December 2008

sony-ebook-readerOver the last several years, e-books have experienced good growth relative to the overall market for books.  However, their overall share of that market is still small despite the fact that e-books have been around for years.  Some of the factors often cited for this are:

  • Readability
  • Limited player feature sets
  • Incompatible e-book formats 
  • No pricing standards

The first two factors will no doubt be resolved by ongoing technological progress and market competition.   The third factor will probably be resolved in one of two ways:  either open standards will be adopted or some proprietary player will so dominate the market that its format will become the de facto standard.  (No doubt Jeff Bezos hopes Kindle will achieve the second outcome.)

The fourth factor, I believe, is reallythe most important becaue it is a symptom of confusino both on the part of pubishers and their customers.  The confusion is that pricing is set by reference to content rather than experience.  Publishers often  try to justify e-books prices relative to the price charged for a printed book.  Customers still see an e-book as less valuable than a printed book because it doesn’t offer the same physical experience.  Publishers and e-book manufacturers should work to create an e-book experience that is not tied to that of a printed work. 

How would we make that that experience  different?  By rethinking what a computer can (and can’t) do for the reading experience. 

reel-of-filmWhen films first made the scene in the early twentieth century, they were often staged like plays.  The early film aesthetic was limited by film making technology, the experience of filmmakers and the readiness of audiences to make cognitive that cinema allows – e.g. the manipulation of time.  As film entertainment has evolved, audiences no longer expect that a film experience has to mirror that of a play. 

We are approaching that point with e-books where it time to define a new reading experience.   Most e-books are still very close mirrors of their print book progenitors.  But there is so much more that can be done.  For example:

  • Advanced search features
  • Sharing the experience with other readers in real time
  • Easy switch between reading text and listening to an audio version of the book.
  • More graphics, illustrations and video
  • Internal and external linking via wireless connection
  • Dictionary features like every word defined or foreign words pronounced
  • Bookmarking and excerpting
  • Built in note taking

The feature wish list will grow as readers become more accustomed to e-books.  The one thing we shouldn’t do is try to value e-books in the same way we value print books.  The redaing motivations and experiences are different for each type of book.  In fact, someday we may want to stop calling the electronic reading experience an “e-book.”

ebook-markdown1Once we have an e-book aesthetic that is truly independent of the print book experience, pricing and marketing can be liberated from print considerations which reflect production and channel considerations that don’t exist for e-books.  In the reader’s mind, there will be a completely new set of value judgments by which to determine whether to purchase that experience. 

Of course, this presents challenges for both publishers and authors.  Instead of simply taking print book content and “dumping” it into an e-book format, a greater restructuring will be needed to create a differentiated e-book experience; this is similar to what happens in making an audiobook or, better, a movie based on a print title.  This extra work will create a greater value in the eye of the customer and allow publishers greater pricing freedom and standardization.

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grim-reaperOUCH!!  The retrenchment of consumer spending which has led to declining book sales is now beginning to ripple through book publishing.   Book sales have fallen dramatically in both the US and UK during the final four months of the year and is leading many publishers to cut staff to control costs and attempt to maintain profitability or stem losses. 

In the past several weeks, a number of major book publishers have announcd layoffs and restructurings, including:  Houghton-Mifflin, Simon & Schuster, Random House and MacMillan

 Book publishers face many uphill battles to preserve or restore profitability in this economy:

  • Consumers on strike  – Willingly or not, consumers are being “de-leveraged”and the trifecta of foreclosure mess, rising unemployment and credit strangulation are likely to mean flat or declining book sales across the board for some time to come.
  • Still high commodity prices– Though oil prices have fallen dramatically, many of the commodity prices that most affect publishers are still at high levels.  The Fed’s latest attempts to “reflate” the economy may actually exacerbate this situation.
  • Dependence on expensive sales channels– Most large publishers are still heavily dependent on the large chains for the bulk of their sales.  This is probably the most expensive book sales channel there is when you factor in the costs of discounting, returns and paying for in-store positioning / promotion.
  • Business model– The large publishing houses are now suffering the downside of having morphed from being primarily backlist and midlist tenders to being a “hits” driven business.
  • Scourge of the returns policy– Book publishers are still bearing the burden of returns from booksellers – an antiquated practice developed during the last depression.

Interview with Sara Nelson, Editor-in-Chief, Publishers Weekly


Perhaps in all of this doom and gloom there is a silver lining.  Layoffs at book publishers are at least partly the result of a business that is not able to withstand the rigors of its current environment.  The pain can, however, force a rethinking of outdated business models and industry practices.  There are new publishing technologies and marketing tools that can help publishers survive – and (gasp!) prosper – even in a period of extended austerity. 


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penguin-2-0On Monday, Penguin Books announced two new services – called Penguin 2.0 – that Kristen O’Connell, Director of Online Marketing for Penguin, says will “offer readers new and innovative ways to interact with Penguin content.”   The services include Penguin Personalized and Penguin Mobile. 

Penguin Personalized lets readers insert personal dedications directly into select Penguin Group adult titles.  The books are then printed POD and shipped to customers.  The first title to be made available is Charles Dickens’ works,  A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings. Penguin Personalized will expand the service in the coming months to include a dozen additional Penguin Classics titles. 

penguin-on-iphonePenguin Mobile allows readers to enjoy Penguin content and news on their iPhone. The reader software is available for free from the iTunes app store, and was developed independently by a team of in-house programmers. Penguin has created an optimized version of its website for mobile devices. This site can be reached from any Web-enabled cell phone. Both the mobile site and the iPhone app will allow users to read (and comment on) the Penguin blog, listen to the Penguin podcast, and browse new titles and special interest areas. In addition, the iPhone app will include exclusive excerpts that can be read on- or offline.

CEO David Shanks, “the next evolution of the Penguin brand,”   According to the New York Observer, Mr. Gomez, Sr. Director of Online Sales and Marketing for Penguin, said that in 2009,

. . . the company will introduce a program that allows customers to choose from a variety of short stories, essays, and other short standalone texts and combine them into custom-made collections. Mr. Gomez said the program is part of Penguin’s effort to incorporate elements of so called ‘Web 2.0’ into publishing without abandoning print.

Generally, the buzz seems to be positive.  However, some readers have expressed a little sticker shock about what seem like high prices for essentially public domain works that can, in some cases be downloaded for free.  However, Penguin has added material and formatting to enhance the reading experience and provide more value for readers.

Random House also announced on Monday that it would provide some free content for the iPHone using the Stanza application from Lexcycle.  Penguin and Random House join the growing list of publishers now offering content via mobile phones, including

  • HarperCollins
  • Houghton Mifflin
  • Harcourt
  • Simon & Schuster

No doubt book publishers will struggle with the transition to a world where more content of every kind is digital.  Many will see it as a journey of opportunity; others as a death march.  Here are some things I think all publishers may want to think more about along the way. 

  • Publishers will continue to have to come to grips with what a book is.  It’s not a delivery format or mechanism; it’s an experience.  And that experience happens differently in different media.  E-books should be done in a way that takes advantage of their being digital – for example having search, adding more visual content that would be too expensive for print, and so on. 
  • Delivering content in different media is not a zero sum game.  One medium doesn’t necessarily subtract from another unless you try to make the experience the same in the different media. 
  • Every delivery format has its own pricing, based on the perception of value for similar content in that medium.  So pricing in a new medium can’t be based on the rules of the original medium.  The rules for e-book pricing can’t be rationalized on the basis of what printed version sells for.
  • We are social animals.  Building community around a work, no matter what the delivery format or presentation mechanism, is a good thing.  Authors, like Scott Sigler, who have delivered initially in podcast format have done very nicely when moving into print; primarily because he built a community that wants his work in any format.  Penguin’s venture into adding a social media dimension to its works should pay dividends. 

As one well known author, John Steinbeck, reminded us:

A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

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Sheila Clover-EnglishBook Vid Lit

by Sheila Clover-English

Sheila Clover English, the CEO of Circle of Seven Productions, is a pioneer in book video production, marketing and distribution for authors and publishers.

frustrated-with-spam1According to Wikipedia, SPAM is the “abuse of electronic messaging systems to indiscriminately send unsolicited bulk messages.”  While the most widely recognized form of spam is e-mail spam, the term is applied to similar abuses in other media:

Now you can ad video to that long list.

 There are numerous companies that disseminate unsolicited messages in bulk.  But is it SPAM?  Let’s take a look at a couple of companies that are distributing a variety of videos that are commercial in nature. VidPow is a company that has set up its own platforms on sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, etc. VidPow has its own video servers that that you can upload files to, but the service it provides for distributing your videos is separate. 

When you take a look at VidPOw, you’ll note that there are insurance ads, attorney ads and “How to make money” ads there.  Is it SPAM?  Not really. Why?  Because they are not forcing the messages onto anyone. They aren’t sending it to people’s email boxes or even sending out bulletins.  But, your video would be among some ads that you might not want to be associated with.

As an experiment Circle of Seven Productions sent some of its book videos through VidPow.  They claim that they can get you top SEO placement if you use their service.  That was not the case with us.  Our own video distribution placed us high on SEO, because it was more relative to books. We did not get a lot of views there either. Those views would have to come organically, with people searching for the right term. VidPow does not cultivate an environment that invites greater views.  Still, it isn’t SPAM as defined by Wikipedia.  SPAM is sent to someone without that person asking for it.  VidPow’s system doesn’t work that way.  And for us, it simply doesn’t work.

Another company that more closely fits the SPAM definition is WideCircles.  When Wide Circles first started we tried them out.  They claimed to be thoughtful in their postings and we sent out an ad message that would be posted on appropriate classified ad sites, blogs, etc.  We would be given the list of where everything was posted so that we could follow up.  But, it didn’t work out the way we thought it would. Following up was cumbersome and the “appropriate” sites were questionable.  We received complaints, which we immediately addressed and apologized for, thus saving our brand reputation, but it was not a pleasant experience. We no longer use that service. And though they continue to evolve, WideCircles is still a bulk message delivery system, which falls into the SPAM category.

tubemogul-logoThe lesson is clear.  When someone claims to do distribution for you at a reasonable rate you want to check out their reputation and claims.  Over the last couple of years we’ve become more savvy in how we do that.  Our distribution is done via TubeMogul, using some software and manually. TubeMogul has an excellent reputation and we feel that our brand is protected there.  If TubeMogul finds video spammers they are locking them out. So, they are actively protecting my brand for me.  This is a company I highly recommend with confidence.

Sometimes you learn the hard way and you fall victim to companies with less integrity than what you want associated with your brand. You need to immediately take action when that happens. Do not continue to associate yourself with companies who SPAM. And because SPAM messaging can be lucrative, you need to continually monitor who you are associated with when it comes to distribution of your video.

Recently, started removing videos that were commercial in nature. That included book videos. We’d been with Spike for years, so when our videos started to be rejected we were concerned. Our distribution manager spoke with the team and devised a plan. We would send our distribution sites a formal letter. The letter told them who we are, that we are professional producers, what book trailers are and that we license all of our material. We offered to be audited on any of our projects. answered our letter via email last week. They had reviewed our claims, our business and our videos. They agreed that book trailers were similar in nature to movie trailers, thus making them a form of entertainment. They gave us a PRO account at no cost and offered to upload the rejected videos for us.  Now we are on file at and have a PRO account that allows us to distribute to that site without fear of rejection. It created a deeper relationship with the site and brought us to their attention. Currently, all of our sites are being sent a similar letter. We are being pro-active, protecting our brand, our platforms and our videos.

Some sites will see commercial videos as SPAM.  For those sites, book videos can fall under that category, so it is imperative that we communicate effectively to keep those platforms open for the publishing industry. If a site allows movie trailers, they most likely will allow book trailers. They just need to know what a book trailer is.

Video SPAM is going to be a hot topic in 2009.  Protect your brand.  Don’t let it be labeled as SPAM.  Be cautious about who you allow to distribute your videos and understand how they are accomplishing that distribution. Video brands have become increasingly important to social networking sites. Reputation and brand for videos and video distribution will be a serious consideration when creating book videos in the future.

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book-on-the-iphoneMobile phones are now emerging as a viable distribution channel for publishers.  In this respect, the international publishing community is far ahead of their US counterpartsAccording to a recent post on TechCrunch, in Japan, half of the top selling works of fiction in 2007 were composed for reading on cell phones (keitai shousetsu) rather than in print form.  This is opening up new opportunities for authors and publishers to reach a wider audience without necessarily going through the often slow moving bookstore channel.  

In some ways this is not surprizing; there are many factors driving this trend.  First, is the universality cell phone usage.  For example:

  • 75% of adults and 90% of college students have mobile phones
  • 1 in 8 homes no longer have a landline phone
  • 62% of subscribers use text messaging regularly
  • 80% of world is covered by mobile networks

Second is mobile phone technology.  Current generation mobile phones now come equipped with applications to download music, video and photos, so the leap to e-books was a small one.  A number of third party providers now supply reader software for cell phones.  And there are popular freeware applications such as Stanza for the iPhone.  About half a million people in more than 50 countries have downloaded Stanza (see demo video below).

google-book-searchA third factor is a widening availability of a content in e-book format.  The recent Google settlement with the book publishing industrypotentially opens the door to a wide range of works.  Neill Denny, editor of The Bookseller, a trade publication based in London, wrote that the agreement has possibly created

. . . the largest bookshop in the world has been built, even if it is not quite open for business yet.

 Google’s Book Search program has scanned thousands of books and made them available to be searched on the Internet.  Under the agreement, Google will share any revenue from online sales with publishers and authors.   In the future, Google may become both a powerful book advertising and sales venue.

In some markets, like textbooks, the experimentation with mobile phone book content is well underway.  This is helping schools manage the expense of print textbooks in a time of greater budget austerity for educaitonal institutions and families.  Libraries are becoming simlarly inclined to look at mobile formats for books.

millenials-using-cell-phonesThe fourth factor is simply the fact that Millenials and the generations that follow them will expect to access books – like they now access other forms of entertainment – via their mobile devices.  

 The half life of technology predictions is short in our fast paced world.  But if the trends discussed above continue, books delivered to mobile phones will become a bigger part of the book publishing landscape.

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A few months back, Jay Rosen gave a very succinct definition of citizen journalism PressThink:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

taj-mahal-hotel-fire-mumbaiA few days ago we had the opportunity to witness citizen journalism at work.  The New York Timesfeatured the story of Arun Shanbhag, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, who witnessed the attack and burning of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel in Mumbai.  He described the unfolding drama via a Twitterfeed.  According to the article, Mr. Shanbhag

Mr. Shanbhag . . . said he had not heard the term citizen journalism until Thursday, but now he knows that is exactly what he was doing. “I felt I had a responsibility to share my view with the outside world,” Mr. Shanbhag said in an e-mail message on Saturday morning.

Mr. Shanbhag also took pictures of the fires and damage using his cell phone camera and posted them on his Flickr stream.  Other people sent video from inside the Taj hotel and reporters were able to communicate using cell phones and text messages with hotel guests trapped in their rooms.

This isn’t the first time Internet technology has played a key role in keeping the world abreast of a rapidly evolving news story.  Paul Levinson of noted:

Just as students sent email from the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, letting the world and the mass media know what was happening, so Twitter and Facebook are providing some windows onto what has been happening in Mumbai the past two days.

Citizen journalism comes in many forms.  For example, The Hub, a video site established by rock star Peter Gabriel, provides cell phones equipped with video cameras to citizens of countries around the world to document human rights abuses.  It provides a window on such crimes that would otherwise go unreported or under-reported in the mainstream media.

Peter Gabriel appearing on TED

The technologies fueling the surge in citizen journalism seem irresistible:

  • Cell phones, equipped with cameras and text messaging
  • Sites for the quick streaming of messages and pictures
  • Social networks and blogs where raw information can be spread quickly across the Internet
  • Proto-news sites that aggregate stories and rank them according to popularity

Not all of the activity around citizen journalism is focused on global or national stories.  Much of it has to do with the emergence of community reporting via the web as more print based community newspapers have been snapped up and their content homogenized by large media organizations – e.g. the Port Reyes Light case

citizen-journalist-adCitizen journalism has its staunch defenders and skeptical detractors.  Members of the mainstream media may bristle at the idea that all of this is “real” journalism and they would be correct in saying it is not – at least by the standards that most mainstream news venues live by.  Citizen journalism is like raw perception that sees but doesn’t necessarily attempt to interpret what it sees.  The analysis that professional journalists can provide – if allowed to do so by the corporate media companies they work for – is more like an extended, reflective consciousness – attempting to make sense of what has been reported. 

Citizen reports will take their place alongside the established media.  That process is well underway – e.g. iReports on CNN or many of the citizen blogs now associated with magazines and newspapers.  Both technology and economic factors are pushing in that direction. 

news-reporterUltimately Internet and other communications technologies will increase the amount of information and the speed with which it is disseminated.  But we still have to parse out the meaning of it all and the practices and standards of journalism will still supply this critical function whether the news gathering is done by citizens with cell phones or media professionals.

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