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

Book Covers: Some thoughts for Self-Publishers

Eoin Purcell

A lot of traffic
Comes to this site looking for answers about book covers. Generally, I’m guessing, this is more from self-publishing authors than traditional route publishers. I say this because it is rare for traditional publishers* to leave cover choice to the authors.

I thought I would add some thoughts for those visitors. Feel free to ignore it or to get in touch with questions.

Essentially there are five steps

1) Decide what genre your book fits into
I don’t want to hear that your book is unique. To some degree all books are. Responding that your book is unique indicates either laziness or lack of knowledge of the market you are writing for. Should you be going ahead with this project if that is the case?

Take some time to investigate the market, search for books that have similar themes or writing styles and try and think how you can fit into those genres. The questions you need to ask yourself are, is this a definable genre? That could be as broad as General Fiction if you like, or as narrow as 19th Century British Merchant Shipping if you prefer. But make sure you know what it is.

2) Figure out how you are publishing the book
This may seem trivial, but it will have a direct impact on your work-flow. Some publishing routes are easier than others, some may require you to have cover files ready earlier than internals, some may not offer you customized covers.

Whatever way you choose find our how they want cover files submitted. This will be be as .jpg, .tiff, .psd or perhaps even .pdf. Be sure that they also tell you what DPI and size the image/file should be. All of this information will be vital to making the cover look perfect at the final stages.

I’d use this opportunity to ask them about paper weights and make decisions about gloss, matt or demi-gloss stock. No option is necessarily the right one, but each has its uses. As with 1) take some time to search out the types and styles of covers that your competition favours.

3) Write a designer brief
I’d counsel drawing up a draft designer brief to give to whoever is designing your cover, even if that person is yourself. Why?

Just putting together the details about the book will help focus on the task at hand. I have drawn up a very loose sample you can use if you like. It’s here.

4) Hire a designer
You probably say this one coming but here goes. Many people who are pursuing self-publishing feel that they should be free to design their own cover, and indeed they are. However, the cover is THE key selling tool your book will have. Online and in-store, the cover is what the buyer sees first.

With that in mind, a professional, pitch perfect cover will sell more copies of your book than any other factor. Search for a good designer and pay them for their work. Don’t even dream of paying more than you need to though. A good design should cost you between €600 and €900 and not more.

There are cheaper options available and places like elance.com are great sources of freelance ability.

5) Allow time for a proof or even a rethinking of your cover
Whatever your timetable is, make sure that you plan all of these steps to ensure you have sufficient time to rethink a cover. Perhaps when your designer is finished you will not be happy with their work, or it will need serious tweaking.

Don’t be too worried. Even trade publishers rethink and comprehensively rework jackets at the last minute.

Wrap up

I am speaking from a trade perspective. I have heard that some academic houses do allow for authors to decide on covers if they don’t want a plain or series cover. I think the money is better unspent on the authors part in such cases.

A lot of this advice is only worthwhile if an author is intent on selling copies to a wide audience. If the market is limited to a few friends, then feel free to designer your own cover in whatever way suits!

Tired but happy to be finished driving for the weekend,
Eoin

Links of Interest (At least to me) 2007006017

Eoin Purcell

The Return
It has come to my attention that although the link blog does get visited, links I really really like don’t get the usual traffic. So I am reinstating Links of Interest. Here goes.

LibraryThing goes over 15,000,000 books (Now that is a lot of books).

LibraryThing demonstrates something we always knew—that regular people have a lot of books—probably many times what all the world’s libraries hold. I’ve never seen the relative numbers discussed. It never mattered before, but now that regular people can put their catalogs online and engage in tasks, like tagging and work disambiguation, that bear on age-old issues of library science, it’s not entirely pointless to compare the two.

I don’t know why for sure, but I’m desperately excited by the this news. Mcclatchy are launching a new news website nationally in the US. They also run a spiffy blog for news editors called Etaoin Shrdlu (Yeah the name took me a minute too, so here‘s an explanation link).

For all you Lulu.com curious this link is certainly a beaut. Simple, structured, its like the missing manual for lulu.com. Here

Blurb to jump into Europe

Eoin Purcell

Where only Lulu.com has gone before
Blurb.com is to expend some effort in building market share in Europe according to The Book Standard:

Starting next month, the company will launch specific website improvements geared toward European users, including the option to view Blurb books in metric dimensions and see prices and buy books with local currencies. The improvements will allow international Blurb users to create, publish and ship books for less.

Important or not?
Blurb has always worried me from the perspective of a publisher. The software it provides they increasingly powerful while remaining easy to use. Whereas lulu.com provides excellent printing for your average paperback, I see blurb attacking niches.

If you read the links Thursday to this report on Trade Publishing and the importance of niches, then you will begin to understand that worry.

After all as the power to design and print books shifts from the hands of publishers and becomes decentralised why should we be able to retain the market share we currently have? Given that books published by blurb.com and lulu.com can be sold online (even at places like amazon.com & .co.uk) and distribution is being outsourced to postal and delivery services, there is no limit to what these outfits can achive if they get into the minds of niche writers.

Takeover targets I wonder?
To a degree I wonder how likely Blurb or Lulu are to survive outside of one of the larger publishers. After all their technology would be beneficial. It would enable the big houses to attach themselves to the long tail. It would also enable them to offer their own POD service and not be totally reliant on Amazon’s or other players POD arms.

Alternatively they could always replicate the infrastructure themselves. But that would cost time, money and commitment not to mention an understanding fo the market. Much better to offer employment to the founders by buy out as Google and other tech focussed companies have been for some time.

Waiting for the first for sale sign
Eoin

The 10 other sites you really should read

Eoin Purcell

Because choosing just ten was too hard and good blogs got left out

11/ Charkinblog
Richard Charkin is CEO of MacMillan and a nice person*. His blog is a mine of information on MacMillan, the UK industry in general and his views on where it is going. One of the best features of his blog is the regular and eclectic contributions from guests.

12/ O’Reilly Radar
As Adam said in his comment on my last post,

but why do you miss out http://radar.oreilly.com/ Surely not because he is Irish? 🙂 Although the O’Reilly crowd have a broader focus than the future of books and media, they (Tim especially) have a great range of insights for publishers and become the focus of great discussion.

And there really is no good reason why I left the radar out except that I have read the first ten more frequently. On the other hand it was O’Reilly with this post that really got me thinking on the changes needed in books and indeed reminds me that little I can think of is novel.

13/ Snowbooks
How can you not like Snowbooks. I love their books, I admire their courage and I like their style. They provide advice and suggestions to new publishers, writers and readers on their blog delving deep into detail like XML for publishers and other seemingly arcane topics. Well worth reading.

14/ The New York Times
I know this will strike some people as odd, why the old school old firm media link, well simply because despite all the hype about new media and new platforms, old school, quality journalism and reporting are critically important aspects of content. What is more if for whatever reason a trend passes you by, you will know you have missed it and might be too late to make money on it if the NYT has a full page feature on it! (I kid)

15/ Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog
Joe Wikert left a comment and his plea was a valid one for sure. Joe has an excellent blog and keeps up to date on new tech from a publishers perspective. What I like most about his blog though is the sense of enthusiasm and hunger to do well at his job. See below:

I hate it when a competitor comes up with a really good idea. Either I’m still too immature in this regard or just overly competitive, but it really bugs me. Unfortunately, that’s the case with a new book from APress called Founders at Work, by Jessica Livingston.

16/ Google Book Search
Sometimes the opposition to GBS baffles me. I know Google is not necessarily an ally, and I recognise that they present huge challenges to the current models but their rapid innovation and massive cash pile suggest that publishers would be wise to play nice at the very least rather than annoy them. Reading Inside Google Book Search is a must for all publishers.

17/ Techcrunch
Although Mike Arrington’s runaway success is focussed on technology and web tech, you would be wise to keep a close eye at least on the RSS headline’s of the Crunch Network’s flagship site Techcrunch. Mike is connected and has a knack for spotting companies that are innovating in all fields even tangentially related to technology(some might say for choosing companies to be successful given the power of his platform now).

18/ Librarything blog (& Thinglogy)
I love LibraryThing. Not just because it allows me to track books, and to see what other people are reading but because it reminds me of the vastness of the real world of books, the enormous scale of the shift to digital text and the incredible product that digital needs to overcome. It is also a place to lose hours of your time if you are not careful.

19/ Lulu.com
Are you afraid yet? You should be if you publish books. The threat (especially for Niche publishers) posed by the likes of Lulu.com and its counterpart Blurb.com suggest careful watching (and at some stage clever collaboration) is in order.

20/ Amazon
Amazon is a retailer and a provider of web services. It is the web services that suggest it may have ambitions beyond selling physical product and that is why I read their pronouncements with care.

Now who else had to be left out
Eoin

*Full Disclosure. I had lunch with Richard in January and he paid (for which I am very grateful).