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.
Bryan Gilmer of Durham, N.C., teaches newswriting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes for institutional and corporate clients. Until 2003, he was a reporter at Florida’s largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He has just independently published a crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz.Last week, I created a Kindle version of my indie crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz, using the tools at Amazon’s Digital Text Platform. It took about nine minutes, a “why-not” side project alongside my trade paperback, which I published using Amazon’s print-on-demand company, CreateSpace.My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I’d sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, “If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It’ll generate sales and reviews.” So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:As of 5 p.m. Friday – about 36 hours later – Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers – the only title not by huge names like John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and Elmore Leonard in the top 25. Its overall Kindle sales rank was as high as 133rd out of all the 283,000+ fiction and non-fiction titles available in the Kindle Store.I thought, now that I’m in the rankings, I shouldn’t have to be so cheap. I bumped the price to $4.99. Sales continued, but at a slower pace, (and Felonious Jazz has slipped in the rankings. I probably should have stuck with $1.99 longer). I also drew in some people who just buy cheap Kindle offerings who don’t normally read the genre, though they may have been less likely to enjoy it than fans of similar books.But overall, what a no-budget way to gain visibility. A few big lessons here: Readers expect Kindle books to be much cheaper than dead-tree books (because they know it costs less to publish them and they can’t share them and worry they won’t have them forever). A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign. Now that there’s a free Kindle app for iPhone, the potential audience for a Kindle title is not just the half million people who spent $359 for the device but many times that large. It’s surprisingly comfortable to read book text on the Kindle iPhone app. If you haven’t tried it yet, get the app and grab my free sample from Amazon, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s transformative to have a book you’re reading (or several) on your phone to pull out whenever you have to wait in line or for an appointment.More worrying for conventional publishers is that Kindle board posters don’t think big publishers are pricing their titles cheaply enough, and when prices get above $9.99 they get angry about it. I’m not sure whether the high prices are due to higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales. (But the advantages! Near-zero production costs. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns. New edition at any moment. Never out of print. And the Kindle makes people read and buy more titles.) Could big publishers go from being at a tremendous advantage to competing for top-25 sales rankings – if not profits – with a guy in his home office? Will a Netflix-like company launch without the expensive legacy infrastructure of the big New York houses and take advantage of elasticity of demand at much lower price points? As I type this I realize – maybe that’s Amazon.A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.
Twitter had its big moment last week, but unlike so many other technology start-ups in the seeming parade of millionaire-makers over the last two decades (with the obvious exception of Amazon.com), Twitter has developed a special following in the literary community, from high-brow to low. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers revel in words, and Twitter, nearly alone among hot technology start-ups, is mostly about words, crafting them to meet the medium’s peculiar restraints and sending them out into the world to be engaged with or ignored. Twitter is like some atomized version of the writer’s process. With Twitter, ideas go out piecemeal, the whole process taking a millionth the amount of time it would if you were to glom all those ideas together into one big whole and turn it into something as unlikely-seeming by comparison as a book. This speed, then, may be deeply satisfying — even addictive — as writers bypass so much of the toil of getting a book out of their brains and off to readers (New York’s Kathryn Schulz elaborated smartly on this idea last week.)
There is no uniform stance on Twitter in the literary community, of course. Some, like Teju Cole and Colson Whitehead, find it vital; many others — led by a certain one-time Time coverboy from the Midwest, do not. Some writers have more prosaic feelings about Twitter. Novelist Peter Orner wrote, “Some are talented at it; others, less so.”
Zadie Smith is not on Twitter. Nor are Jeffrey Eugenides (though his vest once was), Michael Chabon (not really, though his writer wife Ayelet Waldman is), George Saunders, or David Mitchell. Jennifer Egan is, but just a little bit.
Nonetheless, Twitter appears to be here to stay, for a while anyway. And it will remain a pastime for writers looking for book news, inspiration, distraction, literary puns, and every other thing they might want. But it wasn’t always that way. In the not too distant past, the literary lights of Twitter pecked out their first 140 characters and waited to see what Twitter would bring.
Curious, I dug back into the Twitter archive to see how these writers took their first steps into Twitter. What follows are the very first tweets of some of Twitter’s well-known practitioners from the literary world.
Finishing the website entries for my fall novel The Year of the Flood.
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 8, 2009
How does a petty trader come by N30 million worth of cars? Police hope Israel Ubatuegwu, of Ajah, has a good explanation.
— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) March 15, 2009
Preparing for Book Expo America in the office in Dumbo. The last time we’ve to schlap boxes ourselves. Next year we pay the Teamsters…
— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) May 30, 2007
Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully: “A serious writer is a rebel.”
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012
trying to figure out if someone does a decent MP3 workout, which will magically transform my iphone and my body at the same time.
— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) April 24, 2009
Slaughtered by Sam A. and Jefffery Y. at post-diner breakfast ping-pong. Licking wounds.
— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) February 13, 2009
Here’s a video of my speech at the NBCC in NYC last week: http://tinyurl.com/dfe8rt
— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 17, 2009
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) April 24, 2007
— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 23, 2007
doesn’t want to be an editor. oops, too late.
— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) December 3, 2008
I just opened my present from Dave McKean, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Heavy as a stone and beautiful. “See?” he said. “I do read your blog.”
— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 15, 2011
Fine, then. I’ll twitter.
— John Green (@realjohngreen) December 11, 2008
No matter what I do there are always 5 emails in my inbox that I am avoiding.
— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) April 1, 2009
I’ve reached the limit on how many Facebook friends I can add. So here is a new page.
— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) August 12, 2010
— E L James (@E_L_James) April 12, 2011
First Tweet ever, prompted by Jeff Howe’s essay in Sunday’s NYTBR. Velly interesting. Helloooooo?
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) April 1, 2009
coveting Susan Lewis’ hair.
— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) January 28, 2009
Becoming far more wired than I probably really need to be.
— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) December 1, 2011
I’m going to do it right this time.
— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) May 21, 2009
today felt like the unabomber but i wasn’t plotting anything or planning anything or trying to bomb anything and i was wearing 4-inch heels
— Kate Zambreno (@daughteroffury) June 29, 2012
Wessex Man http://tinyurl.com/yw93xb
— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) March 18, 2007
News: Netherland wins PEN/Faulkner award: It was overlooked for the Booker prize and the prestigious US Nat.. http://bit.ly/AufPL
— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) February 26, 2009
— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) July 2, 2008
Check out our feature on the best audiobooks coming this spring.
— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) January 31, 2009
Mario Bros. meets Macbeth: What do a pixelated plumber and a murderous king have in common? Nintendo DS — in En.. http://tinyurl.com/5gr5m4
— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) December 10, 2008
Hello, world! Official Library of Congress Twitter feed here. So nice to see 215 followers before so much as a single tweet!
— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) January 27, 2009
Welcome to the new GalleyCat Twitter feed, regularly collecting tweets from Senior Editor Ron Hogan, Editor Jason Boog, and Jeff Rivera.
— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 8, 2010
We noticed lots of sites use Twitter for feedback. We created this account as a placeholder, but please visit our Feedback Group anytime!
— goodreads (@goodreads) August 19, 2008
56 years after William Styron warned us about chasing the zeitgeist, The Paris Review is now on twitter. From issue 1: http://bit.ly/BCnnE
— The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 4, 2009
Culling together work for Electric Literature no.2, planning events for October, spinning splendidly through another day at the office.
— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) August 31, 2009
Rick Moody on running out of luck: http://tinyurl.com/ckno8d
— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) January 29, 2009
What will be named top book of the decade? http://bit.ly/AMgq8 What’s your pick?
— The Millions (@The_Millions) September 21, 2009
What’s the best part of B.G.’s “Bling Bling” video? Pre-tattoo’d Wayne, zooming red VW Beetles, or the crew’s outdoor fine china picnic?
— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) February 2, 2011
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. On Wednesday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Yesterday, Max considered the revenue problems facing literary websites… and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. And in today’s final installment, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.
Yesterday, we looked at some of the revenue sources available for literary sites and why Amazon’s affiliate program, despite its flaws, is often a better option than standard advertising and affiliate programs run by other booksellers. But Amazon links – and the implied endorsement that comes with them – present new problems, making Amazon ever bigger and more central to a book industry that for readers and writers may be better off fragmented. What’s now known as #Amazonfail offers a perfect example of what readers and writers have to lose from an Amazon-dominated book industry. Patrick recently outlined on his Vroman’s Blog why the threat that Amazon poses is one of control and not censorship per se. Ultimately, the Amazon experiment may prove unsustainable, and the viability of online book coverage may come to rest on a more robust and more serious advertising model than is currently available.
In the world of books, Amazon has a massive footprint. Even as other book retailers – chain and indie – have struggled to stay afloat, Amazon has used its heft in other product categories to treat books as a loss leader and consolidate its hold on that market. A pair of surveys in 2008 put online book sales at between 21%-30% of total U.S. book sales, with the assumption being that the lion’s share of those online sales belonged to Amazon. In a market as fragmented as books, that’s a big number. And as Patrick points out, monoculture (or as we used to call it in econ class, monopoly) can cause problems for those stakeholders we discussed yesterday. The NYTBR’s stakeholders can publicize, read about, and review books elsewhere, but amid tough times for bookstore chains and many indies, Amazon may be the only viable option for many readers. For authors, readers, and publishers of the books impacted by the recent “glitch,” the potential dangers of Amazon’s outsized position became glaringly obvious. Regardless of whether the “glitch” was intentional, the result of a poorly constructed classification system, or just plain bad luck, it is the sort of thing that can all too easily waylay stakeholders in a market controlled by a single giant.
From the standpoint of readers and those concerned with freedom of expression, last week’s “glitch” was alarming, but from the standpoint of someone tracking the role played by Amazon’s Associates Program in the business model of book- and culture-focused sites, another effect of Amazon’s large footprint has become a source of even more consternation.
We’ve written at length about the Kindle here at The Millions over the last two years. To the extent that there is a debate about the experience the device offers, we haven’t taken sides, but as we have observed how Amazon has treated the device within the Associates program, we have come to understand the huge land-grab the Kindle represents.
In short, by making it possible for Kindle users to buy Kindle ebooks via the device itself, Amazon has cut middlemen out of the picture. The Associate’s commission depends on a click in a browser. For ebooks bought via Kindle, there is no click. And, just to be certain that intermediaries are cut out of the Kindle food chain, Amazon recently made another, symptomatic adjustment to its Associates Program. In February, the same month that Amazon launched the Kindle 2, Amazon quietly stopped paying Associates commissions on Kindle ebooks bought via the web. (Unsurprisingly, Amazon still pays a healthy bounty on Kindles sold. The calculus is clear. Sell more Kindles and sell more books via a vertically integrated system that only Amazon controls.) Like Apple’s iTunes ecosystem in the era of digital rights management, Amazon’s Kindle represents a bid to control distribution of a new and closed digital format that is only compatible with Amazon-approved devices. If, as has largely been the case with music, books are increasingly distributed digitally, Amazon’s position in that market could become huge. [Update: Subsequent to the publication of this piece, Amazon resumed paying commissions on Kindle books bought through the website, though commissions are not earned on ebooks bought through the Kindle device.]
The company’s early move to lock Associates out of commissions on ebooks is just a taste of what Amazon could do with a dominant position in the emerging ebook market. (Consider, for example, the recent news that a banned Amazon account also disables the Kindle. And separately, after cornering the market on ebooks, Amazon can set the prices it wants to charge for them.) For book sites pursuing affiliation as a revenue option, it also offers a scary prospect: that the revenue earned from Amazon’s program will slowly dwindle in inverse proportion to the popularity of Kindle ebooks.
Some will argue that the Kindle ebook market is currently too small to matter, but the Kindle may be rapidly gaining steam. We recently observed the massive ramp up in Kindle ebooks bought by readers of The Millions since the launch of the Kindle 2. And TechCrunch recently reported that Amazon may have sold 300,000 Kindle 2s in a little over two months since the Kindle 2 was unveiled – a stunning rate in comparison to the 400,000 Kindles sold during the 15-month lifespan of the first generation device.
As all of this has come into focus for us, it’s become easier to envision a time when it would no longer make sense for The Millions to link to Amazon. If it comes to pass that people who shop at Amazon for books tend to prefer Kindle ebooks, it would be pretty silly for us to keep linking to the Amazon pages for the physical copies of books. And why link to the Kindle ebook page when we could link to a commission-generating page at Powell’s or IndieBound? Even considering the point we made yesterday about big-ticket items, we are a site that covers books and appeals to avid readers, and most of the commissions The Millions earns via the Amazon program are earned on books. There are many other literary and culture-oriented sites that fit this same profile and link to Amazon. If Amazon’s evolution closes the door on these sites, it will make it all the more difficult for these sites to become economically viable and it will be a blow to literary and culture discussion on the web. On the other hand, it will be an opportunity for indies to compete with Amazon.
One of the key points tucked away in yesterday’s installment was that, even as the business model of book coverage in print fails and online coverage rushes to fill the void, there’s nothing keeping online coverage from the fate that has beset print coverage.
In light of everything that’s going on with the Kindle, a decentralized alternative to Amazon’s Associates program, like the one that IndieBound has been ramping up, becomes more intriguing, but such alternatives have a long way to go before they can offer a value proposition that can compete with the incumbent.
A better, far more realistic, and completely obvious solution for supporting book coverage online is advertising – whose current inefficacy, you may remember, was what made Amazon attractive in the first place. In theory, two factors recommend online advertising to potential advertisers and marketers. The infrastructure is already there – building an affiliate program from scratch is no easy task nor is it a sensible option for many advertisers – and it’s much cheaper than trying to reach a similar audience via print advertising.
If the email inboxes of Millions contributors are any indication, there is currently plenty of interest in reaching a readership like that of The Millions, but not much interest in paying for it. There are always going to be books that don’t jibe with our editorial focus, but we have no such restrictions on advertisements. (This isn’t to say that any serious book journalist doesn’t welcome a well-targeted email.)
In his part one of this series, Garth noted how the conglomerated publishing industry has shelled out less and less money for the advertisements that support The New York Times Book Review and other, now defunct, book review sections. Perhaps part of that same cash-saving strategy has been to make scattershot pitches to bloggers in order generate some free publicity. But as Garth also discussed, the quality and readership of book coverage offered by the top bloggers and a number of impressive new online magazines is only increasing. Meanwhile, no longer the new kids on the block, as these sites professionalize further and their own editorial voices mature, they rely less on these pitches to shape coverage. The publishing industry can either try to reach the readers of these sites through advertising, or it can allocate money and time trying to cajole coverage out of increasingly inundated writers and editors. (Our own biggest advertiser, via the blogads at right, is Xlibris, the self-publishing outfit.) By getting serious about supporting book coverage online as it once did in print, publishers can hope to enjoy the same symbiotic relationship that Amazon now has with thousands of small sites.
However, we shouldn’t expect an increasingly struggling publishing industry to shoulder the load. When I worked with Bud Parr on the short-lived literary blog ad network Brainiads, the holy grail was securing advertisers from outside the publishing industry. Brainiads wasn’t able to meet this goal. So far, this development hasn’t materialized elsewhere and, in all likelihood, will be delayed by the current economic downturn. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, however. The audience for online book coverage is actually quite attractive for many advertisers, generally well educated and well off, and in the most likely scenario, some enterprise will make good on what Brainiads hoped to do (it occurs to me that the NYT would be an intriguing candidate), and, with a dedicated sales force, will reach out to companies to offer ads on a basket of book- and culture-focused sites with an attractive readership.
Until that day, book coverage online will remain rather precarious, for better as well as for worse. For smaller blogs, it is often largely a labor of love. For mid-sized, independent sites, the business model rests on flawed options like Amazon’s program and piecemeal revenue via existing ad networks. At the largest sites, including the online arms of venerable institutions like the NYTBR, book coverage depends on the dwindling profitability of news corporations as a whole.
Even 15 years in, the web is still the wild west. There aren’t a lot of rules, and literary sites have adapted and experimented in order to find a model that works. Now, even as much of the literary ecosystem endures a period of severe distress, one of the sustaining revenue sources, Amazon, is big enough to make a huge play, opening a whole new market, but raising plenty of red flags along the way. In many ways, this is representative of the historically uneasy relationship between commerce and culture. The hope is that book coverage, struggling mightily in print, can enact a land grab of its own online and find a niche that may ultimately prove secure.
I happened to notice recently, in my daily online wanderings, that the nominees have been announced for “The Seventh Annual Weblog Awards.” As usual, the organizers have listed a couple dozen categories, and as usual the same handful of blogs, more or less, are in the running. Many of the usual suspects are there, Boing Boing, PostSecret, Dooce, Gizmodo, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Lifehacker, and the rest – blogs that are now big business, some of which are owned by big businesses.The omission of “literary bloggers” from this long list of nominees naturally seemed glaring to me, having had a front row seat for the last four or so years as an amorphous and very loosely affiliated movement of bloggers has greatly expanded the realm of literary discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere. And though there has sometimes been an unhealthy “us against them” mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified.This is a big deal. Bloggers have helped create a new literary discourse that benefits readers, writers, and critics – a place where reading and discussing books for pleasure can augment the sometimes joyless drudgery that newspaper criticism has become. (Note how Jerome Weeks, now of book/daddy, jumped from his regular newspaper gig: “So it’ll be a relief to read for pleasure again. One reason it’s particularly appealing these days is that it’s so counter-culture — so counter to our prevailing techno-bully rapid-response profit-margin mindset.”).Yet we need those sometimes bullying newspapers. As Kassia wrote in a post in the early days of the LBC, “Books don’t have endless windows opening for them.” This sentiment was echoed in an Orlando Sentinel essay by movie critic Roger Moore late last year: “Reviewers, in general, are canaries in the print journalism coal mine, the first to go. Classical music, books, visual arts and dance are dispensed with, or free-lanced off the bottom-line. That’s happened everywhere I’ve ever worked.” But as the big windows close, and criticism sections shrink or disappear, hundreds of smaller windows have opened.In Kassia’s LBC essay, she went on to write, “It’s interesting to me that readers are leading the charge to discover and promote new, often overlooked fiction. Traditional avenues of literary coverage are necessarily limited in scope, even with the Internet.” I have come to believe, and I hope people agree with me, that book blogging is more than just a hobby. I say this not in a self-promotional or self-aggrandizing way (so many others are better book bloggers than I), but looking at how the public discourse about books has changed over the last few years. So, the truth is, having thought about it, I’m not disappointed that not a single book blog – not even some of the best (TEV, Ed, Bookslut, Conversational Reading… I could go on and on) – was singled out for recognition by the Weblog Awards. Litblogs have somehow gone too far down the path of assimilation to be considered for such distinctions, I think. Book blogs and traditional book criticism have intermingled sufficiently that they are now, except in a few remaining dusty corners, one.My declaring it doesn’t make it so, but perhaps now, the us versus them mentality between the bloggers and the professional critics is mostly behind us. Which is good, because there are so many more books still to write about.