I’ve noticed it for the last couple of show cycles. I call it the restless Zombie effect.

I’ve watched attendees shuffle from room to room searching—consciously or unconsciously—for the messiah moment when someone will get up onstage and say “PublishingI HAVE THE ANSWER! I have seen the future and I know how to [save your business/fix the model/predict the behavior of customers]!”

When I squint my eyes I imagine a slightly more animated version of Dawn of the Dead, only set in a convention center with endlessly repeating carpet. George Romero, are you listening?

It doesn’t matter if it’s BEA, SXSW, O’Reilly’s Tool of Change, London, Frankfurt, or wherever. (Although I will put in a plug for the diminutive BISG Making Information Pay Conference, where I got more actionable intelligence on the future of publishing in four hours than at those other shows combined. Way to go guys.)

To be sure, we’re seeing some exciting things. Twitter feeds full of interesting ideas and smart insights. Great consumer information like what’s coming out of Bowker’s PubTrack service. New experiments in formats like Vook and Blio, and smart catalog projects like Above the Treeline’s Edelweiss. Direct to Digital publishing and promotion. Fun new aps like Readeo, A Story Before Bed, or Iceberg Kids, and new social/publishing hybrids like the forthcoming Figment.com.  Well-done extensions of book content into the digital universe like Scholastic’s 39 Clues, and Tony DiTerlizzi’s new Wondla-vision over at S&S. And let’s not forget the much-heralded arrival [insert incredibly brainy angels singing] of the iPad.

That’s all great. But like birds on a hippo, all these experiments are riding on the back of an industry poised on the edge, and it remains to be seen if we wind up with a fitter hippo or a Webkinz by the time we’re done.

More like evolution than revolution

I don’t think there’s necessarily going to be a messiah moment.

Or, if there is one, it won’t be coming from the places we usually watch for the simple fact that shifting the entire publishing industry uniformly will be impossible. One may turn a ship, but one does not turn an ocean.

Furthermore some of the most powerful entities in the current system will be the least able to make change. Multinational corporations cannot evolve as quickly as small, nimble players or savvy individuals, and this industry is made up of lots more of those last two groups.  Change will come from the wings.

Some people have advocated blowing it all up. I don’t think that’s a valid supposition, if for no other reason than the fact there is real operational value in the publishing chain, and lots of quality people doing great work. The problem is they’re doing it vertically (manufacturing model) at a time when they need to be doing it horizontally (information model).

Here’s what I think.

I think we’re going to see another five to ten years of remarkable change in the publishing industry. I think the changes are going to involve reorganization into a more direct way of doing business. I’m not sure on the matter of whether we’ll end up with a smaller Hippo or a bigger Webkinz, but here’s what I know is inevitable:

Flattened communication among readers, writers, and the publishing filter

This basically means creating a situation where Authors, Readers, and Publishers are in a conversation, rather than a broadcast relationship.  Publishers will have to adjust to the reality that they cannot control their author’s relationship with the audience, and so they must focus instead on what they do best–acquiring and publishing great material. Marketing and publicity will now be a partnership with more power (and responsibility) resting on the Author.

The shift to a more interdisciplinary Authorship

Following on from the previous point, successful authors will need to develop a new sophistication when dealing with marketing and promotion. This does not mean that the author’s primary job description is no longer writing, but it does mean that a successful author will also have to understand the core principals of planning their own marketing in the Web 3.0 environment. These include understanding how to use social networks, how to understand and engage their audience in conversation, and how to manage their attention to get their writing done. It also might mean knowing how to hire and manage a good publicist.

The growth of independent Publicists as a category

If someone were to ask me what I thought the growth jobs were in publishing, Independent Publicists would be in the top three (along with good editors conversant in XTML, and people who can teach Web 3.0 business classes for authors.) This new marketing landscape is going to need a new generation of savvy publicists who can work to craft a highly personal brand on behalf of their Author clients. We’re not just talking about arranging appearances, but tweeting, posting, and answering e-mail in an authentic way.  These IP’s will probably specialize in the fine grain of particular genres or market niches. Maybe we’ll see the rise of publicity collectives among authors that serve a particular market? Interesting idea.

More attention paid to how consumers behave and what they think

Once upon a time, publishers thought of their primary customers as bookstores. The literary directive was for them to acquire interesting and saleable material, publish it, and get it into stores. Where it went from there was mostly a matter of numbers, not consumer intelligence. They didn’t really need to know what a reader in Topeka thought about their books—only that they bought one.

Not anymore. With the traditional distribution system breaking down, publishers are waking up to the fact that the END CONSUMER is actually their customer, and that the consumer has increasing power over the entire retail model but they’ve got a problem. They don’t have relationships with their end consumers—the retailers do.

And with the aggregation of 90% of the retail marketplace into a handful of really big players, the retailers have them over a barrel. If they want to know their consumer, they’ve got three choices:

a) Pay for detailed consumer data (expensive)

b) Direct retail to consumers through their own sites (ineffective, disorganized)

c) Guess based on sales figures (one step above reading tea leaves)

In the future this will change. Publishers and authors will find a more direct route to the audience, and the healthiest solution will be one where everyone can have an honest, two-way conversation. Publishers and authors are already starting to lose patience with entities like Amazon who hold the publishers hostage for a hefty price. No one really wins in that situation, least of all readers.

A reader (but not necessarily a living wage) for every book

At the most recent Book Expo I was having a chat with the inimitable Mike Shatzkin, and the subject of over-publishing came up. I’ve felt that the industry has been over-publishing for some time.  He disagrees. He points out that the same claim was being made 40 years ago, when the annual output was 10,000 books instead of 288,000. He argues that the Long Tail phenomenon of the internet now means that there is an audience for just about every book, but it may not be big, and it may not be profitable.

I think there’s truth to this idea. Bowker reported that last year more than 700,000 ISBNs were sold to non-traditional publishers and individuals. Each one of those books will have a reader, even if it’s just the author’s mom, but the percentage of authors who make their living on writing will not increase appreciably.

What will distinguish commercially successful books will be professional editorial and marketing.

Editors and publishers as curators will still be important in the future which is good news for all.

The organization of the industry through a neutral consumer gateway

In the late 90’s publishing lion Jason Epstein tried to organize a publisher consortium to sell and distribute books through a central portal.  He chronicled his failure in his delightful 2001 memoir Book Business: Past, Present, and Future. Had he succeeded he would have given Amazon a run for their money—Amazon would not be dictating such destructive pricing concessions now, and publishers would have shifted their profitability considerably.

Unfortunately, he was defeated by all of the competing concerns of the different publishers who couldn’t see that far ahead. Jason saw the writing on the wall but he was about a decade too early in asking for the hearts and minds of his fellow publishers.

Well, here we are a decade later, and everyone’s hearts and minds are ready for the taking. It’s only a matter of time before Jason’s vision comes to pass. It’s too late for publishers to do it, because now they would be accused of racketeering. Amazon is not the neutral gateway I’m talking about either.

To be fair, no one in the business of selling goods can create what Jason Epstein envisioned. Publishers and retailers must serve their own interests first; they can never be neutral enough. Whatever emerges will need to connect readers, authors, and publishers through a central platform, and put the reader/consumer at the center of the equation. Not sell them—empower them. Excite them. Serve them.

The emergence of such an organizing platform has the potential to create the flattening and realignment the industry needs to move forward. After all, hearts and minds don’t just lie out there forever before someone comes calling.

So I ask you who’s going to do it? We better start watching the wings.

I don’t know if you caught it, but the lead article in today’s Publishing Perspectives is titled: Vitamins 2.0: How Children’s Books Can Change the World in a Digital Age.

The gist: give children beautiful books full of beautiful imagery–rather than digital bells and whistles– and they’ll be better prepared for managing the “high-stimulus” digital future. And start early. The earlier the better.

My reaction: Of course. What took you so long ?

The idea of exposing children to great books isn’t new. In fact, the idea that “great books build great minds” is at the foundation of most progressive literacy initiatives of the last 50 years. I appreciate the new emphasis on the “visual” aspect, but I think it’s just that the mainstream may be waking up to what librarians, teachers, authors, and children’s book publishers have known all along.

There are a wealth of great picture books which have been building imagination and visual perception since the golden age of the mid-twentieth century: Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moon to name just a few. No one who has fallen in love with those books thinks the words are doing the heavy lifting.

And I also believe we’ve got a bumper crop of amazing artists right now who are pushing the boundaries of the children’s book artform. Mo Willems, Emily Gravett, Lane Smith, Brian Selznick, Adam Rex, Kevin Henkes, Melissa Sweet, Peter Brown, Antoinette Portis, Loren Long, Shaun Tan, Matthew Reinhart, Peter Reynolds, Bob Shea… I could go on and on.

I don’t think it’s that books need to get flashier or more artistic, and in fact, adding too many bells and whistles can actually get in the way of developing great habits of mind through reading. Just adding more pictures doesn’t add more meaning. It’s hard to imagine how to improve on the bedtime experience of Goodnight Moon, for instance.

Here’s what we need to change: adults need to get better at understanding and encouraging active engagement with media. In general we tend to lack understanding of exactly how sophisticated a learning tool a great children’s book can be. Asking questions about the story, looking for details in the illustrations, anticipating what might happen next–-these kinds of activities create great analytical skills and an empowered reader.

This kind of reader will hopefully go on to ask better questions of all media, evaluate the quality of information, and make thoughtful decisions about what is worthy of their attention. THAT’S a 21st Literacy Skill, not multi-tasking per se.

In fact, I would argue that ATTENTION–-the ability to decide what needs one’s attention at any given time–-a single source, or multiple sources and how to switch back and forth mindfully–-is a much more critical skill.

How many adults do you see wrestling with that one when they are juggling a cell and driving? I’d say they haven’t mastered the literacy of Attention themselves, so how will they teach it to their children? Multi-tasking without the ability to also mindfully focus is just culturally-generated ADD. The successful thinker of the future needs to be able to do both.

What we want from a new crop of children’s books are great stories, and nuanced artwork that engages the imagination. Sometimes this means restraint as opposed to more visuals, so the message is clearer.

If you want to see a BRILLIANT example of this, check out Polly Dunbar’s recent series of Tilly and Friends Books for Candlewick Press. They are so visually rich, and so elegantly spare, they are masterful examples of powerful storytelling for young readers. They are pitch perfect at capturing the zeitgeist of a toddler, and they have some great ideas to teach.

As for older readers, I think there are great opportunities to enhance books with multimedia features like online content, games, and related video, but here’s the catch: these elements should be about inspiring the reader to immerse themselves further, to follow their curiosity, to expand their knowledge, or to participate with others in a community around a book.

They shouldn’t just be there because publishers and developers think kids need the “cool-factor.”  Kids are amazingly sophisticated these days, and they don’t swallow every hook, line, and sinker–especially if it doesn’t have deeper meaning.

Although I’m very happy to see kids books getting this kind of coverage, I think this article misses the point. It’s not enough to say “books prepare kids for a digital future.”

I’d argue that great children’s books and a rich experience of visual storytelling prepare kids for every future, digital and otherwise. They help kids build all the skills they will need for every eventuality: Attention, Empathy, Creativity, Imagination, Writing, Storytelling, Self-Awareness, Logic, Collaboration, Community, and Critical Thinking. It’s hard to beat that, and I think it’s amazing that the larger publishing community is just getting around to discussing it.

Adventure of Meno by Tony & Angela DiTerlizzi

Book 1: Big Fun!

Book 2: Wet Friend!

Simon & Schuster; Oct. 09; 48pp; $9.99 HC

978-1416971481 / 978-1416971498

Core Audience: giggly children 2-6 and retro-loving adults

Strengths: Appealing square trim, poppy visual approach, silliness

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to talk about books, partly because all of the industry upheaval this year has directed my attention to larger issues, and partly because I am in the middle of writing a book myself. So it was a real pleasure to tear open an envelope recently and have these two books tumble out.

Just the antidote to too much heavy thinking.

Meet Meno, the supercute space-elf hero of Tony & Angela Diterlizzi’s new series for the peepers. With his green beanie, irrepressible cowlick, and nifty sweater & tie set, Meno is the embodiment of My Three Sons meets Dennis the Menace with a pinch of Japanese-inspired Friends With You thrown in for good measure.

Tony and Angela have said they were inspired by lots of mid-century influences when creating these books. Things like “Little Golden Books, old Fisher-Price toys, and vintage cereal boxes” as well as funny words like pickle, weasel and spork. They must have had a lot of fun doing this project, and it shows. Populated with friends like Yamagoo, Wishi, and—my favorite—Zanzibar who lives in his HAPPY FUN BOWL, Meno’s world is full of interesting names to roll around on the tongue.

Presented in “Vibrant MENO-COLOR” the books’ clean layout, punchy full bleed art, and bouncy text add up to a high-style package that will be equally at home on a children’s bookshelf or a pop-culture lover’s coffee table.

Because of their strong aesthetic and minimal, playful text, it would be easy to dismiss these books as a design exercise, but that would be a big mistake. In our house we’ve tested these books on a range of ages from 2 to 8 (as well as 40) with great success. We’ve even adopted some “menoisms” into our daily routine. We sometimes drink “moo juice” and like Meno, we always want it to be “sunshine time” at our house.

This cheeky series may not appeal to all parents, especially those who are overly concerned with the occasional silly potty joke or creative play with language. Dick and Jane do not make an appearance in Meno’s world, but that’s part of the appeal. These books will entertain in direct proportion to an adult’s willingness to get goofy. They fall into the same category as tickle tag, making silly faces, and rolling around on the floor. Lots of fun, and a great opportunity to share some all-ages giggles.

Meno is BIG FUN for sure.

Rating: 8.5

***

Bonus videos:

Tony & Angela discuss the project

Tony and Angela read Meno (I especially like their rendition of the diminutive farts at the end. So silly!)

Buy these books from your Local Indie Bookstore

Swinging on the vine

Not sure if you’ve been paying attention to the Amazon Vine brouhaha kicked off by Betsy Bird over at Fuse #8 last week, but if you are an industry tracker I’d urge you to take a look.

Here’s Betsy’s original post (make sure you read all comments), an additional perspective from Chasing Ray, as well as author Adam Rex’s opinion over on his blog.

I think this discussion has some larger implications for the industry, which is why it’s going to continue to get play.

Here’s what I find interesting:

sad_amazon

1) Lack of transparency at Amazon

Amazon holds a very influential position in terms of consumer behavior at the moment, and it’s not at all clear, even among Vine Reviewers, how they were picked and exactly how their targeted lists are generated.

Publishers are similarly in the dark. I spoke to the head of marketing at one of the larger publishers yesterday who has not yet participated in the Vine Program because her department is unclear on how it works. They have the same questions we do.

I hope this discussion sheds some light on the issue, because I don’t think it’s a great practice to start a program that gives individuals an influential voice without being clear about who they are and how it works.

It does those chosen individuals a disservice—many of whom have taken the time to comment thoughtfully at Fuse #8 and the Amazon forum—as well as the authors they are reviewing, and it taints all the reviews with the air of mistrust. The credibility of these reviews will only be completely clear when Amazon explains the details.

Because Amazon takes a strictly hands-off approach, it seems like there is no baseline being set for how to write a thoughtful review that tells the readers what they need to know to decide if this book is for THEM. Just saying whether you liked it or not isn’t the same thing. Also, it bears mentioning that Vine members are also reviewing all kinds of consumer goods besides books.

From what I can tell, many Vine reviewers ARE taking the time to write thoughtful reviews, but since the program requires a certain level of review participation, perhaps books that wouldn’t be a reviewer’s first choice are getting posted.

It does appear, however, that in the case of the two books mentioned in Betsy’s post, Tony DiTerlizzi’s Meno, and Mac Barnett & Adam Rex’s Guess Again, the early Vine reviews didn’t reflect a very nuanced range of opinion right out of the gate.

It has ALWAYS been a problem that Amazon reviews can’t be modified in any way, even if the publisher or author feels they are hurtful or wildly inaccurate. The fact that these reviewers are working from advances just exacerbates the problem, because Vine reviews can come out early, and that can dominate the consensus as it did for these authors.

I noticed today that the reviews on the first Meno book are balancing out–to a nice safe 3– now that people are posting some more positive reviews, and it’s remained about the same for Mac & Adam. As Adam points out below, their book wasn’t hit quite so hard to begin with, though.

(BTW: If you have ever met Tony DiTerlizzi, there is nothing “3” about him or his work, and I mean that as a compliment.)

But hey, we live in a blockbuster environment. Early reviews matter, and I for one want them to be as thoughtful and trustworthy as possible.

Heads up, Vine reviewers: this credibility can only come with transparency from Amazon.

The comments thread on Fuse #8 has been the best source of information about the Vine program so far, so I thank all the contributors over there.

herd-of-sheep

2) This opens up the larger discussion about the difference between a crowd-sourced model of review information as opposed to an “establishment” model.

What is different about a review from someone who does it for a living versus someone who does not? Is one better than the other? Is one fairer than another? Is there a way to use a crowd-source model that doesn’t reduce all ratings to 3 stars over time? What about special books that don’t appeal to all readers, but are for a particular audience? Can I still find them in a crowd-sourced review environment? Will publishers be willing to put them there? As the professional sources for mainstream reviews are dwindling, is this the only alternative?

I’m not so sure. I’d like a new model that puts a trusted POV back into the equation, and I’d like not to have to hunt and peck across a thousand blogs to find it. I think it’s interesting what the crowd thinks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I trust it to align with my own tastes.

In fact, I think it’s the nature of the adoption curve that the more consensus in the mass market, the less interesting it is to me. Does anyone else feel the same?

overworked411

3) How important it is to get the information about audience and content right.

I’m not sure the good folks at Simon & Schuster thought about the possible implications of putting these kinds of offbeat books into the Vine Program. I guarantee they will now.

I think this is particularly true about Tony’s Meno books which are a BIG departure from his previous blockbusters for middle grade readers.

So often in the marketing process books are promoted on the basis of the author’s previous record. The 10 second handle is “The newest book from best-selling author XX.”  This works great for series and genre books, but is an obvious failure for new books that seriously deviate from the author’s previous work. And the truth is, when a publisher/marketer/sales team is dealing with a list of 200 or more books a season, some of the nuance is lost in the presentation.

If it is true that publishers are paying for the Vine program–I’m still unclear about this–I’m sure S&S isn’t happy to pay for the privilege of having its books trashed in early reviews. I agree with Betsy that the obvious reaction to this will be to place less risky books in future.

Some of the blame for this whole tempest-in-a-teapot lies in errors in the information process at the publishers. Marketing departments are crafting materials as the books are being published, and sometimes that info needs to change with the finished book, but can’t once it gets out into the world. Catalog copy is sometimes written before the book is finished, and early bibliographic information is not always accurate. Not pretty, but true.

Sometimes publishers default to set categories: picture books are usually labeled 4-8 as a default, even when they might be better for 5-8 like Mac & Adam’s book.

This becomes particularly tricky for anthologies, gift books, and other kinds of books that really appeal to everyone, but that have to have an age range because of the system. Booksellers generally dislike the age category ALL, because it doesn’t tell them enough to shelve it, even though it might be true from a user POV.

Once the bibliographic information is released by the publishers (way before the book it finished) it’s like letting the genie out of the bottle. What is done can’t be undone, and then anything that draws from that info (like Amazon Vine target lists) is corrupted.

AND, that doesn’t account for reader’s tendencies to pick books above the appropriate age level, even when the information is accurate.  I call that the “My Toddler Reads Shakespeare” syndrome. This has become a real issue in the so-called “tween” market where readers are reaching into the YA category when they may not be ready for some of the more mature content there. But that is another post.

***

I’m sure this discussion will continue to resonate in many different conversations across the industry. In the end authors will need to take an active role in overseeing and commenting on these issues, because that is the place where their voice can be heard.

They aren’t the junior staffers sitting in a cubicle deep in the bowels of a publisher, plugging the bibliographic data into a computer before upload to the web. “4-8 or 5-8? It’s not that big a deal, right?”

Wrong—but the ship has long sailed.

On the Amazon side, we’re seeing the fallout of a large, digitized, algorithmic system. No one at Amazon looks at a book like Tony or Adam’s and says “Hey, that’s not right!” And the person who does notice—the author or the publisher or the librarian or the bookseller—has very little recourse. The system is JUST TOO BIG.

Authors, your readers do care about what you have to say. Speak out, and people will listen. It can be a game changer, and perhaps people all along the chain will be a little more thoughtful the next time they deal with a book in the pipeline.

To all Vine reviewers, keep thinking about what would be helpful to us, the readers. And please think about the authors too. They care about what you say and how you choose to say it. To them it’s not just another book on the pile.

As Vine reviewers, you have a great responsibility, even if you think no one is paying attention.

***

UPDATE 11-4-09: Another really great perspective from Jon Bischke. His concern has to do with the much-discussed positive pressure on AV reviews, and he feels it’s a threat to a phenomenon called Connected Consumption, which is best explained in this paper by Havas Media Lab in the UK.

Big picture stuff, people.

photo_condolence

Dear Jilted Amazon Affiliates Everywhere,

Boy, it sure sucks to be dumped.

There you are, doing a great job of recommending awesome books, handing Amazon the sales, and they just up and leave the party.

To add injury to insult, I’m sure it didn’t feel good to hear from the Wall Street Journal that collective sales from your sites only *account for a relatively small slice of Amazon’s traffic, so the move isn’t likely to cause major damage to the company’s business.*

It’s like the morning after the prom, when in wrinkled dress and wilting corsage you realize they’re just not that into you. At least, not when they may have to collect millions in state sales tax that could help fix bridges, keep schools open and fund libraries at a time when your states are truly suffering.

And they seemed so nice.

Well, I want to invite you to the indie party. While the flashy prom has been happening at the country club, we’ve been holding our own get-together in the gym. What we lack in glamour, we make up for in charm. Like you, we love to recommend books. We think it’s cool that you’re recommending books, and with us there’s no such thing as too small. We won’t marginalize you. And we all pay our local taxes.

Best of all we have an affiliate program too! It’s called IndieBound, and we’d love to have you be a part of it. You’ll get a reward for using it, your readers can keep getting their books off your site, and your state will benefit in the end. Everyone wins.

Again, we’re sorry that you lost your date. (We never really liked them anyway.) We promise we won’t leave you hanging.

Sincerely,

Indie Booksellers Everywhere

###

From Kristen:

Since I wrote this
, there’s been a pretty big kerfuffle. Amazon has notified affiliates in Hawaii, North Carolina, and Rhode Island that they are terminating their agreements. It’s all over Twitter, and quickly spinning out of control.

I have to believe that in their hubris, Amazon really believes that the bad PR this will generate on the part of the thousands of mom and pop affiliates out there is outweighed by their not having to collect those taxes and yield the competitive advantage they have built their model on.

I don’t believe that the aggregate sales from the hundreds of thousands of affiliate partners that may be affected represents an insignificant number regardless of what they say. Especially when you consider the marketing value of those millions of little Amazon links on websites everywhere. I think they are throwing their weight around to get their way but they better be careful.

Hell knows no wrath like a knitter scorned.

Andy Ross, former owner of the wonderful bookstore Cody’s in Berkeley, CA and now the principal of  The Andy Ross Agency has been following the issue in relation to a similar initiative in his state. He has long been fighting for e-fairness.

He had this to say via an e-mail response earlier today:

When I was a bookseller out here, I worked for about 10 years with Hut Landon and Bill Petrocelli to get a law passed like the NY law. It got thwarted by the Tech industry.

So Hawaii has a similar bill. And Amazon threatened the same thing (as they have done in North Carolina). I just heard that the Gov of Hawaii vetoed the Amazon bill. So they are having an impact.

The affiliate program with Amazon is huge (I think) not just because it is driving sales to Amazon, but because of the huge promotional factor that this creates.

But I suppose that Amazon’s ability to evade sales tax gives them such a competitive advantage over local businesses that it trumps the affiliate programs. Really, it is like the state of California (and most other states), giving a tax break so that an out of state company can get a competitive advantage over a local company. This is like jumping down the rabbit hole.

I’ve been following this story closely for about 10 years. Amazon has, protean-like, changed their excuse why they should be excused from collecting these taxes.

First they said that they shouldn’t have to collect sales tax because the Internet was a frail and delicate bird  and should be given a break to build this new economic engine. At the same time they said that the Internet was the economic juggernaut that was driving the new economy. (How Internet commerce could be both a frail bird and an economic juggernaut has always been puzzling to me.)

Then they said that they were totally flummoxed by the complexity of having to collect so many different amounts of sales tax from the 5000 discrete tax districts in America. This from the company who had no problem keeping track of the reading habits of 20,000,000 consumers.

Then they said that the laws were unconstitutional. Hmm. I always thought that it was the Supreme Court who made that determination.

As Tennessee Williams famously said: “I smell the smell of mendacity in this room”.

Amen, brother.

Layout 1

In case you missed it, make sure you check out the text of Jason Epstein’s keynote on the future of publishing in the digital world, as presented at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) conference.

In it he lays out a great case for human nature, and how it will save us from the undifferentiated content streaming through the WWW.

Also he articulates his vision for good content (authors must eat), e-readers (yes), large publishing houses (will die), print-on-demand (Gutenberg x 10), and lots of other stuff.

If you don’t know who Epstein is, he has worked in the publishing industry for fifty years as an editor and a publisher, and is responsible for many innovations.  He created Anchor Books at Doubleday, which was the first Trade Paperback imprint, and he is the co-founder of On Demand Books, which markets the Espresso Book Machine, which can print and bind a 320 page book on demand in about 4  minutes.

Ten years ago he did a series of lectures on the publishing industry at the New York Public Library which became Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. I highly recommend it.

books-in-the-trash

It seems like everyone is worrying about the e-book these days.

In meetings, in the press, at professional gatherings and in the hallways, there’s a lot of chatter going on. “What will it mean for sales? For wholesalers? For reps? For the printed book? What about children’s books? Will we ever see a digital picture book? Will this change my job? Will I have a job?”

Very few people are asking what this means for readers (except Amazon), but readers will make their feelings known as time goes on.

My advice to the industry: don’t panic, but don’t be stupid either.

Let me also say that I have absolutely no problem with e-books. It’s a great format for certain kinds of books, and for certain kinds of readers. I’m no Henny Penny.

What I am concerned about is whether we are approaching the innovation in a smart way with a view to the long term future. In our anxiety, I’m not sure we’re asking the right questions.

It’s one thing if the book evolves away from the hard copy as an outcome of market forces. That’s natural selection, and when we get there, that will be what it is.

It will be quite another if the industry kills the hard copy inadvertently through a shortage of vision. That would be a Darwin Award, which is something else all together.

***

ostrich

I was inspired to write this essay after reading a comment by an industry professional in Shelf Awareness that “E-books are an avoidable and discretionary layer of production cost and administrative complexity laid on top of a relatively efficient form of publishing that has existed for centuries.”

At best this position is wishful thinking, and at worse it’s fatally flawed for anyone involved in the book industry.

The book has been a constantly evolving technology, and it’s a mistake to think otherwise. (Clay tablets, anyone? Papyrus scrolls? How about an illuminated manuscript? Lead typesetting? Offset printing? Digital production?)

E-books are here to stay. Consumers are driving the trend, and it won’t work to simply dismiss them. They are not a huge chunk of the market–about 1%–but they are a growing one–up 68% over last year–and soon there will be a loyal customer who prefers them to hard copy.

How fast this segment will grow is open for debate, but as an industry we better get ahead of it, figure out a sustainable cost structure, and serve those customers broadly or Amazon really will dictate the market terms for everyone.

***

Talking ’bout my generation

In addition to a technological debate, this is a generational debate both for consumers and for us in the industry. For the next twenty to thirty years, we are going to have to serve three really different demographics, each with a unique consumer pattern, and each with influence over the outcome.

On one end you have the Baby Boomers.

All 70 million of them.

red-book-white-backgroundBy and large, this generation loves its books, and will be much more reluctant adopters of the e-book. Some members of this group will never embrace electronic technology at all. By and large this group is economically better off than the generation before them, and they have a higher degree of education than previous generations.

These guys are a major economic powerhouse that will be driving hard books sales for some time to come, and they will exert a measure of industry balance against the Gen-Z group when it comes to how far and how fast e-books will bloom.

We already know how to serve this customer very well, but sooner or later they’re going to leave us.

***

In the middle you have Gen-X, and Gen-Y. This group, which includes folks that came of age as computers came of age (born between 1965-1999), are a transitional crowd. (I recently heard someone call this generation Digital Immigrants, which I love.)

kindle_w_booksThey read books. They own books. They also own computers, blackberries, and can get around the wired world.

They adopt new technologies without throwing out the old. The Kindle and Sony E-reader are their thing. If a better, more integrated solution comes along for e-books, they’ll pick it up instead.

They will gravitate to e-books for formats and reasons that make sense to their lifestyle, like taking it on the road, organizing many references into a handy package, and for cost reasons. They also will continue to buy paper books for pleasure, but will understand they don’t HAVE to buy something in a hard copy if they don’t want to. They are discriminating.

We’re serving this group pretty well, but they’re not buying everything we’re selling.

***

On the other end you have the Gen-Z readers, the post-electronic generation born after 2000 who will be completely wired, and who will no longer think of a book solely as something made of paper you hold in your hands. This generation, which is gaining strength with every baby born today, will be the real force behind e-books. (These guys? They’re Digital Natives.)

ipod-touch2This reader isn’t going to buy a Kindle, because they’d rather download an e-book to their 9-inch iPod, or whatever other fancy integrated machine is available when they hit the consumer market. Why buy a separate machine when they’re already using their handheld for everything else?

This generation will be super literate, and they will be absorbing media in all forms interchangeably. This includes some hard copy books, e-books, and web content, but they will be predisposed to the speed and seamlessness of the electronic world. Web 3.0 will be their playground.

This group will drive the market, not the other way around, and it’s this customer we need to get in front of (if we can.)

***

Question Mark

We’re asking the wrong questions

It’s a big challenge to figure out how to meet these divergent readers, especially with all of the channels competing for consumer attention.

However, I believe the biggest issue we face as an industry is not how fast e-books will gain market share, but how we will price them properly so that they accurately reflect the costs involved in making them.

Up until now, we have had a tendency to think e-books are somehow cheaper to produce than regular books. More to the point, that is the consumer perception, which makes sense unless you understand exactly what goes into a book’s real cost.

There is definitely efficiency to be gained by not printing, storing, and shipping a hard copy of a book, but a book costs exactly the same to bring to the point of market readiness no matter what format it ultimately takes. (Assuming that it is a professionally written and produced book, that is.)

There are rights, advances, editorial, copy-editing, and proofing expenses, as well as set-up and general overhead. Furthermore, for e-books there is a whole set of digital readiness costs like IT overhead, web design, data management, data servers, networking costs, and other very real expenses.

How much of a book’s cost is made up of these various elements? More than consumers think.

As was rightly pointed out by Carolyn K. Reidy, of Simon & Schuster, it’s not a foregone conclusion that an e-book should be cheaper. It really depends on the upfront costs. The last thing we need is to habituate the consumer to an unsustainable and artificially cheap price point. There will be no going back once their expectations have been set.

If a book was only going to be put out electronically, what would the cost be then? Electronic books are only much cheaper if we’ve invested in the upfront costs already for its hardcover sister. We need to think very carefully about this as an industry, and we better do it quick.

Do publishers really want to be in a situation down the road where they have two products selling side by side in equal numbers, with the same content, and where one is less than half the price of the other? That’s a great way to kill the hard copy book for sure. Can our industry support its costs solely on sales of e-books at $9.99? In a hypothetical world where only e-books are bought, can a publisher afford half the revenues on the same number of units? Are we really going to make it up by doubling the e-units sold?

I’m not convinced, especially as sheer consumer demographics are on the Baby Boomer end of things these days. We already know that the pool of active readers isn’t expanding, and now some of our most committed readers are going to be dying off.

If I was a publisher, I’d be thinking not just about the next three years when I price this content, but about the next 30, when all those Baby Boomer book sales go away.

***

read-or-die-bag

We’d best make a choice and make it quick

On the retail side, the big question is how to sell e-books—a format that is tailor-made for downloading—in a bricks-and-mortar store. And this is not just a question for indie bookstores, but for all retailers who currently sell books. So far, the best (and perhaps the only viable) suggestion I’ve heard has come from Bob Miller, head of HarperStudio.

At ABA’s recent Winter Institute, as part of the opening keynote on the state of the industry, he suggested a model where we sell an enhanced hard copy of a book that includes codes for the consumer to also acquire the e-book and/or the audio book via download with one purchase. So, for an extra amount—$2.00, let’s say—the customer will get the “whole” book in multiple formats.

Some folks have questioned whether the consumer wants the extra formats. That’s missing the point. One of the principals of retail is to sell them the things they don’t know they want, but are happy to have. If the price point is right, it will make sense to most consumers especially as e-books gain traction, and is an excellent opportunity to up-sell.

This is an elegant solution that avoids difficult-to-maintain systems like cards, kiosks, and other messy gap solutions. Frankly, it’s the only solution I’ve heard that makes sense.

Publishers will be selling hard copies of books plus the bonus of added e-book revenue through all channels, stores will get a piece of the business regardless of whether they are tech-savvy or not, and consumers will get their content across multiple platforms in a single purchase. And they’ll have more than one choice when it comes to where they get their content.

Again, time is of the essence. As an industry, we have to figure this out, or we will be completely run over and at the mercy of consumer patterns out of our control.

We can either innovate like we’ve never innovated before, or sit and see what the tide of shifting consumer patterns brings our way.

Which would you rather do?

To my mind, it seems like a pretty cold time for a swim.

***

Part of this essay first appeared in Shelf Awareness on 2/12/09.

Reading Trails logo

Happy New Year!

I have a present for you.

No, really.

You deserve it, especially if you work in retail or publishing.

Allow me to introduce Reading Trails, a fantastic new site for bibliophiles that allows users to build groups or ‘trails’ of books linked together by any esoteric theme you can come up with. (A few of my favorites: Books I obnoxiously insist on pushing on my friends’ children, books to write home about, and the ever-popular They Made Me Read it and I Still Resent Them.)

It’s a remarkably simple idea. Find a trail that you like, browse through it, and look for books that intersect with another trail, and then keep exploring. See a trail that sparks an idea? Make a trail of your own in response. Share it with friends direct from the site, or add a widget to your blog and show it off.

Like the Visual Thesaurus, and another of my all-time favorite musical sites Pandora, the whole thing is very intuitive, and as the site grows I expect it will become richer and richer with collective creativity. I can imagine all sorts of great uses, like book club suggestions, a repository for essential lists, and just plain fun.

At the moment, many lists have only a handful of books in them, but I know that you—the pixie stix readeratti—can kick some major butt when it comes to making great lists with substantial meat.

The site was launched in November 2008, but with the industry maelstrom many of us have been in, it seems to have flown under the radar so far. Not for much longer I hope.

It’s a great way to kick off a fantastic year of new reading.

Postscript: I know this is going to come up from booksellers, so let me say that I have already been in touch with the site managers about adding a link to IndieBound along with the purchasing links to Amazon and Abebooks. On the plus side, this site also links to libraries, which is awesome, I think.

firmin2

In the rat race that is publishing, everyone is trying to make their books stand out on the shelf. Some retail studies suggest a product has three seconds or less to catch the eye of a shopper. So the package of a book is important, and there is some truth to the cliche about how to judge a book. However, in the rush for recognition, it’s possible to make a major miscalculation.

Like this one, for instance, which sparked the cussing ire of Paul Constant of the Stranger today.

The book in question is Sam Savage’s Firmin, first published in 2006 to good critical review by Coffee House Press, a non-profit house in Minneapolis, which is presumably why it has found new life.  Here is the just published edition from Random House.

firmin-new

That cutesy chomp is actually a die-cut, which I’m sure cost a pretty penny in production. The problem? It falls right where many readers would like to hold the book.

The original edition was less slick, but eminently more readable.

firmin-original-2006-edition-coffee-house

The book was also published in the UK this year by Weidenfield & Nicolson, and they seemed to have had a close brush with overly ambitious design as well.

Here’s the UK galley:

firmin-uk

And here’s the final book where they wisely pulled back.

firmin-uk-final-copy

It’s still a great story, but it’s always best not to piss off your readers. Also, just from a authenticity point of view, mice always chew from the corners.

Have a story about bad book design that got in the way of YOUR reading experience? Do share.

I love language. I especially love the poetry that comes from chasing words free association style through the pages of a Roget’s unabridged. As someone who makes their living largely through writing, there is no better office companion. With words grouped by meaning rather than alphabet, browsing it often feels like a waking dream or an act of meditation. I even use it in my design work when I am stuck for inspiration.

So, imagine my absolute delight when I discovered that the good folks at Thinkmap have taken my intuitive approach one step further, and created a Visual Thesaurus that in their words “works like your brain, not a paper-bound book. You’ll want to explore just to see what might happen.” Type in any word, and before your eyes blossom the most beautiful, delicate constellations. At the heart is your word, and around it a branching depiction of all of the related words on a snowy white field.

Each related word meaning is depicted by a different color (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb), and its relationship to the original word, be it synonym or antonym, is depicted by a different kind of line. Click an icon in the center, and you can even hear it pronounced. Click on any word in the constellation and a new form magically blooms. Quite aside from its usefulness, it’s really beautiful.

“The whole interface feels almost alive; it reinforces word connections in a direct manner and encourages exploration… overall it’s a rare, rewarding example of a paper-bound process that has been radically rethought from the bits up.” -The Washington Post

Check out a free trial at www.visualthesaurus.com, and while you’re there try your hand at the spelling bee or any of the other fun language games, create your favorite thematic word constellations, and generally join the language geekery. If you love it as much as I do, the $20 annual subscription seems like a small price to pay for something that’s both practical and a whole bunch of fun.

Howdy!

Welcome to pixie stix kids pix, the site for reviews and opinions about new and interesting books for children and young adults, by a professional in the children's book industry.

What rates?

When I read books they get rated on a 10 point scale. What I like is subjective, but basically I look for great content, excellent design, and fresh ideas. Generally, only books that receive a 7.0 or higher make it on to the site.

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