It’s a story likely to make some readers queasy. Several British libraries have begun working with a direct marketing firm to stuff inserts into books at check out. “They’re going to be inserted right next to the panel with the return date on it, which means that everyone will look at them at least once,” said Mark Jackson of direct marketing company Jackson Howse. However, Guy Daines, the director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, however, is concerned about the “creeping commercialisation of library services.” I’ll second that.
This week at The Millions, we're attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. Yesterday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Today, Max considers the revenue problems facing literary websites... and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. On Friday, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.I.There's been no bigger story on the book pages in recent weeks than #Amazonfail. The furor itself hardly needs to be rehashed here (briefly: a supposed classification "glitch" caused thousands of books with gay themes to be removed from Amazon's bestseller lists and search results, making the books very difficult for readers to find), but the episode has entered into our evolving thinking about book coverage in the digital age. As Edan touched on in her #Amazonfail roundup, some might experience cognitive dissonance reading about the Amazon "glitch" on sites like The Millions.To understand this dissonance, you have to first know something about Amazon's stakeholders. Yesterday, in considering the fate of newspaper book sections we tried to conduct a similar stakeholder analysis of The New York Times Book Review. We argued that readers, writers, publishers, and critics all have a stake in the NYTBR. Depending on whether you agree with our analysis, you may feel that the NYTBR is overserving or underserving one or more of those parties. Luckily for those who find the NYTBR falling short of their needs, there are plenty of easily accessible alternatives.Like the Times, Amazon occupies a unique niche in the literary ecology (though its footprint is more massive than the NYTBR's ever was). Also like the Times, Amazon can serve as a sort of proxy for a larger set of players - in this case, for the New Economy businesses that increasingly mediate book coverage. And Amazon shares some of the Times' stakeholders: readers (shoppers), writers, and publishers. Critics wouldn't seem to play a role, except that Amazon has an important "hidden" stakeholder: the thousands of websites across a spectrum of topics and categories that participate in Amazon's Associates Program. This program pays site owners referral fees when they send readers to Amazon and those readers then make a purchase. As many of our readers know, The Millions is a participant; readers support our site when they start here before shopping at Amazon. Thus the peculiar sense of a feedback loop generated by our coverage of the #Amazonfail story.II.So, how did small, eclectic sites like The Millions become the "hidden stakeholders" in "the world's largest bookstore?" It's all part of a now 15-year-old story: Internet content providers looking for a business model. Particularly for smaller sites without an easily classifiable or marketable focus, Amazon's Associates Program has proven to be a good (and sometimes the only) alternative to an advertising model that simply doesn't pay off. (And that, lest we forget, is increasingly not paying off for the print analogs to these sites.) Book coverage has become decreasingly viable in print, and it may be that online book coverage can only avoid the same fate via "alternative" revenue sources like Amazon's program and others like it. For a website that has a tight focus and occupies a lucrative niche, revenue opportunities are comparatively plentiful. A visitor to a photography site probably likes cameras, and cameras are expensive enough that camera companies will be willing to pay good money to advertise to those readers. In a less lucrative niche (like, say, books), there may be far fewer advertising dollars to go around. Meanwhile, for sites with a broader focus, advertisers are often worried about not getting enough bang for their buck. (Why advertise cameras on a general interest site, when you can advertise to photographers?)The advantages that accrue to the hypothetical photography site in the search for advertising dollars extends to programs like Amazon's. Plenty of enterprising website owners have made a small fortune writing about lucrative niches and earning commissions when their readers click through to Amazon to buy those big ticket items. But an interesting consequence of the Amazon program is that it has also provided a meaningful revenue stream for a diverse array of sites that might otherwise struggle to pay the bills.To take one example: For the eclectic mega-blog Boing Boing, covering diverse subject matter and appealing to readers from all over the map, there is no obvious target demographic. Boing Boing likely can't command the ad rates that a more focused site of similar size could. But when Boing Boing has occasion to cover books, it links to Amazon, and it picks up some revenue whenever people click through the links and shop. Boing Boing gets enough traffic that Amazon affiliation is merely one of a number of different revenue opportunities open to it. For smaller sites, the opportunities available are few. (Read Levi Asher's "Modest Success Story" on Litkicks and the ensuing comments for a taste of what the advertising landscape is like for small culture-focused sites.) And so Amazon can provide a business model, or at least an element of one. At its simplest, the model is as follows: get a lot of traffic by writing compelling content and then throw in the occasional Amazon link when applicable. In this way, Amazon's Associates Program has helped breathe life into thousands of websites. Eclectic, mom-and-pop publications get a shot at making some money in a fairly unobtrusive fashion. And those publications, adapting to the altered terrain, allow Amazon to expand its presence across the Internet.In theory, a variation of this model could be pursued by all manner of sites. With their broad focus and high traffic, newspaper websites are decent but not ideal venues for advertisers. Were it not so likely to give their omsbudsmen coronaries, newspapers might be willing to augment their advertising revenues with "affiliation," and dire economic times may yet force their hands. Indeed, The Times (UK) includes a link to "buy the book" with every review, and operates its very own online bookstore.III.Despite all of the above, our partnership with Amazon is an ad hoc one, and the interests of Amazon and its Associates aren't always aligned. We've been doing this long enough to know that Amazon isn't the only game in town. We've been asked more than a few times why we don't link instead to big independent bookstore Powell's or to the smaller independents now collectively represented by IndieBound - those sites having been deemed more palatable by some.There's no reason to dismiss those options out of hand, but right now an Amazon affiliation makes the most sense for many sites offering book coverage. There are several reasons for this, and we share them here - maybe to some small degree to justify our choice, but also to offer a roadmap that current or future players might follow in order to compete with the Amazon juggernaut.For starters, viewed purely as a database, Amazon is a remarkable resource. It has innovated tremendously in this area over the years and currently offers by far the best book pages out there. To borrow an example from the previous post in this series, take a look at Amazon's page for 2666 and find "search inside the book," outside reviews, book recommendations, all manner of meta-data, and vibrant discussion among and opinions from readers. Powell's offers some of these features (including, in some cases, book scans from Google Books), but not quite all. IndieBound has not much at all in the way of book information. When it is suggested that we link to an "indie" when we link to books, the implication is that The Millions is a shopping site and that we can by our linking policy direct people where to shop. But the reality is that The Millions, like many sites that affiliate with Amazon, has an editorial rather than an "advertorial" mission, and one reason we link to Amazon is because it offers the most information about the books we write about, whether we recommend them or deplore them. As long-time blogger Matthew Cheney put it recently, "I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks."There are several more practical factors. Amazon's tools, reports, and ease of linking are superior to those offered by other stores, and Amazon has a long enough track record that affiliates have little concern that those links may one day stop working properly. Without delving into the boring details, let's just say that creating the book links for The Millions is not an effortless task, and that the ecosystem of tools that has grown up around the Amazon program lets us spend more time on the stuff our readers care about - namely writing about books. More importantly, other outfits simply don't have Amazon's track record in providing an affiliate program. Site owners participating in such programs have to feel comfortable knowing that their links are tracking properly, that the accounting is occurring properly, and that the program won't change or even disappear. While Amazon isn't perfect in this regard, it is the affiliation many sites are right now most comfortable using.While indie bookstores are typically seen as being at odds with Amazon, many do business with it. In fact, your favorite used bookstore is almost guaranteed to be selling books using Amazon's platform. Amazon's platform, particularly since its purchase of abebooks.com last year, is an essential tool for used booksellers. Authors and publishers may not like how easy it is for Amazon shoppers to click and buy a used copy over a new one, but from the standpoint of bookstores, Amazon gives thousands of local shops a global reach. Money-conscious readers, meanwhile, nearly always have cheaper, used copies to chose from. I don't buy books all that often from Amazon, but sometimes when I do, I'll opt for a used copy, and it can be startling to see the book arrive with a bookmark or a card bearing the info of the far flung shop that sold me the book. It's a tiny personal connection facilitated by the giant Amazon.Both Amazon's affiliates and used book vendors share the customer conviction that has given Amazon its formidable market share. Over the years, for The Millions and other website projects, I've done a great deal of research about different online business models, and, as far as affiliate programs go, the general consensus is that Amazon "converts" at the highest rate - that is, thanks to Amazon's brand recognition and widespread familiarity with how to use and navigate the site, readers are more likely to buy from it than from other sites. This point is a purely monetary consideration, sure, but it also addresses something else that concerns purveyors of online book coverage. We want to get more books into more peoples' hands - wherever they buy them from - and linking to Amazon seems likely to do that.While indie bookstores might someday soon surpass Amazon on many of the above points, there is a final element of the Amazon program that will be difficult for the indies to match. When you click from an affiliate site to Amazon and buy something, the affiliate gets a commission (with a few exceptions) no matter what it is. If someone clicks on a link to 2666 and in wending his way through Amazon, ends up buying a $1,700 grill, The Millions gets a commission on that grill. As you can imagine, this doesn't happen very often. However, the open secret of literature and culture sites that get a modest amount of traffic is that the commissions earned on books alone are not all that impressive (though for sites that earn commissions on a lot of book sales, they can add up). Instead it is the big ticket items that sometimes get bought that help make Amazon's program more worthwhile than others from a financial standpoint. The grills pay the bills. This is another gray area in an a revenue discussion that is sometimes portrayed in black and white. Amazon sells books at prices that undercut many small players in order to draw people in who will buy big-ticket items with bigger profit margins. For many people, the discussion ends there, but the truth is that the commissions on those big ticket items help subsidize the very same literary and cultural coverage that is having so much trouble finding a workable business model in newspapers and other traditional media. Amazon in some small way, and likely not intentionally, is helping to fund small online publications like The Millions. And there are other well-respected book sites that seem to have come to the same conclusions that we have.IV.In the end, the Amazon question is not one of pricing or sourcing, but one of financial viability. If the future of book coverage is truly online, profit expectations will have to be low (were they ever anything else?), but a world in which writers and editors can be compensated for their labor is a better one for readers. There aren't many meaningful revenue options for book sites, and some do without entirely, but Amazon offers a model that can go a long way toward supporting a small publication.That said, affiliation raises two problems. One is the potential editorial conflict inherent in affiliate programs in the first place, the notion that the presence of these links will tempt writers and editors into becoming shills rather than dispassionate critics. Despite this, participation in affiliate programs hasn't been met with much concern. And though these programs are sometimes described as a threat to readers, in an online marketplace with thousands of places to read about books, it's unlikely that disingenuously positive book reviews written just to sell books would garner much of a following, nor would the effort make anyone very rich.The other, bigger problem with Amazon is one of size and control. Is it a good thing for us to give more power to this behemoth link by link, post by post? This will be the focus of the final installment of this series, as we examine Amazon's heft and how it has been able to make its own rules in an emerging market - rules that could have big implications for publishing and the future of book coverage online.Part 1: Garth looks at the death of the newspaper book review section.Part 3: Max hazards some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism.[Image credits: Rachel Kramer Bussel, spcbrass, mccun934]
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From the moment I read about alt lit and cracked open a few PDFs, I wanted to create one. My latest article is a PDF. A congealed bit of technology, something we’re trying while we wait for literature’s savior format, not an app, not a Kindle download, but some new form yet to be discovered.
Hillel Italie, the AP's publishing beat reporter, has a story about how a couple of major book stores aren't getting behind the impending release of the Sony Reader. According to Italie, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon won't be carrying the device when it comes out this summer, while Borders will be carrying it. In a post from a couple of months ago, I mentioned the Sony Reader, which had gotten rave reviews from people who'd tried it out. Sony now has the Reader up on its Web site, and I have to say, even in the pictures, it looks a lot more usable than I expected. It's small and relatively elegant looking, but the quality of the text on the screen is most impressive. There is certainly a paper-like quality to the display. Despite all this, I don't think I'll be pulping my books anytime soon. I simply enjoy all the non-textual aspects of books too much. I do think, however, that if this device is as pleasant to use as people have described it to be, then surely there will be some use for it, and certainly some categories of books will be ripe for transition to this format. Textbooks come to mind.Truthfully, I'm really not all that surprised that Barnes & Noble isn't carrying the Sony Reader because I would imagine that the transaction of buying books for the device and the act of reading books on the device won't have any real connection to the typical brick and mortar book store experience. Not unlike how the way many people now buy and listen to music doesn't have much of a connection to the Tower Records down the street, and Tower Records (probably to its detriment) isn't in the "eMusic business." As for Amazon sitting this one out, that's a little harder to understand, but I'd imagine it'll jump on board if there's any inkling in the early going that the Sony Reader is taking off. Ultimately, I think the Sony Reader will be a success if Sony manages to sell it as a comfortable reading device and not a replacement for books. There are a few other issues, of course. It's expensive, set to retail for $300 to $400, and there are many handheld devices, and many more on the way, that can function as "eReaders," though without Sony's special, paper-like display, while also doing a lot of other stuff - I'm talking Palms and the like here. Regardless, though, 2006 should be an interesting year to watch the ongoing digital future of books.Supplemental Links: Another pic of the device at Gizmodo; Kevin 2.0 asks if dedicated eBook readers are really needed; Bookninja, on the other hand, calls it the "iPod for nerds."
Too often, as we look at the impact of new media on publishing, we are relgated to trading in hypotheticals. "If all the books in the world were searchable..." This week's article in The New Yorker on digitizing books covers that ground (though the article's writer Anthony Grafton is aiming mainly to deflate the hype surrounding the issue rather than to build it up).With this in mind, it was refreshing to see Dilbert-creator Scott Adams' column in the Wall Street Journal about the real-life consequences of giving content away for free. I'm not sure if the column is visible to non-subscribers, so I'll just go ahead and quote liberally.His main topic is his new book, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!, a large portion of which is culled from his very popular blog. In the process of putting the book together, however, he learned a lesson:As part of the book deal, my publisher asked me to delete the parts of my blog archive that would be included in the book. The archives didn't get much traffic, so I didn't think much about deleting them. This turned out to be a major blunder in the "how people think" category.A surprising number of my readers were personally offended that I would remove material from the Internet that had once been free, even after they read it. It was as if I had broken into their homes and ripped the books off their shelves. They felt violated. And boy, I heard about it.Free is a powerful thing as it turns out. An earlier experiment with free content had also confounded his expectations:A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, God's Debris, on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, The Religion War slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.Adams goes on to tie this into the music industry and Radiohead's recent pricing experiment in particular.So I've been watching with great interest as the band Radiohead pursues its experiment with pay-what-you-want downloads on the Internet. In the near term, the goodwill has inspired lots of people to pay. But I suspect many of them are placing a bet that paying a few bucks now will inspire all of their favorite bands to offer similar deals. That's when the market value of music will approach zero.But it's not all dire. Adams' interactions with his readers through blogging have been "unexpected and wonderful," while putting Dilbert online for free years ago has yielded mixed though mostly positive results. It "gave a huge boost to the newspaper sales and licensing. The ad income was good too. Giving away the Dilbert comic for free continues to work well, although it cannibalizes my reprint book sales to some extent, and a fast-growing percentage of readers bypass the online ads with widgets, unauthorized RSS feeds and other workarounds."As to the lessons to be learned from all this, Adams' conclusion is as good as anybody's, "Free is more complicated than you'd think."
A few months ago, I wrote about some of the oddities of Amazon's customer review system. I suggested that certain of Amazon's "Top Reviewers" had become semi-professionalized, and that some five-star customer reviews reach readers the same way reviews in the Times (and on blogs) do: as part of a well-organized press push. A story that appeared in Galleycat last week revealed something surprising (to me anyway): the Amazon push may work in the opposite direction, to keep an unwanted review from surfacing. Apparently, Deborah MacGillivray, a romance novelist, convinced Amazon to expunge the reviews and comments of a reviewer who had been critical of her work.Again, it appears that Amazon's customer review system is evolving beyond "helpful, tell-it-like-it-is product information" into an extension of the publishing demimonde. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with the American review system, in which publicists send advance copies of books to influential readers in an attempt to get press; it is, rather, to argue that Amazon should take a good hard look at its system. On one hand, it could work harder to protect the disinterestedness of customer reviews (by not kowtowing to authors, for example, or by getting rid of the reviewer rankings). On the other, it might recast the review system as less of an aw-shucks, communitarian forum.
What better time than now to bring back the pocket paperback? People have no money to spend on hardcovers, and even the full-sized trade paperbacks are a pricey, given the economic times. There are also strong trends in our society that encourage less waste and the downsizing of our myriad possessions. A return of those classic 6 3/4 inch by 4 1/2 inch volumes, now all but extinct, save for in a few genres and in used book stores, could save paper and space and entice younger readers for whom $25 for a hardcover and $14 for a paperback is too much money to risk.I've written in the past that books are too big -- not too long, but too bulky and heavy and expensive -- and pined for a return of the pocket paperback, so that carrying a book with you didn't feel like such a chore. A combination of factors led to the demise of the pocket paperbacks that were prevalent in the middle part of the 20th century. These pocket paperbacks had been sold at newsstands and drugstores rather than bookstores, but as these venues stopped selling books, the pocket paperback market shrunk. Around the same time, a wave of consolidation hit the alternative book distribution network that had sprung up around these pocket editions, shrinking the number of books available, and consolidation among publishers folded the purveyors of the pocket editions into larger publishing conglomerates built on a different business model. Finally, the introduction of the trade paperback -- the larger paperbacks prevalent today -- squeezed the pocket edition out of the publishing equation except in a few genres -- romances and mysteries -- that still cling to the similarly-sized mass market format (which you can still see at grocery stores and in airports).But perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards pocket editions again. HarperPerennial recently introduced the Olive Editions collection. According to the marketing material, "they fit in your back pocket and only cost ten bucks each." (And eight bucks on Amazon). So far the line includes three titles, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. At 7 inches by 4 1/2 inches, they are a touch larger than the pocket paperbacks you see in used bookstores, and while their cover design is smart looking, they are not as inviting as the pulpy art that used to emblazon even the classics. Nonetheless, they represent a smart move by HarperCollins, and one hopes that they will announce more titles in this format and that other publishers will follow suit.A full-fledged return of pocket paperbacks would be surprising, however, as ultimately it seems likely that an even smaller format will take center stage, a format that is indeed infinitesimal. With hardware innovations driven by Amazon's Kindle and perhaps Apple and Sony as well, reading on these devices will become more palatable for a larger percentage of readers. Selection of titles will improve and developments like Google's recent deal with publishers will further expand the availability of titles in digital formats.Like many other sectors of the economy, the publishing industry is likely to face serious challenges over the coming year. The silver lining of course, is that this may drive innovation. New formats (digital and tangible) created now may entice a new generation of readers down the road.
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Amazon has been notoriously vague about sales of Kindle ebooks and of the Kindles themselves, but looking at the Amazon stats at The Millions, we can see that Kindle ebook sales have jumped by an order of magnitude since the launch of the new version.When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the second iteration of the Kindle in February, he confused lots of folks when he said "More than 10% of the units we sell are Kindle book sales." It was later clarified that he meant that, when looking at the 230,000 titles available for the Kindle, Kindle ebook sales account for 10% of the sales of those titles. Meanwhile, analysts have been trying all along to wrap their heads around what the Kindle means for the still nascent ebook market. To give an example, one analyst last year suggested that Kindle ebook sales could hit $2.5 billion by 2012.Nonetheless, in the wake of all the hoopla surrounding the Kindle launch in February, it was hard to get a clear picture of whether we were seeing a lot of media hype from gadget-obsessed tech writers or a real watershed moment in how people will read. If our numbers (which are, admittedly, a very small sample size) are any indication, the launch of the Kindle in 2007 raised awareness of ebooks, but the launch of the Kindle 2, this past February, brought ebooks to the mass market.In early 2008, with the first Kindle a few months old, we had anecdotal evidence from an ebook publisher saying that the Kindle wasn't posting impressive sales. More recently, as the Kindle 2 hype was ramping up, a pair of established book bloggers noted that their Amazon stats didn't show much interest at all in Kindle ebook sales. Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review wrote "only one out every 726 items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from our site in 2008 was a Kindle download." Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading had similar findings: "While a few readers have purchased Kindle ebooks through my links, the vast majority have been sticking to the print editions."For The Millions, Kindle ebook sales through late February of this year were similarly underwhelming. To use Orthofer's metric, Kindle ebooks sales from November 19, 2007, to February 21, 2009, the day before the Kindle 2 started shipping, amounted to one out every 99 items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from The Millions. So, a good deal better than what Orthofer was seeing but still not exactly an impressive number. (Incidentally, pre-Kindle ebook sales - presumably ebooks meant for devices that predate the Kindle - amounted to one out of every 272 from the start of The Millions to November 18, 2007)But what's interesting is what's happened since the Kindle 2 started shipping on February 22. From that point until today, even though we still only link to the physical editions of books, Kindle ebooks have accounted for an incredible one out of every six items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from The Millions. Again, I have to stress that the sample size isn't huge and that this is just one data point, but it certainly seems that with version 2, the Kindle has gone from a novelty to something much closer to the mainstream.
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