Archive for June, 2008|Monthly archive page

Long Tail et al

There’s a bit of a debate happening about Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory after the Harvard Business Review did a bit of a critique. Not going to rehash the points made here – it’s all summarised nicely in this Techdirt piece. Which nicely points this out:

Even more to the point is that the concept of the long tail changes the shape of the market. When shelf space was limited, it made it that much more difficult to even get a creative work produced at all. You had to be able to convince someone that your work would make it into the “hits” category, and then get them to finance the creation of the work. And, anything that didn’t actually become a hit fell off the chart completely.

Seth Godin’s Random Kindle Thoughts

Echoing many of the themes that have come up here, author and new media/marketing guru,  Seth Godin posts his thoughts on Kindle, having actually owned one for two months (unlike yours truly, who merely speculates on the known unknowns!). A few points resonate:

 It changes (at least for me) what it means to buy and own a book.

I’ve often thought (and said) that cultural change is harder than technological change, and this statement nails it really eloquently. The social practices surrounding the book experience are much broader than just the reading – kindle et al might have the screen and reading  bit down pat, but the rest isn’t there yet.

Word processing didn’t work because it was typing but a little cheaper. It worked because it was better than typing. Email didn’t work because it was mail but a little faster. It worked because it was fundamentally better than snail mail…

Builds on the previous bit. Cultural shifts won’t happen without some kind of motivation. E-Books have to be better than p-books, not the same in a new package.


The pricing of books is whacked. $9.95 is a publisher-friendly price, not an author-friendly or reader-friendly price.

The easiest way (maybe the only way) to shift social practices is to appeal to the hip pocket nerve (although the experience of very expensive *new* cultural practices like downloading ringtones suggests that people are less cost-sensitive when they’re offered something new and exciting to play with). And it appears that the book trade just doesn’t want to explore the possibilities of the new:

My first thought is that every Kindle should ship with $1,000 worth of free books on it. I offered Amazon rights to as many of my books as I control if they would just agree to put em free on every Kindle. They declined.


Motivational Thoughts…

I did a presentation for the NSW Editors Society a few weeks ago, which sparked a few thoughts. In particular I (very broadly) canvassed some ideas about the motivation for book publishers to get on book the e-thing. As usual, I drew some analogies with the music business 🙂

For publishers, there are few compelling reasons to embrace ebooks. The size of the ebook market is currently tiny, and whilst many have made titles available for the kindle and the sony reader, there has been no shift away from the codex– for most publishers, ebooks are an experiment, or a just-in-case maneuver. 

An interesting parallel in the music industry is the shift in format from vinyl records to digital CDs. Consumer demand was driven by the promise of greater fidelity, longevity and convenience. But the motivation for record companies was also clear– they could persuade consumers to re-buy music they already owned in a new format, and they could charge a higher price for that privilege. The situation surrounding ebooks is very different; the motivations that persuaded music companies to invest in a format change simply do not exist for book publishers. In order to voluntarily reconfigure practices that have worked well for decades (or even centuries), they must see a format shift as an opportunity to make money

The other motivation for industry change is fear. In the case of the music industry, Napster (and other downloading services) and the reality of dwindling CD sales provoked the major record labels into action. In the face of a threat to revenue streams, the music industry belatedly embraced online distribution. Arguably, this format shift was not voluntary, but a reaction to entirely new environment, driven by new computer and communications technologies– remember that it’s a computer company, not a music company that is at the vanguard of the digital music revolution.

For a moment, it appeared that google book search might represent a similar threat for book publishers; but the printed book appears so entrenched in consumer minds that google has, so far, not had bunch of an impact on the book buying public. There is really no threat to to the current method of book distribution– the bulk of the mass-market book trade is safely the domain of print and paper. In the absence of a something that actually threatens existing revenue streams, publishers have good reason to ignore possible incremental increases in revenue from niches and long tails. 

Of course, all this would change if there was enormous consumer demand for the digital product, but that has yet to happen…

An Emotional Response

Quick pointer to Mike Cane’s rant for the day:

Writers are dying — dying! — out there in the printed paper world.

I didn’t see Shakespeare & Co. closing their lower Manhattan store as a sign.

I figured since Borders opened a big store a few blocks away, it was another Wal-Mart Syndrome reaction.

But then within the past few weeks I’ve seen Barnes & Noble close two bigstores. And I mean big: multi-floored affairs, each which had a Starbucks-like cafe in them!

Of course, the situation in book trade is way more complex than Mike suggests. As much as I love my various bits of Cupertino-made gear (and desperately want one of Mike’s ‘ipod airs’), I’m sceptical about Apple singlehandedly being able to save the day. I’m just not sure that a killer ebook device (with or without ecosystem) is going to do the trick. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a bit lately, and will post more soon. Love the sentiment though!!

More hybridity

No, I’m not talking about petrol/electric motoring, but what I see as a kind of transition mode of delivery – which combines the network effects of the Internet with good old fashioned touchy feely print on paper. In book publishing, there’s lulu and now would be magazine publishers have Magcloud. Both services provide a backend print and distribution service for people who can do the frontend – produce a pdf file and upload via their web browser. 

Years ago (OK, decades), a few mates and I tried to set up a magazine – and even managed to convince an investor to stump up six figures (just). We pulled the plug because we realised that low six figures just wouldn’t pay the bills after a few months, and the interest from adverstisers was, shall we say ‘mild’. Twenty years down the track, and we coulda been king of the world 🙂

Via Daring Fireball

iphone and eReader

For those living under rocks, Apple announced the second generation, 3G iphone last week with Australian availability (finally) on July 11th. More importantly though, the new iphone will allow the installation of applications, so we’re all waiting breathlessly for a ‘legitimate’ ebook reader. And it appears that, hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long. A post at jkonTheRun details a response from the Fictionwise/eReader folk about just such a toy:

We have two Mac development experts doing the work to make eReader function on the iphone/itouch right now. Apple will allow third party applications, like eReader, to be used by customers after the next iPhone/iTouch firmware update which is currently estimated to be released on June 30 and we expect to be done with our porting work at about the same time…

… which would make the contents of the ereader store available to us iphoneheads 🙂

(via Teleread)

A million Kindles?

Evan Schnittman over at OUP does a bit of kindle/reader speculating that wouldn’t be out of place over in the Apple blogosphere. Drawing on Digitimes reporting, which suggests that e-ink screens are being manufactured at a rate of 60,000-80,000 a month and trending upwards. Which leads him to suggest that Sony and Amazon will (together) sell 1,000,000 e-reader devices in 2008:

With production ramping up to 120,000 units a month these numbers will look much better – to the tune of a combined 1.4 million units over 12 months! Even with the Kindle out of stock for a big chunk of the first and second quarter, combined sales of these two e-ink devices in 2008 will most likely top 1 million.

That seems a lot and instinctively it feels optimistic, given that most estimates put sales to date at somewhere less than 100,000. I’m tempted to say that I’ve never seen a Kindle (or a Sony Reader) in the wild, but then that wouldn’t be fair since I’m down under. But then again, I have run into a large number of iphones in the wild in Sydney and you can’t get *them* here either!!

Read the comments for some feedback, and there’s more on the mobileread forums.

(via O’Reilly Radar)

History and Future of e-paper

Computerworld has an interesting overview of the history and (possible) future of e-paper technologies, using kindle as the touchstone. Not a lot of deep analysis but some industry quotes that put the fledging e-book business in perspective:

These current limitations lead at least one industry observer to predict that the acceptance of e-paper displays will take a while: “E-paper is still five years from being a mainstream technology,” says Len Kawell, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft.

(via slashdot)

Borders Sold

It appears that Borders Australian operations have been bought by Angus and Robertson (well, at least by the people who run A&R). Those who followed the A&R saga from last year will no doubt be dismayed, despite the assurances of the new bosses:

ARW group managing director Ian Draper said the Borders business was complementary to the company’s existing assets, with no plans to change the format of the existing stores.

“It’s a model which has proven popular in the local market, and targets a different demographic with its premium format and wide range of products,” he said.

E-books and piracy

The computer book market is one place where e-books are fairly common and popular, with a number of publishers releasing titles electronically. New York Times columnist and technology author David Pogue posted his concerns about the threat of piracy with e-books, citing his experience and suggesting that the piracy issue was a real one for e-book authors. In response, Adam Engst – also a computer book author suggests that Pogue’s instincts are wrong – and that ebooks can be an attractive and profitable avenue. Amongst other things, Engst discusses the Steven Poole example (which I cited here a few weeks ago):

We dabbled with voluntary payments a while back with what we called PayBITS, and came to the same conclusion – it’s fine for an author to ask for a voluntary payment every so often, but it works best for very well-known creators, and only infrequently even then.

What I don’t quite understand is why Pogue chose to quote Poole’s description of the failure of his voluntary payment experiment without also acknowledging that Poole touches on the obvious solution:

A reasonable outcome, perhaps, would be something like an iTunes for books, where people choose to buy (DRM-free or at least DRM-lite) copies because it's still easier for most folk than hunting down a torrent. 

It’s a longish post from someone who actually publishes electronically- definitely worth a read…