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December 23 2011

Publishing News: The 99-cent problem

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

The concern of 99 cents

Penny.jpgAuthor Melissa Foster took a look this week at the 99-cent price debate, highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly. The bad and the ugly mostly focused on how the price point affects independent authors:

If an author is self-published through Amazon KDP, he or she earns 34 cents per 99-cent book sold ... If you add up the average cover cost of $350, average editing job of $1,400, then divide by 34 cents, the author would have to sell 5,134 books just to break even, and that's nearly impossible without an additional amount for advertising.

Foster follows this by pointing out that most independent authors don't sell more than 100 copies of a book — that's a whopping $34 — and says independent authors who publish through small presses generally only pocket 12 cents per 99-cent book sold.

Employing this price point doesn't bode well for authors looking to sign with a traditional publisher, either. Foster quoted agent Jenny Bent: "... publishers are increasingly skeptical about how success at 99 cents will translate into success using their very different business model."

Author M.J. Rose also is quoted in the post, arguing that this sort of focus on price is wrong:

Readers may buy you once for 99 cents, but if they are disappointed they will never buy you again or even download you for free. On the other hand a reader will pay $4.99, $5.99 even up to $12 for an ebook of a writer whose work speaks to her. I'm seeing way too much conversation about what to charge for the book instead of how to write the book ... Quality matters more than ever.

Foster's analysis also highlighted some positive aspects of the price point, including using it as a promotional or marketing tool. An author could set the first book in a series at 99 cents, for instance, to help suck in readers — the old "the first one's (almost) free, but you'll be back" routine.

There's a lot more discussion on this debate over in the comment section of Kevin Kelly's blog post on this topic (from earlier this year). But really, the bottom line is this: the 99-cent price point is only financially viable for authors who are able to sell a boatload of books.

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SOPA, meet DeSopa

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) hearing was delayed, possibly until next year, but anti-SOPA geeks aren't waiting to see what's going to happen. Andy Greenberg reported over at Forbes that "the Internet's communities of coders and free speech advocates" are hard at work building tools to circumvent SOPA's copyright protection measures:

... a developer named Tamer Rizk has been busy building an add-on for Firefox called DeSopa, which aims to give any Firefox user access to sites that SOPA's copyright protection measures have blocked. 'This program is a proof of concept that SOPA will not help prevent piracy,' reads a note included on DeSopa's download page. 'If SOPA is implemented, thousands of similar and more innovative programs and services will sprout up to provide access to the websites that people frequent. SOPA is a mistake. It does not even technically help solve the underlying problem, as this software illustrates.'

(Note: as of publication, the DeSopa add-on had been taken down from Mozilla's site.)

Greenberg also looked at Reddit users who "have been assembling their own lists of IP addresses for key sites that might be blocked under SOPA, what some of them call the 'Emergency List'." He also has a nice discussion of SOPA's unintended consequences and the collateral damage it could cause. The piece is well worth the read.

The future of stories is here

In a post at The Atlantic, senior editor Alexis Madrigal highlighted "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" as the perfect gift for kids whose parents have an iPad. The river of book recommendations is hip deep this time of year, but the last line of Madrigal's post prodded me to check out the app: "It's what the future of stories looks like." (Hat tip to @tcarmody.)

Screenshot from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Playing with the book/app reminded me of articles predicting that the coffee-table book will make it through the digital transition relatively unscathed. I'm not so sure about that. If the beauty of the art in this book and the way it's integrated into the interactivity are an indication of future stories, print may well be in trouble on the coffee-table front as well. Imagine an iPad coffee-table book that could play music from a foreign country and teach you common phrases in the native tongue; one that could seamlessly integrate video, animation or sound with the content. Print books can't do that.

The screenshot below shows the interactivity options and more of the beautiful art:

Screenshot from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

I sure hope Madrigal is right — this book app points to a very rich future for stories, and you don't need kids (or to be a kid) to fall in love with it.


October 26 2011

We're in the midst of a restructuring of the publishing universe (don't panic)

A new book released this week called "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto," by Hugh McGuire (@hughmcguire) and Brian O'Leary (@brianoleary), examines the future of book publishing from an advanced perspective. Beyond pricing and delivery mechanisms, beyond taking print and displaying it on a screen, the authors look at the digital transformation as more than a change in format — as stated in the book's introduction:

The move to digital is not just a format shift, but a fundamental restructuring of the universe of publishing. This restructuring will touch every part of a publishing enterprise — or at least most publishing enterprises. Shifting to digital formats is 'part one' of this changing universe; 'part two' is what happens once everything is digital. This is the big, exciting unknown.

I reached out to the book's co-author Hugh McGuire to examine some of the elements at play in the future of publishing and in the "exciting unknown" of doing things with books that have never before been possible. Our interview follows.

What's the story behind "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto"?

HughMcGuire.jpgHugh McGuire: I'd been working on building — a digital book production tool designed for publishers — and I wanted to get a real sense of how it worked, hands on. How better than to manage a real publishing project, working with a real publisher, from beginning to end, using PressBooks?

Of course, it made sense to make it a book about the future of books and publishing. So much ink is spilled about that topic, but we wanted to get away from the abstract and right down to the nitty-gritty. We wanted to produce something that would be a handbook you could give to someone starting a publishing house today.

I talked to my friend Brian O'Leary about co-editing with me, and he was on board. With that, I pitched it to Joe Wikert at O'Reilly — he loved the idea, and off we went.

It's been a bit of a challenge, producing a book while simultaneously building the book production tool on which the book is produced, but we've managed ... if a month or two late.

This is a broad question, but what are the major ways digital is changing publishing?

Hugh McGuire: It's more like in what ways isn't digital changing publishing? First, we very quickly dispatched of the pre-Kindle, pre-iPad question of, "Will people read books on screens?" Yes, and the growth curves are spectacular. The publishing world has, in a pretty orderly way, adapted to this change — with digital files now slotting alongside print books in the distribution chain. I think is this just the start, however.

The publishing world has managed the "digital-conversion disruption" pretty well. Publishers make ebooks now as a matter of course, and consumers buy them and read them on a multitude of devices.

What we as an industry haven't managed yet is the "digital-native disruption." What happens when all new books are ebooks, and the majority of books are read on digital devices, most of which are connected to the Internet? This brings with it so many new expectations from consumers, and I think this is where the real disruption in the market will come.

The kinds of disruption there include: speed of the publishing process, reader engagement with content, linking in and out of books, layers of context added to books, and the webification of books. I think the transitions we've seen in the past three years will pale in comparison to what's going to happen to publishing in the next three years.

Book: A Futurist's Manifesto — Through this collection of essays from publishing thought leaders and practitioners, you'll become familiar with a wide range of developments occurring in the wake of the digital book shakeup.

Which digital tools should publishers focus on?

Hugh McGuire: Publishing is such a strange, conservative business, and I think there is a real hesitancy to invest heavily early on until there is real clarity on what the long-term standards will be. But EPUB is based on HTML, and I think whatever happens, HTML will be with us for the long haul.

So, tools I think publishers need to start working with:

These are the keys to having a successful publishing company that is future-proofed as best as it can be.

Why is metadata important to digital publishing?

Hugh McGuire: Physical bookstores provide a range of crucial services beyond being a place where you can buy books. Stores offer selection, curation, and recommendation. The digital book retail world is very different because it offers nearly unlimited selection. While retailers like Amazon spend a fair bit of energy trying to recommend titles to readers, the task of sifting through and finding books is increasingly left to consumers.

So, having good metadata — which really should be renamed "information about a book" so it's less intimidating — means providing information that will: A) ensure that people looking for your book, or for the kind of content in your book, will find it; and B) help potential buyers of your book decide they want to buy it.

On the web, companies spend lots of time making sure their sites are search engine optimized, so that people looking for those websites (or the information on them) will find them. Attaching good metadata to a book is much like search engine optimization — it's the mechanism you use to make sure your book gets found by the people looking for it.

What will the publishing landscape look like in five years?

Hugh McGuire: In five years:

  • Print is a marginal part of the trade business.
  • There's a huge increase in the number of small publishers of all stripes.
  • There's a massive increase in the number of books on the market.
  • The Big Six publishers will consolidate to become the Big Two or Three.
  • Most writers will continue to have a hard time making a living as writers.
  • Good/successful publishers will be those that provide good APIs to their books.
  • All books will be expected to be connected to the web, allowing linking in and out, and contextual layers of commentary, etc. (Will this be driven by publishers or retailers? To date, retailers have lead the way.)
  • The distinction between what you can do with an ebook and what you can do with a website will disappear (and it will seem strange that it ever existed).
  • While books will become more webby, the web will also become more bookish, accommodating more book-like structures in evolving HTML standards.

What's the publishing schedule for "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto"?

Hugh McGuire: The book comes in three parts:

  1. Out now: "Part 1: The Setup" — This addresses what's happening right now in publishing.
  2. Out sometime before Christmas: "Part 2: The Outlook: What Is Next for the Book?" — Given the technology we currently have, what can we expect to see happening with books going forward?
  3. Out in early 2012: "Part 3: The Things We Can Do with Books: Projects from the Bleeding Edge" — Case studies of real publishing projects, technologies, and enterprises working right now at the bleeding edge.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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October 03 2011

The agile upside of XML

In a recent interview, Anna von Veh, a consultant at Say Books, and Mike McNamara, managing director at Araman Consulting Ltd & Outsell-Gilbane UK Affiliate, talked about the role of XML, the state of ebook design, and the tech-driven future of the publishing industry.

McNamara and von Veh will expand on these ideas in their presentation at TOC Frankfurt next week.

Our interview follows.

Why should publishers adopt XML?

mikemcnamara.jpgMike McNamara: There are many benefits to be gained from implementing XML in a production workflow. However, it really depends on what the publisher wants to do. For example, journal publishers probably want to reuse their content in a number of different ways for differing products and specific target markets. XML can deliver this flexibility and reusability.

A UK Legal publisher I worked with wanted to enrich its online content deliverables to its clients. The publisher added more metadata to its XML content, allowing its new search environment to deliver more accurate and focused results to clients. A fiction book publisher, on the other hand, might want to produce simple ebooks from original Microsoft Word source files and might not see any real business or technical benefit to using XML (however, I do think this will change in the future). A simple XHTML-to-ebook process might be a better option for this type of publisher.

Anna_von_Veh.jpgAnna von Veh: The very term "XML" can cause many people to run for the hills, so it's sometimes helpful to look at it differently. Do publishers want to ensure that their content is searchable and reusable for a variety of formats, in a variety of ways, for a variety of devices and even for devices that haven't yet been invented? Do they want to be able to deliver customized content to customers? If so, XML — and I include XHTML in this — is the way.

There are a number of issues. One is the value of putting legacy content into XML to make it more usable, discoverable and valuable to the publisher. The second is incorporating XML into the workflow for the front list. And then, of course, there is the question of when to incorporate XML into the workflow — at the authoring stage, editing, typesetting, post-final, etc.

While the format-centered model that most publishers are familiar with produces beautiful products, it is not one that is likely to flourish in the new world of digital publishing. Digital requires a much more rapid, flexible and agile response. Using XML, though, doesn't mean that design or creativity is dead. The hope is that it will help automate work that is being done manually over and over again, and allow publishers the freedom to focus on great ideas and creative use of their content.

What is the best way to integrate XML into an existing workflow?

Mike McNamara: I don't believe there is one "best" way. Again, it's down to what is the best way that suits that particular publisher. "XML first," "XML last" and "XML in the middle" all have their own costs, implementation requirements and benefits. I tend to favor the XML-first option, as I believe it delivers more benefits for the publisher. Though it would probably introduce more change for an organization than the other options (XML last and XML in the middle).

Anna von Veh: If you're a large publishing company with a bigger budget and lots of legacy content, then you might want to move to a full content management system (CMS) with an XML-first workflow. But a smaller publisher may want to focus on a digital-friendly Word and InDesign workflow that makes "XML last" easier. However, incorporating XML early into the workflow certainly has benefits. The challenges revolve around changing how you think about producing, editing and designing content and managing the change process.

How future-proof is XML? Will it be supplanted at some point by something like JSON?

Mike McNamara: XML is a very future-proof method for ensuring long-term protection of content. It is the format chosen by many digital archives and national libraries. True, JSON has become very popular of late, but it is mainly used today for API development, financial transactions, and messaging — and by web developers. I think JSON has a long way to go before it supplants XML — as we know and use it today — as a structured content format for use in publishing.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR

Is ebook design in a rut?

Mike McNamara: No, it's still developing. More thought needs to be put into adding value to the content before it gets to the ebook. Take travel guides, for example. If I want a travel book to use in the field, say on a hiking holiday, I don't want to have to carry the print product. I want the same content reconfigured as an ebook with a GPS/Wi-Fi environment added to use on my smartphone, with everything referenced from the same map that I saw in the print version.

Publishers need to get smarter with the data they have, and then deliver it in the different ways that users need.

Anna von Veh: Many current ebooks are conversions from printed books, either scanned from the printed copy or converted from PDFs. These ebooks weren't designed or planned as ebooks, and in addition, quality control was lacking after they'd been made into ebooks — and these are very bad advertisements for ebook design. Many new ebooks (i.e. those in the front list) are much better designed. However, most are still based on the idea of the print book.

A key thing is to focus on is the fact that a screen is not contained in the same way that a printed book is, and that it is an entirely different format (see Peter Meyers' great A New Kind of Book blog, and upcoming "Breaking the Page" book). I think of ebook design as being much more akin to website design, which is why I advocate hiring web designers. I like the idea of starting with the web and going to print from there. It seems right for the digital age. Also, I think anyone working in book production today — both editors and designers — should learn some web skills. Hand coding simple EPUBs is a good way to practice, and it is relevant, too.

How will digital publishing change over the next five years? Are we headed toward a world where books are URLs?

Mike McNamara: More and more content will continue to be published online. Many reference publishers are already looking to add more value to content through metadata. This would allow clients to find the right content for their immediate context via sophisticated search engines. Some publishers already allow clients to build their own licensed versions of publications from the publishers' content repositories, with automatic updates being applied as and when needed.

Consequently, publishers will continue to move toward having even smaller, more focused chunks of XML data, allowing easy assembly into virtual publications. These will all be available to download and read on multiple devices, focusing on smartphones and tablets.

The combination of smarter XML (with multimedia information), smarter search engines and smarter reading devices will define how content is created and delivered over the coming years.

Anna von Veh: In answer to the first part of the question, it depends on what we understand "digital publishing" to mean. I like to think of it as the process of publishing — i.e. the workflow itself rather than the format. In terms of the process, yes, I think the web will have a big role to play (see PressBooks), but once again, it depends on how open publishers are to change.

Much will depend, too, on exactly who the publishers are in the next five years. I think it is highly likely that tech startups will make up a large piece of the publishing pie, though they may be bought up by larger publishers and tech companies. Some of the big vendors that hold much of the current knowledge of digital publishing (and therefore, perhaps, power) may move into publishing. There are also the smaller indie and self publishers that aren't hampered so much by legacy issues. On the other hand, big publishers have financial muscle and experience in content creation, design and editorial. It's an exciting time.

As for the format, I wouldn't bet against the web there, either. I'm a fan of the web in general (my favorite ebook reader is the browser-based Ibis Reader). In mainstream publishing, a lot of educational content is migrating to the web and learning management systems (LMS).

Even if books become URLs, what is needed is a cheap and easy print-on-demand (POD) home printer and bookbinder, or print "ATM," like the Espresso Book Machine. There are many situations where printed books are still required, not the least of which are countries in poorer parts of the world where the web is a luxury. Arthur Attwell's startup Paperight is a great POD idea designed for developing countries, and it also provides publishers with income. Mobile phones, too, are gaining ground in developing countries, and they're being used for a variety of innovative businesses. Smartphones could well become the main way to read content all over the world, whether that content is contained in ebooks, website books, or other forms.

But this just looks at the technology side of things. People bond emotionally with books and stories, with the authors who create them, and with other readers who share their interests. Potentially, connections could be built between readers and the editors and designers who shape the books. In this digitally connected but often physically separated world, all these connections are becoming both easier and more important, irrespective of what form the content takes or where it lives.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo on home and category pages: XML_logo by Jmh2o, on Wikimedia Commons


  • The line between book and Internet will disappear

  • Metadata isn't a chore, it's a necessity
  • Here's another reason why metadata matters
  • Sometimes the questions are as enlightening as the answers

  • September 12 2011

    If you're a content designer, the web browser will be your canvas

    Blank browser windowThe upcoming Books in Browsers conference will focus on books as "networked, distributed sets of interactions," as opposed to content containers. I've asked several of the event's participants to address the larger concepts surrounding books in browsers. We'll be publishing these interviews over the coming weeks.

    First up is Peter Brantley (@naypinya), director of the BookServer Project at the Internet Archive and co-founder of the Open Book Alliance. Brantley, who also is a co-organizer of the Books in Browsers conference, tackled a question about how content publishers should regard the browser.

    Have browsers already become our default mechanism for content consumption? And if that's the case, do content industries need to think "browser first" rather than "digital first"?

    PeterBrantleyMug.jpgPeter Brantley: I think the browser — or more specifically, the browser rendering engine, e.g., WebKit — has been the dominant rendering mechanism for digital content since the advent of the web. Although computer text interfaces were dominant for several decades, non-browser graphical implementations, such as those available on Xterms, were quickly relegated to niche applications once the HTTP protocol was widely implemented.

    The network offers a low-barrier distribution mechanism, and the browser provides for a relatively coherent set of standards over content presentation and behavior. This set of more or less open standards is growing in sophistication through the addition of support for sensor and geolocational awareness as well as more transparent media inclusion and user feedback. Designing for the browser will be what designing content means.

    There's one new issue that browser-based design propels forward: We are just now beginning to grapple with how we learn from, and use, complex media.

    Text has been a persistently desirable format because it offers a low threshold for cognitive processing and conceptual understanding. Creative arts will have to acquire an understanding of when and how we can mentally take advantage of the technologies that are beginning to emerge: e.g., when should their affordances be made visible — and when transparent — to the user. Even more importantly, we will have to make sure the user can control the experiences that they are increasingly helping to craft, and not be unwilling victims of them.

    How we tell stories to each other will remain a challenge at the nexus of our technology, intuition, and empathy.

    This interview was edited and condensed.

    TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

    Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


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