Is Color eInk a Game-Changer?

My answer to that question is "no", and here's why...

Approximately 3 years ago I got a tour of eInk's facility in Cambridge, MA. During that tour I got to see a few prototypes of future eInk products. One of them featured a standard greyscale display but a quarter of the surface area was able to show simple animations. (And by "simple" I mean moving stick-men, not videos!) Another one was a color eInk display but it looked very washed out. The colors were there, sort of, but they weren't anywhere near as vibrant as what you see on a backlit display like an iPad or your laptop screen.

Last week's TOC NY event featured a "digital petting zoo" where we showcased almost 40 different devices for attendees to test drive. One of those devices (from Ectaco) featured a color eInk display. I can honestly say that the color display I saw last week looked pretty much the same as the prototype I saw three years ago. It's still quite washed-out.

Is color eInk today better than gresyscale eInk? Absolutely. I'd much rather have some color on the screen than none, even if it's not as crisp and bright as a backlit display offers. But is it worth a premium over greyscale eInk? I don't think so.

Rumors are floating around about Amazon supposedly getting ready to release a color eInk device. My question is simply this: Why? If it's going to replace their existing greyscale eInk devices, like the Kindle Touch, that's great. But if they're planning to have a color eInk device sit between the Touch and the Fire it seems like they're splitting hairs. On the one hand, I'm sure some customers would love to have a color device with the longer battery life eInk offers. On the other hand, don't kid yourself into thinking a color eInk device will replace a tablet. After all, the only animation I've seen on an eInk display was on a prototype that apparently never saw the light of that means color eInk won't support many of the games and other apps that have become so popular on a tablet. It's just a dedicated e-reader with washed-out colors.

It's entirely possible color eInk technology has progressed in the last year or so. If that's the case all bets are off. But if the Ectaco device is any indication I don't think a color eInk device from Amazon will be a game-changer.

The Evolution of Content Consumption

Basset reading Eric Shanfelt's article in the latest issue of Publishing Executive magazine is called Publishing in a Fragmented Online World.  Here's the excerpt that got me thinking:

How can we get our content to our readers however they want to get it?  Does a reader want to get our latest content by visiting our web site?

These questions are intertwined and I'd argue the answer to the second one is "no."  Are you familiar with that saying that, "the best camera is the one that's with you"?  The same logic applies to reading.  A book is great, my Kindle is nice but my iPhone is always with me so the bulk of my content consumption happens via that small screen.

Here are some of the more noteworthy ways my reading habits have changed over the last few years:

iPhone, not the Kindle.  OK, I prefer to read a lengthy book on my Kindle, but that's about it.  A year ago I liked the Kindle for newspapers.  But then the NY Times offered the same content via a free app, so I dumped the Kindle subscription.  I've been paying for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on my Kindle but I'm about to cancel that one too now that I can get it for free via another app.  So the Kindle has quickly become a long form content-only option for me now.

Apps, not browser access.  And since I'm consuming more and more content on my iPhone, this has become a critical distinction.  It's also why I say "no" is the answer to Shanfelt's second question.  To me, the iPhone Safari browser is for emergency use only.  I don't want to access your website that way even if you've "optimized it for mobile access."  A well-designed app is always going to offer UI touches you just won't find in a mobile UI view of your website.  I'm much more likely to access your content if it's available as an ap than I am if I have to use my browser.  There's a reason the phrase, "there's an app for that," is so darned popular!

Far less RSS.  My RSS reader used to be my first and last stop of the day.  Now I rarely use it.

Short form, not long form.  I'm an info-snacking addict.  The Kindle enables it but the iPhone perfects the experience.

More Twitter, less blogs.  18 months ago I was a non-believer in the Twitter revolution.  Now I use it throughout the day.  It has its flaws and one day something will replace it, but it's a nice solution for now.  The time I used to spend reading (and writing) blogs has shifted to Twitter.  I find myself less attracted to the long form writing in blogs and more to the short bursts of Twitter.  FWIW, I used to write 4-6 posts for this blog every week and now I typically only write one, but I also write anywhere from 3-10 or more tweets per day.  Despite that, traffic continues to grow modestly and nobody has complained so it seems like the right approach.

Have you seen similar trends with your reading habits?  Different trends?  No change whatsoever? :-)

A Blog-to-Book Critic

Books2Caroline McCarthy of CNET posted this article today about the blog-to-book phenomenon.  While she points out several noteworthy blog-to-book disappointments, I can't help but wonder about the successful ones she didn't mention.  Her article focuses on highly visible trade titles and perhaps the hit rate is less there than in my world of mostly technology-oriented books.  Nevertheless, we're thrilled with the success of several of our blog-to-book titles including Naked Conversations, Lifehacker (which is currently in its second edition, Upgrade Your Life) and our most recent offering, ProBlogger.

Having seen a few of these work so well it's clear author platform is vital, but there is at least one other key ingredient required as well: the reader's hunger for something beyond the blog.  Think about your top 10 favorite blogs.  After reading their latest posts how many times have you wished for something more, not just the next series of posts?  How many times did you leave that site or RSS feed and think, "gee, I wish that blogger would come out with a book"?  If you're like me your answer is "rarely."

Most of the blogs I read on a regular basis leave me quite satisfied and I rarely find myself wishing for more.  Additionally, I generally love the short bursts of content each blog offers and probably wouldn't have the same reaction if the material was presented in chapter-length pieces instead.  IMHO, that's the main reason why it's hard for some of these wildly successful blogs to cross over into the bookosphere.

Booksquare Strikes a Nerve...In a Good Way


Kassia Krozser does an excellent job with the Booksquare blog.  It's one of my favorites.  So when I saw the title of one of her recent posts, Why Publishers Should Blog, my antenna went up.  Now that I've finished reading it, I'm both disappointed and inspired.  No, I'm not disappointed by what Kassia has to say -- I think she's absolutely right.  I'm just concerned that my blogging efforts for the past 3+ years have been misguided.  But there's hope.

Kassia's post talks about the similarities between publisher catalogs and publisher websites.  Unfortunately, most publisher websites aren't much more than the catalog in HTML format.  Where's the personality?  Who are the people behind the scenes making these books?  Where's their passion and vision?  And yes, while most readers probably care more about the author's passion, vision, etc., what's wrong with the publishers, editors, marketers, etc., participating as well?

My blog isn't connected in any way with a Wiley website/catalog.  That's true for most publishers and publisher blogs out there.  Even the ones with links to their blogs from their publisher websites are nothing more than that...simple links.

I don't want to read too much into what Kassia is saying, but I got inspired by interpreting her message as, "hey, you've got the catalog site, and maybe you've got a blog or two; why not integrate them better so that visitors get a real feel for who you are and how that ties into these books?"

Btw, if my blog magically wound up getting integrated with the imprint websites my group publishes into (highly unlikely), that's not going to change a thing.  One blog and one point of view won't make a difference.  What we really need are for representatives from all the various departments of a publishing house (e.g., publisher, acq editor, dev editor, marketer, etc.) to come together on this, and that's like moving heaven and earth.

Nevertheless, when I think about a publisher's website that not only features the usual catalog content but also a high likelihood that I'll bump into the publisher, editor or other people associated with the book I'm interested in, well, that would be be highly appealing to me.  I could see a site like that evolving into more of a social network for the publisher, their authors and customers.  One central location where all the players could have meaningful discussion and debate about a book.  How fun would that be?

Any publisher thinking about overhauling their website ought to give serious consideration to the social networking aspects of what Kassia is suggesting.  Nobody's there yet, but the first publisher or two to create a model like this will be the envy of the industry.

P.S. -- Speaking of publisher blogs...  I recently stumbled across a fine one called Books on the Nightstand.  It's written by a couple of Random House employees and should be on any booklover's RSS feed list.

Blog to Book and the $300K Advance

MoneyThe New York Times recently ran this article about the latest book-to-blog success story, Stuff White People Like.  The blog was launched in January, quickly ran up the Technorati Top 100 list and is currently in the 40's-50's, depending on when you look it up.

Converting a blog to a book isn't exactly new, but paying the author a $300K is pretty bold, especially when you're talking about a $14 book.  The article notes that Random House would have to sell about 75K copies to earn back that advance.  That's a pretty healthy sales number but I question whether even 75K copies will earn back the $300K author advance.

Let's start with the $14 cover price.  The typical discount to retailers is 50%, but I could see this one going into more mass outlets than usual and probably being part of some other deeper discount promotions.  Let's assume the average discount is about 55%, which is still probably conservative.  That leaves the publisher with 45% of the cover price, or $6.30 per copy.

The author's royalty rate is unknown and there are other factors that could come into play on this part of the calculation.  So, rather than speculate on this variable, let's just look at the author advance divided by the publisher's net revenue against the 75K units cited in the article.  Using the $6.30/unit from above, sales of 75K copies would produce $472,500 in publisher revenue.  Divide the $300K author advance by the $473K publisher receipts and you get 63%.  In other words, Random House would have to pay the author a royalty rate of 63% (against net) in order for the author to earn out that $300K advance after selling 75K copies.

That seems pretty darned unlikely to me.  And although this blog has a lot of momentum right now, a $300K advance seems extremely rich and highly speculative for this one.  I'll be curious to monitor the book's sell-through results in Bookscan when it comes out later this summer.