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April 11 2012

Never, ever "out of print"

I recently sat down with transactional and intellectual property attorney Dana Newman (@DanaNewman) to talk about today's rights concerns for authors and how publishing models need to change to accommodate digital. We also discussed how books can no longer go out of "print" and how that could — and should — affect rights and contracts:

"Under older, more traditional contracts, the rights would revert when [a book] went out of print, meaning it was no longer being distributed in print form. Now, with print on demand and ebooks, it's becoming irrelevant. I think what we need to do is create a new structure for those rights to revert back to the author — that could be based on some sort of minimum sales threshold and that the book is no longer available through the major online retail channels. That would make more sense. On the other side for the publisher, they could think about setting a term where once the advance is earned out, then perhaps at that point they would revert the rights back to the author." (Discussed at 4:33.)

Newman also talked about the need for flexibility, shorter license terms and rights of first refusal in creating a new publishing model that is more equitable for both authors and publishers. (Discussed at 2:13.)

You can view the entire interview in the following video:

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March 27 2012

A huge competitive advantage awaits bold publishers

In the video interview below, Eric Ries (@ericries), author of "The Lean Startup," sits down with O'Reilly online managing editor Mac Slocum to talk about the lean startup method and how it applies to publishing. Ries argues:

"When you're publishing a new book or any piece of media, you're actually an entrepreneur, whether it says that on your business card or not. It doesn't matter if you're an editor, a publisher or an author, you are an entrepreneur." (Discussed at 00:23.)

Ries talks about the lengthy process of producing a book and the inefficient business practices behind the slow iteration speeds:

"When I signed my publishing contract, I asked for the expedited process, which I was told was about 18 months. In those 18 months, how much time was actually spent on the editorial production of the book itself? Very little time. Most of the time was either me waiting for my editor or him waiting for me. It was dealing with all the intricacies of the publishing process — the catalog, figuring out the marketing campaign, tons of activities that are all important, but have nothing to do with the actual production of the book. [The 18 months is about] fitting a zillion books — far too many — into this crazy waterfall process.

"The reason we call this 'lean startup' is because of an insight that happened in manufacturing called lean manufacturing. Working in these supposedly efficient silos, where everyone is in their department and the work product is passed from department to department seems very efficient, but it's actually radically inefficient. The first publisher to restructure their process around these [lean] principles is going to have a huge competitive advantage over their rivals." (Discussed at 5:04.)

Ries also says that "the one realization that has not hit publishing yet is that if you make content, you're in the software business … if you look at the supply chain, who's accumulating all the power? It's software companies like Apple, Amazon and Google." (Discussed at 6:43.)

For more on how the lean startup methodology applies to publishing, check out the full interview in the following video:

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Associated photo on home and category pages: Eric Ries by O'Reilly Conferences, on Flickr


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January 20 2012

When you commit to "release early and often" you have to actually do it

SatterstenBookCover.gifLast July, I talked with Todd Sattersten (@toddsattersten), founder of BizBookLab, about his book, "Every Book Is a Startup," for which he's applying agile development methods to his publishing model.

Sattersten is getting ready to release chapters five and six — "The Pitch" and "Minimum Viable Publishing," respectively — and it seemed a good time to check in on how the model is working and get a sneak peek on the ideas and concepts from the upcoming release.

Our interview follows.

You're applying tech startup techniques to publishing on this project. What has worked well thus far? What lessons have you learned?

ToddSattersten.jpgTodd Sattersten: I like the "release often" mantra that we have followed with this project. You hear from software developers that just making new releases generates new interest and more sales. We have seen that with "Every Book Is a Startup."

The "release often" strategy also has its limitations, though. For instance, we can only sell through because retailers don't yet support sending updates to customers — and I completely understand the difficulties now. If our readers download a new version of the electronic file, they lose all of their notes and comments because it is a new file. Somehow, as the publishing industry has moved forward with the transition to digital, we didn't think about add/change/delete functionality. So, that is a little frustrating and has forced us to cut back on the number of releases.

The big lesson is that when you commit to release early and often is that you have to do it. Readers expect to see new material frequently, and I could be doing a better job sticking to the writing.

How are book pitches like startup pitches?

Todd Sattersten: Customers need to know precisely what the value proposition is for any product they might buy. When you pitch them, they want to know if you can solve their problem and what is so great about your solution. I say there are three primary questions — What? So what? Now what? — and we want the information in that order. What are you selling? Why should I care? What do you want me to do now? All entrepreneurs, whether developers of books or developers of software, need to be crystal clear with their prospects.

What kinds of mistakes do authors make when framing a book? And why is framing so important?

Todd Sattersten: Framing is about getting into the mind of the customer and seeing the problem from his or her standpoint. I do most of my publishing work in the business book genre, and you can see varying approaches to the same topic all the time. Take the area of time management and consider these three titles:

  1. "Getting Things Done"
  2. "Workarounds That Work"
  3. "The Procrastination Equation"

The first is the well-known book by David Allen that advocated a religious devotion to identifying tasks and flexibly completing them. The title could not be clearer or more universal. Russell Bishop's book on workarounds is selling to someone quite different, someone who believes that temporary fixes and bypasses are the best solution to what they are dealing with. The final book by Piers Steel requires the reader to believe that procrastination is their problem and that this book might finally provide the answer they have been looking for. All of these may provide viable solutions, but they each frame the problem differently and, in turn, attract a different audience.

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.

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What is a "minimum viable product"? How does it apply to publishing?

Todd Sattersten: The minimum viable product (MVP) is a concept popularized by Eric Ries and built around the idea that products should be released with the minimum necessary set of features as soon as possible. Creating MVPs creates a way for entrepreneurs to quickly see whether there is interest or if there are changes that can be made to better match the needs of the customer. The benefit is keeping risk as low as possible when you start.

In most of book publishing, it is the exact opposite. We require dozens of months to create and release most books. But we do use some of these principles: Pre-orders from readers are, in essence, a proof of demand; many book projects start with minimum viable products such as magazine articles or short stories. Countless books similarly started as serializations — Charles Dickens is well-known for this original format.

What is "controlling scope"?

Todd Sattersten: Too often, we are faced with the famous trilemma of time-cost-quality, and someone enters the discussion saying that we are going to have to give up one to make the project work. On the first pass, this makes complete sense. If you want high quality and you are short on time, you know you are going to have to spend more to get the project done. If costs matter and you want that same high quality, the project is just going to take longer. Most often, though, you need fast and cheap, which means quality is going to suffer.

Ultimately, this is a false construct. What these discussions need is the introduction of a fourth variable: The programmers using agile methodology will tell you to consider scope. The amount of work we choose to undertake is flexible, and controlling scope allows us to maintain an acceptable standard in relation to time, cost, and quality. The unspoken truth is that creators and customers have only a vague sense of what is important early in a project, and by choosing scope as the variable to control, we don't build a bunch of stuff people don't want or won't use.

The Domino Project used that to a certain extent by constraining the length of their books. Seth Godin would say that short books benefit the reader, but I would argue they also reduce the project's risk by getting to market quickly and not having to wait 12 months for the author to write a book no one was interested in.

This interview was edited and condensed.


January 19 2012

Getting the content out there isn't enough anymore

Content is still king, but now it has to share its crown. Justo Hidalgo (@justohidalgo), co-founder of 24symbols and a panelist in the "New Ways to Sell" session at the upcoming Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, believes added value and personalized services are just as important as the content itself. He explains why in the following interview.

In what contexts does content aggregation create the most value?

JustoHidalgoMug.pngJusto Hidalgo: Companies that take content and contribute added value for readers are generally better positioned to succeed. Specifically, I believe content aggregation is useful in the following contexts:

  • Hubs — Why did The Huffington Post gain so much success? Why is Spotify increasing its number of users constantly? And why is Netflix in trouble? There are of course many reasons, but one is particularly clear: Users want hubs where they can find most, if not all, of the content they want. Content aggregation enables just that. While creating silos of information can be valuable in specific niche markets, it does not work in mass markets unless your brand recognition is immensely high.
  • Value addition — Social recommendation is a typical yet good example of value addition to content, as is adding information about a title's author and surrounding context. This meta-information can be manually or automatically added. I believe in the power of machine learning and data mining technologies applied to this area, along with human expertise.
  • Discovery — While having thousands or millions of books complicates a search, it also creates an impressive opportunity: There are more relevant datasets to match recommendations and tastes as well as to facilitate serendipitous discovery.

How about paywalls — is anyone doing this properly? What is the best way to make this model work?

Justo Hidalgo: Paywall models only work if what you offer is extremely exclusive. Maybe the New York Times or the Financial Times can succeed at offering paywall content, but in a digital world absolutely nothing can be prevented from being copied and propagated. So the key is not the content itself, but the value-added service offered on top of it. Only a mixture of high-quality content and a great service will be compelling enough to make users pay.

In general, the content — and the service that contains it — needs to be testable, and models like freemium, whether "free" is forever or for a limited time, are critical in the digital content world. Spotify is creating a massive user base with this model, even now that its free offering is not as compelling as before. The New York Times is also using a freemium approach, letting its users read a few articles per month for free before the paywall kicks in.

The challenge of paywalls in this context is that high quality is not only expected, but required. With so many good free sources of information available, if I am to pay for it, I expect it to be impressive — not only in terms of pure content, but also in terms of the benefits the service provides in a personalized way.

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

24Symbols is based on a subscription model. Since your launch, have you had to change the model to make it work?

Justo Hidalgo: Pivoting is inherent to any startup. We made some changes to our product strategy, like focusing on the HTML5 version before the native apps for iOS and Android.

In terms of the model, the basics are the same. We believe a cloud-based social reader with a freemium subscription model is key for the future of publishing. And we recently branched out to license our technology to companies and institutions that want to offer a cloud reader to their customers or employees. This was in our minds from the start, but we wanted to focus on the consumer offering first and create a top-class platform.

This interview was edited and condensed.


Reposted byRK RK

January 10 2012

How agile methodologies can help publishers

Agile methodologies originated in the software space, but Bookigee CEO Kristen McLean (@ABCKristen) believes many of the same techniques can also be applied to content development and publishing workflows. She explains why in the following interview.

McLean will further explore this topic during her agile methodologies presentation at the upcoming Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York.

What is an agile methodology?

KristenMcLean.jpgKristen McLean: An agile methodology is a series of strategies for managing projects and processes that emphasize quick creative cycles, flat self-organizing working groups, the breaking down of complex tasks into smaller achievable goals, and the presumption that you don't always know what the finished product will be when you begin the process.

These types of methodologies work particularly well in any situation where you are trying to produce a creative product to meet a market that is evolving — like a new piece of software when the core concept needs proof from the user to evolve — or where there needs to be a very direct and engaged relationship between the producers and users of a particular product or service.

Agile methodologies emerged out of the software development community in the 1970s, but began to really codify in the 1990s with the rise of several types of "lightweight" methods such as SCRUM, Extreme Programming, and Adaptive Software Development. These were all rolled up under the umbrella of agile in 2001, when a group of developers came together to create the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which set the core principles for this type of working philosophy.

Since then, agile has been applied outside of software development to many different kinds of systems management. Most promote development, teamwork, collaboration, and process adaptability throughout the life-cycle of the project. At the end of the day, it's about getting something out there that we can test and learn from.

How do agile methodologies apply to publishing?

Kristen McLean: In relation to publishing, we're really talking about two things: agile content development and agile workflow.

Agile content development is the idea that we may be able to apply these methodologies to creating content in a very different way than we are traditionally used to. This could mean anything from serialized book content to frequent releases of digital content, like book-related websites, apps, games and more. The discussion of how agile might be applied to traditional book content is just beginning, and I think there's an open-ended question about how it might intersect with the deeply personal — and not always quick — process of writing a book.

I don't believe some of our greatest works could have been written in an agile framework (think Hemingway, Roth, or Franzen), but I also believe agile might lend itself to certain kinds of book content, like serial fiction (romance, YA, mystery) and some kinds of non-fiction. The real question has to do with what exactly a "book" is and understanding the leading edge between knowing your audience and crowdsourcing your material.

Publishing houses have been inherently hierarchical because they've been organized around a manufacturing process wherein a book's creation has been treated as though it's on an assembly line. The publisher and editor have typically been the arbiters of content, and as a whole, publishers have not really cultivated a direct relationship with end users. Publishers make. Users buy/read/share, etc.

Publishers need to adapt to a radically different way of working. For example, here's a few ways agile strategies could help with the adaptation of a publishing workflow:

  • Create flat, flexible teams of four to five super-talented individuals with a collective skill set — including editorial, marketing, publicity, production, digital/design, and business — all working together from the moment of acquisition (or maybe before). These teams would need to be completely fluent in XHTML and would work under the supervision of a managing publisher whose job would be to create the proper environment and remove impediments so the team could do its job.
  • An original creative voice and unique point of view will always be important in great writing, but those of us who produce books as trade objects (and package the content in them) have to stop assuming we know what the market wants and start talking to the market as frequently as possible.

  • Use forward-facing data and feedback to project future sales. Stop using past sales as the exclusive way to project future sales. The market is moving too fast for that, and we all know there is a diminishing return for the same old, same old.

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

This interview was edited and condensed.

Associated photo on home and category pages adapted from: Agile-Software-Development-Poster-En.pdf by Dbenson and VersionOne, Inc., on Wikimedia Commons


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 08 2011

What publishers can learn from Netflix's problems

In a wide-ranging interview, Tim Carmody (@tcarmody), a writer for, Snarkmarket, The Idler, et al., looked at the lessons publishers and others can take from Netflix' recent troubles, and he examined the ways in which technology shapes the reading experience. (Carmody will be a keynote speaker at TOC 2012.)

Specific highlights from the interview (below) include:

  • Inevitability isn't inevitable, just ask Netflix — For a while Netflix's continued ascendance appeared "inevitable." That's a fantasy, said Carmody, and the best lesson publishers can take is that "anything that looks inevitable now might not look so inevitable in six months." Carmody said it's important to disrupt your business — something Netflix has done well — but you must tread lightly because consumers are fickle. [Discussed at the 3:50 mark.]
  • Reading experiences are not confined to a specific form — If you spend your days crunching numbers on a screen, you're likely "primed" to make a database of friends on Facebook. Play Angry Birds on your iPad? Carmody said you might gravitate toward game-like publications. Publishers need to understand that the context of all content influences what we read and how we read it. "We're always making generalizations based on the broadest set of technologies that we're reading," Carmody said. "It's never just within the medium or within the format. It's everything. The way we look at street signs changes the way we read books, the way we read the newspaper changes the way we read magazines. All of these things are always operative." [Discussed at 1:22.]
  • Kickstarter's tier model can work for publishing — Bundling content and offering levels or tiers of content (if you buy tier three, you also get tiers one and two) is a powerful retail model that could work well in book publishing. [Discussed at 6:22.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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


  • Ebooks and the threat from "internal constituencies"
  • The problem with Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library

  • 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 07 2011

    Do agent-publishers carry a conflict of interest?

    The shift in the digital publishing landscape is changing more than formats and production processes — it's bringing new positions with it, too. One of the most noteworthy new jobs — and perhaps most controversial and contentious — is the emerging agent-publisher role.

    To find out more about what agent-publishers mean for established publishers, authors, and agents, I turned to Booksquare's Kassia Krozser (@booksquare). She says the agent-publisher position rose out of the refusal of traditional publishers to adjust their business models. "Traditional publishers need to not only rethink how they sell their value to authors and agents," Krozser says, "but they also need to rethink the economic structure of their deals."

    The agent-publisher isn't a squeaky-clean solution for authors, however. Krozser is concerned the position might come with an inherent conflict of interest.

    Our interview follows.

    What is an agent-publisher, and why is this new position emerging?

    Kassia_KrozserKassia Krozser: The first part of the question is fairly simple: an agent-publisher is someone who fulfills both roles. The second is even easier. Agent-publishers are emerging because, well, traditional publishers couldn't or wouldn't twist their business models to meet the market realities. Agents, smartly, saw a business opportunity in the desire of authors to make reasonably good money from self-publishing. Agents also recognized that authors do not necessarily possess — nor necessarily want to assume — the functions publishers fulfill.

    Traditional publishers try to coax these same authors into their existing structures. This, I think, is a mistake on the part of traditional publishers because they're having a difficult time articulating the value proposition to these authors. Think about the choice authors are making: 70% royalty for self-publishing, 25% royalty for going with a traditional publisher. Then add in agents who realize they can offer a suite of services while still allowing authors to do better than they would with a traditional publishing house, for a 15% fee.

    I should note that this phenomenon is mostly geared toward backlist titles, though some digital originals are emerging. And because it's backlist, the economics weighed by the authors — and the benefits — are very much skewed toward self-publishing or going agent-publisher.

    It's not like the distribution and marketing are all that different.

    How are agent-publishers disruptive to the publishing ecosystem?

    Kassia Krozser: It's disruptive because backlist is incredibly lucrative, and backlist for digital means additive sales, in the sense that readers are buying favorites from their existing print libraries in digital. Publishers don't want to lose control of the digital backlist. These are titles that have (likely) earned out, so the investment in converting to digital, for a traditional publisher, is peanuts. The potential profitability of the book is quite nice because, in digital, books remain on the shelf forever — which isn't great for the authors if the royalties are low.

    So, if authors or their agents take these properties and exploit them, then there goes a steady, predictable, and profitable revenue stream for publishers. As readers shift from print to digital, the shift of these sales from publisher to author/agent — I am using some terms interchangeably — is profound.

    This will increase a prime tension: publishers want to acquire as many rights as possible, for as long as possible; agents want to retain as many rights as possible while licensing other rights for as short as possible. What to watch for in the near future is how the balance of power shifts.

    In my opinion, traditional publishers need to not only rethink how they sell their value to authors and agents, but they also need to rethink the economic structure of their deals.

    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

    Is the agent-publisher arrangement a viable service model?

    Kassia Krozser: I'm torn on this point. I completely understand why agents are moving into this marketplace. I am also concerned about conflicts of interest. If I'm an author and my agent is selling to traditional publishers while also creating a profit center around digital publishing, can I be certain my best interests are being considered?

    On the other hand, it is currently the case that traditional publishers are not willing or able to pay market value for these backlist books. And it is very hard for authors/agents/innocent bystanders to discern what value is added by these publishers. The quality of ebooks from traditional publishers is sub-par — oh yes, I can point you to examples — marketing is negligible, and cost of conversion is minor (I am assuming the books the traditional publishers care about have earned out and then some).

    So, authors have three choices: DIY, agent-publisher, or traditional publishers. DIY means the author has to employ a lot of new/uncomfortable skills (please authors, you are not as good at conversion as you think you are). Agent-publisher means you have someone doing those jobs for you at a 15% rate, plus, possibly, expenses. Traditional means you have someone doing that work at a 75% rate.

    So, yeah, agent-publisher is a viable business model. But it's also an opportunity for others to move into the space — non-agent publishers who can offer rates and services on par with agents. For example, I am seeing small, and growing, author collectives springing up. In these, each author is his/her own entity, handling conversion, formatting, and proofing on his/her own. But the group markets collectively and has a single point of sale, with, presumably, someone managing the distribution of monies. While this creates work for these authors, they also don't have to pay the agent a fee. More of these sorts of arrangements would help me get past my conflict of interest issues.

    This interview was edited and condensed.


    October 26 2011

    Agile content models better address audience wants and needs

    This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

    The agile model has been used by software developers to create apps that customers really want. Why not use the same approach when creating content? In this TOC podcast, Bookigee founder and CEO Kristen McLean (@ABCKristen) talks about how her company is using it to develop a new content discovery and exploration platform. Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

    • Think iteratively rather than linearly: The current content development process assumes we know exactly what the audience wants. With agile, you iteratively develop (and release) the content to your customers, further tailoring it to their needs each step along the way. [Discussed at the 2:47 mark.]
    • Agile allows for plenty of uncertainties: Agile methodologies assume that you don't necessarily know who your audience is, or perhaps more importantly, that you don't know what their true needs are. [Discussed at 6:05.]
    • Leading indicators trump lagging indicators: So many decisions in publishing are based on lagging indicators, such as sell-through data and comparable title performance. Agile lets you flip that around and work more with leading indicators rather than lagging ones. [Discussed at 13:40 and a bit further at 19:00.]
    • Agile may not work for every format: As McLean notes, some authors just need to go off to an island and write the entire book. That said, it's probably viable for more genres than you think. [Discussed at 17:55.]
    • Large companies beware ...: There's a reason why startups are easily able to adopt agile methods and part of this has to do with the need for a flattened organization. [Discussed at 25:38.]
    • Agile transformation must come from the top down, not from the bottom up: A visionary leader who truly buys into the approach is required. [Discussed at 32:08.]
    • Quality is measured differently in early release stages: Publishers tend to focus on the final product that's been copyedited and proofread, but minimum viable products are often rough around the edges. [Discussed at 33:08.]

    You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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    September 14 2011

    Promoting free downloads to increase revenue

    This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months.

    In a recent interview with O'Reilly publisher Joe Wikert, Nelson Saba, CEO of Immersion Digital, talked about his company's Glo Bible app. The app has a free version and a $49.99 upgrade to a premium version. Saba said he was pleasantly surprised at the upgrade conversion success, saying that they experience a 7 to 13% conversion rate, and that the freemium model isn't as much of a struggle as publishers might think.

    When you get very good conversion ratios, all of a sudden you find yourself in the business of promoting free downloads, which is much easier than selling a product ... Conversion ratios are a function of platform, country, price point — for each country in a certain platform, by adjusting the price you can get good conversion ratios ... you also should have multiple in-app upgrades because different upgrades will resonate more with different platforms. Once you hit a conversion ratio that you like, you can bet that that's going to stay steady despite the volume of downloads ... but it varies a lot from platform to platform. [Discussed at the 6:10 mark.]

    For more on the success of the Glo Bible app and how modern technology can be used to enhance even timeless content, you can view the interview below.

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  • What ebook designers can learn from Bible-reading software
  • The iPad's ripple effect
  • What publishing can learn from tech startups

  • July 25 2011

    What publishing can learn from tech startups

    Todd Sattersten (@toddsattersten), founder of BizBookLab, argues in his new book "Every Book Is a Startup" that authors and publishers need to be more entrepreneurial and treat each book like a startup business. His conviction on this point is so strong that he's using the startup model itself to publish his new title. In the interview below, I talk with Todd about the specifics of the model and how he's applying it.

    What parts of the traditional publishing model are limiting opportunities?

    ToddSattersten.jpgTodd Sattersten: There are several things that limit opportunities. Most traditional books take two years to write, publish, and distribute, and risk increases with time. Editors ask themselves more often today, “Will the point of view presented still be applicable and relevant?”

    Additionally, product marketing as a business practice has evolved, while books continue to be published as a singular product without regard for alternate use cases and price points. For example, only the biggest of bestsellers warrants a premium edition. Enormous opportunity lies in versioning.

    Your personal definition for a "book" can limit your opportunities as well. If you limit that definition to, say, 224 pages of paper in a 6-inch-by-9-inch trim size, you just made your world a pretty small one.

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    How does your book map out the new publishing model?

    Todd Sattersten: My argument starts with the idea that entrepreneurship needs to be brought back to book publishing. As an industry, we introduced over 3 million new products to the marketplace in 2010. Each one of those books start in the same place: in search of an audience. Startups face the same problem.

    The core set of ideas I plan to present will look familiar to people who work in publishing. The way I approach them will be very different. I dispel some myths and identify some trends that are important to understand as we search for new business models.

    What kinds of tech startup concepts can be applied to publishing practices?

    Todd Sattersten: Publishing uses what the technology folks call the waterfall method of development. The process starts with a set of requirements. The functions are stacked next to each other, and the work is handed off in a serial fashion until the requirements are complete and the project is ready to be launched. In the world of books, this starts with the proposal and ends with the finished book on the shelf.

    The startup community has abandoned the waterfall method for a different process called agile development. The process starts with direct feedback from the customer about what they want. Work is released over the course of weeks or even days. And most importantly, the team collaborates through the iterative process with product managers, programmers, testers and operation folks all at the table throughout.

    For a startup, the first iteration of the agile process is the minimum viable product. What is the absolute smallest feature set that can be introduced to the market so that the company can gather feedback from real customers? The initial release emphasizes learning and iterating, adding what is needed as the customer base grows.

    I am not going to suggest that every book can follow this path, but there are plenty of examples where it works. How many books start as magazine articles or short stories? Chris Anderson's cover stories in Wired magazine preceded by two years "The Long Tail," "Free," and his upcoming book "The New Industrial Revolution." Vanessa Veselka's new book "Zazen" was serialized twice — on her blog and then in Arthur Magazine — before being published by Richard Nash's new publishing company Red Lemonade. When the work is released into the world, readers have the opportunity to interact with it. Holding onto an idea only increases the risk that no one will be there when it is finally released.

    SatterstenBookCover.gifHow are you applying startup techniques to your book launch?

    Todd Sattersten: We are using the minimum viable product concept with this project. The initial release of the book comes with two core ideas — “Black Swans and Long Tails” and “Help the Heroes.” At the end of the current release, I ask the readers to give us feedback on the quality of the material and what they would like to see next. I have set up a site at Get Satisfaction to let everyone contribute and interact with the evolution of the book.

    We are also using a dynamic pricing structure for the book. The initial price is $4.99, and we will raise the price as more material is added. What is particularly interesting is that once a reader buys it, he or she will get all future updates at no additional cost. So, the sooner you buy, the more value you get and the more opportunity you get to shape future releases.

    I love that we are taking the very ideas that we talk about in the book and applying them to the business model of the project itself. We need to be trying more experiments like this in publishing.

    Are there aspects of a tech startup that don't apply to the publishing side?

    Todd Sattersten: Yes — first, a book has a limited life cycle. The majority of revenue is earned in the first three to five years. There would be a weak business case for enlisting angels and venture capitalists to invest capital in exchange for equity. Startups have longer runways and higher revenue potential.

    Startups also normally have more than one founder, and they focus on different aspects of making their fledgling business successful. Books lack this strength in numbers, as most are written by one person with expertise in their subject area, not the inner workings of book publishing. This inexperience forces them to find their own way and their own market, and it limits the potential of many books.

    Finally, startups can change their business models and pivot toward more successful configurations. The business model for a book is defined when the contract is signed — the product is largely defined, revenue splits are determined, and the distribution capability is known.

    This interview was edited and condensed.


    • Release Early, Release Often: Agile Software Development in publishing
    • Want to succeed in online content? Get small, be open, go free
    • Ebook pricing power is undermined by perceived value
    • Support vs Access: Why Highlighter picked Seattle

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