May 2007


slush pileA spectre that haunts every author is the hopelessness of the slush pile.  Where manuscripts often die an ignominious death – unopened, unread and unappreciated.  So how do publishers select titles for publication?  I recently came across a blog post by Catherine Franz on Publishing Central called “28 Reasons Why Publishers Will Buy Your Book.”  Her list provides insight into the way the publishing industry currently selects titles for publication.  What I thought was interesting was what was noton the list.  There was no mention of acquisitions based on marketing analytics or backed by hard sales data.  The list highlights author-publisher relationships, market intuition, editor ego and career gymnastics, publisher positioning and even some organizational politics.  But no data with strong predictive value – e.g. what your target audience is seeking or responding to.

Acquisitions are the spawning grounds for financial success or disaster.  Here are some approaches that could help inform the acquisitions process. 

  • Use advanced Internet scanning such as the marketing intelligence software at Umbria.  It combs sites and blogs, and gleans trends, influencers and potential new markets from important demographic information by analyzing the language and patterns of writing used.
  • Track search keywrods and phrases to see what are peoople looking for in a given topic area.  In the US, 147 million people access the Internet.  It is the go to place to find out about things.  Knowing what they’re searching for in a given area can help predict what sorts of books they might buy.
  • Analyze hard sales data (e.g. Nielsen Bookscan reports) to identify buying trends and guide / validate acquisition decisions. 
  • Establish blog networks around key topics to build “starter audiences,” test content and respond to trends quickly.

Perhaps a future list of reasons pubishers might buy a book will be reduced to just one entry – because there is objective evidence that tells them with a reasonable degree of certainty it will sell and make a profit. 

EinsteinA blog’s authority as defined by Technorati is the number of distinct websites or blogs linking to it in the last six months.  Authority is a good proxy for reputation in a given topic neighborhood of the blogosphere.  Technorati even offer a widget you can add to your blog that displays its authority for all to see.  Authority is important because it can determine your position in blog searches results.  The higher your authority the more likely your blog will be found.

Dave Sifry collected some interesting data about authority and blog / blogger characteristics in his 2007 State of the Blogosphere message

Low
authority

Medium
authority

High
authority

Very high
authority

# blogs linking in the last 6 mo.

3-9

10-99

100-499

500+

# blogs in tier

1,111,882

416,073

26,418

4,070

Average blog age (days)

228

260

455

530

Average # of posts per mo.

12

18

25

57

Average total post count

90

159

380

935

       

First of all the tiering of blogs by authority follows a crude power law.  Note too, that with more than 57 million blogs in existence when the State of the Blogosphere post was written, only 2% qualified to be in one of the above tiers (i.e. more than 2 links from distinct blogs in the last 6 months).  The distribution of authority (like wealth some would argue) is definitely skewed.

Second, it appears that blog posting frequency correlates with a higher authority.  But the offline reputation and network of the blogger, his / her level of expertise, and quality of writing also play a strong role.  Still, feeding readers with interesting content frequently and consistently is a good thing. 

Third, age counts, but only in combination with other factors.  It has been rumored that Google now gives a higher ranking to sites that have longevity (see Grappone and Couzins’ Search Engine Optimization:  An Hour a Day pp. 69-70).  Also, human social networks have a way of sorting themselves out according to a power law, with a demonstrated age bias (see Duncan Watts’ Six Degrees).  Older network nodes are likely to be larger just because they have been around longer.  Active older blogs tend to have more content and have had the opportunity to habituate their readers.  Habits (and links) can sometimes be hard to change.

Lessons for publishers and authors?

  • Post frequently and consistently.  You’ll set your readers expectations, build a solid body of content and expand your reputation.  This will make it more likely people will link to you. 
  • Age counts, so once you start, stick with it!
  • Take the time to become part of your blog community, both online and offline.  An offline social network can make link building in the online space easier. 

desert_elephant_skull_da.jpgIs there a danger for publsihers andauthors who focus their audience building efforts within the blogosphere?  Are the audience demographics too skewed or thin to make a go of it?  Is this nascent medium headed for dotcom style blowout or a slow fade due to reader fatigue?  Data from a couple of sources should help provide perspective on these important questions. 

Pew Internet logoIn 2005 and 2006, the Pew Internet & American Life Project Surveys published the following results froms its study of the blogosphere:

  • The number of American adults who read blogs is 57 million vs. 147 million who use the Internet. 
  • The gender mix was slightly biased toward males (54 vs. 46 percent).
  • The age mix for the blogosphere was definitely skewed toward a younger audience, with 54 percent below the age of 30, although, like the general Internet user profile before it, this profile is steadily moving toward a more mainstream age distribution.
  • Interestingly, the blogosphere shows a better representation of minorities than the mainstream Internet, though it is still heavily slanted toward Caucasian readers (60 percent for blogs vs. 74 percent for the general Internet).
  • Also, the blogosphere is more urban than the general Internet.
  • And a final note, the blog readers tend to use broadband more heavily than their average Internet users.

Technorati logoThe other interesting read on the blogosphere is provided by Dave Sifry at Technorati in his most recent “State of the Blogosphere”post in late 2006.  His findings, taken from the metrics gathered by Technorati and tend to focus more on growth and momentum of the blogosphere as a new medium.

  • The volume of blogs is oer 55 million (more like 70 million now).   
  • The blogosphere is doubling about every 5-7 months.
  • About 55% of blogs are active, meaning they’ve been updated at least once in the last 3 months.
  • The volume of posts is about 1.3 million per days (or roughly 54,000 per hour) though it’s leveling off a bit.
  • The value of blogs as media properties continues to grow.  Twelve of the top 100 media properties are blogs.  The further down the list you go, the more blogs you find.
  • There is a definite tiering of blogs by authority.  Authority is driven in part by inbound links from other high authority blogs.  Higher authority blogs tend to be older, with much more frequent posting.  Dedication and proven value of the posted content tends to win in the end. 

Both sets of data provide evidence that both authors and publishers will find the blogosphere fertile ground on which to build their livelihoods. 

Baseball is one of the most analyzed games around.  Alan Schwrz’ bestseller, The Numbers Game:  Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics chronicles the evolution of the game’s analytics and the public’s semi obsession with them.  And, in Moneyball and Baseball Between the Numbers, readers learn there is a new interpretation of the decades old statistics led by Bill James.  As a young boy, I was fascinated with baseball cards.  The baseball card was the perfect, portable summary of a ball player’s career, spelled out in neat rows of numbers.

As the publishing industry moves toward a more analytical driven model and authors take up the very measurable tool of blogging as a path to publishing, one could imagine a new book pitch that goes something like this:

  • A brief summary of the blog (er, book) concept
  • A picture of the author with one or two sentence bio
  • Blog traffic and behavior numbers
  • Blog demographics
  • Ad revenues generated to provide a feel of how the book might translate into other media

Ernest Hemmingway pitch cardAnd if the font were small enough, it might even all fit onto something the size of a baseball card.  Imagine if blogs had been available in Ernest Hemmingway’s day.  Surely he would have blogged and had a pitch card (click image at left to see detail).  Who knows – those shining stars who make the bestseller list, or even the iron men and women who create reliable back list sellers, may one day find their pitch cards are worth real money on eBay. 

There is always a great deal of excitement among bloggers when the latest announcement of a blog sale is made.  With some of the high prices paid by Old Media for popular blogs or blog networks lately, it inspires all bloggers to figure out how to increase their own value.

big pile of cashBut how do you try and gauge what the value of your blog is?   Jeremy Wright of b5Media did some research on this and, with the help of his team, came up with a model that takes into account traffic / readership size and growth, advertising type / rates, and costs.  The model then computes a range of valuations based upon different multiples of net income.  (You can download the model – an Excel workbook – at his site.)

won the lotteryDane Carlson at Business Opportunities Weblog also has a blog valuation calculatorwhich is based on the same link to dollar ratio as the AOL-Weblogs Inc deal.  (When you plug in the URL of your blog and click Submit, it generates a value and gives you some code to paste into your blog in case you want to share the valuation with your readership.)  Lorelle VanFossen of the Blog Herald provides an intersting discussion of valuing and selling a blog

Blog valuation is still new, and more art than science.  But for book publishers that move to a blog network model and writers who want to use the blog to book approach, it will be very important.  The back list is one of the key component for valuing traditional book publishers.  A good back list provides a dependable source of revenue of the publisher.  A publisher using the blog network model can create two sources of value.  The titles that emerge from the network and ultimately go on the back list.  And the network itself which generates ad revenues from the always desirable targeted “eyeballs.” 

Writers who create a blog with the intent of producing a book can realize the same kind of dual value.  Value from the book (or books) that result fromt he blog.  And value of the revenue generating potential from the audience that visits the blog. 

Of course, no calculator can tell you with certainty the valuation you’ll actually get.  That’s the result of mysterious and unpredictable interaction that occur between buyer, seller and the deal environment.  Happy calculating!!

child writingA colleague of mine is working on her first novel.  Like many new writers, she struggles to balance raising two small children (a son 4 and a daughter 8), with managing a career and pursuing her creative passion.  She related an interesting episode with her kids.  They had taken a great interest in her novel and offered suggestions for characters and scenes.  She had heard about self publishing sites like Lulu and made her kids an offer.  If they would write a short story and illustrate it, she would publish it as real book for them.  They were excited and responded with insprired creativity.

Mr. Lincoln & the Time TrainHer story got me thinking.  With ubitquitous publishing, perhaps one day the most popular children’s stories will be written by children.  I decided to do a little snooping around and found, of course, that there are companies already exploring this.  One example is WeWrite Company.   The company was founded in 1993, by Delores Palmer.  She was loooking for ways to encourage family and community participation in children’s reading.  Today WeWrite conducts the creation of stories by groups of children of various ages.   The approach they use is to conduct a workshop where children are given a story theme, by a professional facilitator and aided by an illustrator.  First, a faciliator introduces the children to the theme of a story through a tour or short presentation.  Then the children are given creative license to author their story, while an illustrator sketches their ideas.  The end result is a published book or comic book (see example in the accompanying photo).

An example of a program of writing by older kids for younger kids was published in the Honolulu Star Bulletin (“Reading books is good for kids. Writing books has fringe benefits, too” by By Nancy Arcayna.)   

Concern about the decline of literacy in America is high.  With publishing becoming an open, easier process, I wonder if writing books could actually inspire students to read more.  Imagine the potential literary sonic boom that could occur a few years down the road if today’s children started learning to write and publish books in elementary school! 

This is truly one of the most important benefits we could hope to derive from open publishing.

In an earlier post (Blog to Book Networks), we explored morphing blog networks into book publishing houses.  This would work especially well for the specialty book publisher for several reasons:

  • Writers within a network, blogging about sub topics within the same general topic area, can reinforce each other with links and help each other build readership.
  • tsunami graphicThe network can use blog analytics to detect hot content areas and, once there is sufficient content, quickly create collaborative titles that can draw their readership from that of the individual blogs contributing the content.  These analytics are like deep ocean tsunami sensors.  They detect movement and strength well before the big wave becomes visible.  Examples of analytics that might come into play here could include: number and quality of comments to posts in a category; total number of trackbacks to posts in a category; categories with posts that are frequently bookmarked; total number of downloads of certain kinds of content and so on.  Networks could even detect whether there is systematic movement of particular visitors between related blogs.
  • Content for a prospective book can be tested in the network and adjusted to the audience response.  Keyword research can be used to identify and extend the audience for promising topic areas.
  • The network becomes an early book promotion and marketing machine – e.g. the place where virtual blog tours begin. 

Fish netThink of a literal net.  The general topic area represents the size of the net.  The number and relationship of sub topic blogs is the mesh.  The closeness of the sub topic areas is the fineness of the mesh.  A finer mesh will more quickly sense and respond to a developing trend.  But too fine a mesh could result in subject overlap and duplication. 

A network that has a coherent topic space, an extent sufficient to capture a reasonably sized audience, and enough fineness to sense trends quickly, has the capability to ‘surround” and quickly mine profits from a subject area.  Compare this with the lengthy developments cycles of traditional publishing:  waiting for a publishable manuscript from a lone author and guided by gut instincts or past sales data that may no longer be relevant. 

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