Tag Archives: ebook publishing

Information Technology That Works

I have been drawing attention in this blog to new publishing-related software that over-promises and under-delivers: authoring platforms that are not actually going to make anybody into an author; self-publishing programs that will not turn an author into a publisher overnight; social media schemes that really just amount to fraud or deception rather than legitimate publicity.

Ones and Zeros Extending into DistanceThe fact remains that there are some aspects of information technology which are revolutionizing the book business. Not the flashy, public-facing “solutions” I have been complaining about, but rather a quiet back-office capability to receive, broadcast, and interpret data—lots of data—that is making all the difference.

As recently as four or five years ago, even a quite sizable publishing company could get along just fine with a two-person IT department: one person to keep the server going and another to reboot employees’ computers when the things won’t cooperate. That was the case with IPG for many years.

Now, however, IPG employs fourteen highly trained computer specialists who can program, construct databases, write SQL queries, design websites and dashboards, mine data, generate reports, construct interfaces, and oversee highly complex management systems. Most of the time they are working so hard they have smoke coming out of their ears. Here are some of the technological capabilities, becoming ever more vital to the indie publishing community, that these people make possible:

Point-of-Sale Information. We are able to get information from the largest booksellers and wholesalers about the number of copies of each of our titles they have on hand, the number on order, the number on backorder, the number that sold through this week and last week, both by units and by the percentage of copies sold versus the quantity on hand. It used to be that publishers had little idea what was going on in the marketplace in regard to their titles at the store level. We sent them out and just hoped they would not come back. With point-of-sale data, the timing and quantity of reprints can be handled infinitely better than in the past. Access to this data revolutionizes the way publishers run their companies.

Metadata Feeds. Sophisticated publishing operations now send metadata to their major customers. (Metadata is just a term for electronic title data.) We send our data to 350 customers, formatted in ONIX as well as proprietary formats, once a week. Why is this important? We now have about 85,000 available products on our list. We make hundreds of revisions to our title database every week because of price changes, new editions, new forewords, new reviews, and changed statuses which must all be communicated to our customers. Metadata feeds enable the seamless, automated transmission of these changes to our customers’ servers and databases or else we would all go crazy trying to keep the data straight. At this point in the book business, any friction in the system costs everyone dearly.

Data Mining. IPG has a “data warehouse” that has recorded every sale of every title to every customer for many years. This data can be sliced and diced by any combination of hundreds of parameters. A few simple examples: BISAC subject codes, customer type or location or size, book format, and of course quantities sold over any date range. To this information we can add sales histories of comparable titles from other publishers. The big-box retailers—Wal-Mart, Costco, Kmart, and so on—require that we “model” the titles we present to their buyers. That is, we must demonstrate with data that the title we are pitching to them has the right attributes to perform well in their stores for their customers. No data, no sale.

Ebook Conversion and Distribution. IPG now produces hundreds of ebook editions a week. This would not be possible without automated procedures and work flows. Most weeks we send about 200 new files to our thirty-five ebook retailers, which adds up to about 7,000 ebook files with their related metadata. This would be unthinkable without an automated batch-mode delivery system, another information technology innovation.

Years ago, when my wife and I ran a small bookstore next to the Drake Hotel in Chicago, we used to keep track of the inventory on 3” by 5” cards stored in a little metal box. It is hard not to be nostalgic about those simpler times, and perhaps that nostalgia can help us to keep clear in our minds the truth that book publishing is really about intellectual content rather than the latest whiz-bang technology. Books were books back in those days too. Still, the right sort of IT is now indispensable: it enables publishers to reach an ever broadening audience at an ever diminishing cost.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Can an Authoring Platform Make You an Author?

At the recent Tools of Change conference a new program called Inkling Habitat, an “authoring platform,” was introduced. This new “authoring platform” does serve a purpose, because it helps authors easily add digital bells and whistles to their texts. This help is welcome. However, a Google search now turns up over 300 “authoring platforms,” most of which claim to make authors out of amateurs. Can they do it?

Authoring Platforms

Let’s unpack that phrase, “authoring platform.” The term “authoring” is a very odd duck indeed. We used to think that writers authored, or wrote, books, a process that had an end and therefore required the past tense. Now we are to suppose that authoring is a sort of continuous daily activity, like eating, sleeping, or breathing. This is a sneaky way to suggest that a computer program can make being an author a straightforward, usual thing that almost anybody could do successfully.

The “platform” part implies two things. One is the familiar idea that computer programs can interact much better with one another if they sit on top of a common substrate, like Word, Excel, and so on perched on the Windows platform. This is fair enough. The other implication, however, is quite misleading: the idea that a speaker often stands on a platform when addressing a crowd, an image that appeals to the egos of some aspiring authors because it positions them at a level above their audience–gives them a bully pulpit.

Both of these connotations obscure the real issue—are intended to obscure the real issue—by suggesting that if an author just has the right support, the right place to stand, he or she will be freed from the organizational, structural, and inspirational problems that bedevil even the most gifted writers. Somehow software will eliminate such difficulties.

The truth, of course, is that good writing is very hard to do. The real problem most would-be authors have is a lack of training, or experience, or something to say, or talent. Will these issues be solved by using the right authoring platform? Microsoft Word is an early authoring platform that certainly makes many tricky editorial operations very easy to do. But Word has not led to an explosion of terrific prose. On the contrary, many people think word processing programs have made writers more verbose. There didn’t used to be so many 800-page books. Legal documents are certainly four times as long as they used to be. (Perhaps we now spell a little better.)

The authoring platform is just another example of the sort of “easy shortcut” that Americans fall for every time. When I was a kid, it was “get rich writing short paragraphs.” For years the internet has offered me advanced degrees with no need to study or attend a class. Now I can become a famous author by climbing up on an authoring platform and broadcasting my thoughts in all directions. Of course everyone has a book in them! It would be highly undemocratic to think otherwise. Too bad it is not true.

Self-publishing is just the latest bubble. Tens of thousands of people are being relieved of serious amounts of cash by charlatans offering quick publication fixes. It is entirely possible to publish your own book in a responsible way. There is, however, one tried, tested, and highly effective authoring platform: a publishing company.

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When It Comes to Authors: Part II

Will good authors put up with rough editorial handling? They will, and with enthusiasm, if from the outset you involve them in the development of the marketing ideas that shape the book. The idea is to get them to focus not just on the publication of a book with their name on it, but on the publication of a successful book.

The essential first step is to have your authors fill out a demanding author questionnaire. (If they refuse to fill it out, find another author.) This questionnaire, in addition to eliciting the usual biographical information, should request information on possible special markets, professional contacts, relevant specialized media, sources for blurbs, and possible sales “handles” or angles. What websites did the author use to help research the book? Social media marketing of a title works much better when it is done by an author with an already engaged audience rather than a publisher.

Then, when the book is past the editing stage, furnish the author with a written description of how your company publicizes the books it publishes. This will provide a second opportunity to discuss with the author how the book will be marketed and to explain the author’s role in making the book a success.

Involving the author in the marketing of his or her book is not a cynical means of manipulation and control, but a highly effective strategy. Authors who really know their subjects (if yours doesn’t, find another author) are easily the best source for marketing ideas, especially niche marketing ideas; and the process of winnowing out the good ideas from the less promising will put your author in the right frame of mind to produce not just a book but a successful book.

Including the author in aspects beyond the creation of the book itself have other unforeseen benefits as well. Over the past few years many independent presses have been pleasantly surprised to find authors with fine track records at major houses showing up on their doorsteps prepared to accept a small fraction of the advances customarily offered by the major publishers. Most major houses do not want to hear an author’s marketing ideas, and if offered them anyway, summarily dismiss them. Many authors feel that they are treated like three-year-olds by such publishers.

If we are willing to listen to our authors (and we are crazy if we are not willing to listen) we can maintain their goodwill and cooperation–even when we are tougher on them. Or perhaps because we have been tougher.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content

The current controversy about the state of the eBook industry has been unproductive for a number of reasons. Much of the information out there on the blogs is just wrong—which should not come as a surprise because the book business is complicated. What’s surprising is the sour tone of so many of the comments on such blogs. A common theme among them being that “somebody is making a lot of money out of books but I’m not.”

In addition, almost no one outside the industry seems to have any grip at all on the editorial process. How many different editors does it take to make a good book? This sounds like a bad joke about replacing light bulbs, but the answer, if you are talking about a professionally produced book, is four to seven: an acquisition editor, a substantive editor, a line editor, a copy editor, a production editor, a proofreader, an indexer, and often a lawyer to check the text for libel. Sometimes a single person can perform a number of these editorial functions, but each one requires a distinctive mindset.

There is also an insidious source of confusion and misinformation arising from people who hope to benefit financially from the intentional muddling of essential distinctions.

Let’s take a hard look at the phrase “digital content.” Do eBooks have digital content? Many people—people who are in the business of selling digital everything and who proclaim from the rooftops that everything non-digital is a dead duck—would like you to think so. It makes it easier for them to make money. But the idea that eBooks have digital content is very misleading. The content of eBooks is language, language which has been digitized. Likewise the content of the books Gutenberg printed was language set in type. These are just two different ways to make language hold still so you can read it.

The confusion about the supposed digital content of eBooks is important because it fits perfectly into the favorite transformation narrative of the “digital changes everything” cheering section: if eBook content really is digital, publishers could and should wake up from their long but highly profitable analog slumber, and allow the digital revolution to sweep away their antiquated methods of making books. When this happens, the books will be just as good but much cheaper.

But what authors and editors must do now to produce good content is exactly the same thing they have always done. Every book and every edit is a one-off, custom proposition. What authors and editors produce is no more digital than the folk-art wooden rooster a farmer might carve to decorate his weather vane. Of course word processing software has made working with texts more convenient, but these gains in efficiency were achieved a decade ago. Yes, there are some new programs that make the conversion of texts to eBooks quicker and easier, but this conversion cost has always been trivial.

If the content of eBooks was actually in some deep sense digital, the text could be written by a writing program and edited by an editing program. But they can’t be. I knew a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop back in the sixties who was trying to generate short stories out of a computer program. They were just as awful as you would imagine. I sometimes try to write a poem. The best way to know if you have come up with a good line is to check Microsoft’s opinion. Lines that could work as poetry will certainly flunk the simple-minded Grammar Checker that comes with Word.

So the cost of the content of eBooks cannot be reduced much because the making of it is deeply artisanal in nature. Since content is in no deep sense digital, producing it at a high level cannot be automated, which is where important cost savings could have been achieved if any were possible.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG and Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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E-Book Distribution: What’s the Deal?

“Follow the money” is good advice for anyone trying to get to the bottom of a business dispute. This has been next to impossible in the case of the squabble over the distribution of eBooks; none of the parties can release any numbers. A great many people who have tried to understand this dispute have said, in a state of high irritation, “What exactly are the deals on offer? Who gets what?”

The problem is that publishers and distributors are constrained from providing any hard information by the Non-Disclosure or Confidentiality agreements eBook retailers compel them to sign. Such agreements are required before negotiations begin and become an integral part of any agreements signed. The length of these eBook marketing agreements is about twelve to twenty pages; and their duration is for three to five years, an eternity in the fast-changing world of e-commerce. And many of them require that the publisher never can give any other reseller a better deal.

Is this opacity, and are these intricate agreements, a good thing for the book industry? One thing certain is that this way of doing business is a sharp departure from past practice. Below is a quote from the American Booksellers Association’s Handbook, which shows how the print bookselling business has worked for many decades:

ABA Book Buyer’s Handbook: Online, searchable, and continuously updated, the ABA Book Buyer’s Handbook is an invaluable resource for ordering and returns information, and it is available exclusively to ABA members. This electronic publication features publishers’ trade terms, including discount schedules, returns policies, imprint and ISBN prefix listings, co-op policies and more, as well as timely special offers.

Since the ABA is hardly a secret society, every seller of print books knows exactly what every other bookseller is paying for stock. Everyone is treated the same so long as they operate more or less in the same category of the book business. (There are different terms for wholesalers, chain stores, gift stores, catalogs, and so on.) Publishers still cheerfully publish their detailed terms of trade for print books in the ABA Handbook. This sort of transparency has long been considered a simple question of fairness, an obvious way to keep the playing field level, and a painless way to prevent disputes.

And until quite recently there just weren’t any unmentionable agreements between booksellers and publishers or their distributors. The idea was that long-term, trusted trading partners could be relied upon to keep the business humming along. Yes, there were some tough negotiations, but they were conducted in good faith, guided by the understanding that to keep the industry healthy all the players had to have a fair share of the profit.

But now the agreements that certain eBook retailers insist on are draconian, multi-year, intricate; they have to be negotiated from scratch one by one; and all the parties to these agreements are rendered mute by non-disclosure or confidentiality provisions. There certainly is no “Handbook” to illuminate this murky business.

Try this thought experiment. Your company has signed an agreement with an eBook reseller that specifies particular discounts and maybe also gives up some points for more discounts by another name, such as a co-op or an advertising allowance. You have committed to a non-disclosure or confidentially provision. You also have agreed to not give any competitor a better deal.

Now you want to sign on with an additional reseller. This new customer wants to know the terms of your other deal, but you are contractually prevented from saying what these terms are. You are in a position where you have to say, “I can’t tell you the terms but trust me, they are just as good as the other guy is getting.” What a perfect recipe for misunderstanding, then mistrust, and finally litigation.

Traditional participants in the book business, whatever their size, are in for a rough time. New players now marshal squads of lawyers and MBAs to strive for market dominance. They know nothing about the collegiality that used to be a defining characteristic of the publishing community; and they are unencumbered by any notion of cultural stewardship.

Curt Matthews

CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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At What Discount Should Publishers Sell EBooks to Resellers?

Discounts matter. Here is a little history to illustrate that point:

When the mall stores—B Dalton, Walden—arrived on the scene, followed closely in the 1970s by the big box stores—Barnes & Noble, Borders—the big publishers rolled right over to their demands for better discount and of course the independents had to follow.

For the most part these demands for better discount were justified. Better discount for higher volume is a fair and time-honored principle because higher volume usually leads to lower transactional costs. And the book business in those days was very much in need of more marketing push than the small booksellers, who had long dominated the market, could deliver.

But the result was a very wide discount differential, in retrospect too wide. The chains could command a discount off list price of 48-50%. The small stores had to accept 42-44%, on average about 4 or 5% less. The higher discount allowed the chains to mark down the prices of some titles for their customers. The small stores did not have the margin to afford such markdowns. Thousands of independent booksellers went straight out of business. Most of the independent booksellers went straight out of business. The mistake was not that the chains got too much discount; it was that the independents got too little.

How smart does this discount differential look now, as we survey the gaping hole left in the market by all those empty Borders superstores? Perhaps no amount of discount would have saved Borders. But are independent publishers and distributors willing to give the eBooks resellers such favorable discounts that they can afford to lower prices enough to put what is left of the bricks-and-mortar bookstores out of their misery? Are we willing to repeat this sad discount history with eBooks?

My last note in this space compared print prices with eBook prices to try to arrive at an estimate of what eBooks really should cost. A few people commented that my numbers were not exactly right. Nor could they have been because there is no such thing as a typical book. Now let’s have a look at the costs of running a bricks-and–mortar store versus a web based operation. Here again the actual numbers will be all over the map, and the best that can be done is a rough approximation of the comparative costs.

Barnes & Noble was able to build and operate over seven hundred huge, well appointed stores working on a 50% discount arrangement with its suppliers. And the independent booksellers still in the game run shops, much loved by their local communities, on less discount. These booksellers big and small somehow even manage to collect and pay sales taxes! Shouldn’t an eBook reseller be able to thrive on a much narrower margin?

After all, most of the much-celebrated if exaggerated cost savings for publishers enjoyed by eBooks over print books—no warehousing, receiving, picking, packing, or shipping costs, no title ever out-of-stock, no expensive physical stores to build and maintain—surely also accrue to web-based eBook resellers. Can a website be as expensive to run as a shop on Main Street? Can storing just one book file in the cloud cost as much as shelving thousands of print copies in a store?

The big six publishers have used their market power to insist on an Agency Model that gives the eBook resellers 30% of the action. The independent publishers, lacking that market power, have had to settle for a deal that gives most eBook resellers over 50% of the action.

(Yes, there are some complicated side issues having to do with the Agency Model and the Wholesale Model. But the big six publishers went to the mat to get the Agency deal. Which deal would you want? The arguments for the Wholesale deal are just obfuscations offered up by those who would benefit from it.)

If this discount differential persists, many independent publishers will be driven out of business, just as so many independent bookstores had to close their doors when they were denied equitable terms. And what is at stake here is not just money.

Curt Matthews

CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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