books on the radio


What I Want When I Want It: Chris Anderson’s Free

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The first time that I read Chris Anderson’s new book “Free” was on a website called Scribd.  The book had just been released and Scribd was (and still is) allowing readers to check out the book’s entire content for free: so long as you’re not trying to read the book for free from Canada.  That kind of cross-border digital experience is strictly forbidden.

Didn’t bother me much. I wasn’t paying for it so I couldn’t really argue but I’ve been following some of the conversations and interviews that Mr Anderson has been doing online over the past month and I thought that I’d share a few links that I think are interesting.

The first link will take you to the lengthy article at Wired.com that forms the basic argument for his book, Free. The article is called “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.”

And then there’s a very interesting interview that he did with Der Spiegel Online about the demise of print journalism, traditional media and the inability of old terminology to adequately describe new realities.

The interview is called “Maybe Media Will Be a Hobby Rather Than a Job” which is a mis-quote from something that Anderson said during the interview. It sounds juicier when taken out of context.

The interview ends with this nifty little exchange in italics below.  I think it’s a lucid distillation of the issues that journalism, traditional media and the publishing industry are facing now.

SPIEGEL: Conclusion: There is no convincing solution so far — even from provocateurs like yourself?

Anderson: I think we will discover that whatever the business model of the 20th century was, it will be different in the 21st. Maybe we realize that selling ads is not the business we’re in. Maybe we’re into selling online content to audiences, or in creating communities or into selling events — in a similar way to which parts of the music industry is making money from concerts. Maybe companies that were built around the old business model will go away and other companies will come up, in much the same way as old record industry labels may disappear but the Apples of the world, with their iPods and iPhones, will continue to do well.

SPIEGEL: One last thing, why isn’t your book free?

Anderson: You only pay for the hardcover version. The marginal cost for the digital file is zero, so I’ll give the digital text and the audio files away for free. However, if you want to have the abridged audio book in a 3-hour-version, then you’ll have to pay.

SPIEGEL: Because time is money?

Anderson: Exactly.

* I have added this last bit to the conversation that Michael Tamblyn and I had over at the ShortCoversBlog and have updated my earlier post about eBooks pricing.  Note Anderson’s mention of ‘marginal cost’ for a digital file – it would appear that Scribd is still offering Free for free on their site but Amazon US has it for $19.99 ($9.99 for the Kindle edition) and ShortCovers has it on their site for $9.99 ($11.99 CDN).  The devil is in the details as always.

** By the way, I was tipped to a lot of this by Andrew Savikas who wrote about it here.  If you’re not familiar with Andrew’s work please take the time to read through his site especially his piece, Content is a Service Business.  Compulsory reading.

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Jeanette Winterson on Art, Imagination & Crisis

jeanette_wintersonI have always loved the work of Jeanette Winterson.  From the moment Sexing the Cherry jabbed me in the brain to when Art & Lies knocked the wind out of me on a flight from Montreal to Belfast to the sublime sexiness of Written on the Body.

Art Objects was like a holy book to me for years.  I’ve loaned every copy that I’ve owned to friends. A quick look at the bookshelf tells me that I don’t have a copy right now and that I should get down to the bookstore right away and rectify the situation.

I’ve been woefully neglectful of Ms Winterson’s work in recent years but seeing this little video gave me a jolt.  The video was made by a fan to augment this audio clip.

Let’s start with a brief excerpt.  The full text of the piece is transcribed under the video below.

“We know that we cannot go on living as we do and yet we go on living as we do.

Books, paintings, music, theatre are there to prompt us to think differently and to see life differently and when we free up our imaginative life we are free to imagine a very different kind of world and that is what is needed and we’ve never needed it more urgently.

In a world economy that depends on separations art asks us to make connections…”

To see the video and read the transcription click the little red (more…) button below…

Continue reading



Viral Book Marketing and the ISBN

The ISBN – International Standard Book Number – is the unique 13 digit number or commercial book identifier that adorns the upc bar on the back of every book that’s available through standard trade channels.  It’s the completely innocuous string of numbers within the little white rectangle on the back of the book jacket, usually in the bottom right corner. Out of the way, where no one can see it.

The ISBN is relegated to that remote jurisdiction because it’s not intended for use by the customer.  It’s an industry identifier that booksellers, publishers, distributors, etc… use to specify and differentiate one book from another.

For instance, Penguin may have several different editions of a particular book still in print. Classics like Crime and Punishment are available in different translations, or newly reprinted editions and can be simultaneously available in trade, hard cover or mass market editions, each of which will have a separate, unique ISBN.

To the average book customer the details of the ISBN are useless.  They just need to provide the bookseller with title, author, whether they want the book in hard cover or paperback, what they’re willing to pay and how long they’re willing to wait if the book is not currently in stock.  That’s it.  The ISBN does not need to be a part of the conversation.

Yet publishers insist on including the ISBN number in their print and digital advertising and it doesn’t make any sense.

I’ll use the otherwise masterful viral book trailer for Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice as an example.

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The above picture is a screen capture from the very end of the Pynchon book trailer and it gives the customer all the information she needs to make a purchase: name of the author, title of the book and date of release.  Done.  Customer has the info and can walk to their neighborhood bookstore or order it online.

The Penguin Press throws their logo in there as they should, then there’s some extra promotional writing in the upper right corner which is just a little narrative snapshot for the benefit of the customer and that’s fine, too.  A really tight little package that the marketing/publicity people at Penguin should be proud of.

But they just can’t stop themselves from including the ISBN!  It’s that mess of numbers to the right of the author/title info at the top of the video.

You know, 9781594202247.

It shouldn’t be there for a couple of reasons but mostly because it looks like crap.  It’s visual clutter and it’s completely unnecessary.

For instance, since the book just recently came out and it’s the only book with that particular title by that particular author in print what are the chances that a customer will order the wrong copy of Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon by calling her favourite bookstore or punching those details into the search bar at Amazon? Zero, right?

Some have suggested that Penguin included the ISBN because it helps booksellers with their orders but that doesn’t make any sense either.  If there’s a bookseller in North America that isn’t aware of the imminent appearance of a major new book written by a major author and published by one of the biggest publishers in the world then someone somewhere isn’t doing their job and it shouldn’t take a video posted on YouTube on the day of release to alert them.

Good marketing like good writing happens when you remove all the unnecessary parts and give the reader the pure essence.

The ISBN is not a part of that pure visual essence.  It has its place and that place is not as a part of the advertising and marketing of a book.



Inherent Vice vs. Gravity’s Rainbow: An All Pynchon Friday

OMFG!  The greatest book trailer ever produced.  An absolutely brilliant sell job by the folks in marketing/publicity at Penguin USA.  Great cinematography, excellent editing, great music, great voice, great tone.  Whoever was in charge of making this happen just lapped the field, set the bar and shouldn’t be the one buying drinks until some time in 2010.

(However… come back from lunch, book people… is it really necessary to put the ISBN 13 in the title of the video?  What are you thinking?  Just for the record, just so that we can move past this point: nobody cares about the ISBN number.  Nobody.  Not a single person that I know ever thinks about it.  At no point has anyone ever said, “Gee, that book sounds familiar, maybe if you tell me the ISBN number it’ll jog my memory.”  Just sayin’.)

And why not follow it up with a glimpse back in time to those old, cold days of the Nixon Administration in 1973 when Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow?  Cool little video featuring George Plimpton and the man who accepted the award on behalf of Mr Pynchon, Irvin Corey.

Thomas Pynchon.  One of the truly great writers of our time.  Have a great weekend.



Shortcovers eBook Pricing (Slightly More in Canada)

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Recently, ShortCovers announced that they’d be charging $9.99 US for eBooks from major US publishers on New York Times bestsellers.  Great news, I guess, though Canadians continue to get the standard $2 shaft from publishers on digital content, too.  Hurray for consistency!

ShortCovers front man, Michael Tamblyn, was good enough to respond to a couple of comments that I posted to the pricing announcement on the ShortCovers Blog.  I have posted our exchange below and I think that it’s pretty self-explanatory.  If you’d like to read the entire press release and the comments together please check it out here.

Here’s the exchange…

1 Sean Cranbury 08.06.09 at 11:04 am

Hi Michael

Great news! $9.99 for digital content is excellent.

Can you explain why digital content costs $2.00 more in Canada than in the USA? Is there some sort of warehousing surcharge or across the border electronic tax that justifies the difference in price?

Or is it just an unbreakable industry habit to charge Canadians more for content regardless of how it’s delivered?

2 Michael Tamblyn 08.06.09 at 1:46 pm

Hi Sean,
It’s far less nefarious than that. There are a couple of reasons:
* Canadian rights-holders set the prices for ebooks in Canada. As with print books, the Canada/US exchange rate makes the ebook list price a bit higher and we discount from there*. So yes, the Canadian Shortcovers ebook version of Bourne Deception is _only_ 61% off the hardcover price vs. 64% off the U.S. price, but…
* Did you notice that we include the GST as a part of the ebook price?! So there is 5% federal goodness rolled into the Canadian price, paying for healthcare, Canada Council grants, and Mountie uniforms. That’s another part of the $2. Not bad, eh?

*For now, publishers don’t re-price ebooks daily to reflect currency fluctuations (but wouldn’t it be interesting if they did!?)

3 Marc 08.06.09 at 2:12 pm

I like the new pricing, I always thought about $10 is the sweet spot for me. $11.99 CAD is close enough to start buying. Thanks.

4 Sean Cranbury 08.06.09 at 4:36 pm

Hi Michael

Thanks for the reply. I appreciate it. I did take notice of the GST roll-in and as someone who has worked in the book trade for 20 years I can understand the price difference.

I think that I have refined my question – or maybe it’s more of a statement or opinion, bear with me. I’m only writing this because I care about books, the industry and the people in it.

It’s ingrained in the subconscious of Canadian book buyers that they must pay a premium for content purchased by the loonie. For instance, we all know what happens to publishers when the Canadian dollar is on par with the US dollar: not even tens of thousands of books sold in hard cover and paper back about a certain boy wizard can keep the doors open on a publishing enterprise when that happens. And we certainly wouldn’t want that same plight to ravage the rest of the industry.

So… we can agree that digital files are essentially infinite in terms of their ability to be copied and replicated and have nominal warehousing (server) costs, print and shipping costs associated with them, right? And that Amazon has set the currently agreed upon price at $9.99 USD and that publishers are now grudgingly agreeing that it works for them so that whole argument is settled (for now). And it’s a sign of increasing health for the publishing industry that Shortcovers is providing some much needed competition in the digital marketplace.

Does that mean that Shortcovers pays the publisher per purchase on an electronic file? So Shortcovers has been granted the privilege of selling this electronic file via the website for X price and to make that work in $ CDN it needs to be $2 more per electronic file? I guess that’s obvious now.

I made the mistake of thinking that an essentially infinitely abundant digital file would provide retailers and publishers an opportunity to pass deeper savings along to customers in the electronic marketplace. And I understand the need for publishers to include some kind of marketing/editorial/author payment into their digital pricing – I’m not saying that they should be free.

I guess the pricing structure just seems a little arcane to me and I’m not sure that I see the value even if I do understand the reasons.

I agree with your last statement, too, about publishers allowing their pricing to reflect currency fluctuations. That should happen but what I am more interested in watching is the pricing fluctuations as more competition enters the digital marketplace and as publishers begin to see the actual cost of digital content and how it can affect their P&L positively.

5 Michael Tamblyn 08.09.09 at 10:05 pm

A couple of things worth discussing in your post.
* I wouldn’t say that publishers are completely sanguine about $9.99 as the purchase price. Amazon, Shortcovers, and B&N are all still paying publishers a margin on their *list* price, and those list prices tend to be the same as print prices, so publishers have seen negligible erosion in revenue so far from ebook sales under those terms. Publishers are probably concerned that $9.99 could become embedded in the minds of consumers as “the fair price for a book”, leading to push-back on their paper-copy sales. That said, $9.99 is the competitive price-point that has become accepted by ebook consumers in the U.S. and we’re right there with them, while setting out $11.99 as a reasonable translation of that price for the Canadian market, given exchange rates, GST, etc discussed above.

* ebooks as “infinite” resource. I’ll take this before a publisher leans in. The print-paper-and-ship cost of a book is a relatively small piece of the total expense structure that goes into a book (I’ve heard 5-8%, plus another 10% in supply chain costs, but your mileage may vary – supply chain costs are higher in Canada, to be sure. Publishers, feel free to chime in.) But the bulk of the cost associated with producing the book, be it p- or e-, remain: author royalties, editorial, production, sales, marketing, retailer margin, etc. So there is a theoretical 15-18% of available cost reduction, but not really. It isn’t like a publisher can get rid of their warehouse just because they sell an ebook — all of those costs remain and have to be covered by both p- and e- sales. All that to say, the arrival of ebooks doesn’t radically change the cost structure for publishers*. For now.

* Side note: the publishers who are held up as transitioning so well to the digital space — Harlequin, TOR, a few others — are not surprisingly the ones who were already selling most of their books at the $10 price point. Everything about them — author advances and royalties, editorial and production processes, marketing and sales tactics — are geared to selling a book at <$10. But will an advance/royalty/marketing/sales structure that works for romance work for John Irving or Michael Ondaatje or Michael Chabon or Patricia Cornwell or Alexander McCall Smith? This is where publisher concerns about business models vs. price points start to coalesce.

6 Sean Cranbury 08.10.09 at 4:53 pm

Hi Michael

Great answers!

I realize that we’re still very early in understanding the digital book landscape and that there are probably more questions out there – for publishers, authors, readers, everyone – than answers at this point. But it’s important to voice these questions.

It’s great to know that you’re willing to take the time to answer the questions as best you can so thank you very much.

There’s still so much work to be done in terms of finding the perfect price point for digital content… I’m just not sure that $10 is even remotely the right number, but patience and experimentation will hopefully lead the industry in the right direction.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether digital book content is actually subject to the same kind of commodification as physical books or whether there are better, more strategic and ultimately user-friendly ways to execute digital content in a way that gratifies the consumer and supports of the paper book. i think that there’s so much opportunity there.

Time will tell.

Thanks again for helping me wrap my brain around some of the rationale for current eBook pricing.

Sean Cranbury 08.11.09 at 3:39 am

Further to the point. I was just updating my blog when I came across this quote from Chris Anderson in conversation with Spiegel Online about print journalism and traditional media – and by extension book publishing.

I think that it adds something to this conversation so I’ll paste it here:

Anderson: I think we will discover that whatever the business model of the 20th century was, it will be different in the 21st. Maybe we realize that selling ads is not the business we’re in. Maybe we’re into selling online content to audiences, or in creating communities or into selling events — in a similar way to which parts of the music industry is making money from concerts. Maybe companies that were built around the old business model will go away and other companies will come up, in much the same way as old record industry labels may disappear but the Apples of the world, with their iPods and iPhones, will continue to do well.

SPIEGEL: One last thing, why isn’t your book free?

Anderson: You only pay for the hardcover version. The marginal cost for the digital file is zero, so I’ll give the digital text and the audio files away for free. However, if you want to have the abridged audio book in a 3-hour-version, then you’ll have to pay.

SPIEGEL: Because time is money?

Anderson: Exactly.

The entire interview can be read here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,638172,00.html