Thursday, August 17, 2006

Obnoxious Self-Promoters

Some writers carry self-promotion to obnoxious levels.

Consider a series of postings by writers in a bulletin board memorial to someone who recently passed away, and who counted a large number of writers among his friends and acquaintances.

It was disgusting to see the number of writers who added a list of their novels to each message. I know, I know--those were signature lines. But it still makes the in memoriam statements read like:

"Wow--he was a great guy. I'll miss him. By the way, buy these books that I wrote!"

I wonder if these writers hand out book promo at funerals, and maybe take advantage of such captive audiences to do a reading?

It can get worse. Back in the 1980s a well-known SF fanzine published a special issue to honor a certain legendary writer. Included in the issue were solicited tributes by fellow writers--one of whom hijacked the tribute and turned it into a personal promotion.

How? By jamming the "tribute" with references to the offending writer's own work, such as "... and I'll never forget [honored writer]'s [book title], which inspired my own [egotistical writer]'s [MY BOOK'S TITLE with publisher and date appended]. And my character in [ANOTHER BOOK'S TITLE with publisher and date appended] was inspired by [honored writer], as was the protagonist in [YET ANOTHER BOOK'S TITLE, etc.]" The writer (whom I will not identify even by gender, lest I inadvertently add to its "fame") did this for each and every book it had ever published!

Someone died; it’s about them, not you. Leave your ego--and insecurities--at home.

Copyright © 2006, Michael A. Banks

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Online Sellers Promoting Digital Rights Theft

I recently discovered an online ad (and several online auction postings) offering an e-book version of a novel that was made into one of the powerhouse movies of the year (by way of saying it was a big bestseller). Not only was the e-book offered as a download for less than a dollar, but you also got "full resale rights" to the e-book!

Whoa! Does that mean you can put this very popular copyrighted novel on CD and sell it on street corners, and offer it on eBay and Yahoo! auctions for download?

Hardly. The copyright still exists. The truth is that if you buy an e-book from one of these sellers you are receiving stolen property.

You can't convince the sellers of that. Some ads carry official-sounding statements about such non-entities as "the compilation & International Media policy" and "the Downloadable Media Policy." Others state that they have "Reseller Rights." One announced, "I am an author seller of this e-book and I can provide proof." Some even go so far to imply that this novel is "in the public domain."

Could this be true? Hell, no! What's happened is that a few dishonest people got ahold of copies of the e-book by buying it, and then invented a bunch goobledegook about "reseller rights" and "Downloadable Media Policy," knowing that there were enough greedy and ignorant types out there who wouldn't look too closely at a Web site offering resale rights to such a well-known property.

I asked a few of the sellers whether you had to pay extra for the reseller rights, or apply to the publisher. Without exception, each replied that she had bought resale rights and thus anyone who bought from her automatically received the resale rights. I'm sure that's what the person each seller bought the novel from told them. Thus the myth is perpetrated.

So, how are these sellers getting away with it? Either the publisher and author of this novel don't know about it, or they just don't want to bother with it. None of the sellers are making big money on this, so maybe they're not affecting legitimate sales enough to bother the publisher. And maybe the publisher realizes that as soon as a squad of attorneys swatted a dozen of these clowns twice as many more would pop up.

Now, if someone was offering an MP3 version of a hot new rap or rock tune, you could count on recording company attorneys making short work of them. But I don't think the book publishing industry is as excitable as are music people. And I suspect that most book publishers still don't have a handle on electronic publishing and just don't understand that the rights associated with this novel--not to mention the entire notion of copyright--are being undermined.

On the third hand, it could be that this book's publisher (the largest in the world) covertly started this to publicize the book.

I hope this isn't a trend.
Copyright © 2006, 2007, Michael A. Banks

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

About "The Long Tail"

The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson (the editor of Wired Magazine) seems to have confused a lot of people. Many discussions and reviews of the book are themselves confusing. That being the case, I'll take a shot here at explaining what the book and the idea are all about.

In a virtual nutshell, Anderson's thesis is that a huge cumulative market for poor-selling items exists on the Internet.

But there's more to it than that, beginning with the 80/20 rule in retailing, which says that 80 percent of profits are generated by 20 percent of items stocked by a retailer. This is generally accepted and has been demonstrated to be true. If you make a sales-by-units graph of all items offered by a retailer (Wal-Mart, Stero Barn, or with the x- or vertical axis being units, and the y- or horizontal axis begin individual products, the bestselling products would make a tall, narrow hump at the left (the top 20 pecent), while the products that don't sell well make a "tail" to the right, dropping down as the number of units sold decreases with each product. Hence, "the Long Tail."

As a consequence, retailers stock as much of the top-selling 20 percent as they can, and ignore most of the other 80 percent of items they might stock--on occasion giving one or another a trial (due to to manufacturer or distributor pressure, or just to see whether a particular item will sell).

Thus, while you can find a copy of The Da Vinci Code in nearly any bookstore, you cannot find The Odysseus Solution because it doesn't sell well. Moving at most one or two copies per year, it sells so poorly that it's not worth keeping in stock. Why have The Odysseus Solution in shelf space that could be used to stock The Da Vinci Code or The Year of Magical Thinking, either of which might sell anywhere from 30 to 300 copies in that same year.

This situation seriously limits the consumer's choices to the most popular items--the "hits," if you will. It's why you can't get that brand of jelly you love at Winn-Dixie; they dropped it because it wasn't among the top-sellers. You have to satisfy yourself from the six other brands offered, do without, or go elsewhere (and you still may not find it).

For the same reason you don't see Blood, Sweat and Tears' first album, The Child is the Father to the Man, on store shelves, though you'll probably find a BS&T greatest hits album. Again, your choices are being limited.

According to Anderson, there are people who would buy Brand X jelly or The Child is the Father to the Man if jars or copies were in stock. But they aren't, and won't be, because the return on the investment is less than it costs the store to stock the item. According to Anderson's theories, this condition does not obtain on the Web, especially where downloadable media products are concerned, as there is no "stocking" charge. All that needs to be done is to let the customers know the item is there.

With no stocking cost, a retailer can stock a near-infinite number of products. This, in turn, means that the retailer can reach the market for items that a brick-and-mortar store could not serve. Potentially, there is a large cumulative market there, supplying thousands of buyers with things they can't get out in the real world.

What tipped Anderson off to all this was a study of the online music markets, where nearly everything can be stocked--including The Child is the Father to the Man and every tune ever put out by a garage band or Indie label. He learned that 98 percent of everything sells at least once in a year. Which means that the online music retailer was raking it in more than the brick-and-mortar music store, because she is able to sell same the big-profit 20 percent that the brick-and-mortar store sells, plus the other 80 percent.

Anderson follows this to its logical conclusion: there are large cumulative markets that conventional retailers are ignoring because it doesn't pay them to stock items that will sell once in a year or so. But on the Internet, where you have no stocking expense ... Which is only one way of presenting the idea.

Anderson takes several runs at explaining the concept, which got him skewered by several reviewers for being redundant. Anderson also talks about ways of capitalizing on the long tail, and the implications on business and culture. (For example, he foresees a market that is less-driven by "hits" than by personal recommendations, which I don't see as happening to a great extent, due to the power of advertising.)

While some reviewers have made a big deal out of the fact that Anderson's long tail concept exists under other names (like Pareto tail), this doesn't invalidate his message, which is, again, that huge niche markets exists among those who are willing to serve them.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Is Amazon Going After the Long Tail?

As detailed in another post (and in many other places), is about to legitimize e-books. Or give it one helluva try.

Why is Amazon doing this? Well, you can count on statements from Amazon along the lines of "level the playing field" (gawd--what an absurd statement!) and "give every writer the exposure she deserves" (nobody "deserves" nuthin', mister--they gotta earn it!) But such sentiments will be little more than public relations squibs.

The real reason is money--dollars, bucks, ducketts, simoleons, squeeze, cronkites, jack, lucre, loot--cash! Amazon will make $149 from anyone who wants to publish e-books, because you have to use the proprietary Mobipocket software if you want Amazon to sell your wares--and the Mobipocket creator costs $149.

In addition to the entry fee, Amazon will, if it continues the business plan already in place at Mobipocket, take 60 percent of each book's cover price.

With anyone able to be an author, the field is likely to get very crowded. So crowded, in fact, that it will be difficult for writers who aren't already established to get noticed. A lot of books will sell a few copies, and a few books will sell a lot of copies, just like in the real world.

Which is okay from Amazon’s viewpoint, because they are going to make money on the poorest sellers, and it will be pure profit.

To explain: As has been demonstrated by Chris Anderson in his book, The Long Tail, 20 percent of the goods offered by a given retailer generate 80 percent of the profit. The remaining 80 percent of goods generate decreasing profits, and in general aren't worth stocking when the space they take up could be used to stock more of the top-selling 20 percent of products.

However, as Anderson shows us, when it comes to downloadable products there is no "space" taken up by virtual stock. So it's possible to stock literally everything. Further (as his studies demonstrate) if you stock everything, at least 98 percent (ninety-eight percent) of all items will be purchased at least once in a year.

With no cost for stocking items, it’s profitable to stock the 20,000 virtual books that could not be justified in a brick-and-mortar bookstore because they sell one copy a year. So, you (Amazon) stock those 20,000 books, and 19,600 of them rack up sales because there is a market for anything and you’re serving not only the market for “hits,” but also the niche markets. Markets for books on subjects like aerial photography that interest only a few people. Even markets for books that people don’t know they want until they see them.

So, if your haul is $3.60 per book (net on a sale price of $6.00), your poor sellers still bring in $70,560. If the next 20,000 low sellers have “only’ 3 sales a year, you have another $211,680. And so on, up into the millions.

So, in allowing anyone to put up an e-book for sale (and charging them for it) Amazon is serving those niche markets and scoring sales that those who stick with the 20/80 rule lose.

As a bonus, the Mobipocket business model allows the company to hold back royalties amounts under $150. Since the majority of books are going to be small sellers, Amazon is going to have one heck of a float--all the more reason to encourage people to become “authors.”

What Does the Spirit Drive?

Don't Fight With Yourself

''Don't fight yourself." That certainly looks like it has the potential for being advice of great moment, doesn't it?

I came across this in Edward Teller's memoirs. It was part of a goodnight wish: "Good night. Sleep tight. Don't fight with yourself." The intent was probably something along the lines of don't worry over things, don't toss and turn and keep yourself awake.

Being an insomniac I can appreciate that, for I've spent endless hours battling myself over everything from worries about family to grand ideas about the turning of the wheel and why and how we're here--not to mention why the hell can't I get to sleep?

I also perceive "Don't fight with yourself" as a reference to paying attention to what I like to call "intellectual instinct." Intellectual instinct is that part of us that questions things--stories, votes, rules, statements, conventional wisdom, whatever. Too many people suppress the instinct to question an established order or icon or way of doing things for fear of being criticized, not being "cool," or even out of fear that their own thinking might be faulty.

When your intellectual instinct prods you on an issue, don't suppress it, don't fight with it. Take the time to explore the issue--including the "sides" that don't appeal to you. There's something about the issue that's making you uncomfortable, and you need to find out what it is.

You might want to dismiss this as 1960s counter-cultural wisdom that isn't needed today, since the counter-culture that preached questioning authority is now in charge--but you shouldn't.

Speaking of today's authority group: "We have met the enemy and they are us" is more than a clever statement. The generation in charge today (and I am a part of that generation) doesn't want its policies and rules questioned any more than the gang in charge in 1970, or 1950, or 1860, or any other time. And today's establishment are using the same disinformation and social engineering tactics that have always served to control thought: "If we get enough people saying and thinking such-and-such is bad, then they will pressure the rest into submission." File the media under "people," because the professional media, the hip media, the conservative media, the underground media, and any other media are just as capable of delivering misinformation as ... well, as a blog.
Consider the words of Steppenwolf's "Monster."

Amazon E-Books: Good for Writers?

When I first heard that Amazon was getting behind e-books, I thought, “Great! If anyone can move e-books into the mainstream, it’s Amazon!” This could be a very good thing for writers—a potential market numbering in the millions, as opposed to an exposure of a few hundred thousand for a paper (hardcopy) book.

It sounded good. And Amazon was offering its very own e-book creation software to help with the publishing process, though one could choose other programs to create e-books in other formats--or so I thought.

When I started checking into the setup, my enthusiasm waned. What I learned convinces me that Amazon will be about as helpful to e-book writer/publishers as the 19th century coal companies were to West Virginia and Kentucky landowners, company stores and all.

Why the dreary prediction? Because writers have to pay to be published. And because Amazon would make money whether or not a given author’s titles sell well, giving the company little incentive to help build sales.

If Amazon builds it, they will come
First, understand that Amazon will legitimize e-books. Not that e-books are illegitimate--but consumers have to learn to trust some products. (It’s like the early days of radio, when most people avoided buying radio receivers because they didn’t understand radio and thought it was some sort of trick.)

Readers will flock to Amazon because it’s a trusted brand name, has a terrific selection, and has earned a reputation for value. Independent and e-book-only writers will go along with the plan in order to get the world’s largest bookseller behind their product. Trust me; there are few writers who will pass up the opportunity to put their work in front of tens of millions of readers, no matter what they say about not being in it for the money. Whether their motivation is money, a cause, or just getting “in print,” writers want their work to have as much exposure as possible.

How will writers make money?
If Amazon adheres to the Mobipocket business model, it will make a fair profit on each e-book it sells--50 percent of the cover price. That’s not out of line, as most brick-and-mortar bookstores make 40 to 50 percent of a book’s cover price. For authors who are also publishers, it’s a bigger piece of the pie than they get from conventional publishers.

But the author/publisher would not receive 50 percent. Under the current Mobipocket/eBookBase contract, author/publishers are charged a 10 percent “affiliate fee.” Which leaves them with 40 percent of the cover price of each book sold.

That’s still a greater percentage than a typical author gets for a paper book. But sales aren’t going to be on the same level as paper books. (More on that in a few paragraphs.)

“You have to spend money to make money ...”
Here’s an element that really bothers me: Writers have to pay to be published. No, it’s not a per-book or stocking charge or anything like that. It’s more like an admission fee: Anyone who wants to see their work in Mobipocket form (thus backed by Amazon) has to buy Mobipocket Creator Publisher Edition, currently priced at $149. There’s a cheaper personal version, but it doesn’t offer security or Digital Rights Management (DRM) features--which turn out to be very important because you can’t sell books without DRM.

For $149 you get a license to use the creator on one computer. I assume commercial publishers will get some sort of site-license deal. Now, the $149 isn’t a big chunk of money, but my motto has always been “Writers don’t pay—writers are paid.”

The hard part
Once you put your book into Mobipocket format, there will be a submission process to go through with Amazon. It will probably involve providing some promotional material about you and the book, and maybe breaking out a sample. Hopefully it won’t involve a fee. Then you’ll sit back and wait for the royalties to roll in.

But those royalties may not roll in for quite a while. Mobipocket pays quarterly, but retains royalties until they reach $150. Mobipocket also holds all proceeds from retailer sales until the amount reaches $150. This means that Amazon could hold 100 percent of the proceeds from every book for months or years.

Combine this model with Amazon’s scale and the company is guaranteed to make money whether or not books sell well. If an e-book sells a lot of copies, Amazon makes out with its 60 percent share. Plus, it gets to hold the money a few weeks before releasing it to you (this is called “float”). If a book sells only one or two or five copies every month or quarter or year, the gross proceeds go into the float, money the company can invest or use for operations.

With the number of books Amazon is likely to have in stock, the float will add up to serious money. And Amazon will attract a lot of writers. People who never even thought about writing a book will be inspired to put together e-books to offer on Amazon.

What are you worth?
Right now you can buy The Da Vinci Code in e-book format for $6.99. The book has probably sold a goodly number of copies. Whether they’ve read it or not, most people will feel it’s worth the price. But what about The Odysseus Solution, by midlist writer Michael A. Banks, or Ghosts of Futures Past, Anton Katzenskeller’s first novel? Are you, the average reader, willing to take a gamble on one of these for seven bucks? Not likely. But you might go for one at $3. If you buy Anton’s book, he will net $1.20—actually more than he’d get as a royalty on a paperback novel.

This means Anton has to sell 125 copies of his novel before he gets paid--assuming Amazon retains the Mobipocket/eBookBase setup.

Now, how likely is unknown writer Anton Katzenskeller to sell 125 copies in a quarter, with tens of thousands of competing titles fighting for readers’ attention? Not very. And as long as Anton sells fewer than 125 copies, Amazon is using his money for nothing.

Hm ... this sounds almost as bleak as conventional publishing. At least the publishers don’t make us pay to get into print. Not real publishers, anyway.