For A Limited Time Only: Mike Shatzkin’s Publishing Shift Video

Eoin Purcell

If you do nothing else before Monday, you should watch Mike Shatzkin’s video on the digital shift in publishing. It is only available for free until Monday and you can view it here. It is deeply impressive, crystallizing as it does, the reasons why this shift MUST happen as well as cataloging the results of the shift and suggesting a remedy.

That remedy is the niche and the nugget. Niche being a vertical interest like knitting or US Civil War Uniforms. I love the section in the video where he suggests that publishers will discover that they all of a sudden not only don’t nearly have enough content within these specific niches but that on their own, in their current state they never will. Nuggets are the intriguing part, the small bits if content created by individuals within a community adding value as they accumulate.

I wholeheartedly agree with Mike that publishers need to get niche and embrace the communities that sustain those niches. It’s a fascinating time ahead and we are rushing towards it rapidly.
Eoin

The Publisher in the Value Chain 2009 Edition

Eoin Purcell

This is what I said before
Back in 2006 I wrote a piece called The Publisher in the Value Chain. It was a response to a post by Rob Jones over at Snowbooks. The bones of the case I put forward was in the conclusion:

In publishing the price of writing a book was always low, but now the price of making a book is to all intents and purposes free too. Publishing it costs nothing now if you use a trick like lulu.com and very little if you use self-publishing services like Xlibris, Trafford.com or even Blurb.com. The Publisher will still be needed to absorb the risk because the risk has not going away, it is just changing, shifting and moving along the value chain from printing and design to marketing and distribution.

A few pieces recently have offered alternative interpretations and, times have also changed so I thought it was an apt time for thinking this through some more.

What has changed: Distribution
Well to begin on the digital and ebook side with we now have the models of distribution that we lacked in 2006. I’m not saying that this didn’t exist in 2006, because they did, rather than the last 2 and half years have seen the arrival of mass market type offerings in these areas.

Apple’s iPhone Apps (available from their App Store which is part of their iTunes service) have proved to be excellent platforms for throwing books at people and developers have mind the public domain for free (and paid for) content to supply to interested parties.

This market has only truly been made possible by the enormous success of the iPhone itself. In some senses too the ebook/iPhone Apps publishing market is an accidental creation unlike the music downloads and iTunes which was a deliberate strategy.

Amazon has launched the Kindle and just this past week bought Lexcycle makers of the Stanza App. They have previously launched their own iPhone app to try and capture some of the market that Apple sneakily and rather unexpectedly took from them (well I’m sure that is how they see it!)

There is also the very often overlooked Sony Reader that nonetheless seems to be doing alright and recently entered a partnership with Google to present 500,000 public books on the Reader.

And that brings us to Google itself whose Books Search project has reached an almost incredible position compared to its 2006 incarnation. With some 7 million books scanned and an agreement close to being locked in (though there are some problems with this deal from many viewpoints, lots of which elicit my sympathy) GBS is a beast that cannot be ignored, even if the two most successful distribution models to date are Apple’s and Amazon’s.

But leaving aside the questions it is pretty clear from this brief survey that a whole ecosystem for distribution is being created ebooks and digital content.

What has changed: Marketing
The change here is not as convincing I would suggest as it has been in distribution. Several very excellent sites have started to aggregate both information and readers. LibraryThing is my favourite bit other such as Goodreads, Shelfari and newer entrants like Book Army and FiledBy. Michael Cairns has a good post on this type of Curation as he calls it.

What hasn’t changed?
But the truth remains and is perhaps even more true that as I noted in 2006 by way of Mark Cuban:

Because in an ala carte world, the cost of reaching an audience is outrageous. And consumers arent ready to pay the freight to receive that programming.

As I have said before, the movie market is ala carte. Look at which content rises to the top in terms of revenues from consumers and visibility. The content from the biggest companies who have spent the most money to market .

In the book world, our products cost less than movies, but one movie visit (no including the extras) costs about the same as a decent book (though most paperback fiction is slightly cheaper). The revenue per title is considerably lower than most studio’s revenue per movie so our marketing budgets are commensurately lower, but our strategies are pretty much the same. Reach large audiences and spend money to get them to buy your books.

Visibility and discoverability are still the essential parts to the jigsaw. No-one, except perhaps Google who are indexing the content of all the books they scan, is in a position to change the game on this point. Certainly not the single author whose only hope is that a good blog and outreach will result in attention. For one in ten thousand of fewer it may well achieve that as Seth Godin eloquently points out, the 9,999 who miss out never even get heard of!

To market a book you still need money, you still need a distribution system that shuffles deadwood from warehouse to store (and back when necessary) yes in certain limited cases Print-on-Demand will float but for books that are selling by the thousands that is hardly a viable way forward. You need a sales force and you need know how. You need post release press attention that dedicated pr associates have drummed up and high profile editors have garnered by way of long term contacts.

In short you need someone who spreads risk across multiple authors so that taking a bath on three and losing a little on four can be offset by winning on one and breaking even on two.

Google might yet change the game, but that change will only be as random as internet popularity always is. What is more as Pete Waterman might explain in depth, Internet Stardom does not equal big paychecks!

And even if they do, authors will still need a partner to exploit the opportunities created by attention. They’ll need the ability and contacts I’ve just described or else the attention will go to waste. It may be that Amazon, Google and apple will step up to the plate but right now, that link is Traditional Trade Publishing.

Conclusions for 2009
And so, two and a half years on, where is the publisher in the publishing value chain? I think that Mark Coker has it partly right when he compares Publishers to VCs in his blog post over at Smashwords. We are the financiers of all the risk. That much has not changed.

Where he gets it wrong is in his follow up post about how the risk and the reward has shifted towards the author. The author cannot afford to absorb this risk and so he/she will fail to reap the reward.

The mantra of Cuban, remains accurate and doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

Clinging to the end of the value chain!
Eoin

Google Settlement & the author’s responsibility

Eoin Purcell

Samantha Holman of the ICLA addresses the Mercier Author Meeting
Samantha Holman of the ICLA addresses the Mercier Author Meeting

Head wrecking
Mercier has spent the last few weeks in an intense period of trying to figure out our response to the Google Books Settlement. I have to hand it our our MD, Clodagh Feehan who has gone at this with gusto and pushed for answers to questions none of us even realised we had!

The result was an author meeting last Tuesday evening in the Rochestown Park Hotel which brought out about 30 authors but generated a good few more calls and letters from people who couldn’t attend. We were fortunate to have Samantha Holamn of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency on hand to give us a very thorough review of the deal and while I don’t think anyone was happy (at least not with the deal as it has been agreed that is) we all at least understood the concept much more.

Authors need to act
By far the biggest single thought that emerged for me was not that Publishers need to take action, because surely by now most of them have realised that, one way or the other, they must. Nor was it the unsettling feeling that something in a relatively minor court in a foreign jurisdiction was changing copyrights (and the not too often mention suggestion that Moral Rights might be affected by such things as advertising) for what many see as the worse.

No, the biggest thing was that authors need to take responsibility for their own works and make decisions AS WELL AS PUBLISHERS. Many authors felt that their publisher would take care of matters but the truth is that both parties need to claim their works. Especially as sometime in the future a book may go out of print with a publisher and at that stage, an author or their heirs need to have assert control over usage.

So, if you are an author and you have a reasonable belief that Google have scanned your works, which seems likely as they have scanned about 7 Million books, you should head to the Google Settlement site and claim your books.

Read some more opinions, there are many voices out there offering their thoughts. A good few of them disagree with my perspective which is that despite the fact that this is not an ideal settlement, it’s not a terrible one and that the way it operates at a practical level may well determine its level of success. In terms of thoughts Mike Shatzkin & Michael Cairns offers interesting considerations but there are many others. I’d also recommend Adam Hodgkin at Exact Editions and Martyn Daniels at Brave New World not forgetting the wonderful Booksquare which is always full of great discussion.

Authors, take action! Read, think, claim and decide your stance. In some ways your choice is limited by the very fact that you have to decided but, as I am pretty sure you are not armed with enough cash to sue Google, that is where we are!
Eoin

Self publishing as a threat to niche

And not so niche
I wrote a post some time ago now on how Blurb was a real threat to publishers of small to medium size. I wrote then:

Using the template it is a very simple task to construct and edit a book. The ease with which this can be done is unsettling for me. I work with a publisher of limited run titles. Few rate over 2000 on an initial print run. To date, the key benefits we could offer to authors of books published through our company were quality of design, access to distribution, access to retail and other sales channels and of course we take on the risk of publishing costs and pay royalties to the author removing the dangers that self published authors have of not receiving payment for the books other sell on their behalf.

Lulu.com took away the fear authors might have that they would be left holding the baby as it were with lots of stock and no buyers, it also resolved the payment problem (As have many other online selling and payments solutions). That left the problem of design, many self published titles suffer from poor design and lack of quality. Blurb resolves that quite easily.

I’ve since moved to Mercier where although we operate mostly in a solid niche (Irish history & Biography being our core market), I’ve not forgotten Blurb.com or Lulu.com> Blurb has expanded its offering and is even hosting a directory of professional designers to help authors layout and design their books; Blurbnation and is running a photography book competition. Lulu.com is offering publishing packages and community functions on its site.

I mention this today because I was guided to a CNN story about Lisa Genova who self published [with iUniverse] her way to a deal with Simon & Schuster and whose now traditionally published novel Still Alice is in The New York Times Bestsellers list for the twelfth week. A rather nice BookVideos clip beneath this graph, it’s worth watching.

Genova is hardly a trend on her own I hear yo say and you are correct, she is not. But she does show that the fracturing of the market is such that even self-publishers have huge potential wins coming their way By dint of the large numbers now engaged in self-publishing books, some of the books will be decent at least. Some will be far, far better than decent and those books may well evade the traditional publishing route, just as the hard-working software coders of 37Signals, yet another of my favourite, self publishing, examples have with their smash hit Getting Real.

Is this really a route to market?
For non-fiction I think there will be an increasing tendency for the market to fracture by niche enabling authors at the micro and more modest level to prosper. I don’t think this will necessarily mean that no project will warrant a publisher’s investment rather that the viable ground for traditional publishing will move increasingly up the chain towards a realm where print runs are of a minimum of 4000-5000 units. Small beer for some of the larger houses but a big deal for most publishers in Ireland and I suspect worldwide.

Perhaps like Mike Shatzkin preaches we can prevent this by aggregating a niche and serving its needs (that would in essence provide other services to compensate the author for the lost revenue from self publishing. Publishers would be spending time and money on audience creation and cultivation alongside their current role of content gathering and curation. In many respects that is what Osprey are doing with Military History.

The top down problem
Of course if bottom is moving upwards, I believe very soon the top rank will move down. Traditional publishers will lose authors to outfits that are prepared to service their careers in every fashion, from events to books, to online exploitation. Andrew Keen made a point at a conference in London that I attended last year. He said that the bulk of his money came from speaking, not writing. When that is the case, why does it make sense for a top-level author to stay with a house that is primarily focused on creating and selling books?

Surely it will be in a top ranked author, the kind who can pull a crowd in any city in the world to move to a talent agency that manages everything like Livenation have started to do with musicians.

Leaving publishers either dead, the middle or adapted
I’m not a big fan of dead, so I think for now we can swim towards the middle and try and move a little bit more into the 4-10,000 unit range of publishing*. There are problems in this area and the main problem is that retailers are pushing the front list much more aggressively and the midlist is suffering. The bulk of those 4-10,000 unit books are smack bang in the midlist as far as retailers are concerned.

Adapted like Osprey then seems an attractive option but presents challenges for a diverse list without a single focus. Even if one can identify a niche where a publisher has a competitive advantage, is that niche a sustainable market likely to support the company for the future, or like newspapers will there be a period of re-adjustment which see staff loses, restructuring and deep unease within the industry?

I’m not sure anyone has the answers to this questions, and it may well be that the premise they are based on is a flawed one. Perhaps self-publishing will not successfully undermine the smaller publishers. One way or the other, any independent publisher needs to, at the very least, be thinking about what that would mean for them if it did happen! I shudder to think of what will happen to the larger trade publishers when top ranking authors start to move away from publishers in large numbers.

Let’s hope it never gets as bad as we fear it might, let’s hope the centre can hold because by my estimation that us where the market for publishers exists.
Eoin

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
William Butler Yates

*I remind you that all opinions expressed on this site are my own, see my disclaimers. Also bear in mind that in discussing numbers and trends I am focused on the Irish Market which is not, by any stretch if the imagination, a large one!

Guardian innovates

Eoin Purcell

Open Platform
In what seems like a smart play to me the Guardian has created an API and a data tool. The API puts articles and news features (and crucuially advertising from The Guardian) onto partner websites and the data tools allows access to a number of curated datasets. All very smart and digitally I think you’ll agree. From the piece:

Open Platform

The Cass Sculpture Foundation is using the service to add Guardian articles about British artists to its site.

Other partners for the launch of the service include web design firm Stamen and OpenStreetMap, a free, open alternative to commercial map data services. Stamen and OpenStreetMap developed a service that they hope will encourage Guardian readers to “geo-tag” the newspaper’s content, positioning every article, video and picture on a map so users can find news, commentary, video and other content related to their area.

Data Store

The Data Store launched with 80 data sets from trusted sources, including figures on child poverty in England and world carbon emissions by country. Simon Rogers, news editor, graphics, at the Guardian, will highlight some of the data sets in a Datablog, suggesting ways that the sets could be combined, or mashed up. It will also be a place where the Guardian highlights some of the best projects from its partners.

This seems like an intelligent play and I’d expect to see it copied by other major newspapers and media players. I can see the first mover being able to lock in considerable space from a program like this!

I’m sure there will be much more discussion on this!
Eoin