High Society – The kind of press you don’t need

Eoin Purcell


Publishing is about risk

The risk of losing money and of a book flopping, the risk of missing the market and in some cases, the risk of believing someone you shouldn’t and taking the brunt of that when your error is uncovered. This has blown up in publishers faces recently. The James Frey episode being a glaring example of it. What seemed a true and exciting memoir was in fact an embellished, only partly true account.

There is no evidence that that is what has happened in the case of Gill & MacMillan’s recent book The High Society. In this case, it seems not to be a case of lying. By the account of RTÉ and G&M there are, at the very least, contemporaneous notes about every interview conducted for the book and accompanying TV series. That satisfies me if not others, we have always trusted journalists notes and I don’t see why we shouldn’t in this instance.

But it still must be unsettling when stories like this one emerge about a very controversial book:

RTÉ and Gill & Macmillan declined requests to see interview transcripts claiming confidentiality agreements, but they both said they remained confident about the authenticity of the material.

And when the follow up is a clip of the author on radio saying something that turns out not to be the case, its damn worrying. After all, we operate on a trusting basis with most authors and we rely on their word.

Feeling a little bad for G&M, RTÉ and Justine Delany-Wilson today, the whole affair strikes me as a concentrated effort to bring doubt onto a book that challenged the “great”, the “good” and the powerful in Ireland to face up to and tackle our Drugs problem (though the whole thing will most like sell more books).

To all the ‘modest successes’ wondering where to go with their next book

Eoin Purcell

The doom first
Who wouldn’t be depress by reading this (Reg Required) article in The Bookseller (but actually a cull from The Herald which is free online and here):

The result? Publishers can no longer afford to take chances and authors who have enjoyed modest successes over many years are suddenly being dropped in favour of potential big hitters.
“They could be on their way to writing an opus, but will not be given that chance,” says Kean. “Ian Rankin, for instance, wasn’t an immediate success but his publishers stuck with him because they saw his potential. That wouldn’t necessarily happen now.”

The article’s main focus is Book Clubs but is concerned too with the side effects:

“The downside is that if someone goes into a book shop and buys the books that Richard and Judy have recommended, perhaps they won’t buy other titles,” he says. “There is no doubt that there are winners and losers in this. That’s something I feel slightly disturbed by. There is a sense that it is very much about corporate dealing.”

So where is the light?
Well here it is: if you happen to be one of those modest success squeezed out by the bigger publishers, I am happy to say there are tonnes of smaller, pluckier and braver publishers just waiting to do the job. Perhaps large advances won’t be forthcoming, maybe the massive campaigns the big ones can pull off will be a memory, but we can publish and publish well. We can drive sales and sell rights just as much as the conglomerates and we are always eager to try things.

What is more you will find modest success to a large publisher is a very nice little success to a smaller publisher. So maybe you have one or two or three books under your belt and your publisher is no longer on board. Maybe you have modest sales and a small but loyal fan base. I say you have a good platform and room for growth.

Get in touch, if not with Mercier (where I work) than someone else. The world of publishing doesn’t begin and end at the top five or even the top ten. Don’t be the victim of a dreaded publishing trend, buck it and move onto new and hopefully happier one.

Waiting for e-mails, letters and calls

What do they know that we don’t?

Eoin Purcell

The Thomson Sales
Thomson sells its Thomson Learning division for $7.75 billion or £3.9 billion depending on your currency. Not only is this a great deal more than was originally floated, it is also a huge boost for Thomson’s $17.6 billion mooted bid for Reuters. An interesting piece by Personanondata gives some detail:

It was approximately 1o months ago that Richard Harrington causually mentioned to the FT that they would consider selling the Learning unit. By October the divesture was confirmed and the sale process started once the final year end numbers were finalized. Any observer of the manner in which Thomson spoke and presented its business would have seen strong indications that Learning did not feature in their plans. The detail and excitment given over to Thomson Financial during the analysts calls was indication enough. Speculation suggested that a price between $5.5 and $6.0billion would be good news for Thomson. As it turns out, Thomson management has kept one step ahead of everyone with some suggesting that the recently announced merger with Reuters has been in the works for two years and their post merger plans indicate that the merger with Reuters has indeed been long in the planning. The extra billion they are getting for Learning will really help out the Reuters deal which looks increasingly cheap.

Cui bono
The question that strikes me is the way these deals have been getting so expensive. Who on earth is going to gain (the obvious exception of the seller) from a deal where a billion more than was expected changes hands for assets that re threatened as much as any publisher by digital and internet technologies. If you read Personanondata daily (as I should and if you are in publishing you should too) you will see that Educational Publishing has been exceptionally active recently. I think there is a smart motive behind all this, the move of learning online just like the authors of Nine Shift suggested a good while ago:

Shift Eight. Half of all learning is online.

The traditional classroom rapidly becomes obsolete. Half of all learning is done online, changing the nature of how we learn and how we teach.

Shift Nine. Education becomes web-based.

Brick and mortar schools and colleges of the past century become outdated. All education becomes web-based, providing a better education for both young people and adults.

But I could be wrong and so I wonder, is there more that I don’t know?

Pondering deeply

Change: What’s been taking up my time

Eoin Purcell

Reading Fiction
Is a surprisingly large part of my job. Although Mercier only publishes a very few fiction titles and those are of a very good standard (For Example), many of the submissions we get are fiction so for the first time I am reading fiction with a critical eye (i.e. Is it good? Can we sell it? Will it make money? Is there a good hook for the retailer?). I read one over the weekend that I loved but the questions still pile up.

Anyway this is a post more to talk about change more than anything. Change in strategy at Snowbooks. Where Emma Barnes has posted a very detailed analysis of how tricks are going for them:

Our top ten (out of 50 live) titles account for 65% of our total margin.
Our second best selling line in terms of volume, value and margin is Boxing Fitness.
We made exactly the same cash gross margin on Living the Good Life as The Crafter’s Companion, yet Living has sold only 38% of the volume of Crafters.
10 books have made more than £10,000 gross profit.
Our average gross profit per unit is £1.31.
Our average cost per unit is £1.20.
Our average sales value per unit is £2.50.

Change at if:book where Sophie has finally launched:

Sophie’s raison d’être is to enable people to create robust, elegant rich-media, networked documents without recourse to programming. We have word processors, video, audio and photo editors but no viable options for assembling the parts into a complex whole except tools like Flash which are expensive, hard to use, and often create documents with closed proprietary file formats. Sophie promises to open up the world of multimedia authoring to a wide range of creative people.

James has a good initial review.

Change too at LibraryThing which has launched LibraryThing for libraries:

What is LibraryThing for Libraries?

* Give your patrons exciting new content, including recommendations and tag clouds.
* Let your patrons take part, with reviews, ratings and tags. Keep the control you want.
* Enhance your catalog with just a few lines of HTML. Works with any OPAC and requires no back-end integration. Really.
* Draw on the collective intelligence of your patrons and LibraryThing members.

And if the words of those from mercier are true a sense of change in publishing too. There seems to have been a great amount of positivity and energy at LBF this year. Sounds good to me.

Enjoying a nice weekend

The Publisher in the value chain

Eoin Purcell

The Snowblog vision

A few days ago, Rob Jones over at Snowblog wrote an intriguing post on the future of publishers in a changing world.

One of the best parts is when he isolates the key function of the publisher:

Of course publishers do one more thing: they absorb risk. That’s to say, they take a chance on their titles. They put their money, effort and reputation behind a book and hope that their gamble pays off. In that sense they do make books, thus ensuring that a few horribly formatted files on a computer (or god forbid, a sheaf of typewritten pages) become an actual, professional-looking, shop-bought book.

But the real meat of the post is in his conclusions:

So I think we’re left with publishers being the backers and risk-takers behind books. And what I see is that every year technology makes it easier to turn a Word file into a pallet full of paperbacks – or just a single copy, if you prefer. And every year devices for reading books electronically get more desirable, more practical and more affordable. I’m wondering if there’ll come a day when the only reason that publishers can put forward to justify their cut of the book industry’s profits is that they tell readers what to read. Then all it would take is for readers to band together into online communities and share their collected opinions of new writing and we wouldn’t need publishing companies’ biased views on what was good; we could be guided by our fellow readers. And on that day publishers will go the way of the dodo and the clanger, and Em and I will have suddenly have a lot more time on our hands to work on our blog entries.

The funny thing about all this is that while I agree with almost all the points expressed I cannot agree with the conclusion. So let’s break it down:

Easier, cheaper, design:
There is no doubt that this is a trend already well underway. One only has to look at the Booksmart software that blurb.com distribute as part of their publishing package to see how close a usable, author friendly and cheap design alternative is. What is more if you actually work with Indesign or Quark Express you will know that these programs can be relatively easy to use (though harder to master all their complexities). There can be little quibble with this from any perspective.

Electronic Books:
There is no doubt that reading books electronically will happen more and more (though not to the exclusion of print for some time to come). But how do you deliver them? Do you use iTunes and hand Apple the control of your content? Do you use your own site? If you do how do you get traffic and sales? Here arises the first major problem with the Snowblog vision.

Distribution and promotion will remain a major issue for any newly published title. Yes you can build a site and blog about your books, yes you can hope that book clubs take the title to heart and spread positive news about it but what you cannot ensure positive blog coverage or news coverage just as even now publishers cannot ensure that a title can get placement in stores or newspaper reviews (although sometimes they can pay for it).

Online communities
While I can see the concern here the first question is how the online communities actually discover the books in the first place? As with the last query we have run into the issue of publicity pretty quickly. Oh and distribution!

Where does that leave us?

So what emerges from the points is that they are all valid but that they raise questions. The questions point to areas that require expenditure. Distribution means paying to distribute, publicity means paying to publicize. All of which reminds me of a post some time ago now by Mark Cuban over on his blog:

There should be. The potential customer base consists of 90mm broadband users in the USA. 100s of millions across the world. Any programmer with a high speed data line can reach any of them. Yet no one chooses to invest an amount equal to even the least expensive broadcast network show. Why?

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 .

Our movie from HDNet Films, Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room cost a relatively small $770k to make, but we needed to spend millions to create visibility for the film. When we tried to get creative and offer the film day and date with its release on HDNet Films, the big theatrical chains got together and decided they wouldnt carry it. Despite our unique offer to share in the revenues from the sale of the DVD. The point being that if video distribution goes ala carte, the response from the powers that be wont be to embrace the change. It will be to find ways to circumvent the change to their advantage. The movie industry is the perfect example. Despite the fact that anyone with a videocamera and PC can produce a movie, the cost to get it to consumer in an ala carte movie world, precludes all but the biggest and/or very, very fortunate from reaching an audience large enough to break even on a movie release.

There it is. 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.

At least those are my thoughts!


The Digital Tsunami

Eoin Purcell

Thoughts on digital

Watching a fascinating (if worrying) documentary the other night on Tsunamis [Yes it has been said to me that between my obsession with documentaries of all sorts, my extreme non-fiction bookshelf and my actual daily work I come close to being the real life nerd] and the potential for a devastating one in the aftermath of an earthquake in thePacific Northwest and a certain point struck me squarely. That was that the idea that the real cause of damage and change is not the initial wave front which is devastating in itself but the flow of water often at the same of slight lower levels as the initial wave front. The quote below from Wikipedia illustrates what I mean:

Most of the damage is caused by the huge mass of water behind the initial wave front, as the height of the sea keeps rising fast and floods powerfully into the coastal area. The sheer weight of water is enough to pulverise objects in its path, often reducing buildings to their foundations and scouring exposed ground to the bedrock. Large objects such as ships and boulders can be carried several miles inland before the tsunami subsides.

And why is this relevant to Digital Publishing and Digital Content?
Because the real damage to the traditional model is not the initial wave of digital content. That after all has been around now for some time and Publishers (Newspaper, Music, Film and Books) are still robust and profitable. It is the wave after wave after wave blows that have followed that initial front that are doing the damage. The only difference is that this wave is not going to subside or reduce or return to its normal flow, this tsunami is going to continue to flow.

And Realities

So what are the signs of real change?
Well for one Adobe have launched a new e-reader and so have Sony. The Adobe product is software and based on your desktop. It is slick and flashy but I don’t like it. I guess that just me. You can get it here but be warned it is still a BETA product.

The Sony product gave rise to rumours of $500,000 sales of e-books in the first weeks of its Sony Connect Store.

It is a tough world out there. Paidcontent.org one of the shrewdest sites and certainly the most prolific poster of news had two interesting pieces on the economics/realities of digital publishing for the newspaper industry. One pointed out that a pessimistic view of online revenues would suggest that it would be: 30 Years Till Online Represent 50% of Total Newspaper Revenues while another highlighted how the: FT Editor Mulls ‘High Stakes’ Of The Digital Evolution.

But some people get it. If you think that the Sony Connect story is real then here is the Real GETTING REAL. 37signals, the web applications company behind backpack (A service I use and love) recently published in PDF format their story. Since it was released they have sold 23,000 books at $19.00. Now that is $437,000 in revenue from one title, with little or no production cost and only the cost of downloads and site maintenance. The actual paper copy will cost $29.00 an amazing price for such a slim volume and I imagine they will get it! Good for them. The real kicker here is that they did all this in digital first not print and then digital.

So what to make of it all?

You may make of it what you will but from it all I draw this:

    1) Digital will continue to pound traditional.
    2) It is likely to be profitable (Scott Karp wonders how profitable)
    3) Traditional Media will have to move more rapidly
    4) WOW you can sure sell e-books when there is a demand!
    5) Sounds like what I have been saying for a while.

Enjoying the length of this post.

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) ALWAYS ON

Eoin Purcell

I love Google Reader

I know I have been quiet the last few weeks but I have made one huge change and I love it. I have shifted all my blog reading to Google Reader.

It is actually the business and enables me to do something I have longed to do for some time. The real hint for this though i have to admit came from Robert Scoble who writes the phenomenally successful blog Scobleizer.

I now have a links blog.

You can access it here

I will still be highlighting some features that just are too good to leave in the side column but I love this feature and really want it to work out well. The selection will be much more diverse than the focussed Links of Interest (At Least to Me) posts so do check it out.

I have a post in the works on the Coming Digital Tsunami. More soon!

Wondering at my poor poker play.