Monthly Archives: June 2010

Is Mobi a Dying Whale?

Mobipocket is a cross-platform e-book format developed by a French team at the dawn of the e-book revolution.  It was the earliest attempt to make a one-size-fits-all program and for years the most successful.  Then Amazon acquired it and reversed its polarity, turning it from a universal format to an exclusive closed system. That system became the Kindle. E-book publishers wanting to convert files for the Kindle use a variant of Mobi called eBookBase.

According to Diesel founders Scott Redford and Kelley Allen. you can kiss your eBookBase goodbye. “Last month,” they report on the Diesel website, ” eBookBase informed their client base that they had no current or future intentions of renewing their contracts with the Agency Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster) and that they were pulling all A5 books off our site.”

Redford and Allen have looked at some other examples of a fading MobiPocket presence and wonder Are We Witnessing the Slow, Agonizing Death of Mobipocket?

It makes sense to us. A whole new suite of tools has burgeoned since the program was introduced and it just may be that the time has come to deep-six Mobi. Au revoir, cher ami!

Richard Curtis

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End Returnability: A Great Idea Whose Time Has Gone

The Huffington Post published a blog by independent publisher Jennifer Havenner with what she calls a “magical solution” to the book industry’s woes:  eliminate book returns.  Here’s how she framed it:

“In a desperate industry trying to scramble together 1% growth after being smacked with the Great Recession, the idea of saving the average publisher $40,000 every year should be a popular one. Add to that a 40% reduction of the industry’s carbon footprint, amounting to the carbon output equivalent of 2 million mid-sized cars, the saving of 60,000 acres worth of trees every year, and an additional $3 billion in profit industry-wide. What is this mystery magical solution?

“The elimination of book returns….By flipping one switch, the industry could make billions, and begin to reverse the environmental damage caused by wasteful practices. The whole industry needs to be on board for a true financial and environmental impact. Looking at the numbers, I see no reason why bookstores and publishers alike wouldn’t jump at the chance.”

Flipping a switch. It is indeed a magical solution, and a brilliant one.  It was brilliant when it was proposed thirty years ago. It was brilliant when it was proposed twenty years ago, ten years ago, and last year too. Everyone in the publishing industry thinks it’s brilliant.  But no one has lifted a finger to do anything about it, even though the returns model has driven countless publishers into merger, acquisition or bankruptcy and left the survivors no wiser or better able to control the hemorrhaging of cash.

And now it doesn’t matter, because a new on-demand business model has begun to replace the old one and in time will prevail. You can read about it in Publishing 3.0: A World Without Inventory Part 1 and Part 2

The time for magic is gone.  The old world of publishing is addicted to returns, and its wise heads never found the courage to break the addiction.  End returns?  A great idea whose time has gone.

Richard Curtis

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Can Sales Reps Survive?

Have you heard the joke about the traveling trade book salesman?

Actually, that’s the joke.  The publisher “sales reps” that once traveled to independent bookstores in assigned territories, armed with catalogs and advance read copies of books, have become an endangered species.

The reasons are many and complex, but chief among them are the dwindling number of independent booksellers; the growth of centralized, computerized ordering; the rise of e-books; and a bleak trade book economy that makes commissioned salespeople an unaffordable luxury.

Finally, telemarketers are replacing what’s left of a once proud cadre of “travelers” who intimately understood the tastes and reading habits of customers in their territories. (see Howdy Brownsville, New York Calling.) In fact, many of these same forces drove the independent wholesale distributors out of business in the late 1990s. (See The Rise and Fall of the Mass Market Paperback Part 1 and Part 2.)

Finally, the economy has applied the coup de grace. “Contractions in the book business in response to the Great Recession led to cuts in sales forces for large houses like Simon & Schuster,” writes Judith Rosen in the New York Times, “while commissioned rep groups that service independent publishers have also felt the pinch.”

You can read details in Rosen’s Can Sales Reps Survive?

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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Amazon Announces Embedded Audio/Video for iPad/iPhone/iPod

Amazon.com Press Release:

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Amazon today announced a new update to Kindle for iPad and Kindle for iPhone and iPod touch, which allows readers to enjoy the benefits of embedded video and audio clips in Kindle books. The first books to take advantage of this new technology, including Rick Steves’ London by Rick Steves and Together We Cannot Fail by Terry Golway, are available in the Kindle Store at this URL.

“We are excited to add this functionality to Kindle for iPad and Kindle for iPhone and iPod touch,” said Dorothy Nicholls, director, Amazon Kindle. “Readers will already find some Kindle Editions with audio/video clips in the Kindle Store today–from Rose’s Heavenly Cakes with video tips on preparing the perfect cake to Bird Songs with audio clips that relate the songs and calls to the birds’ appearances. This is just the beginning–we look forward to seeing what authors and publishers create for Kindle customers using the new functionality of the Kindle apps.”

“We are truly excited to have collaborated with Amazon to launch Kindle Editions with audio/video,” said Peter Balis, Director, Digital Content Sales, Wiley. “Innovations like these represent the advantages that digital can offer. Advancing our content in this manner is important for our authors and our readers and it will raise the bar on what digital reading can offer for years to come.”

“In the new Kindle Edition with audio/video of Rick Steves’ London, the embedded walking tours allow customers to listen to Rick as they explore the sites of London,” said Bill Newlin, publisher, Avalon Travel. “Rick’s narration adds depth to the reader’s experience, while listeners can follow the routes more easily with the text.”

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All eReader Apps Were Not Created Equal

Technologist Jason Perlow has done an analysis of e-book reading apps available on your iPad, and it would be a good idea for you to see what he has to say before downloading any of them.

“The average iPad user may not be aware of features or limitations in the various e-Reader apps available on the App Store,” he says, “so I’m going to try to boil this down so that you can make the appropriate choices which best fit your reading lifestyle.”

You may be surprised, maybe even shocked, by his conclusions. Here in condensed form are his takes on some of the more prominent apps.

iBooks

“While there is no doubting iBooks’ success in terms of its widespread use, of all the reader applications we’ve looked at, it is actually the least functional. Apple designed iBooks to behave and act like a real book, and focused more on the aesthetics and UI than actual App functionality with the initial release….”

“iBooks supports syncing of DRM-free EPUB and PDF content directly to the iPad thru iTunes. This is an excellent feature, but essentially locks the user down to using iTunes as the primary data transfer mechanism and thus requires a host PC or Macintosh in order to maintain the library…”

“Unfortunately, iBooks doesn’t scale very well as the size of your EPUB library increases. While iBooks is perfectly fine for a few dozen or perhaps a hundred or so books purchased from the iBooks Store or synced into iTunes, it is extremely unwieldy once you approach 300+ titles loaded into the database.”

[One issue Perlow doesn’t mention is cited by blogger Thomas Baekdal, who writes: “You’ve already purchased this book but it isn’t available for redownload. To purchase it again at full price, tap OK” and his comment is, “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?!?”]

Kindle for iPad

“Amazon still has the widest array of paid ebook content in existence, with well over 600,000 titles in inventory. However, from a feature perspective, the Kindle software is pretty weak when compared to its hardware counterpart — you can’t import other file formats into it (such as PDFs or .MOBI files) and it only works with titles you’ve purchased in the Kindle store.”

Barnes & Noble eReader

“Of all the paid content readers, by far the best one in existence is probably the Barnes & Noble eReader application. About the only negative thing I can say about it is that like Kindle for iPad, the application is limited to content purchased on the B&N website, and uses the same Safari web interface for purchasing.”

“Other than that flaw, I love this app — the reading experience is far superior to that of the Kindle application, as it has five customizable themes for different colors of text and background and has the best reading fonts I’ve seen in any of the apps I looked at, especially when viewed in the ‘Earl Grey’ theme that almost has me convinced I’m looking at e-Ink and not an LCD.”

“Margins can be adjusted directly from page view to make maximum use of the screen if you’d like. The content browsing interface is also much more elegant than that of iBooks or Kindle for iPad.”

Kobo Reader / Borders eBooks

“Kobo Reader for iPad is…extremely polished and very well-designed.
Kobo’s main benefit is that it supports many different computing and smartphone platforms, so you can have all of your content available with you wherever you go. Like Kindle and B&N, your content is stored in Kobobooks.com’s cloud, so it doesn’t matter if you are using Kobo for iPad, iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Palm, PC or Mac…”

“The Kobo reader application is one of the nicest looking on the iPad platform, although it isn’t nearly as feature rich as B&N’s or Stanza from a pure reading perspective. However, the text display is very nice, and you have four scalable fonts to choose from plus a White-on-Black “Night Reading” mode.”

Stanza

“Of all the applications listed here, Stanza is actually a very mature e-reader app, this despite only very recently being made iPad-native with version 3, in early June…
Stanza is by far the most sophisticated e-Reader application for iPad, as it supports not only the open EPUB format but also the legacy Mobipocket, PalmDoc (DOC), Microsoft LIT formats as well as HTML, PDF, Microsoft Word and Rich Text Format (RTF). This built-in compatibility eliminates the need for book conversion to EPUB with applications such as Calibre…”

“In addition to its connectivity features, Stanza has access to a wide variety of free book feeds… It has a wide array of font styles and color themes, and many options for text layout…”

“If you have lots of content that you’ve collected over the years, Stanza is definitely a must-have app. There’s absolutely no downside, it’s free to use and does more than any e-book reader app on this list.”

For the complete article, check out Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

Richard Curtis

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The Answer is “Watson”. The Question is “Google Rival?”

Remember when IBM pitted its Deep Blue computer in a chess match against human opponents? Well now, HotHardware reports that IBM has developed a “Question Answering” supercomputer that not only answers questions put to it in plain English, but is good enough to play Jeopardy.

The machine is named “Watson” after IBM’s founder but perhaps a play on Dr. Watson, whose questions to his companion Sherlock Holmes invariably elicited the reply, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” And don’t forget Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant Watson, who was summoned by Bell on the freshly invented telephone to see if it worked. It worked.

Though it sounds like a multimillion dollar parlor trick, in fact IBM has set its sights on no less a rival than Google. Its ability to answer questions in conversational English give it the advantage over the Google keyboard.

And responding to Jeopardy questions is particularly challenging.  Watson needed to be “trained” to recognize those questions, which are really answers.  And, as the video shows, Jeopardy’s format is filled with puns and other wordplay, requiring a nimble intellect.

HotHardware points out that Watson passed some tests with flying colors, but it still has a way to go before it puts Google out of business.  “Watson has a tendency to crash [and] sometimes goes on streaks of getting everything wrong.”

Well, yes, that can be a problem!

Richard Curtis

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E-Reads Uploads Hundreds of Titles to iPad and Other Etailers

E-Reads has responded to the surge in new e-book retailers with an upload of more than 200 titles to Apple iPad, Kobo, Diesel and Google editions.  The ten year old publisher, a leading independent in the e-book and print on demand space, is currently converting its 1000+ title inventory to the specific specs of these and other newcomers in the retail field, as well as older customers.  And of course, you can visit your favorite retailer where you’ll eventually see all E-Reads titles on sale.

Among authors in E-Reads’ upload are Harlan Ellison, Greg Bear, John Norman, Dave Duncan, William C. Dietz, Fritz Leiber, Sean Williams, Janet Dailey, Nancy J. Cohen, and Hannah Howell. Click here for the complete list of June uploads. And remember, that’s just the first of many. So…watch this space for news of new uploads

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Cory Doctorow’s Venture “Too Cheap to Fail”

When he announced his self-publication experiment in Publishers Weekly we asked “What Can Publishers Learn from Cory Doctorow?”

Our answer was – everything.

Since then we have tracked Doctorow’s lurching progress toward publication of his story collection With a Little Help, and at times it’s seemed that he could learn more from publishers than they could learn from him. In his monthly journal in PW he has reported his mistakes with searing candor including one doozy that any rookie editorial assistant could have foreseen: he failed to notice that book publishing is a complex venture that relies on other people.

In his latest column, however, he hits paydirt with a priceless epiphany, one that every publisher should write over his office lintel.  It’s that “The Internet makes it cheaper to coordinate complex tasks than ever before.”  How much cheaper?

“Too cheap to fail,” declares Doctorow, and like the bumbling magician who misleads us into thinking he doesn’t know what he’s doing, the author pulls a rabbit out of mid-air.  We understand at last why his experiment will succeed: because he’s not in the least afraid to fail.  Why should he be?  Not only has it cost him almost nothing, he has in fact already made money on it.

“I consider With a Little Help to be a Silicon Valley experiment. My upfront costs are minimal. I’ve spent $2256 getting into production, and taken in about $14,400 in payments. I’ll probably spend another $200-$300 before I ship, and that’s the last money I should have to spend without taking in money first: every time someone buys an on-demand book from Lulu, I’ll get paid without expending any capital. I’m printing and binding my short-run hardcovers in lots of 20, after being paid for them. The audiobook CDs are also produced on-demand by a third party, which means no capital costs for me, either. Setting up the donation page took a few hours fiddling with PayPal, and even if I never take in a penny in donations, I’m not out a penny either.”

But if you think Doctorow’s achievement is in getting his book published or in making money, the joke is on you. Abandon your establishment thinking, he urges, and look at how Silicon Valley IT engineers regard experimentation. Whereas publishing a traditional book is fraught with such expense that editors quake at the prospect of making a mistake, book publication the Silicon Valley way is dirt cheap.

“Unlike New York publishing,” Doctorow reminds us, “Silicon Valley’s products remain experimental long after they reach the marketplace. Google can change its search layout in seconds flat, try it out on a million searchers, crunch the data, revise the experiment and do it again, a hundred times a day if they wish. And bad ideas can be just as interesting as good ideas, because when it doesn’t cost anything to find out how bad an idea is, you can afford to be pleasantly and enormously surprised when it turns out that, say, people really do want to play Pac-Man on their search-results page.”

Read New York Meet Silicon Valley and if you don’t get it, read it again.  Eventually you will,and you’ll be a better publisher for it.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by Publishers Weekly.

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$99 E-Reader in Sight as Kindle and Nook Duke it Out

The back page of today’s (June 22 2010) New York Times news section carries a full page ad for Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-book reader. The price is $149.00 for a Wi-Fi only version.  But the price of the original model introduced a year ago also dropped from $259.00 to $199.00 according to the Times‘s Brad Stone. In response Amazon cut its undercut its rival, dropping the Kindle price to $189.00.

Is this the start of a price war or an adjustment that has bottomed out?  And why are prices dropping in response to the success of Apple’s iPad selling at almost three times the cost of its Amazon and B&N rivals?  Read In Price War, E-Readers Go Below $200 for some insights.

Stone quotes B&N’s CEO William J. Lynch as predicting that within a year the cost of a device will drop below $100.00, the fabled threshold below which appliances become as commonplace as pencils.  But why would prices stop there?  We have long urged the industry to consider adopting the so-called Gillette Razor model: give the device away and charge for the content. (See King Gillette and the Kindle)

A free e-reader?  As of today, we’re only $149.00 away.

Richard Curtis

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The Rise and Fall of the Mass Market Paperback – Part 2

Efficiency Strikes the Distribution Business

While the mass market book book business appeared to be healthy, in the early 1990s the infrastructure of paperback book distribution was undergoing significant changes. The dramatic rise and expansion of bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble siphoned business away from wholesalers’ franchises, both in cities and suburban malls. Computerized sales information enabled publishers, wholesalers and retailers to better track the performance of categories and identify winners and losers among specific books and authors. And the stunning advent of amazon.com leveraged the awesome power of the Internet to link supply and demand.

Assessing these patterns, paperback distributors began asking themselves why they needed to employ human labor when they could more efficiently and economically service bookstores and other outlets by shipping books directly to the retailers. Yes, it would mean that the human element — the guy in the station wagon who knew which towns loved historical romances and which preferred contemporary ones, which adored westerns and which were big on science fiction – would be removed from the equation. But — well, that was progress!

The big agencies pulled the plug in that summer of 1996 when whole fleets of drivers were discharged, and in the following years the wholesale distribution workforce was reduced to a fraction of what it had been in its heyday.

The Bottom Drops Out

Most publishing executives were slow to recognize the implications of the nosedive in the wholesale paperback distribution business, dismissing it as one of those occasional and inevitable shifts to which the industry had always adapted. What was the big deal? Fewer romances and other genre novels would be published, wasn’t that all there was to it?

In fact, the consequences were nothing short of calamitous. The impact was felt in every sector of the publishing business, from what got written to what got published to what got read. It wasn’t long before customers in west Texas or Nebraska or South Carolina discovered that many books by their favorite authors were no longer being stocked in their local stores. When customers or store owners complained, they were told to take it up with the distributor – in Vancouver or some other far-flung location reachable only by an 800 phone number.

The Rise of the Airport Model

A key result of the shift in distribution patterns was the streamlining of the way retailers ordered books from publishers. Why pick and choose among thousands of titles that might sell only a handful of copies? Wasn’t it better to follow the formula that worked so well at airports, ordering only the top fifteen or twenty bestselling books by branded authors like Nora Roberts, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham and Stephen King?

As paperback publishers awoke to the new buying patterns, they were forced to choose between star authors and those whose sales performance fell below a minimum level. At first the triaging was restricted to marginal genres like westerns, but as the last decade of the twentieth century progressed the definition of “marginal” broadened to embrace every category of book that fell below an ever-stricter definition of commerciality, a process akin to the lowering of the bar in a limbo dance. Limbo indeed: authors who had made a living for years from sales of ten or fifteen thousand copies of their paperbacks were now being dropped by their publishers as the minimum sales quota increased to twenty or thirty thousand copies or more.

Like the men and women who distributed their books, a lot of authors were thrown out of work, and the grim truth finally dawned on publishing executives. It wasn’t just genre titles that were affected by the seismic shift in book distribution; paperbacks of every kind were being hit by the pullback.

“What’s the Author’s Platform?”

As the publishing industry entered the twenty-first century, book industry executives began requiring editors to produce elaborate profit and loss projections and other corporate-style analyses of the potential viability of books and authors. What was the sales performance of previous books? Did they “sell through” satisfactorily or did returns cross the threshold of unprofitability according to the latest formulas devised by bookstore chain number-crunchers? The mantra of “The Bottom Line” was invoked ad nauseam at every editorial committee, and editors were constantly reminded, “We can only afford to publish hits. If you can’t project a big profit on a book, turn it down.”

Editorial financial projections were aided by an Orwellian innovation called BookScan, instituted early in 2001 by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, the world’s leading provider of airplay tracking information for the entertainment industry. BookScan offered subscribing publishers weekly analyses of sales by most major book retailers. Within moments, editors could access vital sales statistics on previously published books and authors, elevating performance parameters over traditional but less quantifiable values like compelling storytelling or stirring prose.

And what about the author? Was he or she attractive and mediagenic? Did he or she have a “platform” – an organizational base such as a hit television series or chain of fitness centers capable of promoting the sale of books? Was the author willing to buy large quantities of books for giveaway or resale by his or her franchise?

More and more, the importance of traditional literary criteria has taken a back seat to “The Numbers” and “The Platform.” Promising but modestly successful novelists have discovered they cannot get their second or third books published, and aspiring newcomers find that they cannot sell their books at all. As for nonfiction, no matter how compelling a memoir or business guide or social commentary might be, publishers are disposed to reject it because the author was not “branded.”

Faced with these grim options, authors have resorted to increasingly frenzied measures to get published. Established novelists are writing under pennames to disguise the poor performance of their earlier books, or strive to produce blockbuster “breakout” novels long on sex, violence, and plot but short on craft and characterization. Without supportive publishers to carry them while they developed their talents over four or five books, new novelists resort to gimmicky concepts with “log lines” that can be pitched like movie scripts. Nonfiction authors plump up their credentials or hire public relations specialists to burnish their images and enhance their media exposure. Others subsidize the purchase of large quantities of their own books to drive up their “numbers.” Literary agents are besieged by writers frantically seeking the advantage of representation by successful dealmakers. Self-publication has soared now that electronic and print technology and Internet promotion have brought the costs of vanity books down to proletarian levels.

As much as authors would dearly love to bring back the robust mass-market paperback era, it’s no likelier than a return to steam locomotives. More and more, the mass-market paperback is becoming a manifestation of blockbuster publishing, where economies of scale enable publishers to make a profit on immense shipments despite high returns. Because retail sales have shifted from racks to bookstores and the Internet, new and midlist works are increasingly being released in trade paperback.

The shift to trade paperbacks may help save midlist books. A major advantage of the trade paperback format is that it is the preferred size for print on demand reprints. “POD” takes all the guesswork out of bookselling, and the publishing industry can no longer afford to guess who will buy its products. Dismaying though it may be for old publishing hands to contemplate, the future of book distribution belongs to print on demand.

The end of the old mass-market paperback distribution system coincided with the birth of a new method of delivering books to readers. Though e-book technology has encountered innumerable obstacles, its potential to reach a vast readership is no longer seriously disputed. What sort of literature this new medium produces, and how it will make money for authors and publishers, are fascinating sources for speculation. And speculate we shall continue to do as the 21st century unfolds with its technological wonders and fascinating business model.

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