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8 posts from May 2013

The myth of plateauing ebook sales

My brilliant friend and industry colleague, Sam Missingham, was kind enough to ask me to preview this article she just published. She did a nice job piecing bits of information together to help us all understand the current and future trajectory of ebook sales.

Sam also provided some nice context on the myth that ebook sales growth is slowing and equilibrium has been reached. This attitude is only reinforced by all the big publishers who want this to be true, if only to save their jobs and their companies.

The reality is, yes, growth rates have slowed, at least based on the limited data we have access to. But that data misses so many different pockets, some of which Sam noted in her article (e.g., Smashwords). Second, like it or not, print books mostly appeal to an older demographic. In my role as publisher over the past several years I used to say that our customers are getting older and dying. That's true for technology books which has been my forte, but I think it's also true of other genres as well.

Note that I'm not saying the only people buying print are from an older generation; I'm just saying that I believe there's a significant difference in print vs. e buying habits when you compare those over 40 to those under 40, for example. So as the population ages (and dies) we'll see a continued shift towards digital. Print doesn't go away. It will outlive me, my kids, their kids, etc. But the move from print to digital will continue.

Next, I also believe there will be a significant shift that accompanies the next tablet price threshold. This is where eInk devices were heading but it's clear tablets are the key now. You can buy a lousy, no-name tablet for less than $100 but very few people are doing so. What happens when Amazon, Samsung, or someone else breaks through that threshold and offers a sub-$100 tablet? All those new customers won't be book buyers but many of them will be. And if the low tablet price is somehow subsidized by a content provider (e.g., "commit to Amazon Prime for 2 years and you'll get this Kindle Fire for $99") I think we'll see a pretty significant bump. This is something B&N should have done long ago, btw.

Finally, we're still living in a "print under glass" world, where the vast majority of ebooks are simple renderings of print in e-format. Yawn. Yes, it's simple and convenient, it allows us all to lug around many more books than we'd be able to physically carry, but I think this has led to stagnation. Publishers earn revenue from these products and they're extremely low risk to create. Publishers are also scared of the investments required for rich content so they're all just sitting back, living off these quick-and-dirty conversions.

As I've said before though, we're in the early stages, just like TV was initially where all shows were nothing more than radio programs in front of a camera. How much would it have slowed TV adoption if that model never evolved? IOW, if the production value for TV shows remained as low-budget as radio, well, who knows how long it would have taken for that platform to fully emerge.

Our industry needs to figure out how to create scalable content that takes advantage of the medium it's being delivered on. Think digital-first content that simply couldn't be reproduced in print, or if it is, the print product will be so stripped-down that it feels like an old-time radio program compared to a modern TV show. Notice that I also used the word "scalable" earlier. That's a key too. I've seen way too many glitzy products (The Elements iPad app is the classic example) that wow the audience but are definitely not scalable.

So yes, ebook sales rates are slowing. Most publishers might be stuck at their current levels for awhile. But the digital conversion is far from over, so don't let the short-term leveling off lead you to believe there won't be more disruption and shifts going forward.

Screwpulp: An exciting new startup (that I'm part of!)

Screen Shot 2013-05-21 at 11.16.22 PMOne of the benefits of my previous job is that it brought me much closer to the content startup community. I've met a lot of outstanding organizations but one that really grabbed my attention is a self-publishing startup called Screwpulp. I mentioned them briefly in an earlier article after I introduced them at an investor event in Memphis.

What's so special about Screwpulp? First of all, it's the people. I've spent time with each of the founding members of the company and I'd stack them up against any other startup team I've met. Every single one of them is extremely passionate about what they're doing and how Screwpulp is positioned to help reinvent publishing. Their passion is highly contagious. Also, none of them come from the publishing industry, so they're not caught up in "the way things work" and they feel no obligation to stick with the status quo. In short, they're the classic startup set out to break all the existing rules.

That leads me to the second point about what makes Screwpulp so special: the concept. Yes, there are plenty of startups out there catering to the self-publishing market, but Screwpulp recognizes that most authors don't have a platform. So rather than make the mistake of pricing the author's book too high and then wondering why it doesn't sell, Screwpulp initially sets the price at zero, uses scarcity to create a sense of urgency and takes the price up as demand increases. Very cool.

I love what Screwpulp is doing and I look forward to helping them become wildly successful. That's why I've agreed to join the team as an advisor. To learn more about the Screwpulp platform be sure to watch the investor pitch CEO Richard Billings made last week in Memphis.

Memphis startup community rocks

START-CO_logo-with-tag-1024x550For the past couple of years I've had the pleasure of working with a variety of startups in the content space and most of them are located on one of the two coasts here in the U.S. Last week was an eye-opening experience for me when I traveled to Memphis to take part in the Seed Hatchery Investor Day. I was there to help represent a terrific startup I'm now part of, Screwpulp, but the opportunity to mingle with investors and the other startups was priceless.

In the span of 3 hours Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of listening to the investor pitches from six highly innovative startups: BetterFed, MentorMe, Boosterville, Musistic, Soundstache and, of course, Screwpulp. All but one of these startups originated in Memphis. Memphis! And you thought all they had in Memphis was Graceland and BBQ joints. (Btw, all the food in Memphis, especially the BBQ, is out of this world!)

I mentioned that all the startups but one were from Memphis. The exception is Boosterville, which was founded by a couple from my hometown, Indianapolis. But since there's no equivalent platform to the Seed Hatchery and their Investor Day here in Indianapolis, the Boosterville founders went to Memphis instead.

Sounds like an opportunity to me... That's also what Eric Mathews, CEO and co-president of LaunchYourCity, believes as well. I spent some time with Eric and his co-president, Andre Fowlkes, and I left convinced these guys are on to something. Innovation and startup launches aren't limited to the coasts, of course. We just need people like Eric and Andre to find leaders in towns like Indianapolis and get them to step up and organize the local efforts. Btw, LaunchYourCity announced last week that they're rebranding themselves as Start Co. Great name, and an even better tag line: "Never stop starting." Brilliant!

What does the startup scene look like in your hometown? Is it invisible to the local community like mine is? If so, I encourage you to reach out to the folks at Start Co. and see what can be done to change the situation. That's what I'm doing.

Direct sales and community building

JIIf you’ve been anywhere near publishing recently, you’ve probably been hit by the shrapnel of an exploding business model, a narrowing distribution network, or mind-numbing cutbacks. It’s fashionable for people who aren’t pouring their daily energies into words and stories to compare the changing ebook environment to the music industry. But it’s different.  Much more simple and complex at the same time. And I believe--even without gulping down an alcoholic beverage--that publishers and authors can come out on top when the dust settles.  

But it will require change. And partnerships. And innovation. We need to do what great authors do--draw readers in by telling an intriguing story and getting them involved. But this time it won’t be just into a book, but into the industry itself.

I’ve sat on both sides of the table, both as an author and an executive in the publishing industry. So I’m constantly viewing the future through the lens of a win/win scenario, where authors/publishers and readers thrive. And I believe that direct sales and community-building are an important first step. Having direct relationships and building audiences are instrumental to publishers controlling their own future. So let’s take a quick look at both...

Direct Sales

I recently had a conversation with a VP at a major publishing house and he/she said, “We’re not interested in direct sales. We have partners and retailers who do the selling for us.”  

Sensing that we were not speaking the same language, I asked a few poignant questions:

“Are you interested in having the contact information for anyone who buys your book?" 

“Well, yes.”

“Are you interested in better understanding the reading habits and preferences of your readers?”


“Are you interested in developing a number of creative marketing, sales, and promotional opportunity for your authors?”

“Of course.”

“Then you are interested in direct sales.”

As we began discussing further, we both realized there is a difference between building a direct sales channel and joining a direct sales channel. For the most part, “building direct sales” has been synonymous with “a publisher acting like a retailer and going direct.” In my opinion, publishers should not be interested in this type of situation. It is expensive, wrought with technical complications, and limiting for the end consumer. At a time when most publishers are pruning their teams, it is simply not a good strategy to tackle more with less. Moreover, readers accustomed to robust digital storefronts are not going to hunt down books at separate publishers.

But joining a direct sales channel is different. If a publisher can be part of a larger retail ecosystem but still enjoy the benefits of gathering contact information and staying connected to the end reader, it is the best of both worlds. Publishers can extend their reach from content acquisition all the way to consumption and feedback. Likewise, consumers can visit one location and find all the content they desire.

Direct sales is about visibility and transparency into the sales and consumption of a book. And who doesn’t want that? At BookShout!, we are making this a reality today. Working less like a traditional retailer and more like a retail portal and ecosystem, we are aggregating publishers together and allowing them direct access to the end reader. This includes allowing publishers to export contact information, create innovative marketing campaigns across social channels, and build author platforms.

Community Building

Seth Godin calls it “building your own tribe”. Others refer to it as “growing your audience.” Regardless of the terminology, community building is about bringing like-minded readers together and facilitating a discussion. 

Did you notice that I said “facilitating”, not “controlling?” Some of the most successful audience builders I know understand that growing an audience is like throwing a great party. Make sure there is enough food, the right music, a place to congregate, and a topic to discuss. Then stand back and just keep the conversation going. The community will strengthen as others step up and manage the discussions. Influencers will begin to emerge. People want to belong, and content communities allow for this.

We don’t all agree that the Yankees are a good team, but we all agree that word-of-mouth referrals are gold. When a friend recommends a great book to me, I’m ten times more likely to buy it than if I’m being sold by a third party. When we build audiences around verticals, brands, and authors, we can help passionate people share their experiences. Plus there is the added benefit that a growing tribe creates noise, which in turn, continues to grow the tribe exponentially. All of these things begin to move the needle on sales.   

Amazon didn’t buy Goodreads because they had an extra $150M+ lying around. They bought it because of the community aspect and the ability to tie these rabid readers closer to the buying experience. At BookShout!, we specifically built our platform around letting people create communities, what we call “circles.” We believe that if an author, publisher, brand, or book can establish its own community, they can better facilitate conversation, which in turn, develops more sales and marketing possibilities. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem that can feed itself.

One thing is certain--you won’t get it right the first time. Building a direct channel and an audience is an iterative process. Give yourself the right to pivot, change directions, try new things, create micro-genres, and start conversations. We certainly don’t have it all figured out at BookShout! but we are actively listening so we can continuously improve. The one thing you can’t do is nothing. If publishers and authors do nothing, nothing will be all that’s left.

This article was written by contributor Jason Illian. Jason is the Founder and CEO of BookShout!, an innovative reading platform that empowers publishers/authors and builds community around books.  BookShout! is working closely with publishers and authors to re-imagine the future of books.

Bringing democracy back to digital


By exposing us to diverging viewpoints, fostering dissent, broadcasting scientific discoveries, and stretching our imagination beyond its sensory frame, books have promoted the rise of our modern social conscience. The many societal and technical revolutions of the 20th century have often been ascribed to a unique combination of readily available literature and high schooling rates.

High-speed printing presses, global distribution, and the excellent editing work of our forebears, enable publishers to sell authoritative, if slightly outmoded, versions of classic works for a few pence a pop. These inexpensive books are the WD-40 of the publishing world: they find their way into the most unlikely places, eating away at the grime of mindless entertainment. Comfortably purchased by all, they require no special treatment. They are forgotten on commuter trains, picked up on park benches, handed out as tokens and prizes, thrown away without remorse — and saved by the dustman.

It was initially hoped that digital publishing would precipitate the fall of prices, without affecting the margins of publishers: provided authors hand out clean digital documents, the costs involved in editing, proofing and laying out a work decrease dramatically. Part of the savings can then be passed on, benefiting both seller and purchaser. We can even distribute books for free over the Internet, in essence the largest, most egalitarian lending library in the world.

Yet, in our enthusiasm, we may have collectively forgotten how tall a barrier we were erecting between the reader and the text. While printed books exist in and of themselves, old-worldly, generous, and inefficient, digital books must be accessed through a reading device, be it a computer, a tablet, or a phone. In effect, one requires costly tools to economise: the reading apparatus, access to a network, charging facilities, etc. One must also defend an attractive gadget against theft — for the tablet, unlike the book, holds universal appeal.

In our technical circles, access to a basic reader is a given. How expensive can these unmarked, outdated pseudo-smartphones be? They can run a web browser and access Project Gutenberg… To many, they are out of reach. And even if they were handed out by well-meaning librarians, they could not be charged easily, or used everywhere without fear of assault. In many regions of the world, including parts of Europe and North America, they would be useless bricks, deprived from the essential companionship of a cell tower or Wi-Fi router.

Certainly, computers are available in public places, including libraries. But how comfortable should we be, as a society, with asking the poor to register at a central government-run place to access knowledge that used to be free?

Whether by design or accident, free reading has, so far, been a right in modern society. Wonderful and convenient as it is, our current all-digital distribution model has failed to carry on this fundamental tradition. As digital publishers, we must examine ways to restore it, of putting random books back into random hands.

This article was written by contributor Francois Joseph de Kermadec