The Listowel Fringe Blog

Eoin Purcell

Links & Whatnot
About two years ago I had a wonderful strategy session with a group of arts professionals. It was led by the engaging and intelligent Paul O’Mahony who is from the O’Mahony bookselling clan. I recall that day because Paul was forceful in saying that “survival is not guaranteed” for a publisher like Mercier, a thought that had been floating in my mind but had not taken the form of a concrete reality.

Anyway. The point in telling you this is that Paul has been engaged this week in an exciting blogging project: The Listowel Writer’s Week Fringe. I love the idea of a fringe blog for Listowel Writers Week Festival which I think is a fantastic festival but one I think prone to circles and groups (I don’t think it is alone in this. Given the nature of Irish society, most festivals here go that way), the kind that can damage a festival.

Paul and his collaborators are blogging and updating on the weeks events. You should go read some of their thoughts!

I love new discoveries: New Books In History

Eoin Purcell

Something for the long weekend
If you have spotted a new blog widget at the side there linking out to this site then let me explain. I stumbled across the site last week and it offers the most incredible array of posts and podcast on history stretching back to January 2008.

It is good, quality material well worth listening to and reading. There is a facebook group that I’d encourage you to join and the creator of the site, Marshall Poe, has quite a bit to say on other topics too!

Go Read & Listen!

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 29/05/2009

Eoin Purcell

A fascinating and learned piece on whether or not tweets are protectable in copyright terms. Well worth reading to the end. I’d love to say i remembered who sent me the link, but for the life of me, I cannot.

Here comes the wave folks. Google’s forthcoming beta product that attempts to tie together communication. Fascinating stuff. Got the link via Tim O’Reilly who also has an excellent post on the demo he and others saw.

There are a few articles on the future of books banging about worth reading. This one in Wired seems to be attracting a great deal of attention. The Times has a decent but newsy focused piece on publishers and ebooks. The Nation has a very good piece on the demise of the book industry but to my mind though, this one in Book Business is in every way superior in the sense that it looks at publishers rather than at books:

Publishers have little tradition of revealing what is inside their black box that isn’t focused on meeting specific author and title marketing goals. They have little practice of turning the spotlight toward their contributions in ways that are authentic in today’s marketplace—and that simultaneously support their authors and a community of readers. This is rooted in old conceptions of publicity as a department, as a discrete function with one-way, outbound messaging. Yet today, authentic, personalized, continuous engagement is the way the social economy works. Publishers need to be personally and organizationally engaged with the tools they are asking their authors to use. There are no wallflowers at this digital dance.

Links of Interest (At Least To Me) 21/05/2009

Eoin Purcell

Eucalyptus is a NICE looking forthcoming iphone book reading app. At least it was forthcoming until it was banned by Apple’s approval system for indecent content. It’s a frustrating and odd story but well worth reading.

Ivan O’Brien offers a glimpse of the hectic season that is presentation time. I find this just about the worst time of the year for a commissioning editor, you need to know everything about your forthcoming Christmas books, worry about sales for your currently released books and plan for the first and second half of next years books, damn awkward really. Still, Ivan gives a nice sense of what it is like in this post.

Wouldn’t it be funny if in creating a proprietary platform that locked content into their blocks of ugliness (ie the kindle) Amazon also smashed the one almost universally useful tool for making objective decisions in book publishing, Nielsen Bookscan. It wouldn’t and I’m also not entirely certain that the side effect was accidental if it came to pass. Amazon’s advantage in data on consumer behavior and actions would become even more pronounced if Nielsen perish. Still, read this post by Steve Weber for some more thoughts on this.

Michael Cairns offered some very useful and thought provoking notes on the future role for publishers in the tweeting age: The Digital Concierge. Mike Shatzkin expanded on them some more and Adam Hodgkin has some thoughts on the subject too. All told Twitter is high in my mind the last few days!

In case you feel there is not enough publishing information out there for you, there is a new newsletter, Publishing Perspectives, offering a clear view on international publisher. I think it’s worth giveing it some time to find its feet! No?

Finishing The Last Argument of Kings this evening!

Quick Links for the day

Eoin Purcell

There is a great history timeline on BBC History site. It is well worth visiting and spending some time on. The internal links are excellent and the extra material is smashing!

Coming Anarchy has a fascinating post about the strange borders that make up the modern Malaysia. The comments offer some interesting bits too.

For those of us, slightly obsessed with the US Civil War, I offer A Civil War Blog and this fine example of the authors posts, a list of his top ten Civil War Blogs.

Bloggers: Amazon will eat your lunch

Eoin Purcell

Quiet moves
Lost amid the launch of Amazon Encore which I spoke of a little earlier in the week, was the announcement that Amazon are offering sign up to the Kindle platform for any blogger who wants the opportunity.

At first glance this seems a pretty genius option for the blogger, access to a new platform and one that is growing nicely. But I can’t help but wonder about it’s real value.

The nature of the relationship
Firstly as a blogger you are a publisher. Oh sure you might be the author/creator of the content too, but you are responsible for publishing content to your audience. Anything you publish is published by your choice at your expense and by your decision. That has pluses and minuses of course, not the least of which is the exposure to liable laws that many bloggers pay little attention to.

This is relevant because by signing up the Kindle you are agreeing to give your content to Amazon to re-publish on their closed system for only 30% of the subscription price they receive. For the retailing, formatting, selling and processing they get to set the price and they keep 70%. The full terms and conditions can be read in full here. That may seem generous on Amazon’s part when you think of the royalty an author receives from a book publisher.

Now even allowing for the fact that the price setting is probably something that Amazon can gauge better than the individual blogger/publisher, even book publishers set a recommended retail price and allow booksellers and other retailers to set their price based on that.

Now Amazon’s costs for this program must be lower than 70% by a very, very long way. After all blogs will be delivered by RSS Feed an easily usable format and one that could be automated for Kindle ready files. That means that they are demanding this 70% for the right to sell your content. A commission really as much as anything else. Remember this is not an author/publisher contract we are discussing, it is a publisher/retailer contract. 70% is the kind of discount very few retailers get for anything other than huge orders and special reasons, just look at what Harper Studio agreed for non-returnable books with Borders. Why should Amazon be treated any differently by bloggers who are freely publishing content already?

The kicker is that because of the price settings being in Amazon’s hands they also get to set how much you make, they decide that $1.99 is fair and you get a solid $0.60 a month, but if they choose $0.99 then you only $0.30. For the kind of return a blogger is likely to get on this, I suspect that the blogger would be better running their own subscription system or some kind of value added plan rather than going through Amazon.

Wider distribution?
Amazon also reserve the right to distribute your content further afield than Amazon’s Kindle too:

7. Rights Granted. You grant to us, throughout the term of this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute Publications as described in this Agreement, such right to include, without limitation, the right to: (a) reproduce and store Publications on one or more computer facilities, and reformat, convert and encode Publications; (b) display, market, transmit, distribute, and otherwise digitally make available all or any portion of Publications through Amazon Properties (as defined below), for customers and prospective customers to download, access, copy and paste, print, annotate and/or view, including on any Portable Device (as defined below)

Amazon’s definition of portable devices is very broad too:

Portable Device” means any device that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content via wireless telecommunications service, Wi-Fi, USB, or otherwise.

To what purpose? Are they intending to usurp your primary distribution system via the web? There are other fears here too. As Kat Meyer just tweeted:

KatMeyertheoretically, signing w/Kindle would preclude creating your own iphone blog app (ala: if u signed w/ Kindle blog pub

Right now, that is not possible because the license is nonexclusive but if they succeed in dominating the mobile reading market in the future they might try and change that!

Locking in revenue splits
One of my major concern is that if bloggers agree to this completely uneven deal from Amazon now, it will persist. This will give Amazon an enviable position and allowing even their competitors to take hefty slices of the distribution chain value even while offering better terms than Amazon itself.

What is more, this kind of deal is running in the face of an emerging trend in revenue splits. Even Google isn’t proposing to keep this much revenue from content or associated ads on content in the heavily resisted Google Book Settlement. The proposed settlement would see them keep 37% of revenues from any sales or advertising. That fee even includes the running costs for the Book Rights Registry, something the 70% Amazon is discussing doesn’t need to finance.

Ian Paul at PC World has a nice article that sums up some other areas that charge much less for deal that have a similar relationship.

As far as the business arrangement goes, Amazon says it will take 70 percent of all subscription sales and deliver 30 percent of the revenue to the blog publisher. That seems like an awfully small margin going to the creator, especially when you consider that smart phone application developers entering into similar relationships with companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft get the majority of the revenue with a small portion going to the distributor.

To recap
There is no power relationship to justify the disparity in the royalty split. Bloggers are not unpublished authors desperate to see their work published in print as in a book publisher/author relationship. In fact a blogger has no need of Amazon to publish, Amazon needs content for its closed platform and so if anything the split should be the other way. I can see no over arching reason to support this deal or to sign up for it except short-termist avarice.

Feeling fired up tonight! Sorry if you are offended by that stance!

All your base are belong to AMAZON

Eoin Purcell

Sometimes you get tired of being outmaneuvered

In some senses, what Amazon launched yesterday with Amazon Encore is neither that amazing a project, after all there have been several small-press or self-published titles taken on board by large publishers as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, nor is it even that innovative, Authonomy is at its core a way to tap the self published and slush-piled manuscripts out there in the wild.

But the key point is that this moves Amazon directly into the role of publisher as James Bridle makes clear on his post on the topic:

It’s been a while coming, but some of us have been predicting this move for some time: Amazon have finally made it to the penultimate step on the publishing chain. I say penultimate, because although they are now, by any definition, a publisher, they still appear to be cherry-picking from existing books rather than seeking out their own authors.

I think this move suggests a couple of key questions:

    1. 1) Who benefits most from this (and conversely who hurts the most because of it)?
    1. 2) Can it be extended?
    1. 3) Will there be a reaction?

First, Cui bono

On the face of it, this seems like an amazing opportunity for the author, reading her Amazon blog she certainly seems happy. Amazon’s platform (and as Personanondata point out platform is pretty key) allows for so many things that the average (or small press) publisher cannot. View for instance the neat homemade (and windy) video that amazon have on the main product page. The extra push that Amazon can give a product is really impressive. It will certainly be interesting to see how this works. I think it is fair to say then that the author gets a fair shake of this tail, though it would be interesting to see how the royalties split out.

As for the publisher who backed the book in the first place (always assuming that this encore element remains true) the deal is a win-win. So long, that is as rights for the project were acquired to begin with. A smart author would try and retain the rights for any potential Amazon Encore deal if that was even remotely possible. but allowing for the rights being with the publisher, they will surely gain something from the deal, though if the split of revenue is as one sided as in the case of the new amazon blogs-on-kindle deal (70-30 in favour of amazon) it’ll not be a huge amount. So there is a sense that the publishers who are “chosen” will benefit. But a note of caution from two sources Personanondata & James:

Amazon as producer is a subtle but important change in the operations of the largest retailer. I often mull what would happen to some of the largest publishers if they lost their top two or three authors to Google or Amazon. It may be that the Amazon Encore program sets the stage for a much larger program by Amazon to establish their own publishing and media production operation – their content supply – that feeds their retail presence. There may be further ramifications from this seemingly innocuous press release.

Those who suggest they’ll just keep picking stuff up from the little guys hasn’t been paying attention. In the last five years Amazon have, in addition to dominating online bookselling, bought a book social network, a major print-on-demand supplier, a complete end-to-end self-publishing system, pretty much the entire used books marketplace, the biggest audiobook distributor, the best iPhone ereader, and designed, built and delivered the only truly mass-market dedicated ereading device, with a proprietary format that sets them up to be the iTunes of eBooks.*

It’s big, it’s scary, it’s Amazon. But the publishing industry is under so many different pressures at the moment, this is unlikely to be as big as it could be: Amazon don’t want to annoy their major suppliers, not too much, and not yet. They will though, and by that point, they’ll be past caring. Like Google with their ebooks programme, they’ve been given so much leeway for so long, they think they can do whatever they like, and chances are, they’re right.

So, there is a benefit but they might just eat publishers lunch next week, next month, next year or next decade!

Second, Extension

Sure this can be extended and it is clearly being set up to do so. Amazon is in a great place to carry out their program to almost any conceivable scale. That in itself should indicate that they intend to extend. If you don’t believe it look at what Barnes & Noble have done in Classics and Rediscovered titles and you will get the idea.

But add to it the previously mentioned POD set up, they wouldn’t even need to expend extra capital on print runs, they’d be able to deliver books on demand so even if a huge proportion of the titles failed, their costs would be lower than the major publishers and the bookstore publishers too. That competitive advantage would be added to the fact that they wouldn’t have to pay a retailers discount unless they were selling to the retailers themselves. In effect, aside from what the author and their agents can grab from the chain, Amazon with Encore has successfully placed itself in control of the entire value chain of which I wrote some more about last week but didn’t quite count this in.

And third, reaction

In many ways, there is nothing publishers can do. Amazon is a major customer and now (or for some time, quietly) a competitor. No action that publishers can take in the short term will change that. In order to really reacte, publishers will need to change the game with a much longer term and strategic move. So far most of the discussion seems to centre on the idea of community building and niche curating. I think this is certainly a useful suggestion though as I have mentioned before, the other arm of Amazon’s tool shed (self-publishing & POD) suggests that even that niche strategy may not be a feasible bolt hole.


The long and the short of it is the best reaction is to wait-and-see, to plan and to strategize and quietly (or nosily if you wish) put in place the blocks that will move your position away from an over dependence on Amazon. To that end I am pleased that Ireland is as yet somewhat immune to the Amazon leviathan. Despite our proximity to the UK market, sales through Amazon remain somewhat restrained, firstly by postage and secondly I think, by the more conservative nature of the Irish consumer who seem to be a bit slower in embracing internet retailers (not that some people aren’t taking advantage of the bargains available online).

Still tired of being outmaneuvered but thinking through how best to react in the long term.


PS: For those who don’t get the title reference see here