Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

Domino Project archives

Over the course of five years of so, I created a publishing company and narrated the journey.

It began in the 1990s, when I talked with Jeff Bezos about Amazon’s ability to become a book publisher, not simply a book seller. The hard part of publishing isn’t printing, it’s identifying an audience, earning their attention and trust and then bringing them things they want to pay for and read. Amazon had already done much of the hard part.

Jeff said they weren’t ready, but we checked in now and then. When they were ready, I was sort of on the hook, so we went first. The first partnership they did in bringing original books to their platform.

We ended up creating ten bestsellers in a row, books I’m proud to have been associated with. Alas, Amazon wouldn’t keep their end of the promotional bargain, so I chose to end the project. We then went on to publish one more book, another bestseller, to benefit Defy.

Here, with broken links and all, are the posts that went along with that project, preserved here for anyone wanting to see the history. It’s all in a stream, so you’ll want to use the command-F find button to jump to what you’re looking for.

Thanks to everyone on the extraordinary team that worked with me to create this magic.

Seth Godin, 2020

If you’d like to see them as they appeared on the original site, here’s a PDF. Some links are going to break over time. It’s about 200 pages long, or you can easily scroll this page and the next one.

The apples and oranges problem

April 13, 2018

Books are books. They’re made in the same factories, sold in the same stores, usually by the same publishers.

Which is absurd. Because the relevant and interesting insight gets lost if you look at books as a category.

There’s not a lot in common between a $200 medical textbook and a 99 cent Kindle romance disposable.

The same way that a survey that shows how humans can earn significant income tries to compare Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Evan the YouTube toy kid isn’t of much help.

Bernadette found us this big data study on the book industry. Alas, the authors missed just about all the nuance because they failed to do more than a cursory sorting within the industry. Mostly they determined that bestsellers sell a lot more books than books that aren’t bestsellers. Not a lot you can do with that data except try to make your book a bestseller if your goal is to sell a lot of books.

The bestseller list itself makes no sense. It’s an amalgam of many different buyers buying many different books for many different reasons. Most of the books aren’t substitutes for each other, and most of the buyers arrive and leave the market at random times. It’s not Top 40 radio.

More useful: Figure out if you’re an apple or an orange. Are you an ex-President or a biographer, a one-hit wonder or a professional writer?

For example, there are reliable paths to follow if you’re working in a specific genre, like romance. And different paths for a different genre, like cookbooks. Dig deep to see the well lit path that a self-published business author took, vs. the TV-driven approach a celebrity might follow.

The takeaway: If you can find a category, you can learn from it. But the broader the category, the less you’re going to learn.

Two reasons book covers matter

March 5, 2018

Yes, in fact, people do judge a book by the title and the cover.

I think there are two reasons, not completely related:

  1. 1. Most people don’t read, not even the books they actually buy. As a result, the title and the cover are often the best chance you have to make your point, to telegraph what you came to say, to set the stage for the first thirty pages.
  2. 2. If someone reads a book and wants to recommend it, does the cover and the title make that easier or more difficult? Is it easy to talk about, pronounce, share? Does it embarrass or shame the recommender or the recipient? What does the look and feel remind us of?

Eat, Pray, Love was a magical cover and title combination. All Marketers are Liars was a terrible one. (My fault, not my publisher’s).

The move to tiny screens and busier lives has had many consequences. One of them is that we now use an index-card sized bucket to hold a lifetime’s worth of ideas, memes, memories and connections. It can’t possibly fit.

So, all that’s left is work to become iconic. Building an icon isn’t easy, but in a low-information, high-speed world, it’s your best bet.

Honest signals

February 26, 2018

Today’s publication day for Cat Hoke’s new book, A Second Chance.

It’s been a long journey, more than a year in the making, and all of us want it to do well.

Tomorrow, when I write about her book on my main blog, thousands of people will show up to the Amazon page, where they will have their first impression of the book.

How will they decide? Who will choose to buy it, who will push off the decision to later, and who will walk away for good?

Since Amazon has become the primary point of exposure for new books, and since books still drive so much of our common conversation, it’s an essential question.

Unlike the bookstore, all the books on Amazon look pretty much the same. And thus, we’re on hyper-alert for the small things, the little signals that tell us that this one is worth more of our time or money.

There are three obvious signals available:

  1. 1. the cover
  2. 2. the reviews
  3. 3. the bestseller rank

And of course, along the way, ‘growth hackers’ (using the word generously, in quotes) have tried to game the system, using dishonest signals to capture more than a fair share of attention and trust. Readers, once burned, are more careful than ever.

Yes, it’s pretty simple to game a book to bestseller status, for an hour anyway. And, while it’s not as easy as it was, there are still plenty of ways to game the reviews.

But these are the only signals we’ve got in this retail setting. If you pre-ordered the Kindle edition of Cat’s book (thank you!) you now have the book on your device. Cat and I would be truly grateful if you’d post an honest review today (it’s not an accident that Amazon puts “Verified Purchase” next to some reviews–turning questionable signals back into honest ones.)

As I’ve written previously, a book is far more than a method for monetizing an idea. In fact, in 2018, it’s a pretty lousy way to monetize an idea. But Cat’s work with Defy, the work of her team, her volunteers, the EITs… all of it is amplified by this book, by this artifact that can be shared, read and cherished.

Thank you for the work you’ve done to help support Defy’s work. It’s already making a difference. Donors have stepped up with significant financial contributions, new volunteers have joined the network and people’s lives are changing. Every day.

Wish us luck this week. But with your help, we’re already making a ruckus. Thank you.

Stolen ideas

February 21, 2018

The paradox of non-fiction book publishing (and I’d stretch it to include popular fiction as well) has two components:

  1. 1. Authors steal to write.
  2. 2. And the writing they do gets stolen.

It’s easy to get up in arms about the second, but essential to embrace the first.

One can’t write without using the ideas, metaphors, styles, tropes, processes, concepts, examples and successes that came before. The writing would be incoherent, it wouldn’t resonate with anyone and failure would ensue.

It can’t be 100% original, but it often rhymes with what came before.

The converse of this, of course, is that if you do good work, the books and articles and conversations that follow will be inspired by (and stolen from) the work you do.

You won’t be acknowledged, and you’ll be quoted or misquoted. Or paraphrased.

If you’re successful.

If you’re not, you’ll discover that your work is merely invisible.

Here’s the cover for a book I did with Penguin about a decade ago, alongside the cover of a new book, yes, published by Penguin. I ran into the artist who did the work on my cover, and neither he nor I was informed. If I were him, having drawn all those little people with shadows, I’d be pretty annoyed. Giving him credit doesn’t hurt anyone.

Bad form aside, this is not only part of the deal, it’s the most important part of the deal. Culture is nothing but a sedimentary layering of ideas, each contributing to the next. That’s what we signed up for.

Steal and be stolen from. That’s how ideas work.

Too much static

February 9, 2018

The 500-year-old publishing model is based on two fundamental needs:

  • 1. printing a lot of books at once is much cheaper than printing a few at a time.
  • 2. bookstores are the backbone of the industry, and all issues of timing, pricing and promotion should serve their needs.

Of course, neither of these is true any more.

So, why publish a book all at once, all or nothing, with a static price and static distribution?

Two weeks ago, Amazon made a significant mistake with Cat Hoke’s new book, A Second Chance.

The book has a pub date of February 26, 2018. In the industry a pub date is sacrosanct. Every store puts the books out on the same day, allowing publishers time to fill the warehouses, prime the pump, do the PR, organize everything, then –boom–.

Well, Amazon, our only retail storefront, screwed up and began shipping pre-orders in January, a month early. They sent hundreds of people an email confirmation, changed the book page, opened the site to reviews, the whole thing.

Long before the Defy team was ready.

We scrambled, and Amazon said it was a glitch and that they’d fix it. That no books would ship. Pub date would be saved.

But of course, they didn’t. And so hundreds of books went out, a couple of great reviews got posted and then finally, Amazon turned it back off.

You know what?

It was a good thing.

It was a good thing that at no expense to the author, hundreds of fans and supporters now have a copy of the book. A copy that, especially since no one else can get one, people are happy to talk about. It was a good thing that the reviews are there, making it more compelling to visit the book’s page on Amazon.

On balance, if we could do it again, we’d insist on it!

That got me thinking about all the ways a book launch could become something other than an all or nothing moment with a pub date, a nationwide ‘lay down’ and all the drama that comes with that.

For example: Books could launch in digital format and then, if certain numbers got hit, the paper version would become available. Or the price could change according to volume schedule set by the publisher. Or there could be windows when limited editions of a book were available, and then, automatically, the format could change. Perhaps the Kindle edition could have multiple variations, an abridged one that’s shorter, that one could upgrade to the full one. Or one with notes from early readers included, as edited by the author, etc. Or perhaps Kickstarter could have a way to hook up to the Amazon API and deliver Kindle books automatically when levels are reached.

There are 450 other ideas, some better, many worse. But we won’t know as long as the format and the timing and variables aren’t even being discussed. Just about every other form of media has been morphed and revolutionized by the digital transformation, but all that’s happened in the book world is the loss of the bookstore and the rise of the long tail.  (Special shoutout to sites like Wattpad who are trying to take new approaches.)

We can do better than a single book, at a single price, all launched on the same day, particularly if the platforms are built to support it.

The shift is real and it’s forever (books by the numbers)

January 29, 2018

Books (and bookstores) have been around for 500 years, and one thing the industry has improved is data gathering. By store, by genre, by format, by author. The data is there… authors can ignore it in their quest to make a ruckus, but the trends are worth knowing about, especially if you’re a publisher or work with one.

Mike Shatzkin and the folks behind Bookstat know precisely what’s going on.

Four highlights:

  • 1. Amazon sells nearly half the books sold in the US now. It’s only going to keep going that way. Barnes and Noble and other outlets are shrinking quickly.
  • 2. ebooks account for more than half of all books sold, and in some genres, it’s way more than that. Again, it’s only going to keep going in that direction as more genre books shift and outlets disappear. An entire generation of readers is coming along that will encounter books without ever visiting a ‘real’ bookstore.
  • 3. Self-published and small press books at low prices dominate unit sales. You can sell a lot more ebooks for $3, and if you want to reach a lot of people, that’s what’s happening.
  • 4. As always, books have always been a long tail business, but now more than ever. The bestselling book of the year will likely be read by fewer than 1% of the people in the US. There’s no other form of media that’s even close to that low. In exchange, though, there are millions (not a typo) of books hanging out at the long tail. Which is fine if you’re a reader, but tough if you’re a writer.

Most of all, it’s worth noting that book sales are lumpy. The overall trends don’t matter to a single book or a single author… you only need 10,000 devoted readers to make a living. I expect there will be bestselling hit books for another twenty years. But, we’re now living in radically different times, and it doesn’t pay to act as if the world hasn’t changed.

What does this mean for publishers?

We need publishers. We need them because most authors need financial and moral and organizational support to do the year or five of work necessary to create an important book. And we need them because most authors aren’t interested in doing all the hard work necessary to build a permission asset and promotion engine necessary to make it as an author. Readers need them too, because many want a curated, thoughtful book when it’s time to buy something.

But publishers can’t persist in their high-volume, low-conviction approach to the market. It used to work–because shelf space was king, and pumping out plenty of books got you more shelf space which gave you more chances to have more hits. So, why not?

Now, of course, shelf space is free. Literally, figuratively and actually free.

Publishers have to shift to the approach that successful VCs follow. Low-volume and high-conviction.

Once they make that commitment, they need to invest the time and money to actually build a permission asset. To connect directly to readers (people like you) instead of merely catering to bookstores. I know I’ve been saying this for twenty (!) years, but I’m still right.

Build that asset and the quick speed to market and low inventory risk of Amazon become your friend, not your enemy. Amazon doesn’t care who wins or loses–they’re the casino, they win no matter what. But if you’re building a book worth reading, an idea worth sharing, it’s important to pick your audience and ignore everyone else.

Books matter because there’s nothing like the experience of quietly engaging with ideas. It makes us better. It creates opportunities for those that hope to invent and share ideas. I hope we don’t lose books any time soon.

The power of bulk sales (Building a Book IV)

January 17, 2018

A few years ago, I self-published What To Do When It’s Your Turn. We now have more than 150,000 copies in print. That’s amazing for a book that lists for $32, is in color and is hardly a traditional business book. It’s not sold in stores, and is rarely found on Amazon.

How did it become a bestseller?

The biggest amplifier of the success of the book is the way I chose to price and ship it. More than a third of the book’s sales have been to people who bought ten or more copies at a time. Each of these people bought a few, then a few more, then a bunch.

Arithmetic is on the side of the publisher who can embrace the power of bulk sales. When a reader finds that a book resonates, she can invest in buying more copies and give them away. And books that are given away are books that get read.

It’s worth pausing for a second to consider the significant shift that this represents. Traditional publishers have always been wary of bulk sales. It’s so difficult to figure out that an entire company (our friends at 8CR) is devoted to making it easier. The traditional model is that a bookstore might sell 50 copies of your book. Or that a particularly successful PR match might lead to a TV show or radio appearance that sells 1,000. But the thinking is that the middlemen are stores and media outlets.

But what if instead, the middlemen are your readers and fans?

Traditional bestseller lists work hard to avoid bulk sales. They don’t count as ‘real’ apparently.

But the author’s goals are different. The author merely wants to spread the word. Lists are for groceries.

Cat Hoke’s new bookA Second Chance, is about forgiveness. It’s not just a memoir, but a call to action for each of us, a chance to change the way we engage… not just with criminal justice, but with each other.

As the voluntary publishers of her book, we’re counting on bulk sales from individuals and organizations to replace the book media that used to exist but is now missing for most authors. By encouraging people to buy five or ten or fifty books for their organizations, we accomplish three things:

1. Most important, we give the reader’s organization a new vocabulary. When a team reads a book at the same time, they change in sync. They develop new words, new approaches and new cohesion. I’ve seen this happen firsthand with The Dip and Purple Cow.

2. The Proustian magic of the book format carries far more weight than an email or a video can. Handing someone a book is a respectful act, the way to open a door of possibility.

3. Priming Amazon’s pump with a significant number of bulk pre-orders ensures that we won’t run out of stock on pub date at the end of February.

Here’s a preview galley of the first thirty pages of the book.

We’ve donated 20,000 copies of the hardcover to Defy so that every copy sold generates nothing but contribution to their important work. My hope is that Defy’s supporters, plus readers of this blog will step up and invest in ten or twenty books for their friends and family. Thanks to Pamela Slim and Marketing Over Coffee for getting us started. I know that it’s a stretch, particularly for a book you haven’t read yet, but I’m hoping the galley will help you see the power of what Cat and her team are building.

You can check out the book (in hardcover and Kindle, and soon audio) here. Thank you.

The secret to designing a cover (Building a Book III)

January 12, 2018

Most books are self-published. Perhaps half are non-fiction.

And the number of self-publishers who miss this secret is astonishing. Here you go:

The purpose of a book cover is to remind you of a book you’ve read that you liked.

The goal is not to invent a new way to design a book cover.

The goal is not to prove to the world that you have good taste.

And the goal is not to save money by designing it yourself in Microsoft Paint.

The thing is, the eye is discerning. It can instantly tell the difference between the real thing and something that’s almost the real thing.

I had the privilege of working with our Creative Director, Alex Peck, in designing the cover for Cat Hoke’s new book.

Alex is a craftsman. And a designer. He understands the power of design thinking, and always begins with, “what’s it for?”

In the case of Cat’s book, the what’s it for is simple: The purpose of the cover is to establish quite clearly that this is a book of substance, by a professional, a woman with something important to say.

In the book world, this is communicated NOT with cutting edge fonts and colors, but with nuance. With the patina of experience. With 100 tiny adjustments, with line spacing, shading, shadows, stickers, emblems and embellishments.

It’s painstaking but it’s worth it.

Here are just a few of the iterations that Alex went through:

The book is being printed and comes out in late February. If you want to see the final cover, here it is.

Does it pay to own a small bookstore?

January 7, 2018

A student asked this question. My answer:

…it’s a bit like asking if it pays to be a poet. The answer is, “it depends.”

It certainly doesn’t pay to be a poet who only makes money from a few journals who pay a few dollars a poem.

But it might pay to be Bob Dylan.

All an elliptical way of saying, in my opinion, at the scale you’re at, you can’t make a profit in the way you hope.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t sell books. You might need to sell baskets of books (for gifts) and memberships in book clubs (for connection) and coffee to go with the book (because–caffeine and community).

The books are an excuse to have a business, but they’re not a business.

Of course there are exceptions, but they tend to be real estate dependent and at a much larger scale.

I think the same thing is true for “does it pay to write a book.”

Not like it used to. Not like it should.

But writing a book might be the seed that you can grow into reputation and influence and connection. It might be the chance you need to discover the challenges that others need your help with. And it might merely be joyful.

Commercializing the thing that doesn’t lend itself to making a profit merely makes you sad.

Building a book (part 2)

December 29, 2017

Amazon is it.

There are now two channels for non-fiction books in the USA.

There used to be 4,000.

The second channel is “special sales.” This means sales to organizations, sales at events, sales through your team. It means, most of all, using the book as a method to spread the word.

The first channel, as I’ve already mentioned, is Amazon. For many business books, it’s more than 70% of the total retail sales of a book. That’s up from 1% about twenty years ago.

Most publishers still act as if the dog is the universe of retail bookstores and the tail is Amazon. That a book needs to be scheduled and optimized and rolled out to the retail ecosystem, and Amazon sales are part of what follows.

With the book we’re doing for Defy, though, we didn’t have the resources or the team to build that sort of on-the-ground rollout. So instead, we’re going all in with Amazon. The hardcover and the Kindle edition are the whole bet.

[An aside: I love booksellers. I shop at real bookstores often. I think they’re priceless. I wish everyone would visit one every day, and buy more than coffee when they did. But, alas, the public has made it clear that, for the kind of books I write and publish, the bus has already left the station.]

[Another aside: I’m pausing here, remembering all the years my mom ran the bookstore at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, and my talks at the American Bookseller Association conference, and book signings at bookstores large and small. A four-hundred year tradition continues, books (particularly kids books and gift books and novels) will be handsold for years to come. But for many categories like this, Amazon is it.]

This brings us to Shawn Coyne’s rule of 10,000: The job of the publisher is to get the first 10,000 books into the world, to prime the pump. After that, the book (and thus the author, through his or her work) do the rest.

We think we can do that with the Amazon platform (and your help). It’s not everything a full-service publisher can do, but we hope it will be enough.

Cat Hoke’s book, A Second Chance, is now officially on-sale at Amazon.

The elegant, powerful landing page was built for us by Zach Obront at Book in a Box. Zach and his team are bringing a new approach and a new attitude to the creation and publication of non-fiction books. By leveraging the power of a single platform, they’re making it easier for people without the experience Alex Peck and I have to build books. Thanks, Zach, for being so generous and volunteering your time and expertise on Cat’s book.

Building a book (part 1)

December 21, 2017

Tom Kubik is a gifted and successful commercial photographer working in New York.

He’s also a generous soul and an active volunteer at Defy Ventures, the organization that Cat Hoke founded. Cat is on the front lines of fixing the massive problem facing those released from our sprawling prison system. While recidivism is more than 70% (that means that three-quarters of the men and women released from prison reenter the penal system at some point), Defy lowers that number by 90%… just 6% of Defy’s graduates end up back in the system.

Tom travels with Defy to prison and works to give Defy’s EITs (entrepreneurs in training) a face. He captures their light, amplifies their possibility and helps each person be seen for who they are–a person, a human with potential, a family member capable of making a difference.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days with Tom on a recent trip with Defy to California. Here he is with Cat…

 Tom is just one of the dozens of people we’ve been lucky enough to work with in building her new book, A Second Chance. It’s a groundbreaking memoir, a useful lesson in what it means to forgive, and most of all, a building block in finding a new way forward. Not just for people in prison, but for all of us.

I’ll be back after the holiday with more details on the book (it’s being printed today and comes out in 9 weeks!). I hope that you and your family find peace and joy and connection together.

In the meantime, here are some of Tom’s photos of EITs. Thank you, Tom, for your time, your energy, your light. Photographers tell stories, and few do it as well as Tom does.

A new book… we would love your help

November 28, 2017

In February, we’ll be publishing Catherine Hoke’s new book, A Second Chance.

Cat’s the founder of Defy Ventures, a groundbreaking non-profit that is changing the lives of men and women while they’re in prison (and after they get out.) As a direct result of Defy’s program, recidivism has gone from 75% to less than 6%. Not only does this transform the lives of the families involved, it improves the fabric of our society and it saves the taxpayers a fortune.

Domino is donating all of its efforts to Cat and to Defy, and we’re determined to share this book with as many people as we can.

It’s a book about second chances, forgiveness, responsibility, opportunity and love. And it applies to everyone I’ve ever met, not just those that are in prison.

YOU CAN HELP: If you’re interested in helping us, we’d love to keep you posted.

Just click here to sign up for our special list (and there’s a bonus video of Cat there as well). We’ll be posting updates on this Domino blog and on Seth’s blog from time to time, but this book-only list will get excerpts, strategy memos and more. We’re counting on this informal street team to make all the difference.

Thank you all!

All the books, any book and this book

September 15, 2015

At the beginning, bookstores only sold the books they actually printed. The bookstore and the publisher were one and the same.

Throughout our lifetime, of course, that hasn’t been true. A unique element of this industry more than any other I can think of is that every store sells every book. They might not have it in stock, but just about every bookstore is eager to sell any decent book.

Books actually benefit from being next to their competitors. A book sells better at a bookstore than it does at furniture store.

The flip side of this, though, is that publishers and bookstores do their best work when they can promote a particular book more than the others. Promoting a book, making it stand out, working hard to have it be this book instead of any book—well, when you’re the author and it’s your book, this is exactly what you seek. And that’s what the very best bookstores and the very best publishers do.

I have always respected and celebrated the comity and camaraderie of the book industry. I think the positive contribution of a book to our culture demands that we treat them as special objects, and that publishing and selling them is not just another form of commerce.

Today, my longtime publisher Portfolio (part of Random Penguin whatnot) is republishing four books that started here at Domino: Anything You Want, Poke the Box, We Are All Weird and Read This Before Our Next Meeting. You can see all four of them right here.

It’s my hope that readers will be able to find these books at fine bookstores everywhere. Including Amazon (DerekAlSeth & Seth) and B&N, too.

In a nutshell these are two of the problems facing bookselling going forward: How to build an online store that’s good at selling a particular book, not merely all books, and how to maintain ubiquity in an industry that’s being pushed toward silos.

Harper Lee and the two mythical promises

July 16, 2015

Harper Lee is a legend and a genius. She’s also the exception that proves the rule, twice.

Rule 1: Your book will not be beautifully edited, it will not be lovingly hand sold, it will not be taught in schools across the country. Your book will not pay you millions of dollars of royalties, year after year, for fifty years, and most of all, your book will not succeed despite the fact that you don’t tour, don’t build a following, and don’t promote. And also, just to rub it in, your book will not become a movie that’s as powerful as your book was, a movie that is remembered by everyone who saw it.

I know that it worked for Harper Lee. But it’s not going to work for me and it’s not going to work for you. It’s a myth that you can write a book and the system will take care of you.

Rule 2: You cannot use hype and mystery and 17 articles in the New York Times to pre-sell millions of copies of the second book your publisher brings out, merely on the promise that it might be interesting, with all the writers who write about it never even reading it first.

I’m not jealous of Nelle Lee. She shaped a generation, gave up her much-deserved privacy and earned all of the accolades she received. On the other hand, I think it’s worth noting that just because there’s lightning now and then, you shouldn’t plan on using it to electrify your house.

We need you to write your best work, and to share it. But please understand that this is the first step in spreading your idea, not the last one.

Goal setting (and a discount)

February 17, 2015

Sometime on Tuesday, February 17, Amazon is clearing out the inventory of Zig Ziglar’s goal planner.

The 4-pack is here.

The discount, when it’s live for four hours, will be here. For about $3 a copy, less than $12 for the four pack. The current plan is for it to be an active discount from 7 pm to 11 pm NY time.

When these books are gone, we won’t be printing any more.

This is a book you write yourself. What Zig did was codify many of the steps, and Alex, Michael and I re-designed and rebuilt the idea into a more modern, accessible, sharable format.

It works.

I’ll go way out on a limb and say this: I have never met a person who used a goal planner properly and regretted it.

You might discover some truths that disappoint you or make you uncomfortable. You might decide that a dream is actually better than a realistic action plan. Mostly, you will discover just how much you can achieve when you get in sync about how you invest your focus and your time.

If you and your team aren’t delivering on your dreams and promises, the first question to ask yourself is, “have you written it down and followed the steps?”

Setting a focus, however you do it, is worth the trip.

PS thank for reading this far. If you visit yourturn.link to check out my new book, $10 off any order if you use the discount code ‘tony’.

The bestseller effect

December 7, 2014

There are two markets for books (and music).

The first market are grazers, collectors or omnivores. They make the market happen. They read a lot of books. They visit the library often. They have 2,000 LPs in their collection. They listen and read around the edges.

The second market consume in response to the market. The average American buys just over one book a year. When I was in college, the typical dorm room had just 40 LPs stacked up. (Even today, when students have 100,000 mp3s, most of them don’t listen widely).

This second market is almost always the market that turn a book into a bestseller. Bestsellers are the books that people who don’t buy books are buying.

Back to those college dorms: The typical women’s collection included Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel and Carol King. Not because these were demonstrably better records, but because they were bestsellers, the regular kind.

The same effect is responsible for all those copies of Harry Potter and The Davinci Code… they become bestsellers because people who don’t buy a lot of books are buying them.

So, consider the trap that the bestseller effect sets: the publisher and the author want a bestseller, so they spend a lot of time and money on mass media, on storefront promotion, on even writing a book that feels like it will appeal to the second group. But! That’s not what the second market wants. What they consume (read/listen to) is what their peers demand they consume. They are protective of what they buy and consume, because they don’t have many slots for new books or new music.

Which means that if you try to reach people who aren’t shopping for what you sell, who don’t think about what you sell, who aren’t even in the store for what you sell, you’ve got a tough road ahead.

The way around the trap, it seems (and I think this is true for many of the bestsellers that have broken through) is to obsess about delighting a critical mass of readers in the first group. To create a book and a marketing plan that captures the energy of this group and let them bring the work to the rest of the market.

Critical mass is a key part of this. In the era of weird, there isn’t one bestseller list, there are a hundred. There’s the bestseller list of political tracts (two, actually) and one of edgy rants from bloggers, and one for romance…

The sales for my new book just surprised me: Today’s sales were more than yesterday’s, which was a little more than the day before. That’s extraordinarily rare for a book ten days after launch, one with no retail distribution, particularly if there’s no big media or retail promotion going on. People are starting to read it because other people are reading it.

That’s a really simple sentence, but it explains Buzzfeed, Thomas Piketty, Psy, and a thousand other cultural hits.

Maybe yours.

It’s all backlist now

November 24, 2014

The secret of every book publisher’s success is the backlist. To Kill a Mockingbird, Stretching, Dune… these are books that sell, day in and day out, long after they’ve earned out their advances.

The distinction between the backlist and the frontlist (the new books, the promoted books, the books that publishers focus on, ironically) is based on two forms of scarcity that publishers have long dealt with:

1. There was scarce shelf space. The local bookstore could only hold 10,000 or 20,000 titles, and most of those slots (and virtually all of the merchandising and promotional slots) went to the new books. Book of year! is a category reserved for the new.

2. There were scarce review slots. The highest-leverage way a publisher could promote a frontlist title was to get it on Oprah, or reviewed in the local paper.

Backlist titles are noteworthy because of their profitability, but they also don’t depend on shelf space (people happily order them) and they don’t depend on reviews (the word gets out horizontally, or in a teacher’s assignment, not from the core of the media machine).

You’re probably ahead of me here, but:

There is now infinite shelf space. Infinite because the online booksellers carry just about every single book. And infinite because independent local stores carry relatively few books so that all but the hottest titles end up being ordered anyway.

And there are no more review pages to fight over, instead, there’s only the long tail, the countless peer-to-peer recommendations that aren’t bounded by place or time.

Launching a frontlist title using the old method makes no sense at all, because you will not capture these two scarce resources. Instead, as we saw from the gradual launch of the original Harry Potter and (in a totally different way) in the launch today of my new book Your Turn, success comes from whispering to the tribe, not from yelling through media amplifiers. Your Turn has already sold 32,000 copies, which would, if it were in a channel that bestseller lists tracked, would make it one of the top-selling books in the country. We did this without any shelf space and without any media other than talking to people who had already signed up. This takes patience and a willingness to focus on the long run.

Some people launch with the backlist in mind because they have no choice. I think it’s worth doing it because it’s the most direct and effective way to create a backlist success story.

The future belongs to this approach: Write for your readers, don’t try to find readers for your writing…

Pursuing horizontal publishing

October 2, 2014

I’ve explored a variety of ways to get to market with the books I’ve created over the last thirty years. I’ve self-published, worked with most of the major NY publishing houses, did a partnership with Barnes and Noble and another with Amazon… All as a way to solve the problem of discovery. How do we get books into the hands of people who want to read them?

Tomorrow, I’m launching a new book, and I thought I’d explain some of my thinking about my approach and the format.

Looking at my personal book consumption as well as what I hear from readers, I’m seeing that people are getting ever more impatient about the traditional format we expect from books… more than I would have guessed. If you’re reading an ebook, there’s a huge temptation to skip to the next book on your device, or if it’s an iPad, to check your incoming email and then down the rabbit hole. We tap our foot while reading, rushing the author to get to the good part, fast.

Words on paper still have impact, but again, I’m seeing more people who would rather read a tweet (“a guy hunts a whale”) about a book than work their way through it.

Since my last book (two years ago), I’ve wondered a lot about what sort of book would be worth the journey. After all, through this and my main blog, I can reach more people with an idea than a book ever could. What’s the point of all the scarcity and printing and risk if it’s not going to engage people? We write books to make a difference, to spread an idea, to educate… and if the format can’t do that, we should find a new way.

My new book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn, is in a totally new format, for me and for most authors and readers. It’s printed in full color, heavily illustrated and in quality-magazine format. New digital presses from Heidelberg permit an individual to be able to do long or short runs in this format.

But the discovery issue still remains. So I’m hoping you will consider taking a chance as I ask my core fans to sign up for a pre-order of multiple copies. Three or eight or even more copies, the first off the press, sold at a radical discount, to readers who also become passionate distributors. Fans who will hand-‘sell’ the book to colleagues and friends. Individuals who will use them to teach or inspire, to get everyone on the same page. Horizontal movement, side to side, person to person, not top down.

I wrote the book as a tool for people who want to help other people change.

We see this happen in digital media daily. An idea we believe in, a change we’d like to see, arrives and we share it, hoping to spread the word. I’d like to replicate that, but with the power of print.

I’m doing a pre-launch now because I’m trying to print the right number of copies (but not too many) and then, in December, we can simultaneously discuss the book widely. At that point, like all books, it’s on its own.

The end of the independent bookstore (and a new golden age for books)

August 13, 2013

ACT 1: The Book of the Month Club.

After World War II, a wealthier, better educated country started engaging in more culture, more often, in a more widespread way. We were more likely to watch the same movies, more likely to listen to more music, and much more likely to want to read the books others were reading. Paperback books really came into their own, making reading portable and cheap, and the Book of the Month Club began to dominate.

It’s difficult for us to imagine just how influential the board of the Club was. If they picked a book to be a main selection, it would be read, by default, by millions of people, discussed at the dinner table and at bridge club and instantly become part of the dominant culture.

This doesn’t have a lot to do with bookstores, except for the fact that as the Club faded due to the long tail of choice and the fracturing of the monoculture, the stores were there to pick up the slack.

ACT II: The magic of the dominant bestsellers.

Here’s the magic formula for a successful bookstore industry: Every month, a few new hardcover books are hand-sold, recommended by the local store. A few catch on and become bestsellers. Within its own cultural pocket, each book becomes a must-read, with the only source being the full-price local bookstore. The result? With a 40% profit margin and full return privileges, the local store can thrive. They don’t need to carry every book, just the books that sell. And in the early 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for a book to be a bestseller for a year or more.

ACT III: The New York Times bestseller list and Barnes and Noble end this magic moment

The insight was pretty clever—give up the juicy margins on the bestsellers and make up the profits in volume. Barnes and Noble had more inventory than just about any independent bookstore, but they needed traffic. So, they announced that if a book made the Times list, they’d sell it at 40% off (basically, at their cost).

This was a nuclear bomb for the independent seller. Suddenly, their core source of profit was in danger. Barnes and Noble was able to make juicy profits on the other stuff you’d buy in the store, and aided by the Times list, they bifurcated the market. Most people, most of the time, bought only the books on the bestseller list (the average American was buying and reading just a few books a year), but that’s okay if you’re the dominant player in a given town.

Harry Potter was the last gasp for many independents. They made that book happen, following their tried and true hand-selling approach. The word of mouth kicked in just as it was supposed to. With a profit margin of $6 or more on every book sold, the upside was nearly a hundred million dollars—but they got almost none of that, because Barnes & Noble (and the big box stores, which stole their strategy) sucked all the profit out of the bestsellers.

My mom used to run the independent bookstore she helped build at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. I met sales reps when they came to our house for dinner, and saw the workings of what we think of as the ideal bookstore. Even during the pre-Amazon days, this was never a good business–without bestsellers sold at full price (and how many art books become bestsellers) it’s almost impossible to sell enough volume to make a small bookstore work.

THE END: Amazon and infinite selection, better service, more information and better prices, too

If you love books, it’s hard to see Amazon as a villain. More books sold to more people for more reasons than any other retailer in history. More cross-selling, hand-selling and up-selling too. The web pages of Amazon, on average, are better informed than many bookstore clerks.

Before Amazon and the web, we were on track for the bestseller inventory to totally dominate bookselling. Wal-Mart and Price Club and B&N had figured out how to dump huge quantities of certain books at really low prices, and there was pressure to avoid the long tail, and to guard shelf space zealously. I was new to the book world then, and there was just huge pressure to be on the right side of the bestseller line–everything else didn’t matter. Amazon fixed this, by embracing the long tail and carrying everything. If you love books, Amazon was a dream come true.

But if you love bookstores, Amazon is the final nail. In fact, it was the clumping the Times enabled, combined with the discounting that B&N started that did the stores in, but Amazon’s work in getting more books to more people meant that the discounts and selection they brought to readers removed the last bit of opportunity the stores had left.

Great independent bookstores deserve to thrive, and I hope they will. But they won’t thrive as local substitutes for Amazon. They will make it if they become hubs, connectors and gift shops. The book-as-gift concept is just now entering an important stage, and we don’t have to dumb down our local store to get there. More important, though, is the idea of a local place where smart people go to meet each other and the ideas they care about. We shouldn’t have that because it’s the last chance of the local bookstore, we should have that because it’s worth doing.

Vilifying Amazon, though, makes no sense. More people can read and write more books today (ebook and print) than at any other time in history.

I miss the magic of the local bookstore, but I would miss books more.

Does Kickstarter work as a platform for books?

December 31, 2012

Those that have been following along have seen the Kickstarter posts I did herehere and here. Feel free to go catch up, I’ll wait…

THE THEORY: The hardest part of book publishing is getting the first 10,000 copies of a book read. After that, the book either resonates or it doesn’t. It’s talked about, handed from person to person, used as an example in a book group–or it’s not. Sure, you can add more hype, but at that point, you’re pushing water uphill. I’ve always focused on how my books do their second month on sale, not the first month. The first month is a testament to the author’s ability to self promote, which is far less interesting.

THE TACTIC: Kickstarter seems custom made to solve the 10,000 copy problem. The author with a tribe can reach out to her readers, activate them and make an offer: if enough of you agree to buy this book today, I’ll write it and send it to you just before a publisher puts it on sale…

Book publishers are smart enough to see the powerful marketing leverage that this creates. When the author has done the hard work of finding those readers in advance, the risk the publisher faces is significantly less. Sure, there’s the risk that the book itself might not be great, that the word might not spread beyond the first circle, but at least the first circle is secured. Most of what a publisher does (in terms of effort, cost and risk) is aimed at that first circle, after all.

IN PRACTICE: The Kickstarter platform is a bit of a nightmare for the independent author. I’m not sure I could find the intestinal fortitude to use it again. There are significant structural flaws in the way information is collected and used that virtually guarantee that 5% of the readers who use it will end up disappointed or need a lot of handholding. What should be consistent and coordinated ends up failing at both. And the cost of fulfillment and international shipping is high enough that it’s likely no money will be made (which is fine if the other elements fall into place).

The good news is that the enthusiasm and support that early adopters bring to the table is extraordinary. This is an untapped human need, and people (some people, anyway) really enjoy the role of patron and early supporter. Others, of course, magnify the impact of their investment and are hard to please, but I found that the vast majority of my readers fell into the first camp.

AND THE PUNCHLINE: The book goes on sale today. You can see the reviews that have been posted already–by readers who paid their money for the book months ago. And Barnes & Noble will be making the book easy to find, directly as a result of the fan base coordinated via Kickstarter.

But, it’s also clear that other books launched today without this pre-seeding are going to do far better in their early sales, because they are satisfying pent up demand, whereas my strategy exhausted pent up demand among those most likely to buy it instantly. And I think that’s a smart trade to make, or at least I hope it is.

I won’t be the last person to try this pre-coordination approach. I think it’s particularly attractive as we enter a digital-only world.

Voting for a winner

July 19, 2012

The single most fascinating Kickstarter stat is this:

The odds of succeeding with your campaign are ten times higher once you reach about half of your goal.

While this is somewhat self-fulfilling (only popular campaigns get that far anyway), it actually points to an irrational part of human nature: we don’t want to back a loser.

Irrational because it costs nothing to pledge to a campaign that doesn’t meet its goal, any more than it costs anything to vote for a political candidate who loses.

The cost isn’t money–the cost is heartbreak. Once you’ve committed, cognitive dissonance gets louder, and if a campaign ultimately doesn’t work, it hurts.

Two lessons:
1. It’s important to create inevitability around the projects you launch, wherever you launch them.
2. One way to appear inevitable is to set a lower minimum threshold for success. Setting a huge number feels bold and even macho, but it’s clear that your fans would prefer to pile on after you’ve reached your goal, not sweat or be begged to be sure you reach it in the first place.

When you focus on what’s being removed, it’s easier to understand the revolution

July 17, 2012

We remove shelf space as a limiting factor in books.

We remove the cost of polycarbonate as a cost factor in CDs.

We remove paper as an expense in magazines.

We remove the number of channels as a limiter in the broadcast of TV.

These are not small changes. These are revolutionary shifts in what’s scarce and what’s not.

If you are still organized around them, you will fail. If you embrace their removal, you’ve got a chance.

Confusing media with messages

July 13, 2012

Yesterday’s post about the halfway mark got a few responses from people who thought I was selling books short. “There has not ever been, nor will there ever be, a “halfway point” for cultural achievements,” one wrote.

Let me try again, with more detail.

We can probably all agree that more than half of the culturally important cookbooks printed on paper have already been printed. From the Joy of Cooking to Julia Child to The Thrill of the Grill, there are some essential cookbooks that have laid a foundation for most that followed. Now that the original cookbook market has been decimated by TV, by free recipes online and by the growth of the ios app, it’s hard for me to imagine the pile of cookbook titles that millions read and trust to dramatically increase in size.

Or, if you grew up with science fiction, we ought to be able to agree that Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Atwood, Lem, Zelazny, LeGuin, Doctorow and (early) Stephenson are quite a touchstone, and if we look at the future of all books on paper, it’s hard to imagine a new generation of science fiction books being as widely embraced as they were twenty or forty years ago.

I’m not arguing that Scalzi and Doctorow and others won’t write great books going forward. I’m pointing out that most of those books are going to be read on ereaders, and thanks to the shifting economics, few of them will reach as widespread an audience.

Forty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a typical bestseller to stay on the bestseller list for months or even years. Now, the typical book lasts for two weeks. More titles, more churn means less cultural achievement.

Consider what blogs did to the magazine article. Not long ago, a Time cover story was read by everyone you knew. Today, that attention has been replaced by 500 different blogs, and no one reads all of them.

The same thing already happened to pop music albums. We all used to listen to the same thing, now we don’t. We used to buy albums, now we don’t. Sure, there will be more music made my more musicians going forward than ever before. And much of it will be fabulous. But the chances that we’ll see mass phenomena like the Beatles or even Elton (times 100 because that’s how deep the hits bench was) are slim indeed.

I’m bullish on ideas, on innovation and on individuals who have something to say, saying it. But it’s clear to me and to many in the industry that we’re well past the halfway mark (given that we started 400 years ago) in terms of creating the essential library of touchstone cultural achievements that every single smart person has either read or is aware of.

And then what happens?

July 12, 2012

What happens when we reach the halfway point, when most of the great books have already been published?  Just as most of the great TV shows have probably already been made, and most of the great classical music recordings have already been recorded. Golden ages don’t last forever, and it’s entirely possible that we’ve reached that moment in the printed book world.

When that happens, the backlist becomes far more important than it already is. Instead of always being focused on ‘what’s new’, we may end up thinking about, ‘what haven’t I read yet?’

This feels like a significant opportunity, particularly when it comes to ebooks that are easy to keep in stock. There are books from decades ago that are no longer in print but easy to create digitally. What’s missing isn’t the mechanics, it’s the marketing and attention that is necessary to bring a great book to the attention of someone who would love to read it. It requires a cultural shift as well, one in which an author is happy to promote and discuss a book she wrote fifteen years ago instead of always being asked about the next one.

We’re just at the beginning of a rethinking of how we can help readers discover lost treasures of our written heritage.

The power of simultaneous action

July 5, 2012

In 1776, the USA was more than 40 days across. It took over a month to ride on a horse from one end to the other.

Today, it takes less than a second.

And yet just about all of our systems are built around the slow build, the slow transfer of information and the slow acceptance of an idea by the market.

When 10,000 people contact Congress on the same day, it’s a very big deal. When 1,000 people walk into a B&N and buy a book on the same day, it makes waves.

It takes preparation to coordinate this many people, sometimes many years. But once prepared, the percussive impact of that many coordinated footfalls is huge.

Kindle data progress four years later…

June 30, 2012

I’ve written a few posts about how I’d maximize the value of e-readers. Here’s the first and the second.

Four years later, one of the things I’ve been agitating for–using the knowledge of how much time people spend reading a book and how many finish it–is starting to become real. Phil found this article in the WSJ.

Wouldn’t it be great if you knew what percentage of people who bought a book, finished it?

Also interesting: my theory about non-fiction books is validated. When they’re electronic, people vastly prefer short ones. I think holding the book in your hand gives you one measure of value (heavy!) while reading a short one electronically gives you the satisfaction of knowing you finished it.

Watching the price of media fall

June 24, 2012

I did a show at the NBC headquarters in NY a few weeks ago. I’m guessing that it costs them about $6,000 a minute to make a news show in the studio. That counts the painters, the set guys, the three camera operators and their assistants, the lighting guys, the producer, the executive producer, the on air talent, the make up people, etc. etc. all working from some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Cable shows cost less. Some are estimating a reality show might cost $4000 a minute by the time it gets on the air.

And now online shows are being made by people like Demand Media for the cost of about $2000 a minute.

Video podcasts and professional YouTube stuff is down to, I’m guessing here, less than $500 a minute.

What happens to the market leaders when there’s no restriction on what gets “on the air” and when the competitors have a cost basis that’s 10% of yours?

The same thing just happened to books. A New York City publisher probably needs $2000 a page to acquire, edit, typeset, print and distribute a book (making up a number from thin air). A self-published ebook author needs $1 a page.

That’s not a cost-efficiency. That’s a totally different industry. But the if the viewer/reader doesn’t treat the two products as fundamentally different, if reading or watching one is a replacement for the other, then a crisis is right around the corner.

Author’s wishlist for Kickstarter

June 23, 2012

Having had a ball using Kickstarter, I couldn’t help but notice ways I’d like to improve it. Here are my top tweaks:

  • 1. Allow backers to get more than one reward. Right now, you need to open two accounts to fund two rewards. This is silly and helps no one.
  • 2. Allow organizers to load balance after the project launches. If there are 250 things in this reward and 100 in that one and the first is close to selling out, let me move some of them around. Again, it hurts no one and just makes sense.
  • 3. Allow creators to end a campaign early. If it’s doing really poorly (or doing really well) and you’ve learned your lesson or made your point, what’s the harm in saying, “okay, we’re done here”? In my case, since I limited the rewards, that’s sort of happening automatically.
  • 4. Allow the organizer to decide which metric will be most prominently displayed. It might be audience members found, profit made, revenue (which is the key number now) or even units to be distributed. People maximize the most popular metrics, so picking what’s focused on matters a lot.
  • 5. Don’t require that the rewards be listed in ascending financial order. Let the organizer list them in priority order instead, from best first…
  • 6. Offer a simple way to mark items where international shipping will cost extra, and have it automatically added based on the location of the backer.
  • 7. Make it easy for an organizer to show one page to a new visitor and a different page to a return visitor. This is easy technically and totally worth it for a platform like this.
  • 8. [updated a few months later with even more serious concerns] The fact that there’s no way to easily handle overseas shipping charges is an urgent pitfall that anyone who offers this service ought to be aware of (#6). In order to offer everyone a consistent deal on my Kickstarter, I ended up investing $100,000 in unrecouped shipping costs.
  • 9. The survey process is truly broken. With multiple levels, if someone submits survey data later than you expect, you have to redownload every single level in order to get the latest data. In addition, there’s no cutoff, ever, into the next millenium.
  • 10. Messaging is untrackable and unverifiable. For larger campaigns, this, combined with #9 can be logistically overwhelming.

Why (some) Kickstarter campaigns fail

June 20, 2012

Kickstarter campaigns fail when the tribe of people who believe in the idea is too small

It’s worth taking a moment to parse that out–it will help you understand how the whole thing works and where some campaigns fail. You either need more belief or a bigger/louder/more influential tribe.

Kickstarter appears to be a great way to find fans for your work. You put up a great video clip and a story and wait for people who will love it to find you.

But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people who ALREADY have a tribe, like Amanda Palmer, use Kickstarter to organize and activate that tribe. Kickstarter is the last step, not the first one.

There are some outliers that are clever and lucky enough to go viral among strangers, but out of the huge number of projects posted (increasing all the time) this is as likely as writing a blog post that gets you on the front page of Hacker News.

Kevin Kelly has a loyal following of true fans, so when he launches a Kickstarter on a topic that’s outside of his known sweet spot, it still gets off to a good start.

The second part of the sentence is the word “believe.” In Kevin’s case, the abundant free samples dramatically increase the chances that people will not be skeptical about what’s on offer. But even more important is the sense that it’s going to work… The now obvious fact about Kickstarter campaigns is that if you get to 60% of the goal, it’s almost certainly going to get to 100% and probably beyond. People don’t want to back a campaign that’s not going to work, even if it costs them nothing to do so.

Stop for a second and consider that. Kickstarter was founded to make it possible for artists of every kind to find people who would take a chance on something that might not work. It has quickly become a site where fans of the arts and innovative items can buy things that will work.

This is irrational, because you get just as much joy in the moment from backing a project that ultimately doesn’t work, plus you get to keep your money and do it again for a different project tomorrow. But humans aren’t rational creatures.

In the case of the jellyfish tank and the Pebble watch (and to a lesser extent, Amanda’s record) we see that Kickstarter actually hits its sweet spot AFTER the minimum is met and success is assured. In those cases, people aren’t using Kickstarter to fund a project, they’re using it to shop for products that are certain to ship and that are already popular.

One way to think about this: some rewards are clearly worth less than what they cost, making up the difference with the psychic satisfaction of being a backer. But the popular rewards in most kickstarters are worth more than what they cost, giving the backer the discount that comes from having a direct and inexpensive marketing vehicle at work.

This isn’t what the founders set out to do, but it’s what the market has clearly said they want. If you give your tribe something to believe in as well as a reward that’s easy to talk about, you’ve done two things right.

To summarize this part of this short series: Build your tribe before you need it, give the tribe something that they want, and make it easy for them to believe it’s actually going to work. Kickstarter looks like a shortcut. It’s not. It’s a maximizer.

Kickstarter, strangers and friends

June 18, 2012

My first Kickstarter project launches today, and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at projects, working with people who have built successful (and unsuccessful) campaigns and thinking about how it works.

Like every successful internet platform before it (blogs, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.) first-time users believe that it will magically help them find new followers, new customers and new friends.

Stranger identification and conversion. (sic). It almost deserves its own acronym.

Alas, with the rare and celebrated individual exceptions, none of these platforms magically and regularly turn the unknown author into a sensation.

If my Kickstarter works it will be for a simple reason: people like you, people who already know my work, will either sign up or tell their friends or both. It seems like cheating, but it’s more like a long-term shortcut. The best way for an author to use the internet is to slowly build a following. Difficult, time-consuming and effective.

I’m not even sure there’s a useful plan B.

More on the economics of the self-published book

June 13, 2012

For books under $20 (which means just about all ebooks), all that matters is volume. Not margin, but volume.

A book in the hand of a reader is far more likely to lead to another book sold. Bestsellers become bestsellers largely because lots of other people are already reading them. I know that sounds silly and self-referential, but it reflects the social nature of books. We like to read what others are reading.

So, if you sacrifice half your volume so you can make twice as much on every copy sold, you’ve done nothing smart.

Second, for more and more authors, the book is a calling card. It leads to a movie deal or a speaking gig, or another book contract, or consulting, or respect, or a better class of cocktail party. Which means that the true margin on each book is more of these external benefits, not the dollar or three made on each copy.

Yes, you can make a living writing books. But you either need to write a lot of them (Asimov wrote 400) or sell a bunch of each title. Even better–make a margin on each book that has nothing to do with the selling price. The price of the book and the profit margin made on each book are secondary to this goal of making a dent in the conversation among your chosen audience.

Self publishers begin to explore the business out loud

June 12, 2012

One of the things that’s happening in 2012 is that self-publishing of books is no longer a quirky outsider effort, but instead more and more often being seen as smart alternative to getting picked by the mainstream houses.

Andrew Hyde goes into great detail of the revenue stream of his self-published book. There are ton of question marks about the best method to go to the reader, and as those settle down, we’ll see more discussions like this one.

It reminds me of the way people talked about building their own websites in 1998.

Does curation work for publishers?

June 7, 2012

One mantra heard often is, “in a world with a million ebooks, readers need curators.”

Of course, traditional publishers are good at curation, because traditional books are expensive to publish, so they had to be picky, merely as a method of self preservation.

That pickiness leads to widespread rejection of books like A Confederacy of Dunces and Harry Potter, but let’s set that aside for a moment.

The challenge of curation by an individual publisher is this: readers have no idea who publishes what books.

If the marketplace is wide open, an infinite, endless bazaar that anyone can access, the game theory behind an individual publisher voluntarily publishing fewer books is pretty hard to see. If the readers don’t understand where the books are coming from, one organization (or even thirty) holding back isn’t going to have any impact at all.

No, the only way to make curation work is to have it in place alongside permission. If the publisher has direct contact with the reader, THEN she can build trust, build brand, build identity and be rewarded for her curative (curationitive?) powers. Once you associate a publisher with quality choices, then (and only then), the curation pays off.

One more reason why publishers have to urgently build a permission asset of readers who actually want to hear from them.


June 6, 2012

I apologize.

Earlier today, I posted a short remembrance of a hero of mine, a colleague, Ray Bradbury.

When I heard about Ray’s death at 91, I had just spent three hours listening to the self-published audio edition of a new book by another hero (and colleague), Steve Pressfield. The juxtaposition of Steve’s message with Ray’s passing really resonated with me, hence the post. I know that Ray lived by the words that Steve was speaking to me.

In this era in which everyone is trying to sell something online, some people read it as if I was shilling at a funeral. I couldn’t imagine doing something like that, and if even one person read it that way, I was clearly careless in my writing. I’ll work harder to make my intentions more clear.

We’ll miss you, Ray.

Ray Bradbury and me

June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury passed away today.

What a good life he had.

In 1985, I was lucky enough to work with Ray and with Byron Preiss to bring Fahrenheit 451 to the PC and Commodore 64 as an adventure game.  What struck me about the man was his professionalism. He was as far from a diva as a famous writer could be, and it was clear that he had made the decision to do his work, and do it as well and as joyfully as he was able.

What a perfect way to talk about Steve Pressfield’s new book, Turning Pro, which launches today. I’m not sure if Ray knew Steve, but I know that they would have liked each other.

I also know that you will be moved by Steve’s new book. If you create anything at all for a living (and more important, if you don’t–yet), then this one is a must read. I spent the morning listening to it on my headphones.

Thank you Ray, for writing books instead of burning them. And thank you, Steve, for teaching the rest of us how to do that.

Writing for strangers…

June 3, 2012

is different than writing for friends.

A blog post for strangers needs a title like, “11 proven ways to improve productivity,” while a blog that is aimed at subscribers and long-time readers could be titled, “Try this!”

Same goes for novels and other sorts of books.

The novelist with regular readers doesn’t have to reintroduce each character anew each time. The business book writer can ignore his editor who clamors for complete clarity on every page, and actually engage the audience as patient, thinking humans instead.

Going forward, it’s difficult to imagine much scale in the stranger end of the business.

Which means you better hurry up and make a lot of friends.

Home delivery

May 29, 2012

At 5 am this morning, a stranger drove up to my house, got out of his car and walked up to my front door.

Something that happens nearly every day.

This is the insane last step in the almost crazy notion of the home-delivered newspaper.

Hundreds of reporters and editors and then thousands working in paper production, then printing, then trucking, then distribution to the guy in the car and then he drives it to my house before the sun rises. Even if I’m out of town and it just sits there until I get home, even though by then it’s even older than it was when he dropped it off.

Why bother with all of this? Because there’s a HUGE upside in the relationship between a publisher and a reader. The paper has power because it doesn’t need readers for its writers, it has power because it seeks writers (and news) for its readers.

And there lies the future of the book business. Digital home delivery. It’s the best (and only) alternative. Writing for people who can’t wait to read what you write next. And amazingly, you get to deliver it for free, without waking up when it’s dark out.

If you’re intent on trolling through millions of strangers to find a few willing to buy from you, sight unseen, you’ve got a very long road ahead.

The future of the cover

May 24, 2012

Great essay by Craig Mod on how ebooks change the role of the cover.

The divergence between the homemade covers that indicate the junkiness of what’s inside by being junky on the outside, and the handcrafted covers that communicate care and taste in an iconic way continues to get wider and wider.

Amazon bans junk ebooks

May 23, 2012

Just got a note from them highlighting this rule:

Some types of content, such as public domain content, may be free to use by anyone, or may be licensed for use by more than one party. We will not accept content that is freely available on the web unless you are the copyright owner of that content. For example, if you received your book content from a source that allows you and others to re-distribute it, and the content is freely available on the web, we will not accept it for sale on the Kindle store. We do accept public domain content, however we may choose to not sell a public domain book if its content is undifferentiated or barely differentiated from one or more other books.

With a wide-open, long tail platform, this is going to be very tough to enforce, but they’re right–having someone selling 10,000 books each computer generated and each based on Wikipedia content wasn’t good for anyone.

As we approach a million books published a year (I think it’s likely to happen in 2012), curation gets ever more important.

Using ebooks to promote ebooks

May 21, 2012

It sounds like an infinite loop, but it’s actually quite smart.

The people most likely to buy an ebook are people who are already reading them, and unlike blads, galleys and other printed samples, the cost of producing one more copy of a sample is precisely zero.

Some authors have had success promoting new books by publishing a chapter or two (that was the idea behind changethis, years ago), but Michael Cader is taking it to a new level by including samples (sometimes substantial ones) for dozens of new upcoming famous-author books in one free ebook. You can get your copy here.

I think this is going to be a standard part of big book promo going forward. It’s an inexpensive way to reach precisely the right audience.

Book content as a solo endeavor

May 14, 2012

Some would argue that books need to evolve into apps or other forms of multimedia–that books won’t be appreciated by large numbers of people until appreciating a book ceases to involve reading it.

While this may be an accurate discussion of the public’s habits (far more people saw the Hunger Games than read it), it ignores the key part of the production question: books work as an art form (and an economic one) because they are primarily the work of an individual.

One person with time but no money can produce a first draft that is substantially similar to what the public will end up reading.

It doesn’t matter that the technology permits animation and color pictures and hypertext and javascript. Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s feasible.

When we turn the book into the work of a committee, one that costs a million dollars to create and months or years of pre-pub review and planning, the medium ceases to function. The long tail doesn’t work–because it’s impossible to create such a huge variety if each one costs that much. And the very notion of surprising, outlying ideas can’t survive the committees that those AV books would have to go through.

For a long time, we’ve seen popular books turned into other sorts of media, and that’s going to accelerate. But the core driver of the book business is going to remain lone (and lonely) authors bringing their ideas to a small segment that cares.

It’s nice to be nominated

May 13, 2012

No, actually, not so much.

About 20 years ago a film/VHS project I produced was nominated for a prestigious American Film Institute Award. I know it was prestigious because they told me it was, and because a lot of celebrities were going to be at the gala.

I got my tux, used money I didn’t have to fly to LA and attended the big event. We were up against Shari Lewis and her sock puppets for best game/children’s video.

I was sure that winning would change the sales trajectory for the video (Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up!) and I was sure we were going to win. After all, we were up against a sock puppet.

We lost.

I can assure you that being nominated was worse than not being nominated.

All a very long windup to tell you that in the last two weeks, the Domino Project won two significant awards.

The Thomas A. Edison Marketing Award, Gold.


The Eric Hoffer Award, first prize, for Culture.

Edison and Hoffer were two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. I will make no representations as to the impact on sales, but it’s nice for my team to be recognized. And congratulations to Michael Bungay Stanier for the win. Thanks, guys.

The real threat to (big time) book publishing

May 10, 2012

The people who run the big publishing houses feel threatened by Amazon and by ebooks and by pricing and by the death of chain bookstores, not to mention the Justice Department.

All of these are contributors to the future, but they cloud the core issue.

The narrative of their fear is that book publishing will be just like it is now, but with lower prices and just one or two stores.

This is the classic outcome of the Innovator’s Dilemma. If you care about the strategic decisions publishers are going to have to make, this one is a must read.

Clayton famously tells the story of steel mini mills, which were disrespected producers of cheap rebar. They took scrap steel, processed it a bit and sold cheap with low margins. The integrated steel mills, justifiably proud of what they’d created and focused on increasing their profit margins, happily let the mini mills take this market. Who wants it?

You know what happened. It happens to just about every industry, from hard drives to furniture—the insurgents, coming up from the bottom of the market, had an incentive to refine their techniques, engage with their customers and innovate. The incumbents, saddled with much higher costs and less innovation, watched themselves go bankrupt, one by one.

In the book case, the disruptive innovation isn’t a huge retailer or even lower prices, the disruptive innovation is the long tail of boundless inventory. Scarcity of selection combined with scarcity due to the marginal cost of each unit have disappeared.

Every single day, hundreds of millions of people read something that the big book publishers and the big magazine publishers didn’t publish. This is astonishing–just 30 years ago, if you read something that wasn’t a newspaper, it was probably published by someone like Time Inc or Simon & Schuster. It was a scarce object, one that you paid for and probably went to a special place to get.

Today, of course, that special place is your laptop or your tablet. And you’re reading blogs (like this one) or tweets or updates or rants or pdfs or ebooks that were never vetted or curated or approved or processed by one of these legacy intermediaries.

The big guys turn up their noses at this content. They don’t give a Pulitzer for independent bloggers. The Times bestseller list tries hard not to count self-published ebooks. The discussions at industry cocktail parties have almost nothing to do with what masses of people (rebar!) are reading all day.

And now the market is moving up a notch, from blogs to ebooks. Suddenly, self-published ebooks are taking more and more time off the table, more and more money from the pockets of readers. And none of that is vetted or curated or approved or processed by one of these legacy intermediaries.

Will there be new curators? No doubt. New idea vcs who pay advances to authors with enough of a following to justify them? Yes. The question is: will it be the big companies in New York?

Instead of working hard to keep their share of a shrinking pie, or working even harder to make sure the industry stays as is, I think the most essential thing legacy book industry players can do is set up independent ventures with great people and little interference and work really hard to put themselves out of business by starting at the bottom, not by reinforcing the top.

Powerful (and powerless) merchants

May 7, 2012

The following things are so commonplace that they are almost beyond noticing:

A visit to Costco turns up quite a few items produced by a brand called “Kirkland,” which is owned, naturally, by Costco.

Checking out of Barnes and Noble in many large cities and you’re likely to see the Zagat’s restaurant guide near the cash register. Zagat pays a fee for this. Not to mention the huge stacks of books in the window and near the door–that costs the publishers.

The endcap at your local supermarket features a deal from Pepsi or Coke, but never both at the same time. And the deal is paid for by the soda company. Slotting allowances generate millions of dollars a year in revenue.

These merchants have the power to increase sales of a given item (sometimes by 100% or more) and they’re not afraid to use it and to sell it.

When we shop in the real world, we take it for granted that end caps and promotions and speed tables and other interactions will not be there because they are in the direct interest of us the shopper, but because they were placed there by the retailer to help generate income. It’s a store, for goodness sake, of course they’re trying to maximize their income.

So that speed table near the checkout that’s covered with Maybelline eye-liner–it’s not there because it maximizes our shopping enjoyment, it’s there because someone got paid to put it there. We’ve been trained to respond to promotions with our attention and our dollars.

Online, where stores are more like tools than like stores, this behavior rarely transfers successfully. You bristle when Twitter starts inserting irrelevant tweets in the stream you see, because you didn’t ask for them.

Online merchants have done an extraordinary job of honestly presenting relevant information and drawing a bright line between editorial and merchandising. Which means that they’ve given up a huge amount of power. Since online merchants can’t make a particular item sell, they have far less leverage. They make up for it by selling everything, indifferent to which item you choose. In short, they’ve traded their power to you, the customer, in exchange for volume.

There’s no comparison between the way Macy’s makes a profit merchandising shoes at the store and the way Zappo’s promotes shoes online. Online merchants have learned the hard way that they must take an obsessive user-first approach. This is the secret of the longtail online merchants, including eBay, Amazon, bn.com and others: they don’t care what you buy, as long as you buy something.

This isn’t a bad thing, and for most shoppers, it’s actually welcome.

Which leads to the conundrum facing Amazon as they become a publisher. It’s hard to make a particular book a hit online using traditional merchandising tools, which means that authors (whether they’re published by Harper, S&S or Amazon) have to come to the conclusion that it’s up to them (and their readers) to make books sell, because the online merchants have voluntarily ceded that power. The merchant doesn’t pick the winners any longer. (See #3 on this list).

Publishers have been nervous about moving from a powerful merchant that they know and understand and can motivate with cash to a set of online merchants where it appears that a bunch of power is up for grabs–they want their share. In fact, the move is to the long tail universe where the power isn’t with the merchant, it’s with individuals and their tribes.

PS Since it’s up to me and Sarah to tell you about it, please don’t forget to buy a copy of Sarah’s bestselling book for Mother’s day. Thanks.

Brick by brick–building a digital platform right

May 1, 2012

Amanda Palmer (leaving out her middle name, which is a story for another day) didn’t used to be a superstar.

She is now.

Her Kickstarter project is instantly oversubscribed. Her concerts sell out, wherever she goes in the world, and she goes everywhere.

Her Twitter account has more than half a million followers.

Classic overnight success. Of course, it isn’t that at all. Just a few years ago, Amanda was posing as a statue in Harvard Square, collecting dollars and quarters on the street.

And a few years after that she was building her fan base, one listener at a time, one CD burned for one fan and then another CD burned for another fan.

Amanda is a wonderful character, a warm and optimistic friend and a killer ukelele player. But that’s not her secret.

Amanda is an impresario in service of her art. She understands that her job is to earn the permission of her audience, to make them big promises and then to keep them. She’s aware that she needs to put on a show, and she does. And most of all, she doesn’t merely sell to her audience, she leads them and connects them. Amanda F. Palmer is a touchstone, the center of the circle, a living, breathing experiment in audacity, in challenging the status quo and in having a good time while she does it.

The most amazing thing about this path is that it’s open to just about anyone willing to put in the extraordinary sweat and tears it takes to be this powerful and this remarkable.

Tracts, manifestos and books

April 30, 2012

Has a non-fiction book ever changed your mind?

For me, it has happened literally dozens of times. Books have changed the way I think about sales, evolution, marketing, governance, interpersonal relationships, mindfulness, the invention of the Western world, government power and more.

Next question:

How far into the book did you get before your mind was changed?

Not a facetious question. I’m serious. The Communist Manifesto is 80 pages long. Certainly long enough to make an impact.

It has never taken me beyond a hundred pages to be persuaded. Sure, there are times when the pages after page 100 help me pile on, give me more depth and understanding. But a hundred (and usually fifty) is enough to get under my skin.

On the other hand, a tweet has never once changed my mind about anything.

Writing a tract that works is significantly more difficult than writing a long book filled with defensible facts and stories, which I think is one reason why authors do the latter so often. And when we finish a tract unconvinced of the author’s point of view, our instinct is to point out that it just wasn’t long enough! (In fact, that’s rarely the problem–the problem is that it wasn’t good enough, not that it was too short.)

What if the great authors of our time were challenged to rewrite their favorite works? Let them ignore the price, ignore the bookstore and merely focus obsessively on arguing their point… imagine how powerful those arguments would be.

I think ebooks bring us to a new golden age of polemics, tracts and non-fiction short works that will actually change things. Without the pressure from an editor trying to justify a $29 price point, the author can go ahead and do the work she’s meant to do: Change our minds, not kill as many trees as possible.

If we accomplished one thing with the list of twelve books at the Domino Project, this is what I was hoping to achieve: We made the world safe for manifestos. Every one of our books has changed (at least a few of) the people who experienced them.

They’re not longer because we took the time and effort to make them short. That’s what I want to read next–another short book that will change the way I think.

(animation below courtesy of Hugh Macleod–click to make it dance.)

A simple challenge to publishers: books for Ghana

April 27, 2012

Laura Hazard Owen has a good overview of what’s going on with Worldreader. Give a kid a Kindle and lives are changed. Not just in Ghana but in Kenya and Uganda as well.

One of their costs is buying the ebooks that go on the Kindles they’re giving to students.


Tell me again why a publisher in the privileged world is charging Worldreader for these books… the incremental cost is zero, and the opportunity cost is vanishingly small. What a great opportunity to seed the market, to encourage literacy at no cost to the publishers and to bring education and books to places where they are scarce. What happens to book publishing and to the authors involved if a million or ten million kids grow up reading their books? (Not to mention the impact on the kids and our world…)

I’ve pledged all twelve titles from the Domino Project–if Worldreader pre-loads them, we’re honored to have them on the device.

Now the real question: what publishers are going to step up and say yes with their entire catalog? If you’re an author, ask your publisher. And if you’re a publisher (even a big New York City one–especially a big New York City one) then this is a great chance to say yes, go!

More info is right here.

Piracy? You wish.

April 26, 2012

Publishers are spending a lot of time debating DRM on ebooks. Many of the powers that be are worried about piracy, they say, and they are resolute in making sure that there are locks on the books they publish.

There are countless interesting conversations on whether this helps Amazon with lock in (you can’t move your books around, so you’re stuck) and whether it hurts sales, etc. Not to mention whether the locks themselves even work the way they are intended to (they don’t.)

For me, though, the interesting notion is of book piracy itself.

How many more people would prefer a hard drive full of 10,000 songs to one with 10,000 books on it? We’re hungry for one and sort of unaware altogether of the possibility of the other. What would you even do with 10,000 books?

Software is pirated because in just a few minutes, the user saves a hundred or a thousand dollars, and feels okay about it because software seems unreasonably expensive to some (Photoshop costs about 10 times as much as Acorn). It’s theft of intellectual property, but a tempting one.

Music is pirated because many people have an insatiable urge to listen to music, all the time, preferably with unlimited variety. And radio taught us that music to be listened to doesn’t cost money.

But books?

Books are free at the library but there’s no line out the door. Books are free to read in comfortable couches at Barnes & Noble but there aren’t teeming crowds sitting around reading all day.

Books take a long time to read, require a significant commitment, and they’re relatively cheap. And most people don’t read for fun. Most of the inputs necessary for a vibrant piracy community are missing.

As Tim O’Reilly famously said, books don’t have a piracy problem. They have an obscurity problem. I have never met an author who didn’t wish that more people would read her book. Never one. On the other hand, Peter Gabriel and the rest of rock royalty rarely feel the same pangs. “What do you mean you’ve never heard Moondance?” I just can’t visualize Van Morrison saying that…

I’ve written several free ebooks (here’s one) and even when I want unlimited piracy, it doesn’t happen.

Book publishers are crippling their marketing efforts because they’re worried that 1% of their titles will be overshared. They have nightmares about classrooms of kids reading one copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, or entire divisions of companies reading a single copy of a $29 hardcover.

But the short head of the book market isn’t the future–it’s the long tail. And in the long tail world, overcoming obscurity is the single biggest hurdle. If only piracy was a problem…

The legacy of a book

April 25, 2012

So far, End Malaria has raised $300,000.00 in donations for Malaria No More, a leader in the fight against this preventible disease.

Sometimes, ideas in digital form come and go, they slip through the ether and leave no trail.

A book on paper, though, can become a force to be reckoned with. Shipping all those molecules around is expensive, of course, but the money makes an impact, and the book itself takes up space, demanding to be noticed.

62 authors contributed their insights and their guts to this anthology. It’s provoked new ideas, started conversations and saved the lives of countless kids. All because editor Michael Bungay Stanier stood up, and people listened.

I won’t ask again after today, but if you get a chance, we’d all appreciate it if you’d buy a copy or two or ten. Worth more than it costs.

[please share this post]

Self published

April 20, 2012

Ben Franklin

Ezra Pound

Emily Dickinson

Marcel Proust

Dave Eggers

Thomas Paine

Jane Austen

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Walt Whitman

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Stephen Crane

Nikki Giovanni

Virginia Woolf

The question isn’t whether or not you should wait to be picked, the question is whether you care enough to pick yourself.

The biggest problem facing book publishing

April 15, 2012

…has nothing to do with the Justice Department or agency pricing.

No, the challenge the big book publishers are facing is that a perfect industry is being replaced by one filled with chaos and opportunity.


Limited shelf space plus limited competitors plus well-understood cost of creation and production meant that stability reigned. The industry was polished and understood.

For three hundred years or so, book publishing had nothing in common with technology businesses where the underlying economics of the business were questioned regularly. That meant that just about all of the creative energy in the business went into finding new content, not new business models.

Yesterday, I wrote about a short film online called Caine’s Arcade. It’s worth noting that more people have spent ten minutes watching this film in the last week than have read all but a handful of books over the same period of time. And even more profoundly, that this short film has raised almost $200,000 for the star’s college fund without really trying.

Conceptually, this is a book.

Of course there’s no paper and there’s no store and there’s no sale. Which is why people in the book industry won’t see it as a book. That’s because they grew up in an industry that never worried about technology changing what they do or how they do it.

[As I read this, I’m worried that some may think I meant that Caine’s Arcade ought to be turned into a book, written down and printed. Yikes. No, I meant that the act of finding Caine, of investing in a short film, of bringing that idea to the public–it’s stuff like that that publishers are actually quite good at–the format and the economics will change, but the risky act of bringing ideas to the public is what publishers do.]

Revolutions enable the impossible at the same time they destroy the perfect. There’s entirely too much handwringing about how the perfect book industry is no more. That’s true. It’s no longer perfect. What’s happening now, though, is the impossible.

If the companies (and the people who work for them) are going to be in this business just five years from now, they will only thrive if they understand that an entirely new business model will have to be built and understood. And it will have nothing whatsoever to do with paper. It will be about ideas.

Which is what book publishing was supposed to be about all along, right?

Books have characters

April 4, 2012

And the book business has them too. Brilliant, compelling, motivated and remarkable ones.

An error occurred.

Try watching this video on www.youtube.com, or enable JavaScript if it is disabled in your browser.

One of my dreams was to have Chip do a book cover for me, and perhaps one day he will. All I know is that the time I spent talking with him in February was energizing and reminded me that yes, we will lose something when we turn dead trees into emotionless bits.

Bring on the kiddie dentists!

April 2, 2012

Tom Robbins, ranting in the Times, conflates the difficulty of making a living with the challenge of doing the writing:

“What’s next…kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists?  Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional.”


This is nonsense on two levels. First, writing fiction is significantly easier than leading part of the Apollo mission (can we accept that as a given?). Second, and more important, it’s free! No gums are damaged, no thumbs are hammered, no shuttles are launched.

The author of the piece makes a common reporter’s mistake, associating the cost of paper with the cost of a book. Today, a teenager can self-publish an ebook in five minutes, for free, and I hope she will.

The single best thing to happen to the future of book publishing is the fact that young people who believe that they have something to say now have a chance to say it. Some of them will persist, and a whole generation of writers will be born. Dentists, we don’t need so much. Writers? Yes.

Books and publishing are two different things

March 29, 2012

This fabulous journal by Craig Mod talks about his creation of a product (as part of a team) and the chronicle of that journey in a book.

The book will never be published in the sense that publishing is a risk-taking business venture that involves a sale. But the magic of its bookness still matters.

If we can have books without publishing, we can also have publishing without books.

The null set

March 26, 2012

Ask a friend with a tablet (iPad or Fire) to show you her bookshelf.

More and more, you’ll see nothing. Emptiness.

When we juxtapose an ebook with a movie, Instagram or pigs that attack turtles, the ebook often loses.

One of the very real truths of our culture is being hidden in the dramatic shift from paper to ebook–lots of people are moving from paper to ‘no ebook’. For now, this is being concealed by the superreaders, ebook readers who are on a binge and buying more books than ever before.

If you’re a fan of reading or publishing, though, the real truth is sad. At $15 or $20 for an ebook, lots of people aren’t developing the online reading habit, and the industry is going to pay dearly for that in the decade to come.

My best suggestion: Every device shipped ought to come with a dozen entertaining bestsellers already on it, for free. Not all authors are open to subsidizing this seeding, but I sure am. Add five million or ten million readers to an author’s fan base and she’ll have no trouble at all making back the lost royalties, and publishers will soon discover that habits formed early last a long time.

What is Bach worth?

March 22, 2012

Well, today and tomorrow, about 99 cents for 9 hours worth of music (download link). (US only, I’m told… sorry).

Enough of a bargain to make it the top selling album on Amazon.

Is that all the genius is worth? Of course not. Once again, it’s an issue of substitutes. If you want Bach, you have lots of choices. If you want classical music in general, more choices still. And compared to everything else you can do, even more choices.

In order to get you to choose this one, this recording, the producers used the insane price to induce you to make the click.

The digital age increases our choices, relentlessly.

Demolishing the argument that abundance causes scarcity

March 19, 2012

The only public policy argument that can be made in favor of draconian opposition to fair use sharing of work online is that if too many people share it, more won’t be created.

Copyright is part of the US Constitution NOT because the founders were trying to make Ira Gershwin’s great grandchildren happy, but because they believed the entire community would benefit if authors of creative works benefited.

Go check out gimmeshiny.com. One stunning photo after another. Or consider the new WordPress plug in for the brilliant Compfight tool, which makes it easy to find and use Creative Commons photos in your blog posts.

Or take a look at all the previously unknown artists fighting to give away their music on YouTube.

Or the countless free or nearly free ebooks on the Kindle.

Is there a shortage? I think it’s trivial to show that more interesting photos are being taken and published by more photographers than ever before.

And probably more interesting music is being made as well.

Sure, there’s more junk than ever before, because without a curating filter, the obvious junk gets through. But you know what? In addition to junk, that conservative curator also kept us from seeing and hearing things that today we are amazed and delighted by.

Once we start running out of photos or music or writing or poems, then yes, please alert the authorities! Until then, the facts speak for themselves–sharing fair use ideas (and making it easy for authors and musicians to share) increases the quantity and interestingness of what’s out there.

It might not be fun for those that have committed to making a living at this, but that only pushes us to find new ways to monetize our passion. And back to my point: making it fun for those in the field isn’t the point. The point is creating a useful and interesting flow of creative works. And that’s precisely what’s happening.

Will you miss the encyclopedia?

March 14, 2012

Britannica has announced what we all knew was coming: the print version is no more.

And they continue to proclaim that the digital version is far better than the free alternative.

Consider this entry on Rick Santorum (free this week only), and compare it to this one from Wikipedia.

The first is out of date, sure, but it also seeks to end the quest for information. The Wikipedia entry, on the other hand, starts the quest. There are more than a hundred outbound links on the page, all designed to help the student explore and discover.

Does it hold together? Can you follow one link to another to another and understand a coherent story about the person you’re researching? If not, what’s not right about it?

Are there hacks and mistakes and sock puppet issues in Wikipedia? No doubt about it. If you have a few hours to waste, read some of the Talk pages, like this one on paella. But since Wikipedia has never taken the position that it represents the end of the discussion, that’s not really a failing.

[Also interesting to note that the completeness we expect from Wikipedia is totally lacking in EB, which really grates. Entries like Boingboing and well-known authors are completely absent.]

Should there be truth? I hope so. I hope that we can find facts that are facts, things that aren’t open to he said/she said debate. It’s not clear to me, though, in a fast-moving digital world, that the way to attain this level of certainty is to write it down in a book. What Wikipedia represents is the digital artifact of an activity, not a thing unto itself. This notion of opening doors is at the heart of what I’m arguing for in Stop Stealing Dreams. We’re only going to honor our students when we push them to explore further, not to settle for what anyone (including an editor at an un-updated encyclopedia) tells them is the one and only answer.

When talking about your work is the same as your work

March 12, 2012

Movies are a special case. When Tom Cruise goes on Oprah to promote a movie, the interview is of course no substitute for the movie. Even the coming attraction for a movie isn’t usually a replacement for the movie (except for stuff like Cowboys and Aliens…)

On the radio, pop music had this debate fifty years ago. Is listening to a pop song on WPLJ over and over going to be a substitute for buying the single or the album? For forty years or so, the answer was no. Radio time led directly to sales. Why? Ownership. Control. If you own the album you can show your friends you own it and you can listen whenever you like.

For literature and complex non-fiction, the situation was the same. Going on a talk show or writing an op-ed piece or giving a lecture wasn’t anything like a substitute because the experience of reading a book is very different from watching a TED talk or hearing about how difficult it was to get out of rehab long enough to write the thing.

But something fundamental is changing in the economics of attention: the cost of delivering the thing itself digitally is getting so cheap that there isn’t really a bright line between exposing the work and delivering the work.

It turns out that the best way to promote your song is to give your song away. The best way to promote your ebook is to give your ebook away. The best way to get people to watch your thirty minute viral video is to give the video away. The whole thing.

No right?

Does that mean that authors and musicians and directors have no right to make a living? Of course that’s not true. We need artists to make a living and I want them to. I think, though, that it’s a mistake to confuse ‘a right’ to do something with the concept of a birthright, of the automatic assumption that the marketplace will insist on paying you for creating something it pays attention to. It won’t, not any more.

We’ve already seen musicians go through this painful process. Some of the happiest, most engaged and most successful pop musicians and DJs working today are making their money daily, from live events, and eagerly using their recorded work (in digital form) as the promotion engine for those events. That’s different, but it’s not less. It’s just different.

In the written world, we’re already used to the notion that if you write a blog or post a comment, you’re not going to get paid to do it. The idea that writers might contribute 500 or 5000 words to the public sphere regularly was anathema to the Writer’s Guild and others just a few years ago. Today, it’s obvious.

The complexity kicks in when we see one economic system (paying obscure authors up front for their work) fade away at the same time another system (authors racing to earn attention and thus permission and thus the power to monetize their work) grow. This is the moment (the best and possibly the last moment) for authors with talent to figure out how to be both generous and well-compensated.

Spreading ideas outside the bookstore

March 9, 2012

More and more, bookstores are turning into places where books go to die. Without active promotion, and even better, an easy way for the idea to reach people who don’t hang out in bookstores, it’s difficult for a book to catch on.

Here are two authors/crusaders who have figured out how to put alternative distribution to work for them. Bryan Stevenson, a professor at NYU, spent years honing his stump speech and it all came together with a TED talk he gave two weeks ago. In just a few days online, he has reached more than a quarter of a million people–he doesn’t use a book, he uses himself to spread the idea.

Michelle Alexander started more traditionally–with an extensively researched book, published by an old-school publisher. In the last few months, though, the paperback edition has sold more than 175,000 copies–not because she’s been on television, but because she has relentlessly traveled, speaking to groups who needed to hear her in person in order to start evangelizing her message.

It’s easy to look at the results of viral sensations and marvel at how quickly they went from zero to many. Most of the time, it’s not quick at all–it’s the result of years of groundwork followed by persistent attempts to speak up.

Burbling: watching an idea go from page to conversation

March 6, 2012

Stop Stealing Dreams is closing in on half a million readers since I launched it eight days ago. There are about 100,000 Google matches for the phrase, up from four when I published it. What’s fascinating to me is how visible the spread of an idea is now, how much more quickly and socially we share something that resonates.

Here’s a live discussion scheduled for tonight that a reader and blogger is organizing with some passionate experts.

And there are spirited conversations and collections of quotations.

And of course, several teachers and parents and administrators have proudly announced that they refuse to read it because they think they know what it says and they don’t agree with it. Some things don’t change.

The math for an author that wants to spur a conversation is pretty thought-provoking. Instead of the 3,000 to 15,000 people a book-for-sale might reach in a week (if it were a national bestseller), a free book transcends the financial and physical ballast it carries and spreads further and faster. It also calls the bluff of those that might be inclined to avoid it, as it removes excuses of access or cost.

There’s no doubt that authors need to get paid. But when there’s no scarcity of things to read, it’s not clear that readers care. More and more of the ideas we talk about are starting out as free (blog posts, TED talks, ebooks, etc.) and that makes it harder than ever to make a similar impact with a traditional book.

An ebookstore is more like a web browser than a bookstore

March 2, 2012

[An addendum for this post]

Google Chrome is made by Google. It’s free.

Safari is made by Apple. It’s free too.

The question one could ask is: Should Google be able to keep you from seeing web pages that criticize Google or compete with Google? Should there be a system in place where the people who make the browser get to decide if they’re going to present you a web page or not?

Consider podcasts for a second. Podcasts are usually found by listeners in the Apple iTunes store, offered free and built in. Should Apple block podcasts about how great Windows is, or ones that encourage people to use Android? After all, people who want those podcasts could certainly find them if they used Firefox, right? One could argue that they’re not blocking it, they’re just not listing it in their store.

We’re not talking about free speech here (which is originally a term to describe your right to criticize the government.) We’re talking about commercial speech. Barnes and Noble chooses to sell books about how to use a Kindle, and Amazon sells books about how to run an independent bookstore and Firefox doesn’t get in the way when you want to go download Chrome or Safari.

I was in the supermarket today and they had a display of magazines at the checkout. One cover was about eating less, a direct challenge to the very nature of the store’s purpose. All the magazines carried ads for products the store doesn’t sell, and some of the ads encouraged people to shop somewhere else.

Our conception of fairness says that an independent store ought to feel no obligation about what to stock on its shelves. But when commercial speech gets involved, we get nervous, because stopping commercial speech inevitably starts to creep into more and more control. When the store is digital and integrated into devices, it gets a lot more uncomfortable.

I think the line is pretty easy to draw (at least in most cases). If you’re going to announce that you’re offering a wide browsing experience, the implicit promise to the reader is that you won’t limit this experience for selfish commercial gain. There’s a huge difference between someone standing in a store handing out coupons and a store reading magazines and listening to podcasts in search of speech they might not profit from.

The Shopify winners…

February 29, 2012

Alert Domino readers will remember that Shopify was a sponsor of one of our book launches. At the time, we announced a contest they were launching for online businesses. (I get to cook them lunch, which should be a lot of fun). The winners are in, the prize money is generous and there’s a lot to learn here.

More than 3,000 people started a new business as a result of the program–in just 8 months, these businesses generated more than twelve million dollars in sales. It turns out that this is 56% bigger than the same contest that ran last year.

Poking the box
 is not just for entrepreneurs, of course, but it’s clear that the web opens doors for those willing to make a ruckus.

Who decides what gets sold in the bookstore?

February 28, 2012

We can probably agree that the local supermarket has no moral or ethical or business obligation to sell cherry-flavored Cap’n Crunch. If the owner doesn’t like cherries, she doesn’t have to sell them.

And the cereal maker shouldn’t work under the assumption that every store that sells food will necessarily carry the Cap’n, even on special order.

But what about books?

There’s been a long history of ubiquity at the bookstore. With a few extreme exceptions, just about every book is available at every bookstore if you’re willing to order it. Universal availability feels like part of the contract we make with bookstores–we expect them to sell everything. In the digital world, this goes triple, because there’s no issue of shelf space to deal with.

I just found out that Apple is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.

Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon store. IE page 35, David Weinberger link.”

And there’s the conflict. We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

That’s amazing to me. It must be a mistake, right?

First, because the web, like your mind, works best when it’s open. Second, because once bookstores start to censor the books they carry (business reasons, personal taste, etc.) then the door is open for any interest group to work hard to block books with which they disagree. Where does the line get drawn?

A key part of the argument about SOPA was that choke points and blacklists break a system that works best when information is allowed to flow freely.

I’ve evolved my thinking on this over the years. At Yahoo, I was a proponent of having the company buy Netscape and integrate Yahoo into the browser. And I think there’s nothing much wrong with merchants and vendors working hard with exclusives and deals to increase market share. When it comes to a content screen, though, I get nervous, particularly when the device is part of the store. Once you are reading your books on a device that is hooked into a store, the person curating the store has a great deal more power than a local bookseller ever did.

I think that Amazon and Apple and B&N need to take a deep breath and make a decision on principle: what’s inside the book shouldn’t be of concern to a bookstore with a substantial choke on the marketplace. If it’s legal, they ought to let people read it if they choose to. A small bookstore doesn’t have that obligation, but if they’re seeking to be the one and only, if they have a big share of the market, then they do, particularly if they’re integrating the device into the store. I also think that if any of these companies publish a book, they ought to think really hard before they refuse to let the others sell it.

[Should YouTube be able to block videos that promote Vimeo? Should Bing refuse to link to Google docs if you search for it? What about the Comcast cable box on your TV–should CBS be off limits?]

It’s easy for me to have a workaround here with this project. Just visit the site on your iPad or iPhone, choose the ePub edition and open it. But many authors won’t have the same ability, particularly if they want to use enhanced functionality on a given platform.

These stores can’t have it both ways. The web works because it’s open. The stores (all three of them) need to be too.

Launching a new idea in a post-paper world

February 27, 2012

Today my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams goes ‘on-sale’. On-sale is in air quotes because it’s free, but we don’t have a word for the on-free date.

Ideas that spread are worth a lot–to the community and to the creator of those ideas as well. When they’re bound up in a book, an object that costs money to produce and print, there’s just no practical way for an author to spread the idea in that medium without slowing it down by charging for it. That’s why authors always embraced electronic media–you could go on TV to talk about your book, spread the idea and then get paid later when people actually bought the book.

But what if there’s no book to buy?

We still don’t have a good way to demarcate when a book ends and when something else (a manifesto?) begins. How long something has to be, or how involved, before it crosses from tweet to blog to manifesto to book…

For this project, my goal is to spread the idea, not monetize it.

I’ve posted the manifesto as both a printable PDF as well as a PDF you can read on screen and as an ebook (in both sideloading Kindle and ePub/Nook format). (In case the server crashes, here are two files on backup servers: The Printable PDF and the Screen-friendly PDF). There’s also an HTML version on the site.