Non-Fiction

Moving Up The Value Chain: How Digital Publishing Disrupts

A good while ago now (nearly 2 and half years I think) I wrote a piece called Whither Publishing In The Twenty Teens? It looked at the changes in publishing which I argued were being driven by digital publishing over the internet.

I made a prediction in that post:

3) Quality and curation will deliver rewards (so firing editors may be self-defeating) in the long-term, if you survive the shakeout. Given the proliferation of poorly written/created content, acknowledged quality will be a valuable feature as will good filtering capabilities (as we can already see).

The point here was that value could be created through curation of content, whether that meant building a dedicated niche in one topic or aggregating content from one specific area or doing that across many topics at once, but ensuring depth and value in each.

At the time I was interested in how traditional publishers might adapt their print curation to online and digital curation, something several have done well and others have not. I saw both an opportunity and a challenge to traditional publishers in the new curation.

I stand by the thrust of it, but I think I failed to make clearly enough a subtle point about that prediction. That is, that as blogs and websites gained credibility and status, they could quite easily move up the value chain towards the same kinds of products traditional media/publishers currently produce. If they show that THEIR curation is at least as effective and valuable as that of the traditional publishers is, then they can benefit from that prediction as much as anyone. It’s the classic example of a disruptive player moving up the value chain and it is happening before our eyes. What’s more, because they were coming from a smaller cost base, they can likely do it more competitively than traditional book publishers.

In many ways, it is the problem newspaper and magazine publishers have been facing for a long time, writing itself all over the face of book publishing. It’s a slightly different type of problem from the issue of self publishers growing in confidence and ability  (equipped as they are now with more tools to aid the creation, distribution and sale of their books). We are talking here about content producers designed around the web, using the web as a platform and building their content offering off a low-cost base and often offering most of that service for free to web surfers.

Demand Media has just announced the launch of two series of ebooks one on wine varietals and the other on pets. I recall how Demand was viewed when it first came to prominence, a content farm, and in some ways it has never shaken off that description, but with this move it shows that its low-cost model can deliver content that has pricing power and provides value.

Here’s how Jeremy Reed discussed their new effort:

As the digital landscape continues to change and new concepts are introduced, we’ve stayed focused on the still important idea of connecting people with knowledge through various media. The shift to smartphones and tablets has opened opportunities for new content formats, and the lines that once separated how people consume content — on television, in print, via online or through mobile devices — have all but disappeared.

The eBooks we’re releasing today exemplify this change. For people interested in learning about the vast world of wine or the intricacies of pet ownership, our collection of eBooks offers a modern alternative to what’s offered online or on shelves today.

Demand Media has taken almost the reverse approach of traditional publishers, but the more traditional approach (in the sense that the content being commissioned is specially created for books rather than created for multiple purposes, one of which may, at a future point, be books) also gets attention today with the funding announcement for Open Air Publishing:

Open Air believes it can disrupt traditional publishing faster. The New York-based startup has published four books. Priced between $5 and $10, all of them have at least broken even, and all of them have taken just three to four months to produce.

Now, with $800,000 in seed backing from SV Angel, 500 Startups, Charles River Ventures, Social+Capital Partnership, David Tisch, Advancit Capital, and others, he’s set to release a total of nine ebooks by the end of the year.

There is a huge amount of room for different models in the market and there will be customers for both the higher end products produced by Open Air and the cheaper ebooks created by Demand. However, in terms of scale and, I would wager, profitability, I think Demand has the game in hand. Certainly, I’d be betting any investment on them rather than on Open Air. After all their bottom up creation model means that a rigorous selection and filtering model combined with some judicious article creation around perceived gaps can result in far quicker production and, most crucially, the creation of ebooks without incurring extra cost (because the content is presumably being reused in other ways).

The Demand Media model for non-fiction publishing looks a lot like moving up the value chain from lower order prospects. In the same way the moves by the likes of GigaOm to start selling ebooks as a standalone product show two things, firstly that their reputation has created value in their brand and people trust it (their curation and editing and credibility) and also that what started as a threat to magazine publishers and newspapers is now a threat to technology and general book publishers.

GigaOm’s move shows the versatility of that publisher’s content too. Their offering now encompasses free content (ad-supported of course so not FREE free), premium subscriber content (their Pro offering) and what might be described as their mid-range content, their new ebook range. This comes close to the Publishing Continuum I first heard Dominique Raccah talk about and certainly does so from a surprising direction at least for traditional publishers. Whereas publishers might have seen GigaOm journalists as potential authors on their lists at some point in the future, it seems clear that GigaOm journalist are at least as likely to be published by their own home imprints.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the internet IS creating direct competition for new non-fiction books exactly as has been predicted that it would. Another short paragraph I wrote two years ago seems relevant if sadly telling now:

The challenge for most publishers is first to realize there IS a challenge and that responding to it is less about social media, ebooks and fancy apps (though they all have a role) and more about rethinking the way you conceive content and how and where you deploy that content to engage and build an audience.

If the world of publishing doesn’t seem to be moving very rapidly, that’s only because you are looking in the wrong direction.

From a very, very, rainy Dublin!
Eoin

Go Read This | The Quarto Group Chairman’s Statement

There are so many reasons to read the chairman’s* statement in The Quarto Group’s latest update. For starters it is well written and as a result, is a pleasure to read. It is also full of gems like this one:

Contrary to popular mythology, most people in the developing world are not time-deprived. Indeed, there is much greater scope now to fill one’s non-working time (and, perhaps even one’s working time!) with elective personal activities, ranging from engaging in the chit-chat of social media, exercising, playing sport, indulging in hobbies and pastimes, cooking classes, book clubs, playing videogames, watching television, and so on. The list of activities is endless.

I don’t think you’d read that anywhere else. What’s more it offers something valuable, perspective. Perspective on the industry and what it means to be a certain type of publisher in this digital age.

Orbach sums this up in a succinct pair of paragraphs that dive deep into the implications of digital for Quarto AND for publishing as a whole:

E-books are probably not growing the overall audience much except for a brief honeymoon with a new device and, so long as outlets for printed books remain significant, the costly infrastructure of many existing publishers may have to remain largely in place. The evidence is becoming overwhelming that, in popular, narrative areas of fiction and non-fiction not an area of focus for Quarto, e-books are eating into sales of printed books. This may not challenge the economics of book publishing fundamentally for bestselling titles but, as bookshops diminish, and the exposure of less popular titles declines as a result, the committed book reader will be ill served by the outcome. And, if that were not enough to adjust to, attention is now turning to all the wonderful things that can be done with content on an e-reader such as the iPad, the Kindle Fire, the Nook, and other brands.

While Quarto is feeling the ripple effects of this evolutionary change, the impact to date has been slight. To satisfy the curiosity of analysts and commentators, we have noted  above that our digital revenues climbed five-fold in a year. But they still only represent a little over one percent of group revenues. Quartos book output is substantially non-fiction titles that are useful and, often, necessary for readers pursuing a craft, a hobby, home improvement, self-improvement, and so on. This is not a large part of the current e-book market, and efforts to build both apps and e-books around the kind of content we create have not been well rewarded. This is not surprising, as they have not taken advantage of the benefits that the new tablet computers and e-readers now offer. At the moment, and seeking to take advantage of better and less cumbersome software authoring tools, more efforts are being made to create enhanced e-books. No doubt, some will turn out to be very fine, but it remains unclear whether there is a profitable commercial model lurking in all of the experimentation.

It’s not just the level-headed analysis of whether ebooks are growing the market (anywhere other than the margins or in markets were they may be activating demand that simply could not be met with print books I suspect they are not) but also in the sober attitude towards other digital products. I might personally feel the attitude is a little TOO sober and not possessed of enough vision, but that’s hardly the point. Mostly I enjoy how the two paragraphs illustrate that different parts of our industry are moving at different paces, something we forget at our peril.

Go read the whole thing, it’s rewarding, engaging and interesting throughout.

via THE QUARTO GROUP | LATEST RESULTS.

*That’s Laurence Orbach

Go Read This | Serious Nonfiction in the Digital Age

Great piece. And one that warrants a solid response, which I will think on before I write anything else:

So when digital evangelists prognosticate about the future of publishing, as they love to do, and about what “needs” to go away, serious nonfiction is now one of the first things I think about. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and want to read more of it and notice twentysomethings have little perceived patience for weighty tomes. Maybe it’s because I’d rather have pragmatic conversations about what categories are best suited to digital — genre fiction obviously, certain commercial strains of literary fiction, basically any book that needs to have a completed manuscript done before it’s shopped around, or can be finished very quickly post-proposal — and which ones won’t be. Maybe it’s because the very institutions that support serious nonfiction are themselves in more financial trouble than they used to be.

via Serious Nonfiction in the Digital Age.

Three Sites Worth Reading

This is a little off topic in many ways but also on topic.

There has been the slow emergence of professionally written blogs in Ireland, reinforcing my thinking about blogging as a tool for publishing as opposed to any kind of social change, political change or even a weapon for undermining mainstream media. It also echoes (finally) the trend in the US where both commercial mainstream news outlets and academics have take to the tools with gusto.

It’s not just that newspapers like The Irish Times and Irish Independent are making use of the tools but three group blogs written by academics are quickly establishing themselves (or have already established themselves) as must read sites.

They are:

    The Irish Economy (Economics)
    Ireland After NAMA (Geography & Social Sciences)
    &
    Pue’s Occurrences (History)

Some individuals also keep blogs, my personal favourite being Dr. Constantin Gurdgiev who calls it like it is with no pulled punches, not to everyone’s taste, but entertaining.

Working on the web,
Eoin

Ebook first publishing might work

UPDATE: The Huffington Post carried an article by John Oakes (co-founder OR Books) last week which I missed.

I’m quite surprised there isn’t more news about this deal. Publishers Lunch* (apologies for the enormous robbery of content) reported on the sale of paperback rights for Going Rouge by OR Books:

Among other start-up muckrakers, John Oakes and Colin Robinson’s OR Books has sold paperback rights to their first title, GOING ROUGE, to Michele Matrisciani at HCI Books–which is reissuing the book today. Under OR Books direct-sale model, the book had not been available in traditional stores or online vendors, limiting sales despite the wave of Palin-related publicity. HCI president Peter Vegso says in their announcement “this title, although outside our usual publishing perimeters, presented an exciting and interesting challenge.”

Next up for OR Books is Norman Finkelstein’s book on “Israel’s Growing Isolation After the Gaza Invasion,” set for January, in which he “looks at how the reckless and disproportionate military action against the Palestinians in Gaza a year ago has led some of Israel’s closest allies to question their support for the country,” while “offering the possibility of something hopeful emerging from the tragedy of what occurred in Gaza.”

Oakes says eliciting a paperback partner will “certainly be a goal for each published work of ours.”

This is the almost perfect example of how one might expect a pure ebook play to develop over time, publishing ebooks to a time sensitive market while selling the rights to someone else for a paperback edition, enabling them to keep stock costs lows and cash flow high and letting someone else worry about the odd economics of the traditional model!

Mike Shatzkin has written quite a bit on these topics so it’d be worth reading one or two or even three of his posts.

We live in the most interesting of times!
Eoin

*A service of Publishers Marketplace a site that anyone interested in publisher should pay for.

Getting to Digital

Beastly goings on
There have been a few pretty big moves in the last few days towards what seem (At least to me) sensible models for getting digital and quickly. The first is Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast‘s deal with Perseus Press that the NYT featured yesterday:

Ms. Brown said that Beast Books would select authors from The Daily Beast’s cadre of writers, most of whom are paid freelancers, to write books with quick turnarounds. She said she planned to publish three to five books in the first year.

The beauty of the deal though is that they making digital first publications:

Beast Books, that will focus on publishing timely titles by Daily Beast writers — first as e-books, and then as paperbacks on a much shorter schedule than traditional books.

I rather hope this works, it certainly sounds like a good news story if it does. The model seems sensible, it capitalises on the eyeballs the Daily Beast is dragging and as The Big Money puts it in a sensible and thoughtful paragraph:

The good news is that this is exactly what digital publishing needs to fuel its growth: a product ideally suited to a new technology. Brown’s entry into the field validates the idea of writing specifically for the Kindle and its competitors, a huge vote of confidence in the tools. The less-great news is that for all of Brown’s talent for attention-getting, the Daily Beast may not have the right content to drive sales. Which just might be the point of the whole deal—with Brown using the book deal as a back door to better content.

Disney Digital

Disney Digital


Disney’s gamble
There have been some negative comments about Disney’s newly launched program that provides online access to 500. As the NYT (again) puts it:

In what it bills as an industry-defining moment — though rivals are sure to be skeptical about that — Disney Publishing plans to introduce a new subscription-based Web site. For $79.95 a year, families can access electronic replicas of hundreds of Disney books, from “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” to “Hannah Montana: Crush-tastic!”

DisneyDigitalBooks.com, which is aimed at children ages 3 to 12, is organized by reading level. In the “look and listen” section for beginning readers, the books will be read aloud by voice actors to accompanying music (with each word highlighted on the screen as it is spoken). Another area is dedicated to children who read on their own. Find an unfamiliar word? Click on it and a voice says it aloud. Chapter books for teenagers and trivia features round out the service.

I like this idea because it is heading more towards the type of product that can win the battle for attention and hold its own against numerous distractions. What is more, a site like this (and being a site is crucial) has a certain seamless quality, it fits into the web rather than standing aside from it in a “connected” device. It will simply be a rich content website that you happen to pay for! That is important! that, I believe, is the future.

Both these moves are taking big publishing digital very rapidly. This is a space to watch!
Eoin