Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 29 2012

Amazon, ebooks and advertising

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("Why Advertising Could Become Amazon's Knockout Punch"). This version has been lightly edited.

Your Ad Here by KarenLizzie, on FlickrIt all started harmlessly enough with Amazon's Kindle with Special Offers. That's the cheaper Kindle that displays ads when the device is in sleep mode or at the bottom of the screen when paging through the owner's catalog of books. It is very unobtrusive and, since it lowered the price of the device, has made that Kindle an extremely popular device.

Now there are rumors that Amazon is selling ad space on the Kindle Fire's welcome screen. That sounds pretty reasonable, too, as it's a simple way for Amazon to drive a bit of additional income that's pure profit for them.

Given that Amazon's goal is to offer customers the lowest prices on everything, what's the next logical step? How about even lower prices on ebooks where Amazon starts making money on in-book ads? Think Google AdWords, built right into the book. Of course, Amazon won't want to use Google's platform. They'll use their own so they keep 100% of the revenue.

The changes the DOJ is requiring for the agency model means a retailer can't sell ebooks at a loss, but they can still sell them for no profit, or break even. In other words, the 30% the retailer would keep on an agency ebook sale can be passed along to the customer as a 30% discount on the list price, but that's as deep a discount as that retailer can offer.

The rules are different with the wholesale model. Amazon already loses money on sales of many wholesale-model ebooks. Let's talk about a hypothetical wholesale model title with a digital list price of $25. Amazon is required to pay the publisher roughly half that price, or about $12.50 for every copy sold, but that ebook might be one of the many that are listed at $9.99 for the Kindle. So every time Amazon sells a copy, they lose $2.51 ($12.50 minus $9.99). Amazon has deep enough pockets to continue doing this, though, so they're quite comfortable losing money and building market share.

So, what's preventing Amazon from taking an even bigger loss and selling that ebook for $4.99 or $0.99 instead? In the wholesale model world, the answer to that question is: "nothing is preventing them from doing that." And if selling ebooks at a loss for $9.99 makes sense, especially when it comes to building market share, why doesn't it also make sense to sell them at $4.99, $0.99 or even free for some period of time? It probably depends on how much pain Amazon wants to inflict on other retailers and how much attention they're willing to call to themselves for predatory pricing.

Make no mistake about the fact that Amazon would love to see ebook pricing approach zero. That's right. Zero. That might seem outlandish, but isn't that exactly what they're doing with their Kindle Owner's Lending Library program? Now you can read ebooks for free as part of your Prime membership. The cost of Prime didn't go up, so they've essentially made the consumer price of those ebooks zero.

Why wouldn't they take the same approach with in-book advertising?

At some point in the not-too-distant future, I believe we'll see ebooks on Amazon at fire-sale prices. I'm not just talking about self-published titles or books nobody wants. I'll bet this happens with some bestsellers and midlist titles. Amazon will make a big deal out of it and note how these cheaper prices are only available through Amazon's in-book advertising program. Maybe they'll still offer the ad-free editions at the higher prices, but you can bet they'll make the ad-subsidized editions irresistible.

Remember that they can only do this for books in the wholesale model. But quite a few publishers use the wholesale model, so the list opportunities are enormous. And as Amazon builds momentum with this, they'll also build a very strong advertising platform. One that could conceivably compete with Google AdWords outside of ebooks, too.

Publishers and authors won't suffer as long as Amazon still has to pay the full wholesale discount price. Other ebook retailers will, though. Imagine B&N trying to compete if a large portion of Amazon's ebook list drops from $9.99 to $4.99 or less. Even with Microsoft's cash injection, B&N simply doesn't have deep enough pockets to compete on losses like this, at least not for very long.

At the same time, Amazon will likely tell publishers the only way they can compete is by significantly lowering their ebook list prices. They'll have the data to show how sales went up dramatically when consumer prices dropped to $4.99 or less. I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon would give preferential treatment to publishers who agree to lower their list prices (e.g., more promotions, better visibility, etc.).

By the time all that happens, Amazon will probably have more than 90% of the ebook market and a nice chunk of their ebook list that no longer has to be sold at a loss. And oh, let's not forget about the wonderful in-book advertising platform they'll have built buy then. That's an advertising revenue stream that Amazon would not have to share with publishers or authors. That might be the most important point of all.

What do you think? Why wouldn't Amazon follow this strategy, especially since it helps eliminate competitors, leads to market dominance and fixes the loss-leader problem they currently have with many ebook sales?

Photo: Your Ad Here by KarenLizzie, on Flickr


May 10 2012

The reinvention of the bookseller

This post originally appeared on Publishers Weekly.

Books Etc Victoria by markhillary, on FlickrIf you're a brick-and-mortar bookseller, does your blood pressure rise when you think about e-retailers and their deep discounts? Do you look at ebooks as a threat or an opportunity? Depending on how you answered those questions, you might need to ask yourself another one: What business are you really in?

If you're simply in the business of "selling books," I believe you're thinking too narrowly. Think of the story of the successful tools salesman who explained why he was able to sell so many drills: "My competitors sell the drill while I focus on selling the hole." In other words, he emphasizes the benefits while others are busy trying to sell a bunch of meaningless features.

What are the benefits you've successfully provided in the past? When I think of my local bookstore, some of the key benefits I see are personalized service and community. If I want to know more about a book I'm considering, I'd rather talk with a real person than simply trust a bunch of reviews on a website, especially if some of those reviews might be planted by the author or publisher. The main advantage a physical bookstore has over an online one is the in-person advice and support the former can offer.

A lesson from Apple

Despite the sluggish economy of the last few years, some brick-and-mortar retailers have found ways to grow their businesses. Apple is a terrific example. Regardless of whether you're an Apple fan, there's always something new and interesting to discover in an Apple store. I can't tell you the last time I felt that way about a bookstore. I'm not talking about eye candy or glitzy merchandising; when you enter an Apple store you know you're in for a treat.

Wouldn't it be awesome if customers entering your bookstore had that same feeling? I realize Apple can invest a lot in its store experience because it's selling higher-priced items, but maybe that means you need to look beyond simply selling $20 or $30 books. I'm not talking about adding stationery and toys, like some bookstores have done over the years. It's time to think much bigger.

These days most bookstores have some sort of coffee shop or snack bar. Years ago it was a brilliant move to add that dimension, as it helped turn bookstores into a hangout rather than just an in-and-out retail destination. If in-store coffee shops were the game-changing idea of the '90s, what's the new one for the current decade? Here's one possibility: an in-store self-publishing resource. Self-publishing is red-hot and still gaining momentum. But what's sorely lacking in the self-publishing world is a reliable place to go to ask all the questions. How do I get started? What's the best platform? How do I create a marketing campaign? Self-publishing enthusiasts are left with a slew of questionable online options and a few in-person events. Why not create an in-person self-publishing resource within your store?

Take a page out of Apple's playbook and create a Genius Bar service for customers interested in self-publishing. Establish your location as the place to go for help in navigating the self-publishing waters. Remember, too, that most of the income earned in self-publishing is tied to services, e.g., editing, cover design, proofreading, and not necessarily sales of the finished product. Consider partnering with an established expert in these areas or build your own network of providers. The critical point is to evolve your business into something more than just selling books.

This doesn't mean you need to invest in self-publishing equipment to enter the field, but it's interesting to hear from someone who has. I spoke about this with Chris Morrow, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore in Vermont, which has had an Espresso Book Machine for a number of years. According to Morrow:

"The Espresso machine has allowed us to create a self-publishing business and more. It has changed how customers view the bookstore. The self-publishing business is a complementary business that takes advantage of technological developments while being true to our mission."

If my self-publishing suggestion isn't the best option for your store, don't simply give up and assume you'll always have a future selling print books. It's clear to me that the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores will continue to decline; more specifically, the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores that mostly rely on selling print books will continue to decline. Bookstores have always been a source of inspiration and an important community resource for their customers. Think about your own store's unique attributes and how they could be extended as print sales decline. If you go about it the right way, the digital reading revolution won't be a threat but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconceive your business.

Photo: "Books Etc Victoria" by markhillary, on Flickr


May 08 2012

Think of it like a political campaign: Baratunde Thurston's book marketing

Since its release in late January, Baratunde Thurston's book, "How To Be Black," has sold more than 15,000 copies, hitting the New York Time bestseller list out of the gate. Thurston, The Onion's former director of digital, and Craig Cannon, his campaign manager, have employed a slew of creative tactics for selling the book. In a recent interview, Thurston talked with me about what's worked, what hasn't, and the secret sauce for their campaign.

Before you dive in, I'll note that Thurston — in addition to having written a terrific book — has a gift for making people feel like they want to be part of his world. Although I'd read excerpts of the book early on, as he included them in his email newsletter, and although I was given both an electronic and a print copy of the book, I still bought it, just to support him. How can you make that magic happen for your book? Read on.

Any sales numbers we can share for context?

Baratunde ThurstonBaratunde Thurston: We went into this with a goal of significant pre-sales to hit the New York Times bestseller list. How many does it take to do that? Anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 in sales, and it depends on what else has come out that week. The pre-sales all accrue to one week, so you can stack the deck. We had 20,000 pre-sales as a goal. That was insane. We wound up with several hundred pre-sales, which was helpful, but not a juggernaut. We hit the list at No. 21. Mostly, that was useful because The Times had me do a joint interview with Charles Murray that ran in print and online during Black History Month. And that drew some attention.

What we learned from this is that people do not buy books. They like to talk about books. They like to talk about buying them. But they do not buy them.

Also for context, how important are book sales for you?

Baratunde Thurston: Sales are important. I want people to read the book. I want them to spend money. This wasn't a vanity publishing project, but it wasn't a get-rich scheme, either. It was a way for me as a creative person to point to something solid. I speak, I tweet; it's gone. I publish in very forgettable platforms. A book has some staying power. It's a cultural object, a physical object on which you can focus some attention.

What elements of the campaign worked?

Baratunde Thurston: We decided to treat this like a political campaign — more about the issues than the politician. We asked ourselves: Can we create a sense of movement that has other people seeing themselves in a book about me?

There was a process to arrive at the plan, and it equaled me coming up with the marketing. I knew I had to get on it when I was on a trip somewhere, and I got an email from Harper [Collins Publishers]: "Do you think you'll tweet about the book?"

There was a big research phase, talking to people I know or was introduced to, like Gary Vaynerchuk, Deanna Zandt, Eric Ries, Amber Rae at the Domino Project, and Tim Ferris. There were a lot of conversations had and articles read. There's no excuse to make things up completely or rely on hope.

We went with a content-oriented promotion strategy — check out this video or tweet or interview. So, for example, we wound up with 50 short videos that we could build into the book and the campaign.

The book's website was the heart. We posted a daily question every day in February, seeding it with the video I had already shot.

For speaking gigs I'd already booked, we asked if we could add book sales.

We had field ops — the Street Team. They were the ideal beta group: 115 people, half active and half of those really dedicated. We thought each street team member would equate to sales, but it's turned out to be more important as a group that lets us test ideas.

We also identified the high-value donors — people who are going to deliver a bunch of votes or cash. I went through all my contacts manually, about 4,500 people, and scrubbed that down to about 1,800 real people. I tagged them lightly, looking at them in terms of relevance. And then I started reaching out to them one by one.

"Fresh Air" with Terry Gross worked. MSNBC appearances worked.

How did the Street Team work out?

Baratunde Thurston: We tried to build a very loyal, very intense community. People had to apply. We asked them to participate in web video chats. It was like they made it through basic training. And that was kind of the goal: to have a group of advocates you can deploy in different ways. At launch parties across the country, they help out. Craig crashes on their sofas. They provide a support network; they're the volunteer fire department.

They also became an early-warning system for how the public would interpret the book. They weren't biased the way the other people close to me were. For instance, during Street Team video chats, they asked questions the public would ask. So I'd go to launch parties and interviews really prepared with answers.

Michael Phelps parody photoThis notion of showing the book cover in the hands of people as an image of value — they helped create that. Somebody Photoshopped Michael Phelps holding it, and that was one of first we saw. We seeded that idea with the Street Team, and they ran with it. The Photoshopping became redundant because actual people were holding the book and people were taking their pictures. It turned into a photomeme as people began to post them [to Twitter and the "How To Be Black" website].

We had a roadmap of things we had to do, and one thing we didn't miss was the Amazon reviews. We wanted to get them up within hours of the book's availability to set the trend for five-star reviews. We had a video chat with the Street Team right before the Amazon release. Within hours, we had 10 five-star reviews. That signaled to the Amazon buying market that it was a worthwhile book, and the Street Team provided the initial traction. And it's not just the number of five-star reviews, it's also how many reviews were helpful or not. We basically created our own Amazon Vine program.

What didn't work the way you expected?

Baratunde Thurston: The goal of 20,000 pre-sales didn't work. Every weekday in February, I should have been doing something for Black History Month. That didn't quite work, because the lead time for booking events is six months to a year, and we weren't on top of it early enough. As I mentioned, having the Street Team directly account for a certain number of units distributed didn't quite work.

What role did Craig Cannon play?

Baratunde Thurston: I knew Craig loosely at the Onion [where he was graphics editor]. He invited me to lunch to talk about something he was working on, a project with Skillshare. About five or six months before the book launched, we did a class on how to be black. That was a good test for our relationship.

We had a huge Google doc with everything laid out. Craig set up the Tumblr, the Facebook page, a private group for the Street Team, the tour support, the admin support. He's running the merchandise business. The black card — he just went off and built it.

I would have been able to do a lot of that worse. Even the two of us are only hitting 60% capacity. We should have had merch ready at launch. At some of our book events, we didn't have books.

For people who don't have a Craig, the most important thing is the personal one-on-one outreach. Look at the market of people interested in your topic, interested in you. Start with your inner circle. I had an epiphany with Gary Vaynerchuk. I asked: "Did I ever ask you to buy my book?" He said, "Yeah, I bought it yesterday." I talked about his book, but cash on the table — it didn't happen. He wished he had identified everyone he knows, sending a personal note explaining: "A) buy the book; B) this means a lot to me. You owe me or I will owe you. Here's some things you can do to help: If you have speaking opportunities, let me know. For instance, I would love to speak at schools." Make it easy for people who want to help you. Everything else is bonus. If you haven't already converted the inner circle, you've skipped a critical step.

What specific marketing technique would you recommend to other authors?

Baratunde Thurston: You can make everything easier by figuring out what value to attach your book to. We've been working under the over-arching theme of identity. If you blog every week about why your book is so awesome, nobody cares. If you're producing relevant, interesting content, they get attached to you in context. That leads to sales. It's a good model.

Once you've actually articulated what that value is, make everything else consistent with that. For us, it was comfort with yourself and your identity — everybody has an outsider identity. That provides a roadmap for interviews and events. It establishes the brand and reinforces it. This approach requires time and consideration, but not cash. It's not just reactive. For instance, this book is about DIY culture that makes the world a better place. With that approach, somebody like my friend Nora Abousteit can get involved, even though race, per se, isn't her issue.

Anything else you want to add?

Baratunde Thurston: There was a very important tactical layer, the secret sauce: [Note: this is launching to the public soon]. Ron Williams, founder, has been an essential shadow. The types of services provides — pre-qualified leads — are going to be important for everything. We were sending targeted blasts around and used to augment that. The results have been incredible.

For example, we wanted people to submit more content to the How To Be Black Tumblr. After launch, it had faded. We recruited 18 people [some from the Street Team] to push a message through Facebook and email. We had a 50% conversion rate on those messages, and got in nine stories without trying that hard. In the same way you approach your network of friends, you can do the same with social networks where you don't know them as well but they still want to help. You still have to make it easy for people to help you, but finding the value in your existing relationships — that's incredibly valuable. "The Today Show" isn't available to everyone.

This interview was edited and condensed.


April 10 2012

State of the Computer Book Market, part 5: Wrap-Up and Digital

In this final post, (posts 1-4 are available here), I will provide a summary of the first four posts, provide some insight into a view of top authors, and include data on electronic books and how parts of the digital world are surpassing the print world.

Here is a quick summary of posts 1-4.

In 2011 the book market, as a whole, saw about -9.25% fewer units sold than in 2010. The tech book market was up by 2% in 2011, so it out performed the whole market. Yet our data, which is based on the Top 3000 titles for each week, shows only 0.7% growth. This means that the majority of the growth was generated by the titles that produced very few copies and may not have made it into a weekly report for a given week in 2011. The market continued to follow its seasonal pattern, getting off to a fast start in 2011, taking its typical nose-dive downward in July, and recovering in the fall. Yet there were some anomalies with higher peaks and valleys in the trend-lines for 2011. These anomalies were caused by Borders Books (BGI) going out of business.

There were 21 weeks in 2011 that were ahead of the same week in 2010. In 2010 there were only 11 weeks that were ahead of the prior year's unit sales. There were 442 more titles (from all copyright years) that made it into the Top 3000 reports during 2011, and 268 more in 2010 than 2009. This demonstrates that the threshold to make a Top 3000 report was lower than any other year. The average units per title, for all titles not just new, increased slightly from 37.95 in 2010 to 37.96 in 2011. As far as new 2011 titles, there were 349 fewer titles published that made the dataset, but they averaged 3.4 more units per title and averaged 1 less page per title, and on average cost $0.80 less than 2010. Again, these titles had a publish date during 2011.

The biggest winners in growth order are: Tablet, Mobile Programming, Windows Consumer, Security Topics, Hardware Topics, Social Web, Computers and Society, Cloud Computing, Information Technology, and Data Topics. The areas with the largest drop in units were, in descending order: Web Page Creation, Digital Photography, Mac OS, Flash, Web Programming, Web Design Tools, Personal Computers, Linux, Software Project Management, and Personal Database. In the top performing area of Mobile Programming, iOS was nine times as large as Android in 2009, and roughly 2.5 times as large of a category in 2010, and today sells only 1.2 times as many copies of Android books to developers.

From a publisher's perspective, Pearson regained the second spot at the end of 2011, behind Wiley and slightly ahead of O'Reilly. The two imprints of O'Reilly and Dummies continue to have the most diverse publishing programs due to their strong performance in all six tech categories.

The number one title, from a dollar perspective, was PMP Exam Prep, Sixth Edition: Rita's Course in a Book for Passing the PMP Exam and from a unit perspective, My iPad 2. From a dollars perspective, the PMP book has ranked in the top two since 2005. The number one programming language for three years running (2009, 2010, and 2011) was Java, with JavaScript and VBA also showing continued strong growth in 2011. That's the quick review.

Now let's turn our attention to the most important ingredient in publishing — authors. Authors are the entities that create all types of content. And there are all types of authors. Some are really like small publishing houses with "co-authors" doing most of the heavy lifting. Then there are those who do all the lifting: editing, writing, testing, and coding of the content themselves, and then move on to help promote, market and sell. These latter activities are what contribute to what we call an author platform. Some authors have an inherent platform by who they are or what their 9-5 job is, while others have to work hard to cultivate their platform. The most successful authors in our dataset have figured out both the upfront creation of content and the end-game of helping with marketing and sales. The table below shows the top 15 authors for 2011 and what their rank is for both 2011 and lifetime units. I'm also showing what their % Units '11 was so you can see the percentage of their lifetime units that they sold in 2011. A few did really well in 2011 and yet lifetime are not a top 10 author. Scott Kelby and David Pogue did not have outstanding numbers in 2011 but are the top two lifetime authors from a units perspective. Gary Rosenzweig and Patrick Kanouse both had outstanding sales in 2011 but are nowhere near top 15 authors from a lifetime perspective.

Author_List 2011 Rank All Time Rank % Units '11 Paul McFedries 1 6 17.68% Andy Rathbone 2 3 9.18% Gary Rosenzweig 3 61 59.19% Nancy C. Muir 4 24 25.26% David Pogue 5 1 7.57% Greg Harvey 6 4 9.10% Edward C. Baig, Bob LeVitus 7 44 41.49% Patrick Kanouse 8 148 90.02% Brad Miser 9 30 28.52% Dan Gookin 10 5 7.75% Stephen L. Nelson 11 8 9.49% John Walkenbach 12 10 10.17% Wallace Wang 13 13 11.10% Scott Kelby 14 2 4.55% Peter Weverka 15 19 11.41%

The noticeable change is that Scott Kelby takes the number one spot from a dollar perspective even though David Pogue sells more units. Books with slightly higher prices enable this movement in the position/rank. Notice that Rita Mulchay does not make the Top 15 for units sold, and yet as an author her books are ranked number seven in dollars generated. Another interesting observation is that there are about six authors that are in the mix for the top spot all-time, yet there is a significant drop-off after the top six. In the dollars view, the drop-off is even more significant after the top two authors.

When you look at the data for the top 15 authors (basically, who has produced more units and dollars), you get the following two charts, showing lifetime sales (2004-2011).

Units Dollars LifeTimeAuthorUnits.jpg

In 2011, Paul McFedries had his name on 56 different books (ranging from 2001 through 2011) that made our list, for an average of 1,937 units per book. His books sold the most units in 2011 but his average was the lowest of the all time top-five authors. His total was about 22,000 more units than David Pogue who saw 16 of his titles make the list with an average of 4,789 per title.


Electronic distribution and sales

Now let's move past print sales in 2011 — or at least partially away from traditional channels of distribution — to discuss e-distribution. The three charts immediately below are from Bowker, which has recently released its Results Of Global eBook Research. The charts show three interesting graphs about awareness of for-pay content, digital consumption by gender, and digital consumption by age. What is interesting to me is not that Indian males lead the way in both digital downloads and purchasing for-pay content, but rather that more women than men in the U.S. and U.K. are consumers of digital content. It is also no surprise, at least to me, that the 25-34 age group is the most active in consuming digital content.

Click on each image to view a larger version.

Awareness of Paid Content Digital Consumers by Sex Bowker Digital Paid Awareness Bowker Penetration of Buyers by Sex Digital Consumers by Age Bowker Penetration of Buyers by Age

Now to take you into the tech book digital market, let's look at what has happened in the past few years with O'Reilly products. The chart immediately below shows our digital products aggregated into one number and then plotted by year and month. This gives you a perspective of how things are changing. What it does not show is that early digital copies were all PDF files that were pretty clumsy and not as useful. Now we offer our content in virtually any form our readers prefer. So with Mobi and EPUB, we are seeing the less useful PDF decline significantly. But the chart below groups all digital forms together. Only two months in 2011 were not ahead of 2010. Those two months were June and July, which coincidentally coincided with the Borders' liquidation of physical products.


I also think it is important to look at what O'Reilly customers purchased when visiting The chart below shows our content mix for the previous two years. The only thing declining in 2011 was our total sales for print products. Rough Cuts are early access editions of our content that are accessible on Safari. As you can see, our ebooks outsell everything by nearly 4 to 1.


What I am not sure exists is a good indicator of what the startup community uses for technical content and books. But if I had to bet, I would wager on ebooks direct from the publisher would be the preferred format in the startup world.

The four charts below show O'Reilly revenue and units growth through The reason I am showing these is because the same content that goes into our print books is available in various digital forms. It is quite obvious that our customers prefer to shop on for digital copies.

The two charts on the left are showing revenue (top-left) and units (bottom-left) for 2011 exclusively. The two charts on the right are both revenue and units but are showing the trend for the previous four years. From talking with other publishers, this high-growth trend for digital books is indicative of what is happening in the market. The ebooks are just digital versions of our print products. We have not come to a point yet where the digital edition is a native creation that is a blend of live, editable code, video, text, images, links, assessment tools, and other resources all working together. At this point in time, most digital products are typically print books with a few links and some color for good measure. But don't blink because the tech book market will change quickly to these more blended content types.

O'Reilly Product Mix - Revenue 2011 O'Reilly Print vs. eBook - Revenue Trend Ecom_1.jpg Ecom_2a.jpg   O'Reilly Product Mix - Units 2011 O'Reilly Print vs. eBook - Units Trend Ecom_3.jpg Ecom_4.jpg

Again, this data is taken from direct sales for O'Reilly and, and may not represent the whole computer book market. One point that was recently brought in discussions at O'Reilly by our VP of online is that O'Reilly is selling more copies of digital editions than any other distributors that carry our digital copies. I think that may be due to the fact that we have DRM-free content that allows you to move your copy of your purchase to another device. For another perspective on DRM, I wrote this for our author newsletter a while back and I still believe that the ideas are sound. Have a look here.

Another key ingredient to understanding what is happening in the digital world is to look at Safari Books Online. Safari is a subscription service with more than 500,000 users. Its main focus is its B2B service that allows developers from many of the largest companies in the world to have access to technical books from most of the major publishing houses and imprints. One notable difference is that the categories with consumer-oriented titles, including the Digital Media titles, do not perform as well in Safari. Developer titles rule in Safari; so as a proxy, Safari may be one of the better predictors of a tech book market. As you can see from the chart to the left, our content in Safari is growing at a nice steady rate. In fact it is safe to say that Safari represents the second largest distribution channel for O'Reilly, with Amazon still occupying the top spot and O'Reilly direct battling for third. It will be interesting to see how the distribution of technical content unfolds in the coming years.


If you look at word clouds for the titles published in 2011 for all books, and the ones found on Safari for O'Reilly during 2011, you notice some similarities. Notably that "Development" and "Programming" are big in both images, but slightly larger on Safari. I was initially not sure why "Control" was so large on Safari, but after a bit of digging I found that Tidbits Publishing has a series called "Take Control" and O'Reilly Media is a distribution partner for them in Safari.


All print titles

Safari for O'Reilly

Thank you for reading these posts. If there is something that you are itching to see / understand more clearly, please let me know and I will try to help. I plan to excerpt updated pieces of these posts on Twitter or Google+ throughout the year. They'll come from @mikehatora or +Mike Hendrickson and will likely get re-tweeted by @oreillymedia or +O'Reilly on Google+.

January 27 2012

Top stories: January 23-27, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

On pirates and piracy
Mike Loukides: "I'm not willing to have the next Bach, Beethoven, or Shakespeare post their work online, only to have it taken down because they haven't paid off a bunch of executives who think they own creativity."

Microsoft's plan for Hadoop and big data
Strata conference chair Edd Dumbill takes a look at Microsoft's plans for big data. By embracing Hadoop, the company aims to keep Windows and Azure as a standards-friendly option for data developers.

Coming soon to a location near you: The Amazon Store?
Jason Calacanis says an Amazon retail presence isn't out of the question and that AmazonBasics is a preview of what's to come.

Survey results: How businesses are adopting and dealing with data
Feedback from a recent Strata Online Conference suggests there's a large demand for clear information on what big data is and how it will change business.

Why the fuss about iBooks Author?
Apple doesn't have an objective to move the publishing industry forward. With iBooks Author, the company sees an opportunity to reinvent this industry within its own closed ecosystem.

Strata 2012, Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work. Save 20% on Strata registration with the code RADAR20.

January 13 2012

Top Stories: January 9-14, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

What is big data?
It's the hot trend in software right now, but what does big data mean, and how can you exploit it? Strata chair Edd Dumbill presents an introduction and orientation to the big data landscape.

Can Maryland's other "CIO" cultivate innovation in government?
Maryland's first chief innovation officer, Bryan Sivak, is looking for the levers that will help state government to be smarter, not bigger. From embracing collective intelligence to data-driven policy, Sivak is defining what it means to be innovative in government.

Three reasons why we're in a golden age of publishing entrepreneurship
Books, publishing processes and readers have all made the jump to digital, and that's creating considerable opportunities for publishing startups.

The rise of programmable self
Taking a cue from the Quantified Self movement, the programmable self is the combination of a digital motivation hack with a digital system that tracks behavior. Fred Trotter looks at companies and projects relevant to the programmable-self space.

A venture into self-publishing
Scott Berkun turned to self-publishing with his latest book, "Mindfire." In this TOC podcast, Berkun discusses the experience and says the biggest surprise was the required PR effort.

Tools of Change for Publishing, being held February 13-15 in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Register to attend TOC 2012.

January 09 2012

A venture into self-publishing

This post is part of the TOC podcast series. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

MindfireCover.jpgScott Berkun is a long-time O'Reilly author, but he decided to self-publish his latest book, "Mindfire." Similar to my earlier podcast interview with Dan Gillmor, I wanted to get Berkun's thoughts on his experience of having published both ways. Why did he venture into the world of self-publishing? Is he happy with the results, and will he ever work with a traditional publisher again? Those are a few of the questions he answers in this TOC interview.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Self-publishing was a learning opportunity — Some authors are curious to learn the finer aspects of what goes into making a book, and Scott quickly learned a lot with the "Mindfire" experience. [Discussed at the 1:05 mark.]
  • Blogging and book writing have always gone hand-in-hand for Scott — His blog is a wonderful sounding board and helps him shape whatever book he's currently working on, including the title, cover and more. [Discussed at 2:10.]
  • Self-publishing is both easy and hard — Technology makes it easy to publish almost anything these days; it's all the work that goes not only into the writing, but also into the editing, cover design, proofreading, indexing, marketing, etc., that makes it so challenging. [Discussed at 4:35.]
  • Self-publishing also requires self-promotion — Author platforms are more important today than ever before; it's true for traditional publishing, too, but even more so for self-published products. [Discussed at 8:25.]
  • The PR effort required was the biggest surprise — Berkun used a giveaway campaign to build momentum and extend his future reach. [Discussed at 9:54.]

  • How can traditional publishers avoid losing authors to self-publishing? — Berkun turns the question around and asks why this decision is an either/or. [Discussed at 17:14.]
  • The opportunity to learn from self-published authors — Editors often abandon their authors who test the self-publishing waters when what they should really be doing is talking more with them to learn what's working and what's not. [Discussed at 20:43.]

Additionally, the 10 most common questions Berkun is asked about self-publishing can be found here, and our entire interview can be viewed in the following video.

src="" frameborder="0"<br /> allowfullscreen></p> <div><a href=""><img src="" /></a><a href=""><strong>TOC NY 2012</strong></a> &mdash; O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.<br /> <br /> <a href=""><strong>Register to attend TOC 2012</strong></a></div> <p><strong>Related:</strong></p> <ul> <li> <a href="">Be innovative, but don't use that word</a></li> <p><li> <a href="">Publishers: What are they good for?</a></li></p> <p><li> <a href="">Do agent-publishers carry a conflict of interest?</a></li></p> <p><li> <a href="">Five things we learned about publishing in 2011</a></li></p> <p><li> <a href="">More TOC Podcasts</a></li><br /> </p></ul> <div class="feedflare"> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> </div><img src="" height="1" width="1" />

December 20 2011

Quid pro quo will define the author-publisher relationship

In a recent interview, author and digital book producer Peter Meyers talked about what we can expect as publishing comes into its own in the digital era. He said customized book apps will largely go by the wayside, and HTML5 as a format will be a bit of a hard-sell to consumers. And using his own experience as a basis, Meyers said publishers aren't in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Highlights from the interview (below) include:

  • Different kinds of books gravitate toward different kinds of formats — Meyers said the majority of books in the future won't be customized apps. The ones that will be apps will be the ones that require interactivity. [Discussed at the 0:19 mark.]
  • HTML5 is still a wild card — Meyers said HTML5's core question is transactional: Are people willing to pay for web-based content? Consumers have been reluctant thus far, but as HTML5 gets fully supported, we'll see more experimentation. [Discussed at 1:40.]
  • Amazon's Fire tablet will be a problem for B&N — Even though both tablets are similar in a lot ways, Meyers pointed toward Amazon's ecosystem and said B&N just doesn't match up to Amazon's content and service offerings. [Discussed at 4:54.]
  • Will publishers become irrelevant? — Meyers said no. Using his own experience as an example, he highlighted the fact that his publisher (O'Reilly) provides a platform to publicize his work and technological support to produce works in particular formats. What he doesn't get — and said few authors do — is hand-holding, individual attention, detailed line editing, cheerleading and so forth. Meyers said authors need to go in with the expectation that they'll have to do as much for their publishers and their books as the publishers do for them. [Discussed at 5:26.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

Meyers' new book, "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience," will be released in the next couple weeks — you can nab a free preview copy now — and he'll host a workshop at TOC 2012.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012


December 02 2011

Publishing News: One publishing experiment ends, another begins

Here are a few of the stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week.

An experiment in publishing comes to an end

The final book in The Domino Project, Sarah Kay's poem "B," was published this week — roughly one year after the project began. Seth Godin, the author and founder of the project, put together a list of lessons learned.

The entire list is well worth the read, but here are a couple of highlights:

1. Permission is still the most important and valuable asset of the web (and of publishing). The core group of 50,000 subscribers to the Domino blog made all the difference in getting the word out and turning each of our books into a bestseller. It still amazes me how few online merchants and traditional publishers (and even authors) have done the hard work necessary to create this asset. If you're an author in search of success and you don't pursue this with single-minded passion, you're making a serious error ...

2. The ebook is a change agent like none the book business has ever seen. It cuts the publishing time cycle by 90%, lowers costs, lowers revenue and creates both a long tail and an impulse-buying opportunity. This is the most disruptive thing to happen to books in four hundred years. It's hard for me to see significant ways traditional book publishers can add the value they're used to adding when it comes to marketing ebooks, unless they get busy with #1 ...

7. The ebook marketing platform is in its technical infancy. There are so many components that need to be built ... Ebooks are way too hard to give as gifts and to share. Too hard to integrate into social media. And the ebook reader is a lousy platform for discovery and promotion of new titles (what a missed chance). All that will happen, the road map is there, but it's going to take commitment from Apple, B&N and Amazon ...

Godin also put together a project wrap-up over at Squidoo, and here's Godin explaining his motivations for The Domino Project:

A journalist blazes a new trail

As the news media continues to struggle with all things digital and keeping the books in the black, journalists are finding work harder and harder to come by. Marc Herman, a freelance journalist (notably for The Atlantic), decided to try carving out his own niche. Leaving behind the beleaguered middlemen, Herman turned a long-form story into a Kindle Singles ebook, "The Shores of Tripoli," and put it up for sale. He talks about the experience in a recent post on his blog:

The Kindle Single was my agent's idea. Amazon provided an experienced editor who offered notes and a copy editor who checked the grammar and usage, and hired a designer to make the cover. This proved, in my case, a workable middle option. It was a way to tell the story in a way that reminded me of magazine journalism, but avoided the intense competition for the attention of a handful of editors in the traditional press who still buy this sort of work. And it's providing the possibility of ultimately funding the work — we sell it, very inexpensively, for consumption on Kindle readers, and smartphones, tablets and PCs with a Kindle app.

Herman is looking into working with a team of people to produce more complex stories involving video and other media — see his "Meanwhile, in Egypt" blog post for more on that.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb 13-15, 2012 in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

The changing roles of authors requires more personalization

This week the Wall Street Journal looked at how bookstores are changing author presentations. Rather than offering the old straight-up book readings, stores are asking authors for personal presentations that better connect with attendees.

For the story, Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books, described author visits at her shop, explaining that "the shop would sponsor only author events that featured a conversation or a mini-lecture, a PowerPoint presentation or perhaps a slide show, all followed by a question-and-answer session and — at most — the recitation of a paragraph or two from the book to illustrate a point."

The personal approach is becoming more common, especially as bookstore owners, authors and readers embrace social networking platforms. In a recent post for Radar, Sarah Milstein wrote about how Celia Sack, owner of Omnivore Books in San Francisco, is benefiting from personal connections with readers and authors alike. Milstein described one of Sack's first Twitter successes:

Although Twitter was Sack's "only technological milieu," it didn't take her long to figure out that she could use it to connect with other people. Food writer David Lebovitz (@davidlebovitz) was an early inspiration. "I wrote him [an @Message] and said, 'I know you don't have a book now, but if you're ever in SF, I'd love to have you come give a talk." He responded enthusiastically, and the proverbial light bulb went off for Sack.

If anyone is still wondering if an author can really connect through social platforms, check out Neil Gaiman's Twitter ecosystem, or consider the power of a Mindy Kaling tweet:

Harvard Book Store tweet to Mindy Kaling


November 04 2011

Top Stories: October 31-November 4, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

How I automated my writing career
You scale content businesses by increasing the number of people who create the content ... or so conventional wisdom says. Learn how a former author is using software to simulate and expand human-quality writing.

What does privacy mean in an age of big data?
Ironclad digital privacy isn't realistic, argues "Privacy and Big Data" co-author Terence Craig. What we need instead are laws and commitments founded on transparency.

If your data practices were made public, would you be nervous?
Solon Barocas, a doctoral student at New York University, discusses consumer perceptions of data mining and how companies and data scientists can shape data mining's reputation.

Five ways to improve publishing conferences
Keynotes and panel discussions may not be the best way to program conferences. What if organizers instead structured events more like a great curriculum?

Anthropology extracts the true nature of tech
Genevieve Bell, director of interaction and experience research at Intel, talks about how anthropology can inform business decisions and product design.

Tools of Change for Publishing, being held February 13-15 in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Register to attend TOC 2012.

The problem with Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library

Amazon Kindle logoIt's no secret that I'm a big Amazon fan. In fact, I recently took the Amazon side in a debate about platform superiority. (I won that debate, by the way ...) That's why a lot of people are surprised that I'm such an outspoken critic of Amazon's new Kindle Owners' Lending Library. The program is great for Amazon and maybe even for consumers, assuming they're willing to live with the many restrictions, but it's awful for publishers and authors.

Why? As Amazon stated in its press release, "For the vast majority of titles, Amazon has reached agreement with publishers to include titles for a fixed fee." So no matter how popular (or unpopular) the publisher's titles are, they get one flat fee for participation in the library. I strongly believe this type of program needs to compensate publishers and authors on a usage level, not a flat fee. The more a title is borrowed, the higher the fee to the publisher and author. Period.

Even if a flat fee made sense, how can a publisher try to estimate a fair amount? One key factor is the number of Amazon Prime subscribers. There are a variety of estimates on this figure, but those estimates only apply to this specific point in time. How can you possibly know the number of Prime subscribers Amazon will have in six months? In 12 months? Don't assume you can simply extrapolate this number from historical trends. When the Kindle Fire comes out later this month it will include a 30-day Prime trial, and I expect the Fire's availability and the upcoming holidays to create an enormous surge in Prime subscribers. When will Prime double today's levels? It's impossible to say, which means there's no way to estimate how many times a book might get loaned out. That also means it's impossible to come up with a reasonable estimate on a flat fee for a publisher's list.

I hope Amazon reconsiders and switches this program to a pay-for-performance model. That's the only way I'll ever support it as a publisher.

What's your take? Please weigh in through the comments.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012 in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012


November 03 2011

How I automated my writing career

In 2001, I got an itch to write a book. Like many people, I naïvely thought, "I have a book or two in me," as if writing a book is as easy as putting pen to paper. It turns out to be very time consuming, and that's after you've spent countless hours learning and researching and organizing your topic of choice. But I marched on and wrote or co-wrote 10 books in a five-year period. I'm a glutton for punishment.

My day job during that time was programming. I've been programming for 16 years. My whole career I've focused on automating the un-automatable — essentially making computers do things people never thought they could do. By the time I started on my 10th book, I got another kind of itch — I wanted to automate my writing career. I was getting bored with the tedium of writing books, and the money wasn't that good.

But that's absurd, right? How can a computer possibly write something coherent and informative, much less entertaining? The "how can a computer possibly do X?" questions are the ones I've spent my career trying to answer. So, I set out on a quest to create software that could write. It took more effort than writing 10 books put together, but after building a team of 12 people, we were able to use our software to generate more than 100,000 sports-related stories in a nine-month period.

Before I get into specifics with what our software produces, I think it's worth highlighting some of the attributes that make software a great candidate to be a writer:

  • Software doesn't get writer's block, and it can work around the clock.
  • Software can't unionize or file class-action lawsuits because we don't pay enough (like many of the content farms have had to deal with).
  • Software doesn't get bored and start wondering how to automate itself.
  • Software can be reprogrammed, refactored and improved — continuously.
  • Software can benefit from the input of multiple people. This is unlike traditional writing, which tends to be a solitary event (+1 if you count the editor).
  • Perhaps most importantly, software can access and analyze significantly more data than what a single person (or even a group of people) can do on their own.

Software isn't a panacea, though. Not all content can be easily automated (yet). The type of content my company, Automated Insights, has automated is quantitatively oriented. That's the trick. We've automated content by applying meaning to numbers, to data. Sports was the first category we tackled. Sports by their nature are very data heavy. By our internal estimates, 70% of all sports-related articles are analyzing numbers in one form or another.

Our technology combines a large database of structured data, a real-time feed of stats, and a large database of phrases, and algorithms to tie it all together to produce articles from two to eight paragraphs in length. The algorithms look for interesting patterns in the data to determine what to write about.

In November of 2010, we launched the StatSheet Network, a collection of 345 websites (one for every Division-I NCAA Basketball team) that were fully automated. Check out my favorite team: UNC Tar Heels.

Automated game recap
Software mines data to construct short game recaps. (Click to see full story.)

We included the typical kind of stats you'd expect on a basketball site, but also embedded visualizations and our fully automated articles. We automated 14 different types of stories, everything from game recaps and previews to players of the week and historical retrospectives. Recently, we launched similar sites for every MLB team (check out the Detroit Tigers site), and soon we are launching sites for every NFL and NCAA Football team.

Sports is only one of many different categories we are working on. We've also done work in finance, real estate and a few other data-intensive industries. However, don't limit your thinking on what's possible. We get a steady stream of requests from non-obvious industries, such as pharmaceutical clinical trials and even domain name registrars. Any area that has large datasets where people are trying to derive meaning from the data are potential candidates for our technology.

Automation plus human, not automation versus human

Creating software that can write long-form narratives is very difficult, full of all sorts of interesting artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language problems. But with the right mix of talent (and funding), we've been able to do it. It really does take a keen understanding of how software and the written word can work together.

I often hear it suggested that software-generated prose must be very bland and stilted. That's only the case if the folks behind the software write bland and stilted prose. Software can be just as opinionated as any writer.

A common, and funny, question I get from journalists is: "when will you automate me out out of a job?" I find the question humorous because built into the question is the assumption that if our software can write the perfect story on a particular topic, then no one else should attempt to write about it. That's just not going to happen. What's happening instead is that media companies are using our software to help scale their businesses. Initially, that takes the form of generating stories on topics a media outlet didn't have the resources to cover. In other cases, it means putting our stories through an editorial process that customizes the content to the specific needs of the publisher. You still need humans for that. There will be less of a need for folks to spend their time writing purely quantitative pieces, but that should be liberating. Now, they can focus on more qualitative, value-added commentary that humans are inherently good at. Quantitative stories can — and probably should — be mostly automated because computers are better at that.

Software will make hyperlocal content possible and even profitable. Many companies have tried to solve the "hyperlocal problem" with minimal success. It's just too hard to scale content creation out to every town in the U.S. (or the world, for that matter). For certain categories (e.g. high school sports), software-generated content makes perfect sense. You'll see automated content play a big role here in the coming years.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

Software-generated books?

Because I've been so focused on running Automated Insights, I haven't had time to write any new books recently. I suggested to a colleague that we should turn our software loose and have it write my next book. He looked at me and asked, "How can it possibly do that?" That's what I like to hear.

But is a software-generated book even feasible? Our software can create eight paragraphs now, but is it possible to create eight chapters' worth of content? The answer is "yes," but not quite the same kind of technical books I used to write, at least right now. It would be easy for us to extend our technology to write even longer pieces. That's not the issue. Our software is good at quantitative analysis using structured data.

The kind of books I used to write were not based on data and were qualitative in nature. I pulled from my experience and did supplemental research, made a judgment on the best way to perform a task, then documented it. We are in the early stages of building software that will do more qualitative analysis such as this, but that's a much harder challenge. The main advantage of today's usage of software writing is to automate repetitive types of content. This is less applicable for books.

In the near term, the writers at O'Reilly and elsewhere have nothing to worry about. But I wouldn't count out automation in the long term.

Associated box score photo on home and category pages via Wikipedia.


June 03 2011

Radar's top stories: May 30-June 3, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published on Radar this week.

How the Library of Congress is building the Twitter archive
One year after Twitter donated its archives, the Library of Congress is still building the infrastructure to make the data accessible to researchers.
10 ways to botch a mobile app
With the aim of injecting reason and business know-how into the app development process, "App Savvy" author Ken Yarmosh outlines the top 10 reasons why apps often falter or fail.
The story behind Velocity 2011
As we approach the fourth Velocity conference, here's a look at how the web performance and operations communities came together, what they've done to improve the web experience, and the work that lies ahead.
The state of speed and the quirks of mobile optimization
Google performance evangelist and Velocity co-chair Steve Souders discusses browser competition, the differences between mobile and desktop optimization, and his hopes for the HTTP Archive.
Open Question: Would you fund your favorite author?
With the launch of the publishing platform, readers can fund the books they want to read. If given the chance, would you fund the next book from your favorite author?

OSCON Java 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is focused on open source technologies that make up the Java ecosystem. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

Publishing News: Rebooting online news presentation

Here are some of this week's highlights from the publishing world. (Note: These stories were published here on Radar throughout the week.)

I can has better news presentation?

MobyDick.pngBen Huh (@benhuh), CEO of the Cheezburger, Inc., loves his Cheezburger project, but he's also ready to have a fling with news. In a recent blog post, Huh addressed the stagnant state of news presentation and consumption, which he's hoping to address with his new project Moby Dick.

In the post he described how news sites are not embracing new technology or exploring new ways to report and present the news:

The limited amount of space on news homepages and their outmoded method of presentation poses big problems for the distribution of news as well as consumption by the public. Even though it's been more than 15 years since the Internet became a news destination, journalists and editors are still trapped in the print and TV world of message delivery.

The traditional methods of news-writing, such as the reverse pyramid, and the various "editions" of news, pose big limitations on how news is reported and consumed. Unfortunately, Internet-based changes such as reverse-chronological blogging of news, inability to archive yesterday's news, poor commenting quality, live-blogging, and others have made news consumption an even more frustrating experience.

Because it's easy to find news outlets that are doing it wrong, I reached out to Huh via email for his thoughts on news organizations that are headed in the right direction. Our short interview follows.

If one of journalism's problems is digital presentation, who is doing it right?

Ben Huh: I love that MSNBC is trying out new ideas and new formats. Not everything works, but it's the trial and error that will help come up with answers. The Huffington Post's Big News pages are interesting, but are still limited to the old blog format. I do love Techmeme, and they do a wonderful job of curation.

  • This story continues here

Inside the Library of Congress' Twitter archive

Library of Congress Reading Room 1 by maveric2003, on FlickrIn April 2010, Twitter announced it was donating its entire archive of public tweets to the Library of Congress. Every tweet since Twitter's inception in 2006 would be preserved. The donation of the archive to the Library of Congress may have been in part a symbolic act, a recognition of the cultural significance of Twitter. Although several important historical moments had already been captured on Twitter when the announcement was made last year (the first tweet from space, for example, Barack Obama's first tweet as President, or news of Michael Jackson's death), since then our awareness of the significance of the communication channel has certainly grown.

That's led to a flood of inquiries to the Library of Congress about how and when researchers will be able to gain access to the Twitter archive. These research requests were perhaps heightened by some of the changes that Twitter has made to its API and firehose access.

But creating a Twitter archive is a major undertaking for the Library of Congress, and the process isn't as simple as merely cracking open a file for researchers to peruse. I spoke with Martha Anderson, the head of the library's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIP), and Leslie Johnston, the manager of the NDIIP's Technical Architecture Initiatives, about the challenges and opportunities of archiving digital data of this kind.

  • This story continues here

Would you fund your favorite author's next book?

questionmarkPublishers can start preparing for some new competition — from readers. A new crowdfunded service called Unbound launched at this year's Hay Festival. The platform, which sounds similar to Kickstarter, allows readers to fund the books they want to read. A post at the Guardian describes how it works:

The publishing platform ... allows writers to pitch ideas online directly to readers who, if they are interested, pledge financial support. Once enough money has been raised, the author will write the book, with supporters receiving anything from an ebook to a limited first edition and lunch with the author, depending on their level of investment.

And Unbound didn't launch with unknown self-publishing authors — Terry Jones is on board, as are Tibor Fischer and Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

This raises the question: Would you fund your favorite author?

  • Share your thoughts and check out the conversation in this story's comments

Got news?

Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.

Photo: Library of Congress Reading Room 1 by maveric2003, on Flickr

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast


March 28 2011

March 14 2011

Baby bibs to dog clothes to ... publishing's salvation?

As traditional publishing revenue is diluted by digital content sales, new revenue models are being bandied about. One example: merchandising. Authors and publishers can use online tools like Zazzle and CafePress to quickly create promotional merchandise to accompany book releases. These items (theoretically) could help authors own their brands, connect with fans, and bring in much-needed money.

Click to see full Dead Author slide

One author, Margaret Atwood, has already employed the merchandising model — not in connection to a book release, but in connection to a keynote speech she gave at TOC 2011. Her vivid imagery involved the "Dead Author" (pictured above) and the danger of solar flares.

So what does Atwood think of this merchandise model? Is it a boon to authors? Does it hint at a bright future for publishing?

Don't get your hopes up.

"No, I don't think it's a good model!" she said via email.

Atwood said she created her T-shirts, mugs, clocks (?), baby bibs (??), and dog shirts (!!) to satisfy fans:

Twitterers and other readers requested them! It's in answer to my comment at TOC that authors can't live from rock concerts and T-shirts ... They said, "Please do the T-shirts." They even told me how.

Atwood may be right — merchandising probably won't save publishing. Still, she shouldn't underestimate demand for a limited edition Atwood bobblehead housed in a solar-flare-resistant case.

(And in case you're wondering, my T-shirt has shipped.)


March 08 2011

Publishers: What are they good for?

Self-published author Amanda Hocking turned heads when estimates suggested she's making big money. Hocking's age — she's 26 — and her distribution method of choice — low-priced ebooks sold directly through Amazon, et al. — undoubtedly contributed to the attention.

The inclination is to paint this picture in broad strokes: An upstart author finds success outside the traditional method, which reveals the imminent demise of the stodgy incumbents (insert David vs. Goliath and/or "Innovator's Dilemma" references as needed).

It's a good story, but Hocking isn't buying it. In a blog post titled "Some Things That Need to Be Said," Hocking makes two important points:

  1. Success in any domain is unpredictable. "... While I do think I will not be the only one to do this — others will be as successful as I've been, some even more so — I don't think it will happen that often," she writes.
  2. Self-publishing and traditional publishing are branches on the same tree. "Self-publishing and traditional publishing really aren't that different," Hocking says. "One is easier to get into but harder to maintain. But neither come with guarantees. Some books will sell, some won't."

Her full post is worth a read.

News of Hocking's success led to an interesting back-channel conversation on an O'Reilly editor's list. The perspectives articulated in the resulting email thread reflect many of the important issues at play in today's publishing world. With permission, I'm moving a few excerpts into public view below. I think (and hope) there's an opportunity to instigate some broader discussion.

Amanda Hocking on Amazon
Screenshot of Amazon's Amanda Hocking page

What do publishers offer?

In the email exchange, Brett McLaughlin considered the return on investment of traditional publishing's bread and butter: in-depth editing. Is editing as important as publishers think it is?

Many of the things we think are of incredibly high value turn out to be of far less value to the consumer. Certainly, we can say that editing of a Kindle fiction book probably needs to be less rigorous than a print technology book, or even more so in the case of a language-heavy theological commentary ... I'd do well to think hard about what's worth holding a product up in the name of "editing" and what just doesn't matter to the paying public.

Tim O'Reilly noted that good editing adapts to the author and the project:

Sometimes, we need to almost become co-authors; at other times, we need to just step back and let the author speak, even if it's a bit different than we would do it ourselves. But ideally, editing is a conversation in which the editor helps the author clarify his or her own ideas, the order and learning path, and the depth of treatment.

Russell Jones made an intriguing point about publishing processes. What once was mandatory is now optional:

Rather than a required step in publishing, editorial is in the process of switching from an imposed step by publishers to an optional step by authors. It’s this change in focus that makes publishers nervous. But I don’t think it should, necessarily. As Tim points out, there are times when the author’s original voice is sufficient, and times when the editor/author conversation becomes paramount.

As I see it, the future of publishing and editing is to identify those touchpoints and offer the appropriate services as required at that time. And we have numerous services to offer, including: artwork, audience research, marketing and advertising, public relations, design, technological expertise, sales and distribution, brand association, community services, update and notification services, bundling, and of course, editorial.

The very fact that authors can publish works without a traditional publisher automatically changes the publisher’s role from one that imposes process on authors to one that offers services to authors. Nimble publishers will recognize this sea change and adapt.

Mike Loukides looked at the "cheerleading" editors give to authors:

The economics of publishing are changing in ways that make it difficult for publishers to do the kind of rewriting and revision that we used to do, but that's only part of the picture. A huge part that we haven't thought about enough is what I call the "cheerleading" role: supporting and encouraging the author so that he or she makes it down the stretch. So, though we're going to have to rely more on writers who can deliver good prose without lots of help, that's a small part of the value we deliver. There's a lot of value in shaping the approach and pushing the author toward the finish line.

Many characterize Hocking as a self publisher, but that's not quite right. The companies that own the distribution/sales platforms Hocking and other authors use are in many ways the real publishers. In the email thread, Tim O'Reilly used Amazon to illustrate this point:

I think it's important to frame all this correctly. We're not really talking about a situation where authors are self-publishing so much as one where we're watching Amazon become a publisher. Amazon is starting with the now standard Internet approach of "publish first, curate afterwards" (vs. the old scarcity model of "curate, then publish"), but it's also clear that as the ecosystem develops, Amazon will offer more of the kinds of services that Russell is talking about.

If Amazon and Apple and others are publishers now, what competitive advantage can traditional publishers claim? Brett McLaughlin said the things that happen around the writing process — the conversations, the shaping, and the author-editor relationships — are key differentiators:

There is huge value in saying: You're getting access and long conversations with an editor who is engaged in your field, who is reading and thinking and talking to others about the same topics, who reads everything you've already written, and will engage you.

In short, you're pair-writing, and the result isn't just a spell-checked, green-underline-less document in Word that can be turned into a web page or a Kindle product. What you're creating is a book that is cognitively and substantively better, because you are thinking better. You are well-reasoned and provocative and well-organized, and you have had your pre-suppositions challenged by a great companion. Sure, your book is better as a result, but so is your speech, and your sessions at conferences, and your work product. Ultimately, you are a better thinker.

Your thoughts?

Even when you want to be open minded, it's hard to fully understand the field of play when you're ensnared in a system. I fall into that trap all the time, and I'm probably caught in it now.

As such, I'm curious to hear what other folks think. Do the perspectives outlined above seem on target? Or, is the thread of optimism that runs through these points tied to a misplaced sense of publisher self-worth? And here's a question for authors: Are publishers still useful?

Please weigh in through the comments.

Portions of these excerpts were edited and condensed.


March 03 2011

Digital authors need a whole new set of skills

Trademark-symbol.pngAs the publishing industry wrestles its way into the digital age, a lot of conversation has centered around digital platforms, distribution woes, technological enhancement possibilities and how publishers and readers are adapting and adjusting to the new landscape. But where do authors fit into this mix?

In a recent interview, Dana Newman, a transactional and intellectual property attorney, talked about what authors need to do to protect themselves and their brands, in addition to their books:

Rather than think in terms of "I want to sell my book," think about "I want to license all of my intellectual property rights." Realize that it's not just your book, per say. It may be electronic rights, it may be multimedia rights — it may be all these other areas that your book may be exploited.

Before you enter into an agreement, make sure you understand it. Make sure you understand how you're granting those rights, and if you're granting all of your rights to one particular publisher, [ask yourself] do they have the ability and the plan to role out those other platforms for you?

Also, don't forget about trademarks. Authors are being told now they have to get out there, they have to market themselves. They are their brand. Don't forget to register your trademark — your name ...

During the interview, Newman also discussed the future of territory rights, embracing the "e-pocalypse," and why the film industry's experience with the digital transition contains lessons for the book world. The full interview is available in the following video:


February 18 2011

An era in which to curate skills: report from Tools of Change conference

Three days of intensive
discussion about the current state of publishing
wrapped up last
night in New York City. Let's take a tour from start to end.

If I were to draw one point from the first session I attended, I would
say that metadata is a key competitive point for publishers. First,
facts such as who has reviewed a book, how many editions it has been
through, and other such things we call "metadata" can be valuable to
readers and institutions you want to sell content to. Second, it can
be valuable to you internally as part of curation (which I'll get to
later). Basically, metadata makes content far more useful. But it's
so tedious to add and to collate with other content's metadata that
few people out in the field bother to add it. Publishers are
well-placed to do it because they have the resources to pay people for
that unappreciated task.

If I were to leap to the other end of the conference and draw one
point from the closing keynotes, I would say that the key to survival
is to start with the determination that you're going to win, and to
derive your strategy from that. The closing keynoters offered a couple
strategies along those lines.

Kathy Sierra
claimed she started her href="">Head First
series with no vision loftier than to make money and beat the
competition. The key to sales, as she has often explained in her
talks and articles on "Creating Passionate Users," is not to promote
the author or the topic but to promote what the reader could become.

Huh of I Can Has
said that one must plan a book to be a bestseller, the
way car or appliance manufacturers plan to meet the demands of their

Thus passed the start and end of this conference. A lot happened in
between. I'll cover a few topics in this blog.

Skills for a future publishing

There clearly is an undercurrent of worry, if not actual panic, in
publishing. We see what is happening to newspapers, we watch our
markets shrink like those of the music and television industries, and
we check our own balance sheets as Borders Books slides into
bankruptcy. I cannot remember another conference where I heard, as I
did this week, the leader of a major corporation air doubts from the
podium about the future of her company and her career.

Many speakers combatted this sense of helplessness, of course, but
their advice often came across as, "Everything is going haywire and
you can't possibly imagine what the field will look like in a few
years, so just hang on and go with the flow. And by the way,
completely overturn your workflows and revamp your skill sets."

Nevertheless, I repeatedly heard references to four classic skills
that still rule in the field of publishing. These skills were always
important and will remain important, but they have to shift and in
some ways to merge.

Two of these skills are research and sales. Although one was usually
expected to do research on the market and topic before writing and do
sales afterward, the talks by Sierra, Huh, and others suggested that
these are continuous activities, and hard to separate. The big buzz in
all the content industries is about getting closer to one's audience.
There is never a start and end to the process.

The consensus is that casual exploitation of social
networking--sending out postings and updates and trying to chat with
readers online--won't sell your content. Your readers are a market and
must be researched like one: using surveys, statistical analysis, and
so on. This news can be a relief to the thousands of authors who feel
guilty (and perhaps are made to feel guilty by their publishers)
because they don't get pleasure from reporting things on Facebook
ranging from the breakfast cereal they ate to their latest brilliant
insight. But the question of how bring one's audience into one's
project--a topic I'll refer to as crowdsourcing and cover later--is a
difficult one.

Authoring and curation are even more fundamental skills. Curation has
traditionally meant just making sure assets are safe, uncorrupted, and
ready for use, but it has broadened (particularly in the href="">keynote
by Steve Rosenbaum) to include gathering information, filtering
and tagging it, and generally understanding what's useful to different
audiences. This has always been a publisher's role. In the age of
abundant digital content, the gathering and filtering functions can
dwarf the editorial side of publishing. Thus, although Thomson Reuters
has enormous resources of their own, they also generate value by href="">
tracking the assets of many other organizations.

When working with other people's material, curation, authoring, and
editing all start to merge. Perhaps organizing other people's work
into a meaningful sequence is as valuable as authoring one's own. In
short, curation adds value in ways that are different from authoring
but increasingly valid.

Capitalizing on the old

I am not ready to change my business cards from saying "Editor" to
"Curator" because that would make it look like I'm pre