Monthly Archives: January 2009

Kindle, Sony on Notice: Here Come Your Rivals

While Sony has been upgrading its Reader, and Amazon may be upgrading its Kindle (we may know in a week or two), rival firms have not been sitting on their hands. We’ve reported on several contenders like the iRex Reader 1000, described as a “Kindle Killer.” Now Foxit has climbed into the ring with a bantamweight called the eSlick Reader.

One thing it has going for it is price – $230. That’s about one-third less than that of its prestigious competitors. And, according to Jose Fermoso of Wired, “It might be the first large hardware eInk device to play eReader files.” Translation: it uses the Palm format, meaning it can run on iPhones and a number of other mobile phone platforms. It would also presumably enable those who carry eReader books on their Palm Pilots to transfer the files to a larger and more navigable display unit. Down the road, if the gadget takes off, it might carry other, non-eReader platforms as well.

Wired’s Fermoso calls the device ugly, and the name “eSlick Reader” scarcely dances trippingly o’er the tongue. But if it gets the job done, and brings us closer to the tipping point of a $99.00 e-book reader, we’ll forgive its homeliness.

RC

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Professionals Elbowing Amateurs Off YouTube?

There was no YouTube when poet Robert Frost penned the deathless line, “Nothing gold can stay.” But if he were alive today he would certainly feel his image aptly described the possible fate of YouTube as professionals get set to move in on it. The very zeitgeist of the 21st century represented by the ingenuity, the spontaneous combustiveness, the wacky hilarity, the instant, viral, visceral responsiveness of a public that knew what it loved and voted for it with billions of mouseclicks, may now be giving way to the slick creations of Hollywood television and film companies backed by studio and network money, branded sponsors, and calculating marketers. Here’s a quote from Brian Stelter’s reportage in the New York Times:

YouTube and the William Morris Agency, the Hollywood talent agency, are close to signing a deal that would place the company’s clients in made-for-the-Web productions.

The deal would underscore the ways that distribution models are evolving on the Internet. Already, some actors and other celebrities are creating their own content for the Web, bypassing the often arduous process of developing a program for a television network. The YouTube deal would give William Morris clients an ownership stake in the videos they create for the Web site.

From the beginning Google recognized the commercial potential of YouTube when it acquired the emerging phenomenon, paying a then eye-popping $1.65 for it (a price that in restrospect seems like a steal). But despite 100 million visitors a month, monetizing YouTube’s content and making Google’s investment back has not proven to be a slam-dunk thanks to the complexities and potential liabilities of copyright. Now that it looks as if the William Morris Agency is taking charge of the packaging and selling, you can be sure that copyright clearances will be diligently handled, production values will soar, lots of money will be made, and something precious will be spoiled.

Fred Davis, a senior partner at an entertainment law firm, is quoted by Stelter as commenting that “Although everyone realizes that the monetization of this content is not quite there yet, everyone also realizes the huge potential as the digital media business matures.”

Well, Hollywood, there are millions of us who don’t want YouTube to mature. We like it just the way it is — embarrassingly sophomoric, amateurish, LOL hilarious, pathetic, dopey, dirty, funky, and utterly counterculture. It belongs to We the People. Can’t you go co-opt some other industry? We can think of a lot of them that could use your genius, your money and your values.

Nothing gold can stay, but as for the innocent fun of a freshly posted video produced by an inspired amateur, we can quote another poet on that score, Robert Graves: Good-bye to All That.

– Richard Curtis

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No, I Haven’t Read Your Book, But I’ve Seen the Video

A wag once said about book advertising, “We know it’s fifty percent effective. We just don’t know which fifty percent.”

I was reminded of this quip when I read J. Courtney Sullivan’s essay in the New York Times Book Review about the thriving industry dedicated to designing book-specific websites and producing elaborate video tie-ins. “Today, you can’t be a successful writer without having a little Barnum in your bones,” Sullivan quotes thriller writer Brad Meltzer, one of the earliest creators of a website devoted to a book.

Though it’s now accepted wisdom that every author needs a website, it didn’t take long after the introduction of book sites like Meltzer’s for authors to try outdoing each other to produce the most colorful, interactive, and sense-stimulating sites money could buy. Book videos were introduced around 2002. Then publishers raised the stakes by creating dedicated web pages for their prominent authors and featured books. In time these displays grew into Hollywood-like productions, and publishers began asking authors to contribute to the cost or even to produce the trailers themselves. “A sizable industry has sprung up,” Writes Sullivan. For instance,

“AuthorBytes, a multimedia company started in 2003, has built sites for more than 200 clients, including Paul Krugman, Chris Bohjalian and Khaled Hosseini. They cost from $3,500 to $35,000 — with writers paying about 85 percent of the time. The staff of 20 even includes three employees whose entire job is updating.”

A visit to the AuthorBytes (“Everything authors need to shine online”) website is instructive. Among the services offered are custom websites for authors and publishers, podcasts, multimedia Trailers and online book promotions.

Authors who can’t pay the freight for productions like those done by AuthorBytes often try to do it themselves, with less than stellar results. “Many book videos are little better than home movies, painfully dull and almost laughably bad,” comments Sullivan. “But others are impressive, full-scale productions. Naomi Klein’s nearly seven-minute companion film to ‘The Shock Doctrine,’ directed by Alfonso Cuarón with a full crew and shown at the 2007 Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals, has been downloaded more than a million times.”

Do these dog and pony shows sell books? That takes us back to the fifty-percent rule. Or maybe it’s the eight percent rule, for Sullivan cites a survey that found that that’s the percentage of book shoppers who visit author websites in a given week. “It didn’t, however, say how many clicked on the ‘buy the book’ link,” she says.

But is that the point?

There’s nothing wrong with having a little Barnum in your bones. But, despite Sullivan’s conclusion that the Web promotions have not proven themselves, it’s likely that her article, See the Web Site, Buy the Book, is only going to contribute to the ratcheting of author anxiety to an almost pathological pitch. In an essay called “Watching Books” posted a few months ago I wrote:

It never hurts for authors to be attractive and promotable, and no one in publishing is so naïve as to deny that publishing decisions are influenced by an author’s sex appeal, charm, showmanship, and other extrinsic factors. To utilize the mighty resources of the Internet in order to play up those factors is by no means deplorable as long we keep things in proportion. Which means that, ultimately, it’s all about the book. But as the publishing industry’s drift into the rapids of show business accelerates, we should not be surprised to see computerized pyrotechnics become significant if not decisive factors in the acquisition of books.

Sullivan’s essay suggests that the trip down the rapids has indeed accelerated for authors.

Richard Curtis

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Amazon “Mystery” Announcement Slated for Feb 9

Back in October E-Reads Production Manager Michael Gaudet speculated on rumors that the second generation of Kindle was in gestation, and the proof was in some “leaked” spy shots of the device.

Today a number of publishing and e-book executives received invitations from Amazon to attend a press conference at New York City’s prestigious Morgan Library.

What could the announcement be? Perhaps…

1. Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, has been named the Obama administration’s Car Czar;
2. Amazon envoys have brokered a lasting peace treaty in the Middle East;
3. Amazon has acquired Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan Group, and Hachette for $137.50.

Gizmodo thinks that “Amazon’s new-and-improved Kindle could soon see the light of day.” That would make the most sense.

Amazon’s pre-announcement announcement comes on the heels of the firm’s notification of publishers and authors that it will cease offering e-books in the Microsoft Reader and Adobe e-book formats. “In the future, the online retailer says it plans to offer only e-books in the Kindle format (for wireless download to its Kindle reading device) and the Mobipocket format, both of which are owned by Amazon,” writes Calvin Read in Publishers Weekly. The move won’t have much practical effect. As Reid points out,

“Amazon did not specify how long the Adobe PDF and Microsoft formats will continue to be available. A search of the site turns up mostly technical works and e-docs in PDF form and very little in the Microsoft format. Amazon offers tens of thousands of titles in the Mobipocket e-book reader software, which allows e-books to be read on a wide variety of handheld mobile devices. The company said it will now be urging customers to buy e-books through Mobipocket. Amazon also sells more than 200,000 titles for use on the Kindle.”

E-Reads will be in the throng at the Morgan, thumbs poised over the Send key to release the announcement.

RC

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Publishers Weekly Fires Beloved Editor in Chief

In a season of shocking news, the firing of Sara Nelson, Publishers Weekly’s editor in chief, blindsided the book trade community and brought the industry’s recession home in a deeply personal way. Me? I’m in mourning. Sara Nelson was one of us.

Nelson’s hiring four years ago brought a lively voice to the stodgy old news magazine. Her weekly editorials – I haven’t kept count but I doubt if she missed more than a handful of issues – were intelligent, thought-provoking, and often fearlessly controversial. She overhauled every section and injected color and sparkle to deadly dull listings and boring announcements. She was a passionate advocate for all the right causes, but she did not disdain gossip and buzz. She wore her love for books and book people on her sleeve.

Reed Business Information, the magazine’s owner, gave no valid reason for letting her go, but the Times‘s Motoko Rich offered this:

Like the industry it covers, Publishers Weekly has suffered from a downturn in the retail economy as publishers have stopped advertising their upcoming books in the magazine. In past years, publishers used the magazine as a way to inform booksellers of the buzz on upcoming titles, but now most publishers communicate directly with bookstores and executives at the biggest book chains

Brian Kenney, editor in chief of School Library Journal, will now take over the job. He has a huge pair of shoes to fill.

RC

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Gatekeepers

For those who fret over the perilous state of publishing in the 21st century, Lev Grossman’s article in the January 21st issue of Time is a solid summary of all we need to know as we stand at the crossroad where the Old World of Tangible meets the New World of Virtual. Read Books Unbound and find your own place at the intersection.

To exemplify the paradigm shift Grossman cites a number of self-published novels – notably Still Alice by Lisa Genova and Daemon by Daniel Suarez – that became wild successes. He suggests that this proves that the conventional book industry has been cut out of the loop and that the public is “rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker.” The so-called “gatekeepers” of the traditional publishing game – editors, bookstore buyers, reviewers and critics, literary agents – are given short shrift in their role of tastemakers and kingmakers:

In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving.

Has the elite gatekeeper role truly passed from publisher to the man and woman in the street? About a year ago I asked, Do Amazon Reviews Count? Noting the success of Zagat restaurant guides, which rely on the ratings of just plain folks like you and me, I wondered if a similar phenomenon could occur in rating books. “We live in an age when peer review is meaningful if not significant, and Amazon.com has used this fact to create a cadre of reviewers who must be taken seriously,” I wrote, noting that although I hadn’t seen too many traditional books with Amazon.com quotes emblazoned on the cover, I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed before long.

Well, a year later I still haven’t seen one. What I continue to see however are blurbs by those familiar gatekeepers known as household name bestselling authors. Clicking on Genova’s Still Alice page on Amazon.com, I was greeted by raves from Brunonia Barry, a New York Times bestselling author; Beverly Beckham of The Boston Globe; Phil Bolsta, author of Sixty Seconds; Julia Fox Garrison, author of Don’t Leave Me This Way; and Charley Schneider, author of Don’t Bury Me, It Ain’t Over Yet. Similarly, Suarez’s Amazon.com reviews were keynoted by a rave by theflagship of book industry gatekeepers, Publishers Weekly, followed by plugs from: William O’Brien, Director of Cybersecurity and Communications Policy, The White House; Craig Newmark, Founder Craigslist; John Robb, futurist & Author of Brave New War; Stewart Brand, Founder Whole Earth Catalog & co-founder of the Long Now Foundation; etc. etc. Not a Just Plain Folk Like You And Me in the lot. To learn what the man and woman in the street think about these books you have to click on all editorial reviews. In short, when it comes to promoting books, brand name celebrities are firmly in control of the gates and the hoi polloi remain outside.

Of far greater significance is that while Genova and Suarez were carried into the stratosphere on the wings of viral popularity, it took traditional publishers paying big bucks, printing tons and tons of tangible books, and distributing all those copies through brick and mortar bookstores to monetize their success. Nor must we forget that the fame of their books was measured by yet another traditional gatekeeping institution – bestseller lists.

Of course, some authors may be satisfied with egoboo in lieu of cash. Grossman says,

And speaking of advances, books are also leaving behind another kind of paper: money. Those cell-phone novels are generally written by amateurs and posted on free community websites, by the hundreds of thousands, with no expectation of payment. For the first time in modern history, novels are becoming detached from dollars. They’re circulating outside the economy that spawned them.

That is most assuredly not music to the ears of this gatekeeper, who holds with the immortal words of that dean of gatekeepers, Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Perhaps the best way to characterize the state of the publishing industry is that it is a complex ecosystem where exciting new species are identified by the proletarian processes of the Internet, but their commercial potential can only be realized by the traditional book industry. In time the former may eclipse the latter, but at this moment in time the two cannot really live without each other.

Richard Curtis

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Galley Slaves Still Opt for Paper Bondage

We recently reported on a recent conference introducing trade book editors to XML, the markup language that promises to facilitate so many costly, time-consuming and tedious functions performed by traditional book publishers. Among the most significant improvements stressed by Hachette Book Group David Young was that XML could eliminate printed galleys, which Young described as a “major money pit.”

It appears as if we’re going to be wallowing in the pit longer than XML drum-beaters would like. Craig Morgan Teicher writes in Publishers Weekly that “most people would like to put off using e-galleys as long as they can.”

Bound proofs, some plain-covered and others handsomely jacketed, are early uncorrected versions of forthcoming books, submitted by publishers to reviewers. Because of the long lead time it takes for reviewers to read and write up books, it is unfeasible for publishers to submit finished copies. But, as Hachette’s Young points out, it is a big expense. It’s also about as far from green as it gets: reviewers receive hundreds of galleys a week and are only able to review a handful. The rest they toss. Now that publishing is doing digital, proofs submitted via email would seem to be a perfect solution.

Not so fast.

Ron Charles, senior editor for the Washington Post Book World, says, “As a reviewer, I need to have a physical book to read at home and on the subway – the last thing I want in my life is more screen time!” And Teicher reports Lev Grossman, book critic for Time magazine, saying,

“I’ve been offered them before, but only tried to read one once, on an early-generation Sony Reader. I hated the experience. That low-contrast screen, the poky refresh rate! It was like a horrible, crippled imitation of a book. But having said that, I think e-galleys are inevitable. They just make too much sense—financially for publishers, environmentally for everybody. Maybe by the time I’m forced to read them, e-readers will have turned into something less insulting to the eye.”

Despite the resistance, book trade observers think it’s only a matter of time before paper gives way to e-ink, especially because improvements to the production and submission process are on the way.

Read The E-Galley Cometh? and judge for yourself.

RC

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Who Says You Can’t Do Two Things At Once?

Good reporters distinguish themselves by looking away from the things most of us think are newsworthy, and focusing on small but revealing details. Farhad Manjoo, a New York Times reporter, exemplified this truth when he recently visited the spectacular Google headquarters. There’s enough there to make just about any civilian visitor slaphappy. But,”What caught my attention on a recent visit was something pretty pedestrian: the programmers’ desks. Specifically, their computer monitors,” he writes.

“I recently met several software engineers who work on Gmail, and each sported a spectacular configuration of screens. Some paired wide monitors with tall ones, others had huge screens married to small ones, and still others used several displays in series, giving the impression that in addition to building a Web-based e-mail system, they were helping Norad keep tabs on the nation’s airspace.”

Most of us multitaskers are content to open multiple windows on one normal-sized monitor and navigate between them. Manjoo cites some studies that indicate that two displays, or even one humongous one, are far more effective because you’re able to see more of what you have to do, like spreading all your papers out on the surface of your desk instead of piling them up. Manjoo mentions one in particular:

“In a study commissioned by the electronics company NEC, researchers at the University of Utah recently asked office workers to perform several common tasks using various monitor configurations. They found that people who used two 20-inch monitors were 44 percent more productive at certain text-editing operations than people using a single 18-inch monitor.”

Whatever effect all these screens may have on your productivity, it’s hard to believe they do much for your eyes. Pictured above is a Google software engineer after fifteen hours of programming on two monitors.

Read more.

RC

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My Irreplaceable You

When told that he was indispensable, the illustrious general and eventual president of France Charles De Gaulle said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

Every business captain needs to post that quotation on the wall in front of his or her desk as a reminder that great leaders must be great delegators. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, is as indispensable as corporate heads can possibly be, but adverse health has forced him, as it did De Gaulle, to look at his mortality and relinquish to others tasks that threaten to sap the energy he needs to restore his health.

It’s a difficult challenge for Jobs, his delegatees, his devoted fans – and investors, who turned bearish after Jobs farmed out the State of Apple keynote presentation at Macworld 2009 to Senior Worldwide Product Marketing VP Philip Schiller. By way of comparison (invidious or otherwise), here’s Jobs giving the 2008 keynote, boiled down to 90 seconds. Do you think it raises or lowers his IQ (Irreplaceability Quotient)?

Apple’s CEO, Timothy D. Cook, reassured analysts: “There is extraordinary breadth and depth and tenure among the Apple executive team, and they lead 35,000 employees that I would call wicked smart,” Cook was quoted in the New York Times. “We believe we were put on the face of the earth to make great products, and that is not changing.” It’s significant that Apple rebounded forcefully from the Jobs health-jolt with a $1.61 billion profit for the fourth quarter of ’08.

Jobs is one of many famous historical and contemporary figures forced to confront the realization that if your company or nation are going to live after you, you will have to find a way to turn some and eventually all of your authority over to heirs and successors. That is the theme of an article by Steve Lohr in the New York Times. Lohr’s conclusion? “The notion of the irreplaceable individual is a myth.” He mentions such business leaders as Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton and Microsoft’s Bill Gates as leaders who retired from active management at no great harm to their firms’ productivity or profitability.

Among the earliest and most celebrated instances of delegation can be found in The Book of Exodus (chapter 18). One of the first things Moses did after leading his people out of Egypt was confer on others responsibility for adjudicating disputes. His father-in-law Jethro counseled that justice could not be served if Moses occupied himself settling every petty quarrel in his vast camp of contentious Israelites. “Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee,” said Jethro (in the King James version). “For this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.”

Art thou listening, Mr. Jobs?

Moses was humble enough to take the advice, reserving for himself the capital issues. Though it still took forty years to reach the Promised Land, it’s arguable that the wanderers would not have made it at all had their patriarch sapped his vitality on the small stuff.

In case you want to read the story in full, Mr. Jobs, there are a number of excellent Bible apps available in your store for download on your iPhone.

RC

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No Roof in Sight: November E-Book Sales Double 2007 Tally

Trade eBook sales hit $5,100,000 for November 2008, a whopping 108.3% increase over November 2007, according to Michael Smith, Executive Director of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). Smith cited stats gathered by the Association of American Publishers. Calendar Year to Date Revenue is also up a robust 63.8%.

The figures obviously reflect a Kindle boost, but what is even more encouraging is that in a month in which pre-holiday print book sales slumped miserably, e-books flew high.

Just a reminder that:

* These are wholesale revenues reported from 13 participating Trade Publishers
* This data represents United States revenues only
* This data represents only trade e-book sales via wholesale channels. Retail numbers may be as much as double the above figures due to industry wholesale discounts.
* This data represents only data submitted from approx. 12 to 15 trade publishers
* This data does not include library, educational or professional electronic sales
* The numbers reflect the wholesale revenues of publishers
* The definition used for reporting electronic book sales is “All books delivered electronically over the Internet OR to hand-held reading devices”
* The IDPF and AAP began collecting data together starting in Q1 2006

The stats we’re all waiting for are December, when we’ll know just how e-book sales fared against book-books during the gloomy holiday season.

RC

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