#wossybookclub digital editions

The week has been a twitter with the news of @wossy's book club, or #wossybookclub as it is also known, or Jonathan Ross' twitter book club as it is definitely not known. Happily a Picador book was chosen, Jon Ronson's THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. We decided that to get the book as widely distributed as possible we would zoom the book out in digital editions, both as a subscription access title and as a download. Check out this piece on the Picador blog for more details or go to either Exact Editions or Waterstone's to view or download the book.

There are a few firsts here for us. This is the first time we have ever used a subscription access model. Readers can buy a years worth of online access for cheaper than the price of the book, £4.99 against £7.99. One advantage of this access is that it allows deep linking and so stimulates the kind of conversation book clubs are all about. Like a passage? Then via Twitter, or wherever you are, you can easily direct a distributed set of people to it.

Which brings me on the second first (as it were)- on Sunday between 17.00 and 18.00, in the midst of the bookclub, we will be allowing free access to the work. This should further allow people to discuss, point, link, look, read, flick, browse and comment on the book, recreating the back and forth dynamic of a book club online, with thousands of people involved.

The ebook download means that those who cannot buy the physical book (unprecedented demand means stock has been rapidly disappearing) can at least have a read before the club gets going.

Hopefully this is the correct response to a book club that is not just web native, but entirely twitter native. If ever the future could be said to hit group reading, it has now, and hopefully we can use what is unique about the web- that ability to share, the immediacy- to try and bring something to the bookclub that works for its twitter based format.

We would be interested to know your thoughts on the subscription model, so do get in touch.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

A little bit ago I wrote a kind of iPhone app wishlist for independent publishers. Well, it looks like Indiebound made good on their promise. Their new iPhone app (in the U.S.) is the exact right step booksellers should be taking. For more on the genesis of the project, here's a great overview at Follow The Reader.

The Lessons from Texas

Watching the aftermath of #sxswbp has been fascinating. As with most such events I candidly confess to being a mere spectator once again rubber necking from across the Pond. Still, this is too juicy to let go without any comment. The "New Think for Old Publishers" panel has entered the annals of SXSW lore as a car crash session. Probably not quite of the magnitude of last years Zuckerberg keynote disaster, but hey, it seems SXSWers like nothing better than something to bitch at on Twitter.

For the full story of #sxswbp Medialoper did a good report at the time; now we have some fascinating panel side views from Peter Miller, who is also offering some advice for future sacrificial lambs, sorry publishers, heading to Austin.

The great irony of all this is the session was organised by Penguin. Now the winner of both the Experimental and Best in Show awards at SXSW was We Tell Stories, a project also from Penguin.  I'm not sure the significance of a publisher, and a UK publisher at that, winning something this big and with this much kudos has fully sunk in. Suffice to say it is very significant.

All the snarky tweets from #sxswbp look slightly off kilter in this context (without doubting for a second that the panel radically ill judged the ethos of SXSW).

For me the whole affair neatly sums up the position of the publishing industry vis a vis new media. At once fully engaged, rapidly and radically innovative, plugging the business into new media even as it extends the reach and depth of that new media itself, while also cowering and confused in the face of an uncaring juggernaut already cutting swathes through other creative industries.

The lessons then? New media needs to be engaged on it's own terms. Publishers have to be bold, have to be different and have to set the agenda, rather than let it be set for them.  From where I'm sitting, that was difference between SXSW's two publishing encounters.

The digerati want freshness and new ideas, not indecision and meekness.

PS- does anyone else get the feeling that for the SXSW hardcore Twitter is now becoming a bit mainstream, a bit passe, like your favourite underground band suddenly appearing in the charts?

How to Get Indies in on the iPhone Game

Hello everyone, Ryan again from New York. I hope this entry's not too U.S.-centric! I know little about the UK scene, so who knows if this applies on both sides of the Atlantic. After reading Adam Hodgkin's take on the Google/Amazon/Apple ebook shakeout (and Mike Shatzkin's response), I thought about what's lost here: Browse. The Kindle, the Amazon iPhone app, the Sony reader all work fine if you know what you want to read next. They fail when you just want to see what's out there and snoop around.

Of course, this isn't a new argument. Amazon's webpages encourage plenty of recommendations via homophily, and brick-and-mortars will always excel at getting you to walk in looking for one book and leaving with three. (Much to my wallet's chagrin.) If we must find a parallel in the music world, think about the number of new music you hear about through iTunes' homepage vs. music blogs.

Where do the indies come in, you ask? Here's my fantasy: what if an outfit like Indiebound, which links U.S. booksellers together, were to develop an iPhone app? They'd sync your favorite bookstores from your Indiebound profile, and import the weekly/monthly staff picks. You'd somewhat address the browse issue, sure, with one extra advantage: at the end of each staff review you would hit the "Reserve" button and instantly have a copy put on hold at that bookstore. The savvier indies like St. Mark's Bookshop could tie it into their ecommerce and provide the option to ship. (The ultra-savvy indies in certain locations might even be able to deliver the copy to your door, though of course this isn't scalable for most cases.)

So the indies connect their online and offline audiences without creating new content, customers can extend the bookstore experience beyond the brick-and-mortar, and everyone finds out about new books. 

What does everyone think? Too blue sky?

Pan Macmillan and GoSpoken

Pan Macmillan are going into GoSpoken, the mobile reading platform.  As regular readers of this blog will know, we are big fans of mobile reading and believe it has a hugely significant role in the future of how we read. Our lives are becoming more and more device centric while our devices get better and better.  Moving in early with mobile distribution makes sense and we look forward to expanding our mobile list. All our ebooks and a significant proportion of our audiobook titles will be available. You can download the press release below and read coverage in the Bookseller.

pan-macmillan-gospoken-press-release

lament

... the dizzying range of easily accessible material on the internet conspires with a lack of editorial guidance to make web reading a disjointed experience that works against the sustained concentration required for serious reading.

There is an interesting piece in the London Review of Books from Colin Robinson about the impact of global economic woes on publishing. As the byline has it, "Colin Robinson until recently worked for a large publisher in New York." He outlines the pressures facing the principal cast of the publishing ecosystem (to mix my metaphors), including writer, editors, producers, retailers, and readers.

Robinson's comments on the effect of electronic communication and the internet on the life of books could be judged as accurate or out of step, depending on your perspective. (I'm not going to go there on the "For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes" remark.) Yes, there is a lot of rubbish content on the internet, and yes society seems to be moving towards a sort of chronic individualism that exhibits itself online. But is that dreadful for publishing and reading?

Robinson points to a possible solution - that the editor's powers of curation and provision of status to some writing over other writing will migrate from paper to internet. "There is opportunity as well as challenge in this model. The roles of editor and publicist, people who can guide the potential reader through the cacophony of background noise to words they’ll want to read, will become ever more important."

Perhaps what Robinson has a sense of losing is, to draw an analogy, a hansom cab for a yellow cab. That would be the other perspective.

"This is not to say that the book is doomed. But publishers will surely have to change the way they do business", writes Robinson, and I'm sure we all agree.

Two Presentations

Recently I gave too little presentations and thought that the time had come to stop keeping these things secret. The first was at the Digital Forum of the Publishers Association and the second was at the awesome Bookcamp 09. The former presentation is fairly straightforward and deals with how publishers can and should be getting more involved with social networks. It was originally delivered at a conference in Russia so is primarily visual, hence I'm not really sure quite how well it works online. Oh well.

The latter is a more of an academic, off the wall, blue skies thinking presentation. It was enormous fun to write and allowed me to go back to my glory days talking about people like Jacques Derrida (no, don't groan, he's cool, honest). The presentation basically looks at how our culture is turning back into an oral culture, how even text is becoming like oral communication and asks what this means for the novel and the book.

Any questions feel free to get in touch!

Presentations below the fold.

Myopia: A Tale of Two Companies for 2009

In 1960 the economist Theodore Levitt wrote an influential essay in the Harvard Business Review entitled "Marketing Myopia".  In it he discussed the parlous decline of the US railways in the twentieth century. Decimated by the widespread use of automotive transit,  by the 1960s the railways were a shadow of their former selves- broken and bankrupt. Levitt argued that there was no fundamental problem with the railways contrasting the States with Europe, where to this day railways are thriving.  Rather there was a problem with the attitudes of the railway companies. They had always seen themselves to be in the railways business and focussed their efforts as such.  According to Levitt this was their mistake- had they realised from the beginning that what they were in was the transportation business they would have been much better prepared to respond to and piggyback on innovations like the car, the lorry, the highway and the airplane.  In short, had they not had a bad case of "marketing myopia" they might have been in a much better state.

In contrast take Nintendo.  In a recent article for the London Review of Books John Lancaster looks at the cultural status of computer games. He highlights the history of Nintendo as an interesting casestudy.  Founded in 1880's Kyoto, Nintendo originally produced  hanafuda (Japanese card games).  Throughout their history though they refused to define themselves as makers of card games-  they saw themselves as facilitators of play, and so had a constantly evolving product set while maintaining a consistent purpose. It meant they were always ideally positioned to exploit new advances and could comfortably react to change.  Moreover it has led to them being in the vanguard of innovation; just when their competitors Sony and Microsoft were beefing up their consoles for the hardcore gamer, spending mega bucks turning games machines into omnipotent media playing nodes, Nintendo re wrote the rule book.

The DS and the Wii, with their intuitive gestural interfaces and ludic game design, perfectly fit what legendary Nintendo games designer Shigeru Miyamoto sees as the defining goal of Nintendo: to create products grandparents and grandchildren can play together. Both consoles were colossal risks for Nintendo; both paid off handsomely.

There appears to be a fairly obvious moral for publishers in this story.  There are certainly those like Booksquare who argue that digital is a new market, a new market in which publishers will have to redefine their approach in order to succeed.  In 2009 I don't think anyone is seriously pretending that this digital stuff will go away and no one really has to worry.

For me the real issue is that we obviously cannot be the railways. We cannot be myopic in ignoring the challenges, opportunities and changes of the internet and digital distribution. Here is the but- But neither is it realistic for publishers to be Nintendos. As much as we can say that we are curators of stories and information, people involved in the entertainment/education business pure and simple, we simply don't have the scale, the expertise and the financial muscle to become full on web platforms, film studios, arts infrastructure bodies or whatever else moving beyond print matter might entail. Publishers cannot jeopardise their core operations by completely losing focus.

The question, then, for 2009 is how publishers can effectively steer the line between being a railway and being a Wii.  Between myopic decline and radical re-engineering. It means doing this in a dire economic climate, with limited resources, managing what we do best with what we've not done before.

We're working on it.

VB sees the future - agree or disagree?

We’ve been reading Victoria Barnsley’s ‘Media’s Last Diehard?’ speech and can’t quite agree on one point. In fact, it’s not that we disagree but just that we see things differently! Here are Michael and James’s views – please feel free to add your own. MICHAEL says:

Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK and Founder of literary imprint Fourth Estate, recently gave a very interesting talk on how digital is impacting on publishing. She has been one of the most important and influential people in British publishing over the past 30 years and I have a great deal of respect for what she says.

However one claim in the talk seems egregious. She says " I will predict that in 10 years more than half our sales will come from digital downloads." This is a bold claim, and while I would sincerely and burningly like this to hold true I think it might be an instance of the hyping of ebooks I'm so keen to avoid. This figure might hold true for academic imprints- I would say that our sister company Palgrave would be more likely to make this figure than us- but for trade will require too much of a consumer revolution.

For half of all books to be bought in digital versions then there will have to be a wholesale and unprecedented shift in reader experience in ten years. Looking at the experience of the music industry, which is say, seven to eight years ahead of us, they now have roughly 15% of their revenue as digital. Given that many people think reading to be less immediately suitable for digital formats than books I would personally post my projections more towards this figure (15-20%). This will still represent a hugely important revenue stream for publishers and will be a major part of the business. So while I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything Victoria Barnsley says in the speech, and while I would love it to come true I don't believe we will be looking at half of total sales coming from digital.

JAMES says:

I see “in 10 years more than half our sales will come from digital downloads” as a viable prediction because I believe (today, anyway – ask me again in a week) that Barnsley’s point about “granularisation” is the key.

10 years from now, publishers and consumers will both be mining the long tail of digital book content more deeply and effectively than they do now. There will be long tails not just The Long Tail, serving each niche and sub-section of the market and shifting as interest shifts; and the corollary is that there will be profitable and over-active short heads – not just The Short Head. What will enable and sustain this granularisation? The sorts of things Barnsley mentions (and others highlight): piecemeal purchases integrated into the digital lifestyle (can one write ‘digital lifestyle’ still without an alarm going off somewhere? Probably not…) – education, academic, and entertainment content. Subscription products will push digital downloads out the server door that are not necessarily even consumed, but which will contribute to that 50% of sales in 10 years time.

Alongside the granularisation of consumption, I think we’ll see a change in content – creation, production and delivery – not to all of it, but to some. And this will probably be highly granularised too, and more responsive and ad hoc - incorporating the mainstreamification of read/write activity. Don’t you think we’re just at the beginning here, and we’ll see new forms emerge and see publishers change their business a bit and begin to sell new kinds of entertainment-by-book-concept content? I’m steaming off into predictions of my own here – sorry – but my point is that I think Victoria Barnsley’s not wrong nor is she – probably – over hyping the future of digital publishing (I might be, though!).

Personally, this talk and discussion has been timely and useful, as I need to pull together my thoughts to present at the SYP conference this month – any particularly insightful comments on this duologue will be fully credited, I promise!

go anywhere, be everywhere?

BBC Have Your Say is moving out into the wilds of the web and joining the conversation where it happens - link [via Peter Brantley] This is surely a significant move that publishers should watch with interest. The BBC is testing the waters of not hosting the discussion.

One of the answers to MBQ (My Big Question: why visit a publisher's website?) contains 'discussions and user generated content' in it somewhere. If the best stuff about your book of the moment can be easily found, and neatly aggregated, on the publisher's site then surely surely surely that's a good reason to visit the site. Right?

Perhaps, though, if the publisher joins the conversation you're already having on Phreadz or Qik or Twitter, then that is a good reason to visit their site - to find out more about the book at source... to see what else the publisher's saying about other books... and so on.

There are real advantages, too, for the publisher in creating and stimulating discussion (i.e. 'undertaking customer engagement') on other people's servers where the storage and serving of the content is someone else's problem (sorry, can't help being pragmatic, as ever). The stock disadvantage to this, of course, is that you're not as directly in control of your own content anymore, or people's interaction with it. But that's the point, isn't it?

The point: joining the conversation, whereever and however it's happening, is an open impulse; it is a release of control and a shifting of roles. And I think another answer to MBQ, if not the answer for a while at least, is that people will come to your site if you make it into a purple cow [tips hat to Seth Godin] - shift the roles, change the content, flip the structure over, and generally do things in a new, unexpected way that connects with readers.