I feel like we’ve heard this before but it still sucks

You can go back through the archives of this blog, hardly an authority on anything (unless AI content farming has really killed off every other blog and then maybe we are), and you can see so many instances of “This is going to kill [some aspect of the publishing world]” and largely it just hasn’t happened.

This one does sound bad. SPD, one of the last small distributors, is going under. They’re doing it quickly, and so far leaving some clients unpaid. It’s already incredibly hard as a small author to get your book noticed by the mainstream, and if nothing else steps in to fill the void left by SPD’s demise, it’s going to be a whole lot harder. People are very stubbornly clinging to their paper books, and while I don’t entirely blame them, it’s just not sustainable going forward.

I have a fair bit of faith in authors and their ability to pivot, but we keep making it harder on them and that’s no way to encourage creation.

For example, Kameron Hurley is one author offering a monthly Patreon subscription where you get exclusive stuff. It’s cool. I absolutely love her universe where some people can inhabit corpses. It’s a really well-developed universe that she has sadly (to me, at least) not written nearly enough in. But plugging an author I like is not the point (though it’s a bonus). This is all extra work. It used to be you could just be an author and your agent would work and get your books in front of people. Maybe that worked and maybe it didn’t, but that was about it. Now authors have way more opportunity but also way more hats they have to wear.

We’ve been talking for a decade at least about alternate paths to success for authors and they mostly haven’t materialized. Maybe authors should try using the electrical output of a mid-sized country to write a book and maybe Silicon Valley would take notice and throw some venture capital at them.

One book does not a reversal of policy make

I don’t share the optimism of Teleread and Kindle Nation, but it appears that Amazon has not entirely deserted free ebooks.

They do, however, remain committed to controlling virtually every aspect of the Kindle that they’ve leased you, which is not terribly consumer-friendly.

Still, at least it’s not as bad as it originally seemed.

Free ebooks back at Amazon- John Lutz Urge to Kill | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home.

Infinite goods and artificial scarcity

It’s no secret that I read Techdirt a lot. I think they have a lot of good ideas, and a good attitude about things.  A lot of the ideas behind Manfred Macx are ideas that Techdirt talks about all the time.

I was arguing with a friend about this article, which talks about creating artificial scarcity in place of something in infinite supply.  They give an analogy – what if we had Star Trek replicators for food, so everyone in the world could always have enough food, and no one would have to pay for it?  Who, then, would take this food away from the starving?  My friend argued that this would be terrible, taking jobs from everyone who works in the food industry.

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good analogy.  There’s no real substitute for food – people have to eat.  Whether or not you consider  high-fructose corn syrup to be food, you can’t escape the need for calories to survive.  For the analogy to hold, we’d have to replace the entire music industry, or the entire publishing industry, with something free. No one is talking about doing this.

A better analogy would be if the replicator only made tomatoes.  You could have as many tomatoes as you wanted, they’d always be perfect and delicious, and they’d always be free.  This would put tomato farmers out of business. But these tomato farmers could likely start growing something else instead.  And what happens to the rest of the economy?  Pizza and pasta restaurants suddenly find that a major ingredient in many of their dishes just became free.  Now, for the same dish, they can charge less, or buy higher quality ingredients, or make more profit.  And if you’re a really talented cook specializing in tomatoes?  Your skills are now in very high demand.

And there is still a demand for the people who bring the tomatoes from the replicator to your table.  There is still a demand for the person who stews and cans the tomatoes, or dices and seasons them.  And all the other food items, the ones that aren’t in infitnite supply, still need people to produce, process, and distribute them.

This is what’s happening in the music industry, and starting to happen in the publishing industry.  Some parts of the industries are finding their functions obsolete.  Instead of looking at the money they could save with electronic distribution, and what good use they could put that money to, the industry is seeking new laws and regulations to limit the infinite supply so business can continue as usual.

Even if every single song, book, and movie was distributed digitally for free, there would still be a need for the music, publishing, and movie industries.  There would still be demand for editors, producers, marketers, and all sorts of other services that these industries have always provided.

Reasonable people aren’t calling for the abolition of the music, publishing, and movie industries.  They’re just asking these industries to look to the future, and stop trying to limit supply to protect obsolete business models.

Edit to add:  This post has been translated to Spanish by a reader.  My Spanish isn’t good enough to read the whole thing, but the parts I understand look good.

Introducing Manfred Macx

It gives me great pleasure to introduce you all to Manfred Macx, a new kind of publishing company.  It’s not a new idea – bands big and small have been doing it for a while, and authors are just starting to try.  But as more and more of our media of all kinds is being distributed digitally, where making an extra copy (or a thousand) is nearly instantaneous and effectively free, we have to rethink the way we compensate creators of content.

At Manfred Macx, the author has a book, and the author has a goal, a target dollar amount that unlocks the electronic version of the book.  The author can sell almost anything;  Paper copies of the book, dinner with the author at a fancy restaurant, a character in the book named after you – whatever.  When the target goal is reached, everyone gets the ebook.

Beyond that, Manfred Macx is creating a community around authors and fans, fostering communication and connection in ways that weren’t possible before the internet changed our lives.

Watch this space for updates, or sign up for the mailing list.  We’re looking for authors right now, and expect the site to go live in November.

The new Kindle will disappoint

By managing both the content and the device on which to consume it, Amazon is in a fantastic position to do great things in the electronic publishing market.  Later today, they’re expected to announce the new version of their ebook reader, the Kindle.  The speculation is that it will be thinner, lighter, and easier to use.  “The “Previous Page” and “Next Page” buttons are smaller and less intrusive, to prevent accidents.”, Forbes says.  Most other articles about it are even less interesting.

The new Kindle will probably be the best ereader on the market.  The current model is already arguably the best available, so improvements should cement that position.  But until Amazon stops thinking about how to sell books in a new format and starts thinking about what fundamental changes to the way people read are now possible, whatever they might announce will be a disappointment.

It may be great for their bottom line – Amazon’s stock is doing quite well – but for everyone who isn’t a stockholder, incremental improvements to an expensive device that displays expensive words isn’t nearly as exciting as Amazon would like you to think.  It’s still just a slightly more convenient way for people to purchase and read books.

What about enabling things that just weren’t possible with books made of paper?  Interactive book clubs, automatic updates to serialized novels, communication with the author, or any number of things that become possible when you have an always-on internet connection.  But Amazon, like everyone else in the market, is too focused on protecting the old way of doing things instead of embracing everything new.

Today, and in the days to come, you will hear a lot about how wonderful the new device is, how this one is really “the iPod for books”, and how great Amazon is.  And then you’ll go back to reading books in more or less the same way you did before.

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Something to sell, something to give away

I love Techdirt.  Many of the ideas I present here are based on (or, honestly, stolen from) things I read there.  If you don’t read Techdirt, you should.

Here’s a good article to start on.  It helps that it’s about both my favorite band and one of my favorite concepts.  Nine Inch Nails has made a lot of money recently since ditching the record label and experimenting with new ways to sell music.  Giving away MP3s and other digital content and selling collector’s editions, cds, dvds;  Recently they’ve made concert footage available for people to mix and edit and do whatever they want.

This concept of taking things that you can copy as many times as you want and using them to promote the things that can’t be easily copied, the things still worth paying for, is the future of most media.  TV, movies, books, music – new technology means that you can do so much more with your content, things that weren’t possible even a decade ago.  It just takes a little innovation and good ideas on how to make people want to give you their money.

Take the example of two of my favorite authors, Charles Stross and John Scalzi.  I became fans of both by reading novels they were giving away in electronic form for free.

I first read Stross’ Accelerando a few years ago.  It was, and still is, available as a free download.  Since then, I have had a beer with Charlie, and read most of his books.  I own probably half of them (including a paperback copy of Accelerando, though that’s because I inadvertently put it on my Amazon wish list, and someone bought it for me for Christmas).  I will continue to buy his books as they come out.

I first read Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars at about the same time.  It, too, remains available for free online.  I have not had any personal contact with him, but not because I couldn’t – his blog is widely read, and he really communicates with his commentors.  I haven’t spoken with him because I haven’t really had anything to say, though I read his blog regularly.  I own a few of his books, too.

Both of these authors gave things away for free, connected with fans, and made me want to buy their books.  Will this work all the time, for every author?  Well, maybe not in exactly the same way.  But the model has so much possibility.  Eventually, no one will pay to simply watch a movie or read a novel.  People will still pay to see a movie in the theater, or see a musician in concert.  But the content itself will be free.  Some people won’t be able to make any money any more, and that’s unfortunate.  But many will, and some will make much more than they ever thought possible.  In the end, society will be better off.

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It’s not clear that reading is really evolving

CBC said Shortcovers is like a bookstore in your pocket – no matter you are, in the back of a cab, at a Starbucks or Tim’s – you can find your next great read, click, buy and get it downloaded instantly. You only need your existing mobile device: like an iPhone, Blackberry, or a web browser. That’s a huge convenience for consumers, especially because you can use the mobile phone you already have vs some special ereader.

Perhaps it’s sour grapes because their PR people didn’t reply to my inquiry, but I don’t find very much exciting or innovative about Shortcovers.  Or maybe they’re just being secretive leading up to their big launch, promised sometime this month.

The idea seems to be very similar to what Amazon has done with the Kindle, except not restricted to a particular device.  While this is a fine service that’s sure to get some use, it’s hardly ground-breaking.

However, they hint at “surprises” when they launch, so we could still see something amazing.  At the very least, increased competition in the market should be good for consumers.

via Shortcovers — Leading the evolution of reading.

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The Kindle wouldn’t have happened without the iPod

But even the 500,000 estimate would mean that the Kindle is outpacing iPod unit sales in the iPod’s second year on the market, when it sold only 378,000 units. That means if you turned back the clock and launched both at the same time, the Kindle would be outselling the iPod by 32 percent.

The problem here is that you can’t compare sales figures.  The Kindle is, in some sense, standing on the shoulders of the iPod.  The iPod changed the way people thought about buying and listening to music.  The Kindle hasn’t even yet earned the “iPod of books” title that was nevertheless bestowed upon it almost immediately.

Yes, Amazon has sold a lot of Kindles.  Yes, they sell them so fast they can’t keep them in stock.  But the Kindle is just a pretty slick new package on essentially the same old business model.  It hasn’t fundamentally changed the market.

If you had released the two at the same time, Kindle sales would have been much lower because people would have had no idea what to do with it.  The iPod paved the way for the very idea of the Kindle.  It gave it a context in people’s minds, something similar that it could be compared to.  It’s impossible to measure what this did for Kindle sales, but it did something, and you can’t ignore that something in making hypothetical projections.

Article: Is The Kindle Outpacing Early iPod Sales? – washingtonpost.com.

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Free Kindles and no newspapers

If [T]he [T]imes killed its paper print-run and followed the Kindle-only model, that would leave the newspaper with $346 million in its pocket. Okay, distributing the newspaper electronically in a secure way needs some electronic infrastructure…let’s stick a figure of $10 million on that. That still leaves $336 million to spare–a figure not to be sniffed at.

While it’s true that printing and delivering a newspaper is a huge cost that makes less and less sense by the day, this analysis still misses the point.  Replacing one ridiculous expense with a more ridiculous but smaller expense is not the way to succeed.  Newspapers must accept that the only way forward is to focus on the the scarce things they have to sell, and give the rest away.

And no, I don’t mean selling the printing presses and the buildings that house them.  While these things are scarce, and might bring in some extra cash, they won’t solve the problem.

But what do newspapers have that they could sell?  They have experienced reporters who will do more than scan Google and Technorati for the latest news.  They will actually investigate, research, and report.  These are all valuable things that take time and effort.  Businesses would pay for extensive, accurate, and timely information about their respective industries.  They already do pay for information like this.  Collecting this sort of information, weeding out what’s not important, presenting it in a readable way, these things are all hard.  These things are all valuable.  These are things you can sell.

But how does everyone else get their news?  For free.  Delivered via blogs and RSS feeds and however else people find it convenient.  Some will still pay for paper copies, at least for a while longer.

The difference is that, instead of trying to figure out ways to restrict your content, to keep people from getting at it, to inflate the price with artificial scarcity, you get it out there.  You use your content to build your reputation as a great place to come for good information.  And when people want to pay for your reporting and researching skills, you keep giving the content away.  Those who are paying you can have it first, maybe, but after that it goes out onto the internet where others can use it and build on it and consume it and keep building your reputation and naturally inflating the prices, sustainably inflating the prices (provided you continue the high level of service).

Saving the newspaper industry won’t really be about the newspaper at all.  It will be about transitioning an old industry that focused on putting things on paper into a new industry that focuses on collecting information and putting it together to be consumed.

Article: Fast Company – Should The New York Times Ditch Paper, Distribute Kindle E-readers?

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Well, that’s great for a band . . .

Anyone who reads Techdirt regularly will recognize many of the themes here, particularly those dealing with making money in an industry where it doesn’t make sense to charge for your content.  And every time they post about another band succeeding with a new business model, I try and imagine how that model could be applied to writers and books with any degree of consistency.

So far I’ve been frustrated.  Certianly there are opportunities for authors as we move into an age of reading digital books instead of paper ones, but I have yet to see or hear or imagine any model where authors will be compensated for their work at a level that will allow them to live while giving away electronic versions of all their work.  That is not to say that it can’t happen, or won’t, but it means that there is more work to be done, and it means that there is tremendous opportunity for someone who can solve the problem.

There is no question that people will continue to write if they aren’t being paid.  Thousands of fan-fiction sites, Nanowrimo, and any number of other groups, online and off, demonstrate that people like to write for themselves, or just for the sake of writing.

But if we can’t figure out how to pay writers enough to do it full-time, the quality of the writing will go down.  Sure, Nanowrimo has shown that one can write a substantial piece of fiction in a short time.  But to get something equal in quality to your average published novel takes more than a month.  And books like that will be hard to come by if no one can quit their day job and write full-time.

So readers and writers alike are in this boat together, in need of a new plan to compensate writers when people finally realize that it doesn’t make sense to pay for something you can copy instantly and perfectly, as many times as you want.

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