which is another point - publishers making books available for free.  I have in 2 instances downloaded a free book and discovered I liked the author.  In one case it was a mystery series and I ended up buying via my Kindle the next 2 books in the series and will buy the next in the series soon.  It was an author I may have never discovered and shows how giving something away can actually pay off.  I emailed the author and publisher as well to make this point.

The Future of Dedicated eBook Readers

Binoculars BusinessWeek recently published an insightful article called Move Over Kindle; eBooks Hit Cell Phones.  After reading it I feel I need to make a confession: My enthusiasm for the Kindle has dramatically shifted to the iPhone.  There.  I said it.  It feels good to come clean.

Don't forget that I'm the guy who was so bullish on the Kindle that I started a separate blog dedicated to it.  I'm not suggesting Kindleville is going away, but I do wish I would have jumped on the Apple bandwagon earlier and created iPhoneville instead!

Think about it.  Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla but their numerous missteps (e.g., proprietary model, poor inventory management, no brick-and-mortar presence, high price, lack of an innovative pricing model, etc.) have prevented them from shutting the door on Sony.  Sony, for cryin' out loud...the company that completely dropped the ball in the consumer electronics world!

So now while Sony is still hanging in there just fine, thank you very much, quite a few prospective customers are starting to realize the smartphone they already own is a better alternative to a $300+ dedicated e-reader.  I was a skeptic till I got an iPhone a couple of months ago.  Even though the book selection is very limited in the AppStore, I'd be hard-pressed to buy a Kindle now that I have an iPhone.  In fact, I had been planning to buy the next generation Kindle that's rumored to appear next year but I doubt I will now.  Again, this is coming from one of the Kindle's biggest advocates!

I still don't agree with Steve Jobs and his comment that "people don't read anymore."  But wouldn't it be ironic if his platform turned out to be the winner in the e-content battle?  After all, he's the guy who's shown the least interest in this sector and yet he now seems to have all the momentum.

Why do I get the feeling Amazon has implemented the equivalent of a "prevent defense", playing "not to lose"?  Both those approaches often lead to upsets and that's exactly what it will be if the Kindle fails at the expense of the iPhone.

Twitter Thoughts...Second Time Around

Twitter I've been back in the Twittersphere for a couple of months now after trying and aborting it initially.  I have to admit that the experience has been much more pleasant this time around.  Why?  First of all, I was (and have remained) pretty selective about who I'm following.  More on that in a moment.  Secondly, the Twhirl client I've been using on my laptop (thanks, Steve!) is far better than just doing everything from, which is what I used during that first experiment with Twitter.  That said, I keep hearing a lot of good things about Tweetdeck, so I'll probably give that a shot in the next couple of days.  Twitterffic on the iPhone is a great portable client too, btw (thanks Laurie!).

My initial disappointment with Twitter had to do with the poor signal to noise ratio.  I was seeing far too much junk and I gave up.  That's not the case this time because, as I mentioned before, I've been very selective with who I follow.  I'm currently only following 40 other feeds and I can't imagine letting that go above 100, for example.

Given that last point, I'd like to make an observation: There seems to be a strong correlation between the quality of a feed and the number of other feeds that person is following.  As the latter goes up, the former seems to go down.  The best (highest quality) feeds I follow are generally written by people who follow less than 500 other feeds, and most are less than 100.

I chuckle when I see someone is following 1,000, 2,000 feeds or more.  Really?  How do you find the time?!  I can't help but think these same Twitterers are just clicking the "Follow" button as much as they can in the hopes of reciprocation.  "I'll follow you if you'll follow me", that sort of thing.  Because those high-follower feeds tend to be the weakest, I find myself reconsidering (and canceling some of) my feeds pretty regularly, much more so than I do with RSS feeds.

So am I wrong or is there a variant of Moore's Law happening here that looks something like this: "The quality of a tweet is reduced by half for every 500 feeds the author is following above a base of 500."  IOW, if someone is following 400 others, their tweets have a quality level of 1.0.  If someone is following 700 others, it drops to .5.  1200?  The quality level gets cut in half again to .25.

What's your experience been?  Have you found any great Twitterers who follow more than 500 others?

The Author Platform Bible

Getknown Regular readers of my blog know that "author platform" is a popular subject around here.  I've written countless posts about it and I think it's one of the key aspects of book publishing that every author needs to understand and leverage.

I recently received a review copy of a book about author platform called Get Known Before the Book Deal, by Christina Katz.  I haven't had a chance to read the entire book yet, but what I've seen so far greatly impresses me.  I'll write a follow-up review later but I wanted to call attention to it with this initial post because so little has been written in book format about the topic.  Stay tuned for that follow-up review and be sure to visit the author's website to learn more about her.

25 Things You Need to Know About Self-Publishing

25 If you're an author considering the self-publishing route, CNET editor David Carnoy has done you a huge favor with this recent article.  It's all about the lessons he learned when self-publishing his novel, Knife Music.  Despite the possibility of publishing with a smaller traditional house, and against the wishes of his agent, David opted for Amazon's BookSurge program.  It's not just about BookSurge though; Carnoy did a fantastic job writing this article or every author considering any self-publishing solution.

In item #5 on his list, "the odds are against you," Carnoy estimates that the typical self-published book only sells about 100-150 its life.  At first that sounds pretty low but you have to factor in all those books that sell less than 10 copies, and I'm sure that number is enormous.  As he notes, he has no data to back this up but I wouldn't be surprised to find his range is close to reality.

Item #6 helps answer the age-old question, "why does it take so long for a traditional publisher to produce my book?!"  The self-publishers have great models to enable fast publishing but it does take time to craft and develop a book that feels more professional.  There are exceptions of course, but Carnoy does a fine job explaining the pros and cons here (as well as in point #12).

He goes on to talk about pricing, packaging and promotional opportunities, specifically Amazon's "Buy x Get y" program; I'm looking forward to reading the follow-up post he's promised on the results of the latter, btw.

Overall, I'd say this is by far the best summary I've ever read about the state of self-publishing, what to watch out for and how to succeed.  My only gripe is that he didn't spend enough time talking about the importance of author platform, which is critical in the self-publishing world.  He touches on it in item #18 but I think it warrants an entry all to itself.  Otherwise though, this is a fantastic resource for all authors interested in self-publishing.

Borders, HarperStudio and Returns

Books4 Returns are one of the ugliest aspects of the book publishing business.  A lot of people don't realize that many (not all) bookstores buy from publishers on a totally returnable basis.  It's effectively a consignment relationship and anything that doesn't sell can be sent back to the publisher for full credit.  Returns vary by account, genre and title, but rates are anywhere from 10% to 50% or more.  So once the trees are killed, the books go from printer to publisher to bookstore and all too frequently, back to publisher.

It's an enormous waste, which is why the recent announcement that Borders is going to buy on a non-returnable basis from HarperStudio is worth noting.  In the long run, though, it may be worth nothing.

Why?  When accounts buy on a returnable basis they take comfort knowing they won't be stuck with obsolete inventory.  As a result, they can be more aggressive with initial buys and avoid out-of-stock situations on a potential hits.  A non-returnable buy on that same title is likely to be smaller because the chain buyer doesn't want to risk running into that obsolete inventory situation.

According to the news report, the deal means HarperStudio is giving Borders 10-15% more of a discount than they would in a returnable model.  That's a lot of points.  It would be interesting to calculate the breakeven level between the two models.  If I were the publisher at HaperStudio I'd be sure to track and compare chain and store level orders and sell-thru data for Borders to the same data from the returnable accounts to see whether this pays off.

So if one likely downside is more conservative buys and in-store inventory levels, the upside is more of a commitment to store/chain promotions of HarperStudio titles.  After all, Borders will have a have a great incentive to make these books sell through, no matter how many copies they buy!

Just like any other part of a business transaction, there's an equilibrium point that will be reached by both parties. If HarperStudio decides non-returnability isn't worth this deep of a discount they'll eventually push back.  Right now, though, both parties have decided the elimination of returns is worth 10-15% of additional points.  I'm anxious to see if everyone is truly happy with that range in the long run.

CEO Roundtable at TOC Conference on February 11th

ScreenHunter_03 Dec. 17 10.42We've been working out the details and I'm delighted to announce it's now official: I'm scheduled to host a CEO roundtable discussion at the TOC conference in February.  The title of the session is The Changing Role of the Publisher and the CEO panel consists of:

Clint Greenleaf of the Greenleaf Book Group

Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson

Bob Young of Lulu

Here's a summary of what we plan to cover:

The goal of this session is to talk about the evolving landscape of publishing and how the worlds of traditional publishers and self-publishers are converging. Author platform is more important than ever before. How do both types of publishers leverage this? What are each doing to help authors build their platforms? We’ll also talk about the types of capabilities and services traditional publishers need to offer to distinguish themselves from the self-publishing world.

Sounds like fun, don't you think?  And remember, if you haven't already registered for TOC it's not too late.  Use the toc09jwb discount code to save 15% off the conference fees.

Urban Elitist Shares Views on Future of Publishing

Binoculars Kassia Krozser recently pointed to a great post on the Urban Elitist blog where David Nygren speculates on the future of book publishing.  It's a long post but well worth reading in its entirety.  Here are the thoughts that popped into my mind as I studied it:

Nygren says, "print is to read, and electronic is to search and browse and discover."  That was true in the pre-Kindle/Sony Reader era.  Plenty of customers are now reading, searching and browsing on dedicated devices and new generations of these readers will only result in even more e-reading.  He's right to point out that the shift from analog to digital won't happen as fast here as it did in the music world, mostly because print still remains an excellent solution.

I'm even more bullish on print-on-demand (POD) than Nygren is.  As prices come down I think you'll start to see traditional publishers shifting to POD even earlier in the product's lifecycle, perhaps as early as the very first copies.  Imagine the inventory management and write-off headaches that could go away in this model!

Will the "mega publishing conglomerates go by-bye," as Nygren suggests?  They will if they don't adapt, that's for sure.  As author platform continues to grow in importance I find it interesting that the differences between traditional publishers and self-publishers diminish.  Ultimately, traditional publishers need to figure out what services and capabilities they'll offer that self-publishers won't or can't.  This is one of the most fascinating things to keep a close eye on, IMHO.

When you read this part of Nygren's post, what comes to mind?: "Under the new model, publishers will risk relatively little financially but will share a greater portion of the profits with the author."  I don't know about you but my first thought was, "that's not a new already exists and it's called 'self-publishing'."

Nygren spends some time talking about piracy and whether readers will be willing to pay if the same content is available (illegally) from other sources.  I'm not sure this is the keyissue.  Unlike the music biz, I don't believe the book publishing world suffers from rampant piracy.  Sure, there are plenty of sites out there distributing content illegally and some of them get a decent amount of traffic.  The real problem is in all the great free content that's 100% legal and at the top of most Google searches, especially in the how-to and reference spaces.  That's one of the reasons why I hate DRM.  The solution is NOT to lock your customer's content but rather to provide paid content options that are better than the free ones.  (And btw, that's one of the many things I like about my employer's (O'Reilly) approach to DRM -- we sell DRM-free bundles on our website.)

Tools of Change for Publishing Conference

Book spinesMark your calendar.  The next Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC) is slated for February 9-11 in New York.  If you enjoy the subjects covered on my blog then TOC is a "must" show for you.  Check out the full conference schedule to see what I mean.  The topic and speaker list is outstanding.

I was disappointed to miss the first couple of TOCs as I always seemed to run into scheduling conflicts.  This year is different though and I can't wait to attend.

Btw, if you haven't registered yet, use the discount code toc09jwb to knock 15% off the conference fee.  See you in NY!

Amazon's iPhone App

Amazon remembersGot an iPhone?  If so, you need to download the Amazon app.  As you can imagine, this app makes accessing Amazon's website a much nicer experience vs. doing so via the Safari browser.  It provides access to your wish list, one-click purchases, etc., but that's not what makes it special.  The "Amazon Remembers" feature is why you'll want this app.

What's "Amazon Remembers"?  It's a service where you take a picture of a product with your iPhone, send it along to Amazon and (using their Mechanical Turk program) within 24 hours you'll get an e-mail back telling you whether Amazon carries that product and how much it is.  It's a terrific way of making sure you're getting a good deal, all by just pointing and clicking.

I tested the service by snapping a picture of my Kindle.  Within a couple of hours I had a message in my email inbox saying they found my item.  Well, technically speaking, they found the web page on where they'd normally sell my item, if only they had some in stock.

This is a cool service and one I'm sure I'll get a lot of use out of.  As an admitted tightwad, I've never been shy about writing down product names and prices in a store so I can look online for better deals later.  Amazon's iPhone app makes it even easier for me to save a few bucks.

P.S. -- Amazon, nice job coming up with a clever iPhone app.  Now when are you going to add some new cool functionality to the Kindle?  The "Experimental" features are more than a year old and haven't been touched since launch...hint, hint...