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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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