Publishing

“Immersive text-only experiences”

Over the course of the [Frankfurt Book] Fair various players offered phrases such as “a digital manifestation of what was a book” and “long-form narrative delivered digitally” and “story-telling” and “immersive text-only experiences,” and it is clear that the reason for such a profusion of vague terms is not obtuseness but a recognition that we’re not replacing one static-priced unit (pBook) with another static-priced unit (eBook), but finding that our single massive unidirectional pBook supply chain is now just one component of a tremendously variegated set of producer-consumer relationships.

Richard Nash

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Philip Roth on the novel’s “cultic” future

More clips from this interview here.

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“Free” and the Future of Publishing

I had an interesting conversation on Saturday with Bruce Spector, the founder and CEO of a new web service called LifeIO. (See the end of this article for an explanation of what LifeIO is all about.) Bruce was part of the team that developed WebCal, which Yahoo! acquired in 1998 to form the core of its own calendar service, so he has been watching the web with an entrepreneur’s eye for some time now and he had an interesting take on the whole “free” debate and how it might apply to book publishing.

If you somehow missed the recent back-and-forth about Chris Anderson’s book Free, read the pro-“free” comments by Anderson, Seth Godin and especially Fred Wilson, and the anti-“free” perspective by Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Cuban, among many others. This piece by Kevin Kelly, not directly about “free,” is very good, too.

For the uninitiated, the issue boils down to this: The marginal cost of delivering a bit of information over the web — a song, a video, a bit of text like this one — is approaching zero. As a result, information is increasingly available, and consumers increasingly expect to get it, for free. So traditional “legacy” information-sellers like musicians or movie studios or newspapers, whose actual costs are very far from zero, have to figure out how to turn free-riders into paying customers — and fast, before they go out of business. Fred Wilson’s answer is “freemium“: you lure the customer in with a free basic service, then up-sell the heaviest users to a premium version of your product. As Wilson puts it, “Free gets you to a place where you can ask to get paid. But if you don’t start with free on the Internet, most companies will never get paid.”

How does all this apply to book publishing?

Here are some of Bruce Spector’s ideas. He is a great talker, though, and a summary like this doesn’t do him justice. Also, this was a private conversation, but Bruce kindly gave me permission to repeat some of his comments here.

Continue reading →

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Publishers as booksellers?

In a long and interesting interview with Poets & Writers magazine, Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has an interesting prediction for the future of book-selling: publishers, not online retailers like Amazon, will profit from selling directly to readers. It makes a lot of sense, especially as book-selling transitions more and more to digital and Amazon’s massive edge in order-fulfillment and customer service is nullified. Is it any wonder Amazon is rushing to solidify the Kindle’s position as the standard platform for eBooks.

Where do you think the future of bookselling is?

With the publishers. I think the publishers will be selling the books directly.

Are you talking about digitally or physical books?

Both. I think there are always going to be people who want physical books, but I think the digital part of the business is going to increase. One of the things that all publishers are worried about now is this idea that a book on Kindle is worth $9.99. If that establishes the price of what a book is worth, what does that say? What if I want to sell Maureen McLane’s book as a hardcover for twenty-four dollars? I think that’s a problem. Again, it’s a lesson from the music business. People have been used to the idea that intellectual property—that a book, an artwork—is worth a certain amount of money. It’s a mark of respect, in a way. But if you turn it into a widget, where every book is worth the same amount, it’s not good. This is where the author, the agent, and the publisher should be working together to protect their mutual interest. And not have the business be decided by a seller.

By Amazon.

Yeah. We should be deciding what a book is worth, not them. It’s a problem.

Are you envisioning bookstores going away the way that record stores did?

I think that bookstores are going to be around, but I don’t think they’re going to be the major channel. Especially if we go more and more digital.

Read the whole thing here.

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Writers as Performers

Obviously the internet has blown a hole in the business model of the publishing industry, and we have all heard dire predictions that digital will obliterate printed books altogether. The doomsday scenario usually maps to the demise of the music CD: Kindle equals iPod, Amazon equals iTunes, eBook equals MP3. The details may vary, but the end is always the same — the poor printed book is the next unfortunate dinosaur technology to be smashed into extinction.

If that is indeed how things play out — and who knows — then we writers may well find ourselves in a situation like today’s emerging musicians. In the MP3 era, bands do not “break” by getting radio play. They freely give away much of their music over the web and make up for the lost sales by touring constantly. Ticket sales replace CD sales, at least in theory. This may be a lamentable change from the musicians’ point of view, but the truth is “any new music-related business must accept the fact that it’s competing against a huge store of readily available free music, and build that fact into its business model.”

There is as yet no iTunes for books, no single, dominant legitimate online seller, let alone a killer peer-to-peer platform like Napster or Bit Torrent. And the Kindle and Sony Reader are as yet no match for even the earliest iPods in terms of design, usability, or sheer coolness. For many other reasons, especially having to do with the nature of books and book readers, the switch to digital is not likely to be as apocalyptic for writers as it has been for musicians, at least in the near term. But when the change comes, however it plays out, how will authors replace the income lost to digital distribution and piracy?

One thing is for sure: Malcolm Gladwell is sure to survive the flood. Gladwell is flourishing even in this twilight era by doing what indie bands have done: performing. He reportedly commands forty thousand dollars for live appearances, no doubt much more for the corporations who often hire him to speak. Last year he even displaced “The Lion King” from its home in the Lyceum Theater in London’s West End, for one night only, for two shows. The Gladwell shows sold about 4,000 tickets at £20 apiece. Gladwell said of his London shows, “The Lyceum evening was very 19th-century, in a way. Dickens and Twain and countless others gave lectures of that sort in theaters like that all the time.”

Does all this have any significance for the rest of us? Can mere mortals take a lesson from Gladwell? Well, most writers cannot do what Gladwell does, obviously. Gladwell is a celebrity. He also happens to be a gifted speaker. In appearances on stage and on TV, he is a natural storyteller and raconteur. Whatever you think of his books — and the backlash against Outliers has been harsh; Michiko Kakutani’s review in the Times described it as “glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing” — as a writer looking to the future, you have to wonder if Gladwell isn’t onto something.

Consider the usual bookstore reading. The author is sweaty and uncomfortable on stage, or vaguely pissed off at having to do a dog-and-pony show merely to sell books. Usually he has little to offer beyond a bald pitch for the book. He will relate a story or two about where the idea for the book came from, invariably he will read (badly) a paragraph or two, answer a few desultory questions, and that’s it. It’s not much of a show. Now watch Gladwell on stage. He takes seriously his duty to entertain the audience that shows up to see him. He has a story to tell. He has practiced the craft of live storytelling and honed his material. He is a thoroughly professional speaker — which is to say, he is an entertainer.

Most writers will never be able to earn a dime on the speaking circuit, as Gladwell has done. Nor, frankly, should we have to. A book is not a song or a speech: it is not intended to be performed live. It is intended to be “heard” only in the intimacy of the reader’s mind.

But I have a feeling that the writers who survive will have to be a little more like Gladwell. We will have to be better showmen. Gladwell has a point in looking back to Dickens and Twain, who also lived in an era of looser copyright protection and rampant piracy. What these writers knew was that, while their books could easily be reproduced, the author’s genuine presence could not. Unlike indie bands, we cannot replace book sales with live appearances. But we can do a much better job of using these appearances to drive sales by taking seriously the opportunity that a reading or live appearance provides.

How? Watch Gladwell. Or watch any of the presenters at the TED conference. Don’t sit behind a desk or stand behind a lectern. Don’t lecture; tell a story, preferably one that is not just a pale summary of your book. Learn to use PowerPoint or Keynote. Study presentation gurus like Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte for ideas. Whatever you do, don’t read — at least, don’t just read. You have twenty minutes to fascinate your audience. Make it count. Put on a show.

I have broken every one of these rules thus far in my career. I have been told by editors and agents not to waste my time on readings, that you cannot reach enough people to move the needle by speaking to a dozen people at a time. But the world has changed in the last few months, and in the wreckage of the publishing industry there will be room for fewer writers. So writers, grab every opportunity you can, including readings. It is one of the few opportunities you will have to separate yourself from the run of ordinary writers.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter.com is a cool new web site that provides “a funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, bloggers, explorers…” Think of it as DonorsChoose for creative types: artists post descriptions of projects they would like to do; visitors pledge donations to support them. The artists might offer any sort of reward they can think of as an incentive to donors. Donors might get updates about the project, say, or dinner with the author, or have their name incorporated into the book. Right now, the site is by invitation only. Not everyone can sign up to flog their project.

But think about the implications for writers. If donors provide the writer’s advance, the upfront payment that supports him while he writes the book; and digital platforms like Amazon/Kindle provide the writer direct access to a free, paperless publishing platform, then what exactly will be left for publishing houses to do in the digital publishing space? Editing? Book design? Publicity?

I am not one of the doomsayers who believe publishing houses will vanish anytime soon, but here is another example of how the web undermines the traditional business model publishers have lived by for over a century. First computers came along and converted text to digital format. Then the web came along and provided a super-efficient platform for the distribution of digital data — free, instant, global — making everyone a “publisher.” Now come the nimble competitors who see and fill the newly opened niches faster than the lumbering old beasts can react.

At the moment, Kickstarter doesn’t look like a giant-killer. But neither did Craigslist, once. The web enables all sorts of disruptive ideas whose significance is hard to perceive at first (Twitter, Boxee). Who knows where this one will lead?

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When Every Writer Is a Publisher

Seth Godin on the future of blogs like this one:

Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin were both printers who became writers … one would imagine they did this because it was cheaper to write your own stuff than hiring someone, and having words to print and sell is good business if you’re a printer. … Today, of course, being a printer is no fun. Anyone can be a digital printer, publishing their words to the web. And so we have a mysterious flip, in which writers are becoming “printers,” not the other way around. In a world in which just about everyone is a writer and just about every writer wouldn’t mind benefiting from their work, there’s a huge need for people who can help us publish profitably.

Read the whole thing.

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