Monthly Archives: December 2007
Tim O’Reilly is the founder of O’Reilly Media which publishes many technical and programming manuals for all the arcane branches of system management, specific languages, operating systems, design & graphics, databases, you name it. He has been around the tech business (and the publishing business, too) for quite a while and has probably forgotten more about some of today’s “new ideas” than the people who think they’ve invented those ideas have ever imagined. Needless to say, he’s worth paying attention to when he talks about matters technical and book-related. Not least among his accomplishments, O’Reilly was involved with GNN, the first ever commercial website and the place that ran the very first banner ad.
Fortunately, he sees blogging as a useful tool for plugging his product lines and his ideas and he also has a sense of humor since his corporate blog is named Radar. The M*A*S*H reference certainly tickles my fancy.
In a recent post, O’Reilly has some pointed, intelligent and business-like things to say about one of our favorite topics, the Kindle, as well as about e-book pricing, potential markets, making a profit and other relevant issues. He observes the enthusiastic and optimistic chat about how e-books need to be priced at no more than $5 each to broaden the market and how some writers have expectations, or at least hopes, that they will get rich, or at least make lots more money, selling updates to people who buy their book for the Kindle. (“I’ll sell 40,000 e-book copies of my book and 25% of those people will pay me an annual fee for the updates and maybe I’ll make some money by making my e-books ad-supported as well and…”)
He applies hard-won knowledge of the ways of the marketplace (Think no more than 1%, not 25% as a likely subscriber ratio and don’t forget that Amazon will take 65% of each sale since you’re a solo content-provider…) and brings things down to earth. I can taste the reality in what he has to say because I’ve had my own versions of that glorious optimism and the inevitable sober reflection when the final picture doesn’t turn out to be as rosy as the hopes that propelled the initial effort.
What he says may be discouraging on one level but it isn’t intended to discourage. It’s intended to make people think in terms that can actually be realized. It’s intended to make people actually do the math and realize that if you sell too cheaply, you aren’t necessarily going to make it up on volume. (Although that’s an experiment that probably should be tried in multiple variations.) It’s intended to make certain that rational planning and disciplined expectations rule the day and that massive disappointment down the line is less likely because “irrational exuberance” is not the order of the day.
By the way, not only does what O’Reilly say make sense, he elicits voluminous comments and a much higher percentage of them make sense than I’m used to seeing in most other blogs. I’m planning to add his blog to my must list.
Here’s another brief bit from one of my favorite blogs, TechCrunch. Although the Kindle, Amazon.com’s brand-new e-book reader (about which we have blogged extensively) sells books in the proprietary, locked MobiPocket format, the writer points out how easy it is to download book files from any of the myriad BitTorrent sites (where all those illegal file copies–music, movies and, yes, books, too–can be found if you’re not worried about being tracked by the RIAA or any of the other organizations dedicated to chasing after data thieves).
Now, there are a number of sites, like Project Gutenberg, where files exist for any number of out-of-copyright/public domain titles. These files can be downloaded for free and used as the reader chooses. They are often posted in multiple formats like .txt (Text only), .pdf (Adobe Reader), .doc (Microsoft Word) and .Lit (Microsoft Reader). The Kindle can read text and Word files and the other two are easily converted into one or the other of these formats and they can then be added to the Kindle via the dedicated email address that comes with every Kindle account.
However, the BitTorrent sites have files for lots of books, including plenty of brand-new copyrighted titles, that can be downloaded just as easily, converted to whatever format seems best and loaded onto the Kindle via that same email address.
It’s easy. It’s quick. It’s convenient. It’s free. It’s also completely illegal–but we haven’t seen that stopping too many music collectors or movie fans now, have we? Are book readers more honest and law-abiding than music and movie fans? There’s no real way to know until some deep-pocketed publisher, or a publishers enforcement organization, starts tracking downloads and suing everyone in sight. Perhaps it won’t come to that but Amazon has given all those downloaders a way to put their files, legally obtained or otherwise, on a handy portable reading device.
Maybe that Attributor story I did a while back, the one about a company whose service tracks content appearances on the net, begins to make a lot more sense. I wonder what they charge?
A couple of months ago, Richard blogged about Japanese writers creating novels on their cell phones. There’s a more recent story that expands on the story and offers some startling information on how successful some of these writers are becoming.
I caught this story at TechCrunch, one of my personal go-to’s for techie news with a business slant, and their source was a piece in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. For a nice additional note of surreality, the date on the newspaper piece is December 3 and the TechCrunch coverage of that story is dated December 2. Gotta love the International Date Line and globe-spanning technology. This probably also means that from the point of view of all the nations in the Pacific Rim, us North Americans are perpetually living in the past, doesn’t it? I’d never quite thought of it that way before. It may be more appropriate than we want to think about, too.
Anyway, not only are lots of people in Japan writing novels on their mobile phones, a goodly number of those writers are becoming bestsellers. The specific author interviewed in the story, 21-year-old Rin (a pseudonym for a nursery school teacher) initially posted the segments of her novel (Moshimo Kimiga—If You…) to a website as she was writing them but a publisher picked up the book, put it into print and has now sold 420,000 copies in just a few months. There’s even a name for the phenonomon: keitai shousetsu (mobile phone novels) and one of the other stats quoted in the article is that a site set up seven years ago to help people write their mobile phone novels, Maho no i-rando (Magic Island), has accumulated almost one million of them.
An incidental side note of related interest is the mention in the story that a new translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has sold more than 300,000 copies so I suppose we shouldn’t automatically despair for the collapse of classic literature, in Japan at least. I wish I thought there was even a slim likelihood of such sales occurring in this country in the same situation. Maybe if Brad Pitt and Keanu Reaves were to star in the movie…
In any case, smart and opportunistic Japanese publishers are jumping on the bandwagon and Miss Rin is not alone in her success. A book called Koizora (Love Sky) by “Mika” has sold 1.2 million copies since being put into print a little over a year ago. And, since we’ve been behind Japan on the mobile phone technology curve for years and years, maybe we should brace ourselves for the same thing to be happening here–around about 2011 or so.
Thanks to Shelf-Awareness, a website and daily newsletter that covers many things book- and bookseller-related, for pointing me to this story. If you’re interested in these topics, their daily email would be well worth your time. And, thanks, too, to Amazon.com for doing their part to defend everyone’s First Amendment rights.
On November 27, Associated Press released a story about Amazon’s run-in with a Federal prosecutor in Madison, WI who wanted all the records, including full customer information, on 24,000 transactions dating back to 1999. Seems the prosecutor was building a tax fraud case against a former Madison city official who, in his spare time, or possibly on city-paid time, sold lots of books as an Amazon affiliate. In their not-particularly-Constitution-minded zeal to find potential witnesses, they had no problem subpoenaing personal information on who knows how many thousands of individual customers. Unsurprisingly, Amazon chose not to comply with the subpoena and, hearteningly, one Judge Crocker supported their reluctance to reveal the information. Now that charges have been filed, the Judge, at Amazon’s request allowed publication of his hitherto-sealed decision which led to the prosecutor’s withdrawal of the subpoena.
Perhaps even more interesting is a related blog entry by Declan McCullagh, The Iconoclast on News.com, which contains a Q&A with Amazon.com’s vice president for litigation, in which the litigator answers some questions about how often Amazon gets such requests and how they deal with them.
It’s bad enough that the DHS is out there wielding gag orders so that bookstores can’t even mention that they’ve been asked to reveal information when a question of terrorism is involved but when a prosecutor starts trying to subpoena wholesale quantities of private information, you have to begin to wonder if any of these people have ever read a small document usually referred to as the United States Constitution. If they have, it seems like maybe they’re just using it as a set of guidelines for what new legalistic excesses to pursue.
There was a fascinating piece of news published a week or so ago. I stumbled onto it in a link to a site called “Stuff” or, more properly, stuff.co.nz, which means, according to my understanding of these things, that the site is registered in New Zealand.
The gist of the story is that a Harry Potter fan, George Lippert by name, wrote a story involving Harry Potter that takes up after the end of the final book in J.K. Rowling’s massively successful seven book Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and then posted his story on his own website.
Now, there’s a long underground tradition of what is referred to as “Fan Fiction.” Essentially, fans of a given book or movie or TV series use the characters and settings from their favorite, or favorites if they’re feeling extra-frisky, and write original adventure stories that fall outside the established (read “published” or “broadcast”) canon. In these stories, almost anything can happen from romances to marriages, from wild adventures to cross-species mating. I first heard of this sort of thing in association with the original Star Trek TV series back in the 1960s and I think that may even be where a lot of the ideas for this sort of thing originated since there don’t seem to be too many examples that pre-date that time.
The trick with all of this, of course, is that the various media franchises from which these fan writers “borrow” the characters and settings are owned by large media entities who have shown, on occasion, a tendency to be highly litigious in order to protect the value of the properties they control. In a lot of cases, these corporations may be aware of the existence of these unauthorized stories and simply turn a blind eye as long as they don’t see the fan writers doing anything ambitious like printing and selling copies of their stories. Think of it as some dirty little secrets that aren’t really secret and probably aren’t all that dirty either.
The interesting news part, though, is that J.K. Rowling herself has taken a public position and said that she won’t be suing anybody who writes Harry Potter stories as long as they don’t sell them and as long as they make it clear that Rowling is not herself personally involved in the stories. That’s more than a bit of a leap past the point of turning a blind eye and strikes me as, if not revolutionary, at least generous-hearted and benign. From all I’ve seen over the years, that doesn’t surprise me about her but I do tend to wonder what her publishers and her movie production company think about her decisions to say in public what they’ve only really ever allowed “under the table,” so to speak. The photo that leads this story is from that “Stuff” story link and I can’t help but think that the smirk in her expression is the result of feeling the power she now has to make large entities smile and do what she wants–and more power to her.
My colleagues and I at E-Reads haven’t been exactly effusive about the merits of Amazon’s Kindle (though, compared to some blogs we’ve read, our comments will seem absolutely benign). However, I do want to say something positive, indeed something very, very positive.
For the past twenty years or so, since I first laid eyes on CD-ROMs, I and a host of cockeyed visionaries like me have been obsessed with the dream of a handheld book reader. Early in the 1990s I wrote for book trade publications about the possibilities and was so certain the day would come that by the mid-1990s I got tired of waiting for someone to invent one and spoke to some technical people about developing one myself. Luckily, the introduction of the Rocket Books in 1998 put an end to my quixotic and potentially bankrupting scheme. More significantly, it also called to arms the community of futurists who’d been doing more than sketching — they’d been developing the hardware and programming the software and waiting for their moment. And now, in 1998, it was here.
The moment may have been there but the handheld book reader was not: the technology, business model, rights management, and culture were immature. And despite the Sony Reader and the Kindle, they still are.
So what’s my defense of the Kindle? Simple. It brings us a gigantic step closer to the dream. Whatever you want to say against it, it combines three superpowerful forces: a flawed but demonstrably usable device, a blitzkrieg of a marketing campaign, and the limitless content of amazon.com. The public’s perception of ebooks can never return to the flash-in-the-pan flop that scoffers have branded it.
Maybe the Kindle is the wrong product, but at least it’s the wrong product at the right time. However limited the success of Amazon’s gadget may be – hell, even if it’s a total flop – there’s no going back on ebooks now. A wave of technologists will be inspired by the Kindle to do the job right in the next generation of ebook technology. It may still take years but as far as I’m concerned the game is over and the cyberbooks dreamers have won.
Thank you, Kindle.
– Richard Curtis