Why print books are better than digital, and my recommendations for eBook readers

I read on my iPad every day, but the experience frequently reminds me how much better it can be to read a real book. Sooner or later, somebody is going to solve (at least some of) these issues on the digital side, and the experience will lean more heavily to the pro-digital side. But for now, here’s how things stand, IMO.

Why Print is Better

  1. Browsing a book store or library is a way better experience than browsing any online equivalent.

  2. It’s easy in a print book to flip to the index, or some other page, and back to the page you were reading. In digital books you leave your spot at your peril. It’s very easy to get lost.

  3. When you do lose your place in a print book, it’s far easier to find it again than it is in a digital book.

  4. #3 is partly because of the tactile sensation of the book in your hand, which gives you a lot more feedback than you think. The thickness of the pages you’ve read vs. the thickness of the pages yet to read; the position of the words on the page (left or right, top or bottom). Your mind makes a record of your location that’s based on more than just what you’re seeing.

  5. Studies have shown that people retain more of what they read in print. This is probably because of this multi-sensory experience explained in #4, including even the texture and smell of the paper. Memories are closely associated with other senses.

  6. If you want to review a book, or blog about it, it’s so much easier to highlight things, attach a sticky note, scribble in the margins, etc., and it’s very easy to find those notes later. The disadvantage, of course, is that you then have to type them.

  7. Print is easier on the eyes than backlit displays. eInk displays are a big improvement, but I fear they might go away. The trend seems to be towards the backlit screens. (What we really need is a device with both backlit and eInk screens.)

  8. You can get used print books, and they’re cheap. The “first sale doctrine” does not apply to a digital book, so you can’t buy a “used” digital copy. (What would that mean, anyway?)

    The printed version — even a hardback — is often much cheaper than the eBook version. This is a big part of the reason students buy hardbacks. Also, they can sometimes profit from the notes made by previous studients.

  9. It’s much easier to quickly find what you want in a print book — especially something like a dictionary.

  10. You don’t have to wait for a print book to boot up, and you don’t have to charge it.

  11. It’s easier to lend (or borrow) a print book.

  12. There’s also a vanity / signaling advantage to a printed book. Visitors to your home can glance through your shelves and see what kind of a person you are by the books you keep.

Digital does have some advantages

As you can see, my list of the advantages for print books is fairly long. But ebooks do have some advantages.

  1. You can carry around hundreds of books in one device.

  2. You can search the text of an eBook.

  3. You can buy an eBook and start reading it inside of a couple minutes.

  4. References in an eBook can link directly to the other information.

  5. It’s possible to include other media in an eBook, like sound and video.

  6. eBooks don’t clutter up your house, or the waste system.

  7. You can read some ebooks in the dark

My recommendations for eBook readers.

Many of the limitations I mention above are entirely solvable with better eReader technology. Some eReaders may already do some of these things, but they all need to.

  1. Add a “put my finger here” function, so that I can whip around anywhere I want in the ebook and quickly flip back to where I put my finger.

  2. Along the same lines, create a back button. It’s enormously frustrating to follow a link to a footnote, or an illustration, and not be able to get back to where you were.

  3. Make it easier to copy and paste text from the book into any other application. Some of the “sharing” options in eBook readers limit which applications you can use.

    This is an annoying feature of electronic devices in general. They try to guess what you will do and only give you those options. Somehow I’m always the guy who wants different options.

    Anyway, adding a simple cut and paste option that can work across any app on the device would make it so much easier to blog about a book, or write a review.

  4. Create more visual clues to where you are in the book. We need more than a bar at the bottom that says 27% done. It might be a good idea to divide the book into sections and display a section icon on the side of the page, or … something like that.

  5. A lot more needs to be done with search in eBooks. For one thing, the keyboards on most eReaders (and devices that use eReader apps) are awful, but that’s not likely to get fixed until we come up with a completely new interface.

    And — as I have mentioned — there’s getting back to where you were when you started searching.

  6. A printed book can include a fold-out map, or illustration. With an eBook, even though you can zoom in on things, you’re always limited to the size of the screen.

    Why? Why not put a small projector on the eReader so you can display the map (or chart, or figure) on a wall, or a desk?

Lessons

There are two important lessons for publishers in all of this.

  1. If you have the capability, build an eBook reader that solves the problems I’ve mentioned.

  2. More importantly, don’t believe the radicals.

People made all sorts of predictions about the iPad and eReaders and digital books and such that look ridiculous now. eBooks did not eliminate printed books, and they don’t look like they’re going to any time soon.

Be sketical of what you hear from the forward thinkers, thought leaders and keynote speakers. They’re paid to say outlandish things.

But what did you think of page 47?

With Amazon’s “kindle unlimited” program, people can get access to a pretty big collection of ebooks as part of their membership in the club. It’s like spotify for books.

Part of the genius of this sort of program is that the books seem free, even though you’re paying a monthly fee.

I’ve expressed my doubts about that model for magazines, but for books I think it will work, and if anybody can do it, Amazon can.

Most of my books are registered to participate in that program, and I get paid based on how often my books are read.

In other words, some group of people pay Amazon $9.99 a month to read unlimited kindle books. Amazon then pays the authors / publishers based on what the kindle unlimited members actually read. It’s not based on book downloads, it’s based on pages.

If somebody downloads my book, reads five pages and then stops, I only get paid for five pages.

This means that Amazon is keeping track when you page through an ebook. Remember, data is valuable stuff.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one way to monetize content is to mine the data on how people are using the content.

Give away content, but track how readers use it — This article will challenge your ideas about the value of content. What We Got Wrong About Books.

What’s more valuable, a $10 magazine subscriber, or the fact that you know he reads every one of your articles about DIY home repairs, and he lingers on photos of Italian sports cars?

Imagine a future where all content is free, and then imagine ways you can still monetize your content by collecting data on the people who are reading it.

In my Amazon interface, I can see how many pages of my books are read on a daily basis. I can’t see who’s reading, but I can see that somebody is (or was) reading one of my books.

It reminds me of Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next. (If you haven’t read it, try The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel.)

Anyway, this is an example of how data is becoming more and more important, and how it can be used to help producers make better products.

As an author, I would love to know what parts of my books people like, what they hate, what they skim past, what they highlight, etc. When I give a friend a book to read, I’d love to get it back with marks all over it.

A good eReader platform could do that. Imagine an eReader that would allow readers to provide that level of feedback to authors, even to the point of liking and disliking individual pages or paragraphs.

To a small extent, they can do that now. On some of kindle books I purchase, I can see areas that other people have highlighted. That’s somewhat interesting as a reader, but very interesting as an author.

eReaders have come a long way, but they have a long way to go. They are the perfect platform for communication between readers, and between readers and authors.

A fictional conversation with Jeff Bezos about magazine circulation

I’ve had subscription fulfillment systems on my mind recently. It’s gotten so bad that last night I dreamt about it. I was visiting a fulfillment bureau I used to work with and happened to bump into Jeff Bezos at the coffee pot. I told him that Amazon simply doesn’t understand the subscription publishing business.

They’re not alone in that. Over the years I’ve known several programmers who’ve become so frustrated with fulfillment systems that they’ve toyed with the idea of writing one themselves. I’ve always warned against it. These things are absurdly complicated and do processes behind the scenes that most programmers wouldn’t think about.

They have to earn revenue by issue, and regulate entitlements. They have to deal with different prices and offers on different efforts. They back start and future start subscriptions, pause them when people go on vacation, and send the magazine up north in the summer and down south in the winter. They have to keep people in different renewal pools, and assign them to those pools according to various criteria.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the strange things these systems have to address. The deeper you dig, the more complex they become. Trust me. I’ve been living it for months.

But why are they so complex?

A programmer I know likes to blame marketing. Computers, he says, are very good at doing one thing a million times. Marketers, on the other hand, want to do a million things one time.

There’s some justice to his complaint. Marketers are always trying new things, and they rarely have the technical knowledge to understand how their ideas influence back-end processes. Often they don’t care. In fact, not caring is sometimes touted as a virtue.

Just make it work. We can’t have the back end running the front end.”

Think of what that implies for a system that has to accommodate thousands of marketers in hundreds of companies. We want 12 issues per year, but not one a month. Wait, we need to save money so we’re moving to 10 issues a year. But only for these subscribers. And this other publication is a weekly, except for these two weeks. Oh, we still have to have 52 issues, so we’ll double up on these two, and they won’t always be the same two.

If you sat down for a day with a pencil and paper and tried to come up with all the variations a fulfillment system has to deal with, you’d miss half of them. I promise.

These things preserve the accumulated “wisdom” of decades of marketers — tinkering, wondering, testing, imagining, “Why not?”-ing.

Jeff Bezos simply decided it didn’t have to be that way. Amazon doesn’t have to have a million different options when they sell toasters, so they don’t need them for magazines either.

To a publishing geek, this is madness. It’s the arrogance of the internet generation. They think everything’s different now.

“You don’t know what you’re doing, Jeff,” I told him. “Publishing simply isn’t like that. It’s complicated.”

But every once in a while it’s important for somebody to poke the sacred cow. We can’t keep doing things simply because they’ve always been done that way.

The coming explosion of niche publishing

It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen next with publishing. (Remember when the Apple newsstand was going to revolutionize publishing?) I’m going to give it a shot anyway and make a few predictions.

First, I’m going to start with some trends that we’re seeing now, and will, I think, continue to see …

1. More and more usage on the smart phone. I ride a commuter train every day, and I’ve watched people’s reading habits change over the years. You rarely see a newspaper any more. Despite the fact that most people are reading, paper books aren’t as common as they used to be.

While the dedicated eReader seems like the perfect device for somebody who’s stuck on a train for an hour a day, the increased size of smart phones is eating into that market. Even though the eReader offers a better reading experience, it’s not better enough for many people to justify carrying around an extra device. They’ll just read on their phones. (Don’t underestimate “good enough.”)

Increased screen size, memory and processing power is getting to the point where it’s almost possible to do some work on a smart phone. That trend will continue — until someone comes up with a truly transformational input device. (Such as the one I discuss in The Intruder.

2. More social. I admit that I sneak a peak at what people are doing on their smart phones from time to time. Yes, it’s rude, and no, I’m not a stalker. I’m not reading what they’re typing. I have a professional interest in what kinds of things people do on their smart phones.

A lot of people are playing games, but that seems to be decreasing. More and more are engaged in some sort of social activity — tweeting, texting a friend or checking their Facebook feed.

As connectivity gets better, people are going to be doing more and more social activities on their phones.

3. More customization / personalization. Smart data is the thing. Facebook feeds you the stuff it thinks you’ll want. Google (it’s rumored) gives you search results you’re more likely to click on. News sites can track your interests and give you more of what you’ve read in the past.

Companies are starting to learn that data about their readers is one of their most valuable assets, and they’re looking for new ways to monetize that. On the other side of the device, users like a more customized experience. Those two interests will continue to drive ever more customization.

4. More “gamification.” By which I don’t really mean games, but systems that use points and rewards. A good example I’ve seen recently is sites that only allow you to read a full article after you take a survey.

The generalized notion is that if you behave the way somebody else wants you to behave — do a certain task, buy at a certain time, answer a question, etc. — they’ll reward you. It’s a way of paying without paying, and it’s going to become more common.

That’s all the easy stuff because it’s what’s happening now. Some people would simply take those trend lines and draw them into the future, but that’s a sure way to err. If you don’t believe me, just look at predictions based on trend lines for eBooks and eReaders. Lines don’t just go on into the future with their current slope.

Rather, I think something semi-transformational is going to take these current trends and merge them into something new. Of course I don’t know for sure what that’s going to be, but here’s my prediction.

A shift to multiple personnas.

I have one identity — I’m just one person — but that one identity isn’t all that relevant to advertisers. The guy who wants to sell me fishing equipment doesn’t care that I also homebrew, or that I like to read about anthropology. So the content provider and the advertiser want to be able to home in on interests, not (in one sense) on people.

On the other end of the device, the user wants to keep things separate as well. My political and social views have no relevance to homebrewing, and if a particular lure is working for perch in the Severn River, I really don’t care if the guy who’s giving me fishing advice agrees with me about the Confederate flag.

The user wants to have different online identities. One for work life. One for games. One for politics. One for hobbies.

So, my prediction for publishing is a shift from gathering people to gathering personnas. Any given person will have multiple online identities. The system that perfects that — that allows people to conduct their digital lives under the umbrella of different personnas — is going to take Facebook’s lunch. Unless Facebook does it first, of course.

The primary impact on publishing is that niches will be much easier to reach and much easier to identify.

The secondary impact will be further fragmentation — by device and by monetizing strategy. There’s no reason to think that bond investors will behave the same way as Taylor Swift junkies, either in the device or technology they use or in the best way to get them to pay for services.

The short-term impact on publishing — and on content creation in general — is going to be a need to dive ever deeper into niches.


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What Marketing Needs to Know About IT, Part 3: Learn the Right Approach

This is the last of my 3-part series on what marketing needs to know about IT. Here are links to part 1 and part 2.

Be Diplomatic

There’s a huge cultural gap between marketing and IT, and the sort of things that work in a sales or marketing environment might not work in a techie environment. The marketing VP who likes to go around “lighting fires” isn’t going to be well received by IT.

Some people like to be contacted by email. Some prefer the phone. Some prefer face to face. Some like group meetings, while some prefer working things out one on one.

If you want to work with other people, you need to be aware of how they prefer to work.

IT wants details

When IT says, “write me a requirements document,” they’re not just trying to be difficult. They’re asking you to think about what you’re asking, and to present it in a logical way. Remember, they’re going to have to build this thing, and engineering a solution requires a lot more detail than some blue-sky idea.

“Good enough” vs. Perfect

I’ve found it useful to classify IT professionals in two ways. First, there’s the yes and the no types. Second, there’s “good enough” vs. perfect.

Some IT guys will reflexively respond to a new project with a cheerful, “Yes, we can do that.” Then they’ll come back later with their list of problems, caveats and limitations. Other guys will reflexively say “No,” but then they’ll think about it and come up with a list of things they can do, or a new way to approach it.

In both cases, don’t take the immediate response too seriously. People need time to think about an idea and work through all the ramifications.

In the same way, some IT guys are willing to slap something together and say it’s good enough. It works most of the time, on most browsers, and why should he spend all his time and effort for the three people using IE6 on old Macs?

Then you have perfectionists who want every detail to be exactly right before they can release it.

Both of these approaches present challenges. You need to come to some agreement about “good enough.”

Also, sometimes IT has a tendency to over-engineer a solution and build a complicated system when it’s not really necessary. Sometimes it’s best to start with simple and easy things and work from there.

What Drives IT Crazy

Generally speaking, IT thinks the people in the marketing department are flakes who come rushing in at the last minute with half-baked ideas that don’t make any sense. Unfortunately, they’re often right. Don’t be that person.

Like anybody else, IT professionals want you to respect their intelligence, their time, and their process. They don’t like doing a lot of work to set up a fancy new system that will be used once and then forgotten.

Get them involved early. Give them a sense for how large the project might be, which parts are critical and which are not, and get their ideas on how to simplify the process, or break it up into smaller pieces.

IT wants a requirements document, and you should definitely write one, but only after you’ve had a conversation about scope.

A Procedure for Working with IT

You can avoid a lot of problems by following this sort of a process.

  1. Marketing fills out a “bare bones checklist” for the project. The checklist focuses on what marketing wants and why, not on how it will be done. That will be resolved later.
    • Elevator pitch – two sentences on what needs to be done and why.
    • Scope – how many pages / visitors / sales will this project effect?
    • Is it a one-off project, or part of a larger effort?
    • Return – what do we hope to get out of this?
    • Timeline – when does this have to be completed?
    • Other Drivers – is there some Big Factor to be considered (e.g., it’s the CEO’s pet project)?
  2. IT reviews the checklist and meets with marketing for clarification.
  3. Marketing provides wireframes of the major pages that have to be built.
  4. Somebody writes a consensus document on what will be done.
  5. Both sides buy in (or goes back to step 2).
  6. Marketing writes a final requirements document
  7. Project moves forward.

If you’d rather listen to me talk through this topic, here are some links to a fairly low-quality video I did of this presentation. The videos were limited to 10 minutes each.

Marketing and IT, part 1

Marketing and IT, part 2

Marketing and IT, part 3

Marketing and IT, part 4

“It was in the issue with the tiger on the cover”

Here’s an interesting article to stretch your concept of the digital magazine.

5 Digital Magazine Trends to Keep an Eye On in 2015

Magazines have traditionally been issue based, because that was the only way to distribute them. But the web is a constantly moving target. So what does a magazine on the web look like? Some folks at Fast Company are looking at new ways to think about online magazines.

Their vision of the next generation digital magazine app is more than just a publication. It resembles an article-based hub, or one central location combining magazine content with a steady stream of regularly updated content from Fast Company’s various websites and Top 5 stories of the day.

They want to “put the reader first” and ensure that “every time [the reader opens] an application there is going to be new content in there.”

Well …. That’s certainly nice in some ways, but not in others, and I’m not sure it’s really “putting the reader first.”

I enjoy Facebook, for example, but the fact that it’s always scrolling by — and that it has atrocious search — makes it good for keeping up with “right now,” but lousy for looking up something from a week ago.

Is that “putting the reader first”? It all depends on what the reader wants to do with the content, doesn’t it?

Digital does not necessarily mean transitory, and we don’t want to structure all digital content as if it’s only supposed to survive for a day. Twitter is not the entire world of content.

There’s also the question of retention of what you read. There have been studies about content retention when reading print vs. digital material. The jury’s still out, but there’s reason to suspect that people retain more when they read in print because the experience involves other senses.

E.g., “it was on a right-hand page about 2/3 of the way through near the bottom.”

I discuss that a little in this post: Why the cool kids misunderstood the actual kids.

How can a digital experience add some of those tactile stimuli to help in retention? Whoever can figure that out will be helping digital readers immensely.

The effect of the print medium on retention, and the issue-based, tactile experience with a mazine, highlights this even more. As I implied in the title to this post, sometimes you remember an article by what issue it was in — and you remember the issue by the image was on the cover.

If a “digital magazine” becomes an issue-less, constantly flowing river of content, how will that affect retention?

I’m not saying any of this to argue for “editions” or to argue against a continuous flow of changing content. What I’m saying is that there are trade-offs, and it’s not a sure bet which one is more useful to the reader.

What marketing should know about IT, part 2 of 3

In Part 1 I discussed how different the marketing and IT perspectives can be, and I gave a few suggestions on how to bridge the gap. The most important, in my opinion, is that a marketing department needs a “marketing technologist.” That is, somebody who understands marketing and technology, who can bridge the gap between the two departments.

The more marketing learns about IT, the more forthcoming IT will be with ideas and solutions.

When marketing understands technology, the two departments can have meaningful conversations about strategies and tactics.

The marketing technologist can’t wait for IT to come up with solutions. He needs to take the lead.

First, he should understand how the systems work. He doesn’t need to be able to code, but he needs to know which systems do what and how.

He also needs to understand the business objectives of the website. IT can get caught up in cool geeky projects that don’t push the business forward.

For every type of technology the company uses, the marketing technologist needs to grasp the basic technical requirements, and the costs and time investment for various technologies and projects.

It’s only after he has a firm grasp on those things that he can find creative solutions to new problems, and figure out if it’s worth all the effort.

It’s hard to make a comprehensive list of the things the marketing technologist needs to know (I’m sure I’ll miss a few obvious ones), but here’s a quick list to get started.

  • How servers work (request and response, ports, DNS)
  • Client side vs. server side
  • Why templates are helpful
  • What a cache does
  • Why databases are useful
  • The trade off between fancy features and performance
  • Basics of html and style sheets, including responsive design and desktop / tablet / mobile differences.
  • Why html code yields different results in different browsers, including email browsers.
  • Database basics (esp. why you can’t always change the structure later on)
  • Why it can be difficult to move data from one system into another.
  • How cookies work
  • How web-based analytics tools work
  • Basic email terms, like MX, SPF, Sender ID, Domain keys

The marketing technologist should make a habit of reading things that stretch his knowledge of the tech world. And when he finds something he doesn’t understand, there’s always wikipedia.

What marketing should know about IT, part 1 of 3

As more and more business moves to the web and other digital technologies, marketing and IT — which used to have very little to do with one another — are being thrown together on big projects. Sometimes this can get uncomfortable for both sides.

In this first of a series of three articles, I will give some guidelines on how these very different groups can work together successfully.

Part 1 – Marketing and IT professionals have very different personalities and perspectives

As with any stereotype or generalization, there are exceptions to this rule. But it is generally true that the people who go into marketing and the people who go into IT (or programming) are simply different sorts of folk. For purposes of project management, this can boil down to a couple fairly basic conflicts.

  • Projects vs. systems, and
  • Felixibility vs. stability

For the marketer, things are always changing. While there are some marketing basics that seem pretty stable — since they’re based on fundamental aspects of human behavior — there are other things that change all the time. The words, colors, messages and incentives that people respond to fluctuate with the culture. So most marketers take an attitude of, “I don’t know. Let’s test it.”

For marketers, change can be an opportunity.

While things are always changing on the IT side as well — with new technologies and devices, program updates, and new security threats — the task of the IT department is to maintain a stable system that does business critical tasks, reliably, millions of times a day. For the IT crowd, change is an annoyance, and can be a threat.

This article is written for marketers, so in this first section I will try to help marketers understand where IT is coming from.

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.

IT’s main tool is the computer. Computers are incredibly good at doing the same thing the same way a million times. But marketers often want to do a lot of different things one time.

For example, when a programmer designs a page, he’s thinking of something like Amazon.com — which displays millions of products for millions of users in the same basic page template. The product image goes here, the price goes there, the description goes in this other place. (I realize that Amazon does a lot of testing, but that doesn’t change the basic point.)

Marketers wonder if it’s better for the product image to be on the right or on the left. They wonder if it’s better to show the product, or a pretty girl using the product. They wonder if the button should say “buy now” or “add to cart” or “get yours for only $5.”

Marketers want to test things.

This level of complexity (or chaos) can make programming pretty difficult.

The IT mindset is to automate, use databases and templates, eliminate exceptions, and build a system once so that it can be used many times. IT wants processes that are dependable and repeatable.

For marketing, doing the same thing twice means that you didn’t learn anything the first time.

IT needs a way to predict and manage change.

IT needs to build a system that works consistently for millions of users, so if marketing is going to want to change things, you need to tell them up front what might change, and under what circumstances.

Marketing needs a way to try new things and implement new concepts, or things they’ve learned from other tests.

That’s a good thing for marketing to do. But marketers have to realize that IT doesn’t naturally think that way, so marketing has to communicate that they want a system that will accommodate those changes. And they have to communicate that need before IT builds a structure that won’t accommodate it.

An internal vs. an external focus.

Most IT departments, and the IT culture, developed with an internal focus. It was their job to keep the machines running, and to protect the company’s data. They weren’t focused on the customer, or at least not in the way that sales and marketing are.

“The majority of the IT power structure is in the support and infrastructure people, the network, database and help desk people. And then laying over these functions, you have a thin IT strategy layer ….” From The Empire Strikes Back: Unleashing IT as an Innovation Center.

When marketing works with IT, they need to realize that they’re dealing with a department that has a different focus, and they need to find the people in IT who are interested in doing strategic, business-development projects.

Deadlines

Another difference between marketing and IT is in how each group views deadlines. Although nobody’s perfect at meeting deadlines, marketers are more used to a relatively strict schedule based on promotions with definite drop dates, as well as new offers and new products that have to roll out at a particular time.

IT projects, on the other hand, are often way behind schedule.

There’s an expectation — whether it’s fair or not — that getting a marketing project done by Friday simply means putting your nose to the grindstone and getting it done, while the same expectation doesn’t apply to IT because mysterious technical weirdness and unforeseen gremlins are understood to occasionally derail an IT project.

That might not be fair, but it is often the way people think. So in order to work with IT, it’s very important to communicate timelines and deliverables up front, and to have some mechanism to keep things on track. Including, possibly, consequences if the schedules are not met.

The Big Picture — IT v. Marketing

When presented with a new idea or project, marketing and IT professionals react very differently.

The programmer is thinking …

  • How does this integrate with other systems?
  • What server resources does it use?
  • How often do I have to update it?
  • Does it create any security problems?

The marketer is thinking …

I want this now.
  • How will I measure success?
  • What colors, images, text and offers will work best?
  • If this approach doesn’t work, I’ll just change it.

    Both of these lists represent legitimate concerns, but often IT and marketing don’t see it that way.

    The way to move forward is for both departments to learn about the other perspective: their interests, their personalities, their drives and their concerns. Since this article is written for marketers, here are my recommended steps for marketers to learn about IT.

    • Learn the basics of technology — in general, and the specific technologies your company uses.
    • Understand IT’s motivations.
    • Be diplomatic.
    • Bring IT into the process as early as you can and work with them. Let them contribute ideas.
    • Where possible, model the project with commercially available software or services.
    • Be willing to limit your project in keeping with IT’s estimation of low-hanging fruit.

    I’ll discuss all these in more detail in a later installment.

  • Amazon, the big publishers, and ebook pricing

    I’ve been trying to catch up on the dispute between Amazon and the big six publishers on the question of ebook pricing. It’s a pretty interesting story.

    Years ago, Amazon wanted to set a ceiling on ebook prices at $9.99 because they thought this would encourage the young ebook market.

    Publishers didn’t like the downward pressure on book prices, but they also simply didn’t like Amazon, which they saw as a threat to their business model. That may seem strange, since Amazon sells a lot of books, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

    One of the advantages a publisher has in the book marketplace is its relationship with retail booksellers. The publisher can get preferential treatment for their new releases, and they can have an influence on whether a book is displayed prominently or not (e.g., face out or spine out).

    Because of their relationships with bookstores, publishers can guarantee a big launch for a new title, which gives them an edge with authors.

    The same thing doesn’t apply to Amazon. Or at least not to the same degree.

    Amazon does promote more popular books, but that’s based on how well the book is doing, not on a cozy relationship with the publisher. Even at that, the difference between the John Grisham bestseller and my latest release with two sales (thanks, Mom) isn’t nearly as great on Amazon as the difference between those books would be in a retail store. (I.e., my book would never even get in the door, much less be displayed on a table at the front of the store with a huge poster and life-sized cutout of the author.)

    In one sense, Amazon is “just another reseller,” but it changed the way people buy books, and it has an interest in promoting ebooks and its kindle e-reader.

    Retailers like Amazon can resell books on one of two models: a wholesale model, where the reseller buys the books at a set price and can resell them to consumers at any price they like, and an agency model, where the publisher sets the price and the reseller gets a cut.

    The big publishers used to have a wholesale agreement with Amazon. That is, Amazon would agree to pay the publisher a set amount for each ebook sold. Some publishers set the wholesale price above Amazon’s $9.99 ceiling.

    Amazon was so interested in promoting ebooks that it was willing to sell ebooks at a loss to win market share. Under a wholesale reseller agreement, Amazon was entitled to do that.

    Why does the publisher mind? It’s still getting its remit on the book, no matter how Amazon prices it, right?

    The publisher doesn’t like it because it hurts bookstores and it devalues the publisher’s books (i.e., sets lower price expectations for books). So even though the publisher is making money on the sale, the publisher doesn’t think this is in its long-term business interest.

    In recent years, many publishers have pushed Amazon into an agency model, where the publisher sets the price and Amazon takes a cut. So far, this doesn’t seem to have worked out very well for the publishers. Both sales and revenue have declined as a result. See Adding up the invisible ebook market – analysis of Author Earnings January 2015, and follow some of the links in that article.

    It seems that publishers are losing on both the revenue and the market share side.

    That’s not the end of the bad news for publishers. Amazon represents a threat to publishers on the other end of the business as well. Through its affiliate Createspace, Amazon makes it very easy for authors to self-publish, and by eliminating the publisher from the equation, the author gets a lot more off the sale of the book.

    Here’s a sample calculation from Let’s Get Digital.

    $9.99 Trade-Published eBook
    Retailer takes 30% ($2.99)
    Publisher takes 52.5% ($5.25)
    Writer takes 17.5% ($1.75, or less if there’s an agent)

    $2.99 Self-published eBook
    Retailer takes 30% ($0.90)
    Writer takes 70% ($2.09)

    Even authors can do this math, and it makes the publisher’s contract look pretty lame.

    It’s not clear to me how this is all going to shake out. Right now, big publishers seem to be losing traction in the market, and independent authors seem to be making great strides. But it’s a mistake to take a short-term trend and expect it to continue. That’s what people did with the initial explosion of ebooks, and that’s where we got the “print is dead” nonsense.

    Publishers bring a lot of experience to the table, and some people are becoming annoyed with poorly edited, badly written novels from indie authors. “Self-published” may be getting a bad name.

    Publishers have skilled editors who understand genre expectations and what works for what audience. They have skilled artists to do cover design, and layout professionals who can make a book look very nice. Indie authors can hire people to fill in those skill gaps, but many don’t.

    On the distribution side, publishers are clearly losing their edge because of the decline of the retail bookstore. It’s a new world out there, with social media and digital marketing changing the way books are promoted. Publishers may or may not have an advantage on that score.

    Also, the ebook world isn’t the whole world. Print books still sell, and despite the doomsayers, they still sell fairly well.

    My expectation is that the big publishers will shrink and lose some market share, but they won’t entirely disappear. Indie authors are just that — authors. It takes a lot of other skills to make a business of selling books, and there’s no reason to believe that the same people who write well will also know how to be masters of social media, understand how to game Amazon’s search algorithms, and be good at cover design.

    I expect there’s going to be a new profession out there — that is, a new kind of literary agent who helps the indie author navigate the odd world of publishing.

    Thoughts on how to write fiction

    Between my blogs and my fiction and my actual work, I write a lot of words, so from time to time people ask me for advice about writing.

    I’m very qualified to speak on the subject as far as professional writing is concerned. I was an editor of several B2B publications for many years, and I have a fair amount of experience writing marketing copy. But when it comes to blogging, social media, fiction and other things, while I have a lot of experience, I’m an amateur. So you can judge for yourself how to value what I’m about to say.

    And feel free to chime in with your own ideas.

    When it comes to writing fiction, a lot of what it takes to be a writer starts well before you set finger to keyboard. You have to develop a habit of thinking about things. Weird things.

    If you want to write, you need to observe the world around you, you need to have some sense of what’s going on and why, and you need to make up crazy stuff about it.

    A fiction writer who takes a walk through the woods will come up with three story ideas before he gets back to his car.

    To write fiction, you have to have ideas about people and their motivations. You might look at somebody and wonder if he’s an alien, or if he just killed his wife, or …. You get the idea. You have to be willing to let your brain go a little crazy and follow where it leads.

    You also have to read articles about space and technology and history and psychology and sex and philosophy and sports and whatnot so you have a constant source of both nutty ideas and background themes running through your head.

    I don’t think those things shouldn’t be the main inspiration of your stories. All that material will provide little nuggets here and there to give your story depth. The nutty ideas should flow out of you as a normal part of your daily life. You have to consider five impossible things before breakfast.

    To learn to write you have to write. A lot. Some people make rules and goals for themselves, such as writing a page a day. I don’t follow any rules like that. I write when I feel like it. I just feel like it pretty often.

    A writer also has to get feedback on his writing from real people, because the point of writing is to engage and to communicate.

    The best writing advice I ever heard boils down to “don’t try to be clever,” but it went something like this.

    Every once in a while you’ll write something that you’re very proud of. You’ll think it’s a beautiful piece of work — that it flows well and uses just the right words and paints a lovely picture.

    When you write something like that you should print it out, show it to your spouse, frame it if you want to, but then throw it away.

    You have to learn to write simply and give up the idea of being clever. If the reader doesn’t understand what you wrote, it’s your fault.

    My first job out of college was as an editorial assistant for a service on natural gas regulation. I had to write the most hideously boring stuff about pipelines and their rates and rules for transporting gas. The point was to take their government-speak, legalistic tariff filings and rewrite them so people could understand them. It was pretty awful, but I learned a lot about writing from the exercise.

    Forcing yourself to write to a particular style can be very useful.

    The hardest thing for me to learn was rewriting. My boss would make me go back and rewrite things over and over again. I resented him for it, but it was good training, because rewriting is about a hundred times more important than writing. Now, I rewrite constantly.

    You also have to lose the “my darling baby” attachment to your writing and be willing to mercilessly cut and change things.

    I think it can be helpful to take part in online discussions, because people will misunderstand you all the time. It doesn’t matter that you understand what you wrote. Other people — including autistic ADD morons on the internet — need to understand what you’re saying.

    People on the internet take offense very easily. Learning to write to be clear — to minimize that offense (you can’t eliminate it) — is good practice.

    I also wonder if having musical training helps with writing, because a lot of writing is having an ear for it. You have to be able to feel that a sentence scans — or doesn’t. You need to sense the rhythm and flow of the words.

    It’s good to listen to the way people speak in real life. I don’t think you should imitate that in your writing, because the way people actually speak is dreadful, and if you wrote it down it would be painful. But by listening you can get a sense for things, and you have to be able to incorporate different voices into your characters. They can’t all sound like you.

    One thing I’ve tried (less than I should) is to skip through something I’m writing and only read the lines by a particular character. That character should give a consistent impression.

    Doing that also helps you pick out “verbal” ticks — which are both good and bad. A character should have a voice, but it can’t be annoying. If he uses a word or phrase too much, you have to change that. But it is good to have a character sound a certain way.

    Finally, everyone picks up bad habits, overuses certain words, etc. Once upon a time I found a website that analyzes your word choice and tells you if you use a word more often than average. I can’t remember where that was, but if you find something like that, hold on to it (and send me the link!). It’s also good to ask a professional to look at your work — but don’t feel obligated to take their suggestions. Professional editors are very necessary, but they often have their own weird ideas too. You don’t have to follow their rules.