Archive for the ‘Bookselling’ Category

Directive 51 by John Barnes released today

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010
Directive 51 cover

Directive 51 by John Barnes (Ace)

Directive 51 is President George Bush’s directive that specifies how Executive Branch powers will be transferred in the event of a catastrophic event that kills or incapacitates the Constitutionally authorized successors to the office. Every administration has had such a plan, Directive 51 is just the most current. This techno-thriller novel envisions just such an event occurring and the efforts of the surviving Americans: government officials, military forces, and just plain folks to survive and rebuild. You can read a brief essay by John on the Penguin website, just click here. More than just a disaster novel, this is a political action thriller unlike anything we’ve seen before. There’s lots of neat, cutting edge issues in the book: the real danger of a fully open internet, an epidemic of both bacteria and nanotechnology, and the consequences of thoughtless extremism of all sides of the environmental questions.

If you are an aspiring author who wants to know what sort of novel appeals to our Agency, read Directive 51.

If you have a Bug Out Bag, or participate in the preparedness movement, or are uneasy about disasters like the recent earthquakes, read Directive 51. It will help you visualize what the conditions would be if there’s a complete collapse of the national infrastructure, and no matter what might happen to you: wildfire, earthquake, terrorist attack, you can smile and say, “I’ve seen worse” as you get on with saving yourself, your family and community.

Directive 51 is on sale today, at all online bookstores including Barnes and Noble, Borders and at their retail stores and independent bookshops as well. Check out, they are selling this first edition hardcover at the unbelievable price of $9.99, the same price as the Kindle edition, but we don’t know how long they will offer this discount. If you are a lucky iPad owner you can grab the Apple iBook edition from the iBookstore (only accessible via the iPad).

What’s a “hardcover e-book?”

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Check out this interesting essay on TUAW, Macmillan trying to sell ‘hardcover’ ebooks, which gives a technologist’s view of the e-book controversy.

Amazon concedes

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Gilda Radner on SNLIn the words of Gilda Radner, “Never mind.” (Clic the pic for sound.) However, let’s not fool ourselves that the war is over. This is only a skirmish. There are some new insightful blogs on the underlying causes of the conflict. We suggest you check out:  Scrivener’s Error and Charles Stross’ blog for a legal perspective and a supply chain analysis respectively. Great stuff.

UPDATE: A biting and appropriate summary by John Scalzi on his blog.

Amazon pulls Macmillan titles from online store

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Amazon will still allow customers to buy Macmillan titles from used book resellers as part of their partners program, but no longer displays the “Ships from and Sold by” text. The biggest impact is the elimination of royalty generating sales for authors on the web’s largest book retailer. The New York Times reports that the reason is the ongoing dispute between Amazon which wants to drive down the cost of e-books to $9.99, and publishers who want to hold up the price.

Technically Amazon is justified: book prices have risen due to increasing costs of manufacture and transport to place physical books on display in local bookstores. Ebooks have no cost of production, delivery or (shudder) returns. So ebooks don’t “need” to cost as much as paper books. Publishers, of course, don’t want to see revenues drop and want to continue the business-fiction that books are valued by the “format” of the book, rather than by the content. They are historically justified, because a hardcover costs more to produce than a paperback. But when there’s no physical object involved, the argument collapses. Alas, while my sensibility as an agent, makes me want to see strong, healthy publishers, there’s no good guy in this battle. And the only loser is the author.

Facilitators of delivery like Amazon and Apple don’t need the same margins as brick and mortar bookstores because they have no fixed costs for stores (not that Amazon doesn’t spend a lot of IT dollars on their computers). That’s why Apple’s iTunes and App stores have always passed 70% of the consumer price on to the rights holder. Amazon used to require 65% of the take for ebooks sold for the Kindle, but scared purple by the iPad, they dropped their share to match the Apple business model.

This fight, and the pulling of the Macmillan titles, is over the list price of the e-book. Publishers have been demanding agents and authors accept 15% of the ebook list price or sometimes a larger percent of the “Net receipts.” Our agency has been fighting the unfairness of publishers holding high percentages of e-book revenues for years. The problem is that 15% of the list price is not profitable for authors if business partners (say, Amazon and Macmillan) decide to price the e-book at $2.99. Likewise, the apparent niftiness of a 25% net receipts royalty is a bad deal if the delivery facilitator decides to collect 65% of the sale price, which Amazon used to do. Too many contracts have authors incomes tied to the publisher’s ability to artificially inflate the price of e-books; a fight I don’t think they can win.

It’s time to rethink the business model for publishing. Print runs are falling, even NYTimes bestsellers are being stocked in big chain bookstores in smaller quantities, and consumer spending is falling. Arguing over the wrong things for the wrong reasons and arguing against technological reality is not the way to improve the world. I’m concerned, but not worried; I love all the editors we work with and want them to have long careers, but my fiscal duty is to the cash flow of our authors. I think I’m the only literary agent who is also a computer software guy; someone who can edit books and refactor software. (They are very similar activities). I was in the BBN network control center the night the Internet, then called ARPAnet was first turned on. I’m pretty sure I’m the only agent with the iPad development system running on my laptop. All this e-book and web stuff is fun and it is not going away. So to Amazon and the Publishers, I want to say: stop fighting kids. The author, and agent–at least this one, is your friend. You can’t fool me; but you don’t have to.

E-books set to drive publishing in 2010

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

All the signs say publishing will change significantly by Noon, California time on Wednesday January 27th when Apple announces the iThingy. Speculation about what this iThingy will be sounds like publishing genres: from Romance (it will be love at first sight), to Fantasy (it will be a full color e-book reader that provides total laptop computer capability with a touch screen interface that plays games) to Religion (it will be the Jesus Tablet).

I don’t know any more about the product than anyone, but I can offer a few observations about Steve Jobs and about Publishing.

Today’s rumors report that Jobs thinks “it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.” This supposed quote feels genuine and if so, and from what we know about Jobs’ Apple, should tell us something about the product. When Apple introduces paradigm-shifting products, the speculators and pundits always predict they will somehow encompass a whole bunch of historically desirable features and support traditional activities. What really happens is that Apple removes features and simplifies use. The immediate response of the Apple haters is to say, “Well no one will ever buy a product without that feature” and dismiss the Apple gizmo just long enough for Apple to dominate the unseen market that never cared about that feature anyway. For example:

The first iMac (thebrightly colored gumdrop), lacked a 3.5″ floppy drive. Pundits fried the iMac for its lack of backward compatibility. However, consumers appeared not to notice it was missing, and the line sold well.

The iPod completely revolutionized music players and electronic devices in general by replacing individual buttons (and the documentation required to explain them) with the click wheel. The iPod was the first all-digital device with an analog control. The iPod also simplified use: with “1,000 songs in your pocket” the iPod user had plenty of music available at all times. Of course today’s iPods hold many times the music, games and videos.

The same story unfolded with the iPhone. Most positive speculation of the iPhone design expected an iPod click-wheel that somehow turned into a rotary dial or some slide out keyboard that other vendors had done poorly. The iPhone offered a completely new interface that changed up the game for smart phones. The speculation that predicted the failure of the iPhone is now as faded as the earlier speculation that the iPod would fall to the superior resources of Microsoft and their partners. Remember the Zune?

So will the iThingy wipe out the Kindle and all the other, newly announced e-book readers? Technically, it probably will. From the business point of view, it has already caused change.

Here’s how music players, like the iPod, are different from e-book readers, like the Kindle.

First and foremost is the user experience. Music players, including the iPod are out of sight and seldom touched while being listened to. The minimal click wheel is all that’s required to control the iPod. iPhones and the iPod touch are highly visual and the touch sensitive screen is key to the usability. Reading a paper book is entirely a visual experience with a subjective tactile quality: the feel of the book.

So e-book readers must survive being looked at a lot and they must be good to touch. Many existing e-book readers certainly provide convenience, but beyond the steadily improving quality of e-ink screens, many are ugly and distractingly covered with keys. So any Apple e-book reader will have to do lots better.

The second aspect of e-books is the source of content. Music players were originally introduced to acquire songs from existing sources and make them available in your pocket. People seem to have forgotten that iTunes was free on all Apple computers for almost a year before the iPod was released. iTunes was a digital jukebox presented with the slogan “Rip. Mix. Burn.” It allowed users to move songs they already owned to music players and burn new albums as CDs. Personal creativity was not creating music (that’s hard and requires talent) but choosing how to combine music and share the playlist with friends. Piracy of music was well underway long before iTunes and the iPod, but with the iTunes Music Store, for the first time, consumers could purchase legal music, and they did.

But e-books are a different story. Despite advances in scanners, there’s no book reader to move an existing library onto any form of e-reader. To scan a book today, you either have to devote a lot of time to holding the book down on a scanner, or destroy the book to feed the pages into a scanner. So the only way to get content legally on an e-reader, other than texts that are in the public domain, is to buy each book as an e-book at published prices. This is fine for brand new front list titles, but the book business, before the “hits” model that developed in the 1980s, was a backlist business. Older books sold every year and good books could stay in print for decades. The very essence of publishing, backlist bestsellers, hasn’t driven e-books and e-readers; but it should.

How to make an e-book market explode?

The missing bit of technology that could explode e-books is the $200-300 book scanner that would read a paperback or hardcover book in less than an hour of clock time and spit out the book no worse for wear. For mechanical reasons, this would be a hard product to build. Lacking this device, e-book retailers and publishers could announce that anyone who bought the paper book (non-returnable paper book and some proof of sale required) could download the e-book edition for free or a nominal cost like $0.99.

Eliminating the need to ship heavy paper books around the country, e-books should be highly profitable for both publishers and authors whenever the pricing gets right. In the past two decades the price of all formats of paper books has risen to levels that drives down consumer book purchasing. Now, when e-books as a format, have the ability to remove the high price levels, all we hear from publishers is their intent to keep prices high. But trends can reverse.

With the recent announcement by Amazon that they are conforming to the iTunes model and dropping their share of the consumer price as well as the target price, Apple has already influenced publishing while having no product in the space.

Let’s see what Wednesday brings…

HarperCollins negotiating with Apple for ebooks says WSJ

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on a negotiation between HarperCollins and Apple to release ebooks for the new Apple tablet device to be announce next Wednesday. The article indicates HarperCollins staff leaked this story but a photo caption in the WSJ online edition claims an “announcement” by the publisher. This is probably sloppy journalism unless this is an Apple sanctioned leak as Apple normally never permits partners and suppliers to pre-announce anything. Read the WSJ article here.

This should be good news for both authors and the reading public, but the story suggests the price of these ebook editions will be between $14.99 and $19.99. I suspect this is bogus or simply HarperCollins’ hoped for position. At such high prices, the viability of ebooks will depend largely upon the physical appeal of the Apple product rather than the content of the books themselves. We will have more on the state of ebooks and Apple thingys later this week.

Graphjam illustrates bookselling

Monday, December 14th, 2009

funny graphs and charts
see more Funny Graphs

WSJ and NYTimes say B&N’s Nook is underdone

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Both of the nation’s leading technology columnists, Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal and David Pogue at the New York Times (Not Yet the Season for a Nook), roasted Barnes and Noble’s ebook reader in their reviews today. Click through and read what the e-sages have to say. Note: you may have to register or subscribe to read the columns. You can also read Walt’s review at his All Things Digital site.

I have no comment yet, because I (like everyone else) have never seen a Nook. In general, I applaud developers of e-book readers and hope this additional product will spur consumer choice, but I think we will still have to wait for Apple’s tablet to get an iPod-class example of e-readers. Of course the biggest obstacle to e-books is not the merit or temporary bug-level of individual models but the predatory nature of the business models. Vendors want to trap consumers in their business model rather than replicate and expand the nature of reading and pocketing a profit along the way.

Don’t be misled, e-books are coming. Partly because of technological advantage, and partly because of blind greed on the part of publishers and retailers. They hope to continue to make profits from owning 85-96% of the retail price for books while keeping the price to consumers at the level of physical books. This cannot continue. Publishers and retailers see making huge profits selling an e-book for $24 and never having to ship, inventory or display a physical object. I can’t see this. But then I never saw all the colored lights in the 70s either.

Bookstore Baksheesh Revealed

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Adam Pennenberg has written an informative piece at Fast Company, the business news website, that reveals a business practice agents and publishers have bemoaned for years: bookstores have to be paid to promote the books they stock. I won’t recap the issues in the article, just go read it here. In brief: placement on the front table in a major chain bookstore costs the publisher up-front, about $30,000. Yes, after the publisher has paid the author’s advance, the costs of publishing and manufacturing the books, they also have to pay the booksellers to try to sell the book.

What Adam omitted from his article is that the chains only guarantee a 65% to 75% compliance with the “promotion.” This is why, even if your publisher paid a co-op fee, you can’t find your book in some stores at all.

Ever since executives fleeing the collapsing retail grocery business joined booksellers a decade ago, they’ve made two changes that damage their own adopted industry.

First, they switched the book retailing model from selling books, to charging for shelf space for displaying books. This works in the grocery business where beer and canned soup turn over every day and the consistency of content is key to retailing. Everyone wants every can of Campbell’s tomato soup or Pepsi to be exactly the same. Books are different. An obscure novel by Mark Twain might sit in the store for two years before selling. Bookstore space devoted to shrinking backlist choice is a casualty of mentally valuing space over variety of titles. The practice of pricing space hurts books and opens the door for Amazon to stock titles that can’t be economically carried in every bookstore. Amazon wants to be paid for promotions too, but that’s just the spread of a bad practice. As Adam explains in his story, only a small part of a bookstore’s space is pre-paid, compared to a retail grocer, but just enough to hurt new authors and publishers. Inescapable point: every can of beans is substitutable; every book is unique.

The second error of the grocers in the book business was to abandon all marketing technique except discounting. Discounting and couponing work in the grocery because money saved by the consumer on the weekly, or coupon, special can be recovered by impulse purchases of high profit items. Unfortunately in bookstores, discounting new or unique works, makes them less profitable to publish and channels the impulse money into candy and trivial works that can be jammed up near the register. Since everyone goes in the grocery at least once a week for milk, bread and whatnot, creating the image that everything is discounted at your grocery chain, can draw business. Discounting is an effective draw for pure commodity retailing; milk is mostly milk. Books are different. Except for uniform series novelists, every book is different, and even in series like Harry Potter, the substance of the novel changes from book to book. By continuously broadcasting the message to consumers that low price is the decision criteria for buying books, booksellers have poisoned the concept that content matters. If low price is the qualifier for all books, why do I need to buy any particular book today?

I believe that book chains don’t really want to be in the book business. They just want money because they control the access to readers. This allows them to dodge the question of responsibility for doing their job (selling books) and instead to collect an entitlement (basically a tax) for being in control of a step in the process. Unfortunately, they never draw new book buyers into their stores. The message is always: if you buy books we got a bunch of cheap stuff here, but they don’t even try to get new people to buy books. That would require a different type of marketing.

Last year, one chain did try something new. Picking up a CEO from the department store industry (and you know how well that business is faring) he explained that “we sold more dresses displayed full front, than sleeve out in racks, so we are now going to feature more copies of fewer titles racked face out.” I don’t know how this is going but I await the new bestseller in petit, small, medium, and full figure in a choice of pink, teal, and cocoa.