Tag Archives: electronic publishing

eBook Bundling & Supporting a Diverse Retailer Ecosystem

In a previous blog post about the action at BEA I remarked that, “The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities.”

It turns out that this was an understatement. The technology community is producing plausible solutions at a terrific rate. I covered Zola Books in a previous post. In this one, we have asked Peter Hudson of BitLit to write a guest blog on his company’s solution to the question of bundling print and eBooks. This turns out to be rather timely as Amazon has recently rolled out their Kindle MatchBook program.

I hope that this will be the first of a number of guest blogs that will bring innovative ideas and programs to the attention of independent presses.

—  Curt Matthews, CEO, Independent Publishers Group.

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Peter Hudson is the Founder and CEO of BitLit. As an entrepreneur he’s been told he sees the world differently, but as a physicist he’s not sure that’s optically possible:

Let me propose two things I feel are true: book publishing and selling benefit from a strong and diverse physical and digital retail landscape, and Amazon’s announcement of Kindle MatchBook has forever etched the expectation of print and digital bundling into readers’ minds.

There has been considerable discussion about Amazon’s reasons for launching MatchBook. A point made by Alastair Horne on FutureBook.net is that MatchBook may be mostly about bringing paper book reading holdouts into the Kindle (rather than, say, Kobo) digital reading ecosystem. It seems reasonable that, as the eReader device market saturates, growth must come from traditionalists rather than book mavens and the e-savvy.

MatchBook may also be a tactic to drive Amazon print sales. Print purchases on Amazon as far back as 1995 are eligible for MatchBook. Even if publisher participation is limited at launch, it’s not a stretch to think by buying a print book on Amazon today, the billing record will make me eligible for a bundled eBook sometime between now and 2041. That’s not an offer that a sales receipt from my local indie can match (pardon the pun).

So, while MatchBook is a wonderfully reader-friendly program, it may cause considerable collateral damage to the diversity of both the digital and physical retail landscape.

Enter BitLit.

BitLit is the solution for publishers who want to offer bundled eBooks to readers regardless of where books are sold or what platform they are destined for. It’s all done through a simple and free smartphone app. Readers register their hard copy by writing their name onto the copyright page and snapping a photo using the BitLit app. Once the reader’s print edition has been recognized and registered through BitLit, they can download a free or discounted eBook edition from BitLit’s secure servers to their reading device of choice such as Kobo, Kindle, iPad, etc.

Bundling is not a new idea. Indeed, many well-known publishers have experimented with bundling in recent years. In the UK, Osprey Publishing offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of a print edition through book retailer Mostly Books, for titles published under the Angry Robot imprint.  The result of Osprey’s bundling was a dramatic increase in print sales.  O’Reilly offers DRM free digital “upgrades” through its members.oreilly.com portal for both print books and eBooks purchased through other retailers. In Canada, publishers such as ECW Press and Coach House Books offer free eBook editions to readers who email in a print edition proof of purchase.

The 2012 Canadian Book Consumer Annual Report from BookNet Canada found that 20% of readers would choose one book over another if one came with a bundled eBook edition. Additionally, a further 12% would pay a slightly higher price for a book if it included a bundled digital edition. These figures may well explain the dramatic increase in print sales seen by Osprey when they offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of an Angry Robot print edition.

Bundling has arrived, and offers publishers a huge potential opportunity to drive sales and re-connect with readers. But it’s critical that bundling is used to strengthen the publishing and bookselling landscape.  BitLit aims to do exactly that.

BitLit has partnered with Independent Publishers Group to allow member publishers to opt in and offer free or discounted bundled eBooks through BitLit to readers, regardless of where they purchased their print edition.  There is no cost to participate.  For more information or to opt into the program, please email Peter Hudson or Lauren Klouda (IPG-distributed publishers).

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How to Keep Your Local Bookseller in Business

How to Keep Your Local Bookseller in Business: By Buying Ebooks from Vendors that Support Bookstores
In my blog post “3 Big Takeaways from Book Expo America”, I mentioned that “a startup called Zola Books has developed a user-friendly way to deal with the issue of ‘showrooming’—the term we use to describe what happens when a customer at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore looks over the titles on display and then orders a print or e-book copy from a web retailer, often for a lower price. Zola Books gives a bookseller a well-earned piece of the action for its part in making such sales.”  Here is an explanation from their website that explains how their plan is coming along:

Support independent booksellers!  We’re happy to announce the Indie Pledge – the opportunity for readers to buy eBooks on Zola while supporting their favorite independent bookseller – is now live on Zola Books.  It’s still a work in progress, and at the moment our eBooks are readable only on iPads/iPhones, but we encourage readers to try it out by pledging to one of our test stores:

BayShore Books LLC, Oconto, WI
Book Passage, Corte Madera and San Francisco, CA
The Book Cellar, Chicago, IL
The Bookies, Denver, CO
BookPeople, Austin, TX
Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX
Capitola Book Cafe, Capitola, CA
Chaucer’s Bookstore, Santa Barbara, CA
The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, NC
Cuppa Pulp Booksellers, Chestnut Ridge, NY
Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA
Gallery Bookshop, Mendocino, CA
Inkwood Books, Tampa, FL
Mysterious Bookshop, New York City, NY
Patti’s Book Nook, Gueydan, LA
Politics and Prose, Washington D.C.
Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA
RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, NH
St. Johns Booksellers, Portland, OR
Strand Book Store, New York, NY
Square Books, Oxford, MS
Third Place Books, Seattle, WA
WORD,  Brooklyn, NY

Over the coming weeks we’ll be putting up many more eBooks for sale, and in a few months we’ll be able to make eBooks readable on any device – computer, tablet, or phone.  But for now we are excited to partner with booksellers in building a site for booklovers eager to connect in a vibrant, independent community.  Let us know what you think at indies@zolabooks.com, since we’ll be improving and refining the pledge process even as we add functionality.

The way this “pledge” idea works is that you declare yourself to be a regular customer of a particular bookstore, and then when when you order an eBook from the Zola website, that bookstore will receive from Zola a part of the eBook sale price. This seems utterly fair to me. If the store has helped to make the sale by having a print copy of a book on display, then that store should be rewarded.

Tell your favorite local bookseller about Zola. I fear that if the local stores do not find a way to participate in the eBook market, their chances of staying in business are not good.

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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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An Update on Amazon and a New Direction for Gone Publishing

IPG and Amazon have agreed on terms. As of Friday, May 25th, the 5,000 IPG Kindle titles that were taken down in late February have been put back up on the Amazon site, plus an additional 500 new Kindle titles prepared by IPG over the last three months have been added. To help make up for the lost eBook revenue suffered by its client publishers, IPG will distribute Kindle editions at no charge to publishers for the period from June 1st to August 31st, 2012. As for the overall health of IPG and its client publishers, year-to-date sales are up 26% over last year.

These are complicated times in the book business. While IPG certainly does not seek conflict with its customers, it may be that a certain amount of pushing and pulling is inevitable in our industry until settled terms of trade for the new electronic book formats can be agreed upon by all participants. We hope that our dispute and subsequent agreement with Amazon have helped to advance this difficult but necessary adjustment.

The recent news accounts of the way the “Big Six” publishers operate have made it perfectly clear that independent publishers inhabit an essentially different world. This blog will now return to its original purpose, which is to promote a well-informed discussion of that world. Knowledgeable guest bloggers will be invited to express opinions that challenge received wisdom, and IPG will not shy away from posting well-argued comments even if they rock a few boats.

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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Who Will Stand Up for Books as Books?

orig image theamazingworldofpshychiatry.wordpress.comThe word around the blogosphere assumes that publishers are angry about the state of the book marketplace because their superannuated business model is about to be blown away, and that’s a good thing because that old model makes books too expensive, excludes too many fine authors, and makes too much money for greedy owners. Most of this sounds like sour grapes, or misinformation, or as I pointed out in a previous blog, a way for dot-com start-ups to make money.

But what’s really driving publishers crazy is the fact that the big movers and shakers in the book business at the moment—Amazon, Apple, and now here comes Microsoft—are not really in the book business at all. Amazon uses books as a loss leader to sell more expensive things. Apple really cares about electronic devices. Microsoft wants to make Windows an eBook reader operating system. The publishing industry is being batted around like a shuttlecock by players who don’t much care about, or even care for, books. Who is standing up for the book itself?

While it is true that in terms of sales, each of these companies generate more than the total of all of the book publishing conducted on our planet, aren’t books important enough in their own right to be the focus of an industry? Aren’t we courting cultural disaster if books become just a means of selling something else? Is economic power the only legitimate measure of everything?

Despite all the cynical commentary on many blogs, publishing professionals are not just worried about keeping their jobs. Most of them care deeply about books and are easily talented enough to make a better living doing almost anything else. Serious publishers, distributors, editors, designers, booksellers, book reviewers, librarians, author agents: these highly trained specialists bring an enormous amount of expertise to the making and distribution of good books. People who really know and care about books should be in charge of the business of books.

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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Book Distributors in the Age of Electronic Publishing: Part II

This post is the follow-up to the previous, which addressed what distributors do now at a time when printed books still dominate book sales, and will describe the role of distributors as the industry transitions to eBooks.

The advent of the eBook changes everything. Distributors are about to be disintermediated (a fancy way of saying put out of business) along with publishers, and booksellers. Authors will self-publish and sell directly to their readers, eliminating all those parasitic middlemen. Except for Amazon.

Or maybe not. The world of e-everything requires more investment in technology, not less, and distributors once again will be able to pick up the check when indie publishers cannot. And it turns out that the sophisticated IT capacities that distributors have had to develop over the last few years to handle print books at a high level—especially databases that can seamlessly share information in-house and with client publishers and customers—has made the technical challenges of eBooks seem not especially daunting. We are used to shooting metadata and book files all around the book industry, and eBooks are just a subset of that activity.

Also, there are new opportunities for distributors that completely bypass the big e-retailers. IPG’s sales of books directly to consumers—from our own website, through the shopping cart we supply (for free) to our client publishers, to affiliated special interest groups on the internet, and to the thirty-five or so eBook resellers we work with—are growing exponentially. These expanded sales methods, and others not yet thought of, will require new technological investment and innovation, but we are ready and able to provide it.

Moreover, it seems to me, on one essential front the electronic booksellers are highly vulnerable. They have been unable to solve a gigantic problem with their business model, the problem of quality: What is good and what isn’t? Non-professional reviews posted on e-booksellers’ web sites are by now completely compromised, scammed, useless. You cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Last year over a million new titles were “published,” the great majority of them incompetent. How are readers supposed to navigate through this sea of mediocrity?

One of the most important functions of publishers, distributors, and booksellers (book agents and reviewers too) has always been to assure a certain level of quality, not necessarily as high a level as we might want, but at least a baseline far higher than the abysmal standard—in fact the non-existent standard—set by the new electronic vanity presses.

Good distributors are appreciated by their customers almost as much for what they refuse to sell as for what they do sell. IPG takes on a very small percentage of the publishers who apply. We know that weak titles will dilute the sales of strong ones. Satisfied customers come back for more. Does this mean that IPG takes on only large, well established publishers? Certainly not. Some of the best books we handle are published by start-up presses and self-publishers, and over the years IPG has helped many such ventures to grow and prosper.

Traditional booksellers are outraged by the phenomenon called “show rooming.” Customers browse the books in a bookshop and then order what they want from a web bookseller, who gets a free ride because he has paid nothing toward of the expense of providing that highly curated selection of titles. The bookseller’s taste and experience go unrewarded.

Many electronic booksellers, however, don’t think they have any obligation to their customers to separate the sheep from the goats. Since the customers who buy books from them almost always come to their sites already knowing what they want, they are free riding on the publishing professionals who do provide this essential service.

If all a web bookseller needs to do is throw everything that quacks like a book up on its website and then mindlessly process orders—will that be enough to justify its continued existence? Will customers learn to love trash if only it is cheap enough? The electronic booksellers may be the ones who in the long run get disintermediated.

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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