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Object Lessons from 978 (Bookland)

It’s been almost exactly seven months since I started working at Firebrand, and sort of put blogging and newslettering on hiatus. But I think (insert a million caveats here) that I’m now feeling grounded enough in this work so that I can start commenting publicly again without fear of putting my foot in my mouth (okay, I’ll never be without that fear…but this does not stop me!).

In these seven months, we’ve been working very hard on developing, testing, and releasing Firebrand’s Content Services – which allows publishers to upload, convert and distribute ebook (and other) files to our Content Services Cloud. Our conversion partners are eBook Architects and Digital Divide Data. And our distribution partners are growing exponentially. I’m not going to pimp Content Services here (I was at BEA doing that for three days), but I’ve realized that I’ve gathered a lot of information just by being out in the field, and being part of a team that really understands the infrastructure of the book market.

To say I’ve learned a lot is a vast understatement.

Lesson 1 – These vendors are not like those vendors.

The new Big Six (Apple, Amazon, BN, Sony, Kobo, Google) are very very different from traditional book retailers. In fact, of the six, only one is also a traditional book retailer – and runs its ebook business separately and with different goals.

The rest, as Peter Brantley points out, are tech companies. And while some of them are informed by traditional bookselling, publishers are facing the fact that ebook retailers require different standards than print book retailers.

Publishers have been extremely comfortable with the book supply chain as it’s evolved. They know how it works – they know the nodes where things can break down. A lot of work has gone into building up the print book infrastructure: standards for shipping, standards for inventory, bar code placement, and communication between publisher and wholesaler, wholesaler and retailer. ONIX for print books did not happen overnight, nor did bar codes on boxes of books that immediately inform a warehouse exactly what’s in the box, what size the books are, and how much they weigh.

The ebook landscape is (lest we forget) still new. And we’re starting with a new set of players, some of whom have never been in the book industry and really do not care all that much about what has gone on before they got here.

We can’t make them care. And given the rate of ebook sales, we can’t ignore them.

So what’s a publisher to do? Right now, the best he/she can. At this point it’s a matter of recognizing and acknowledging that the market is chaotic. Standards are not just in flux – they are undefined. It is frustrating…it is also our reality at the moment.

Lesson 2 – The world is going to get bigger

At the Firebrand User Conference last September, Fran Toolan said that “slaying the rights dragon” is a critical issue. Brian O’Leary points out that Amazon recently has made significant investment overseas – meaning that publishers will have the opportunity to sell ebooks in markets other than the US. The dissolving of physical boundaries affects pricing, availability, and it will shake up the publishing business even more than anything else to date. Artificial restrictions on ebooks to protect existing business models will inevitably lead to piracy – the business models themselves have to change.

They will change – but not without a lot of pain and expense beforehand. It’s extremely tricky for publishers to work out what business practices are in fact sustainable and what are not. A lot depends on context – what types of books are published, what previous experience the publisher has with digital initiatives, who the audience is for specific publication programs.

Lesson 3 – There are no easy answers

Or, the answer to everything is, “It depends.” Just as there is no one single book market, there is no one single ebook market. The trends are very different in textbooks and trade books.  They are very different in the libraries and in the bookstores. Even in trade books, there are wildly different trends from genre to genre, subject area to subject area.

The market is complex – and it is growing more and more complex. It is difficult to scale. And competing in this market requires a lot of work – work that publishers are, by and large, unused to doing or even thinking about…such as file size, wifi vs. Ethernet connection, and whether or not the files were actually ingested on the vendor end. These are new workflows. As we know, new workflows are hard, and it takes quite a while to get good at them.

So what’s the good news? I don’t have any simple answers about how things will shake out – but I do know that once a book is digitized, you can do a heck of a lot more with it, which makes it more accessible to more people, whatever their location, disability, or economic background. My own opinion, based on what I’ve seen these last seven months, is that for all our pain and suffering now, we are working towards a pretty near-term future of “more books in more places”. Which is why a lot of us got into this business in the first place – we are passionate about books, passionate about their value to people, and we want to create opportunities for as many people as possible to be able to read them.

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Managing Joy

This week at the ECPA Executive Leadership Summit, Kelly Gallagher of Bowker reported that over a million ISBNs were produced in the last year.

I remember when the entire content of Books in Print was less than a million titles. That was 20 years ago.

Much of this is due to format proliferation, where the supply chain requires a separate ISBN for every format of a title, including digital formats. So the fact that an ISBN needs to be assigned to the Kindle format, and another ISBN to the Overdrive ePub file, and another ISBN to the Apple ePub file, and yet another ISBN to the PDF…yes, you can see how the ISBNs pile up.

And much of this is due to self-publishing – more people are publishing more books than ever before, because the barrier to entry in the book market has significantly gone done..

While many are ripping their hair out over metadata and identifier bloat in the supply chain – and yes, it IS worth ripping your hair out about – I would argue that a million ISBNs in the last year is a sign of something very very good. Something that many amazing people (Ramy Habeeb of Kotobarabia, Arthur Attwell of Electric Book Works, Pablo Francisco Arrieta) have been working towards.

A million ISBNs in the last year means that more books are available in more formats to more people than ever before.

It means that more books have the chance to get into more hands the world over than ever before in the history of books or hands.

And sure, a lot of these books are not going to last. Most of them, I’d say. But the point is, words and ideas have flooded the marketplace in an unprecedented way. We are living in an intensely creative time. And that is a cause for joy.

On a practical level…

How’re we going to manage all this joy?

Same way we manage everything else – with tools. We’ve got databases to handle metadata and identifiers. We’ve got XML tools to manage formats. We’ve got digital asset management systems to manage pictures and sound files and video files. We’ve got XML repositories and XML editors to manage words.

And with people. People who are passionate about (and creating order out of all this chaotic joy). People about ,a xhref="http://twitter.com/bsandusky">getting work discovered. People about – and people about . People who and . People who can by saying, ;

And people who can and begin to .

A million books created in a year – in the US alone! What a phenomenal achievement. And we are well-positioned to manage that joy into billions of hungry hands.

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Fear and Loving at TOC

It’s that time again, when the digi-literati convene on the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan and gleefully frighten the hell out of everybody. (One year, after Seth Godin gave a presentation, a CEO muttered to me, “Now do I slit my wrists?”)

TOC is one of those conferences that is simultaneously exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating because so many possibilities are gaily strewn across the immediate future like lights on a Christmas tree. Depressing because…when you get down to the nitty-gritty of implementation, that “immediate” future becomes further and further away. “Now” begins to look like next year. The glitter wears off the possibilities and they become work, just like everything else.

It’s an unnerving experience if you’re not prepared for it. And although this is TOC’s fourth incarnation, many publishers are still not prepared for it. Which seems to be part of O’Reilly’s job in this industry – to push the business past its comfort zone, even just for a couple of days. Enough pushing, the theory goes, and eventually what was unnerving last year is the way of doing business this year.

SBook publishers are a tough bunch to push. Conservative by nature, cautious to the bone, book publishers do not embrace change – and that’s putting it mildly. It was winter of 1999 when ONIX was adopted as a BISAC standard. It’s now 11 years later and…we are still lecturing publishers on the importance of good metadata (when it’s more important now than it was in 1999!).

This is a quality very difficult to explain to vendors who come into book publishing with great solutions, and who frequently leave book publishing with extreme disillusionment. Will book publishing ever move beyond ink-on-paper? (When it wants to.) Does it want to? (Not particularly.) Will it survive? (Yes.)

But O’Reilly’s right, and vendors need to pay attention. Looking back on the presentations for TOC 2009, many of the ideas offered up then have just begun to trickle out into the mainstream. Decent formatting for ebooks is a good idea. Social networking helps call attention to your titles. Women read loads of ebooks. Do consumer research. XML is a great tool that will help a publisher create books and other materials in any number of formats.

Vendors should not be discouraged by this seeming slowness – on the contrary, many publishers are only just now ready to hear what you have to say. There are so many of you who have such great tools – DAMs, editorial tools, production and XML tools, social media platforms, workflow management – and the emphasis on progress and innovation at TOC drives home the very points that you are making daily to prospective clients.

Yes, publishing is behind other entertainment industries – notably the music business, notably in issues like piracy and pricing. But it IS moving ahead. Maybe not under its own steam – recently, the mere fact of the Apple iPad led publishers into a strong enough position to finally negotiate with Amazon over ebook pricing – but it is being hauled, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

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The Value of a Publishing House

Slipping into the New York Times the day after New Year’s was an op-ed by Jonathan Galassi, president of FSG, which begins with the question, “What is an ebook?” and ends (or nearly ends) with this observation: “A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.”

In between the opening question and the conclusion is a gap roughly the size and consistency of the La Brea tar pits.

To the first point – “Are e-books a new frontier in publishing, a fresh version of the author’s work? Or are they simply the latest editions of the books produced by publishers…?” – the answer is, of course, “It depends.”

If an ebook is simply a digital reproduction of a print book, the answer leans towards being “the latest editions” – and frankly, in the case of a lot of ebooks, it’s less of a reproduction than a travesty of formatting and a sort-of approximation of what the print book was supposed to offer.

If an ebook contains new information/illustrations, is presented in a variety of formats and fonts, and possibly contains video, or an author interview, or other material…it’s probably “a fresh version of the author’s work” which has been curated by the ebook publisher in a different way than the print publisher did. (And which is what Open Road is saying they’re all about.)

But is it solely the author’s work that forms the basis of that ebook? Galassi argues, in the case of William Styron, “An e-book version of Mr. Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” will contain more than the author’s original words. It will also comprise Mr. Loomis’s editing, as well as all the labor of copy editing, designing and producing, not to mention marketing and sales, that went into making it a desirable candidate for e-book distribution. Mr. Styron’s books took the form they have, are what they are today, not only because of his remarkable genius but also, as he himself acknowledged, because of the dedicated work of those at Random House.”

All true!

But then the trouble starts. Galassi states: “An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.”

And here is where I strongly disagree. It’s those words “definitive form” – which presume that the hardcover first-run is the “real” book, while everything that follows is somehow derivative. As our work with StartwithXML has demonstrated, this view of the “editorial chain” is rapidly evolving into a model where there is NO “definitive form”.

It is true that an ebook distributor is not a publisher, in the same sense that a physical book distributor (Ingram, Baker & Taylor) is not a publisher. And many physical distributors are also ebook distributors.

But an ebook PUBLISHER is a publisher. And this is where I think Mr. Galassi gets it wrong. Because nowhere in this essay does he even discuss ebook publication, or regard ebooks as anything other than a digital version of a print book.

Let’s have a look at audiobooks as a parallel. Audio versions of books have to be read by someone – either a professional reader such as Jim Dale, or a famous/semi-famous actor, or a voiceover artist. That person must modulate his voice, decide what to emphasize, re-create the work aurally. A simple reproduction of the book so that you can hear it is more along the lines of what DAISY does for the visually-impaired, where you get a computerized voice reading rapidly and without inflection, spelling the words it doesn’t recognize.

Audio divisions of publishing houses – and independent audiobook publishers such as Brilliance – determine abridgement, voice quality, and a host of other factors in producing these “books”. And I would argue that the level of nurturing, curation and editorial is as meticulous as it is for that hardcover book. Audiobook publishers are not simply distributors – and to call them this is a disservice to what they provide.

As we fully explore the potential of ebooks (as Open Road is doing) we’ll find opportunities for precisely the sort of care-taking and curation that Mr. Galassi values so highly – just as we have for audiobooks. The “traditional” publishing process will not be replaced or diminished by ebooks – it will be amplified.

So yes, there will still be publishing, as Galassi himself concludes. “Even if someday, God forbid, books are no longer printed, they will still need the thought and care and dedication that Mr. Loomis and his colleagues put into producing William Styron’s work for nearly 60 years. Some things never change.”

Which kind of leaves me ultimately shrugging at this article. So what was your point?

The truth is, Galassi’s point is largely unspoken – and you have to have been in publishing a little while to glean what he’s really talking about. It’s very clear that he wants some form of credit for what traditional hardcover publishers do. In publishing, the form of credit that is most widely recognized is, of course, rights.

It’s interesting that Galassi brings up Random House in this particular example – because initially, Styron’s publisher was Bobbs-Merrill (as a correction notes at the end of the piece). In early December, of course, the CEO of Random House issued a memo asserting that Random House retained the digital rights to all its titles – shortly after Open Road announced that it would be mining publishers’ backlists for ebook material. Galassi seems to be lining up on the side of Dohle – that publishers, when they acquire a book from an author, are allowed to publish that book however they want, whenever they want.

And if those rights were not explicitly granted in contracts (because of course many contracts pre-dated any existence of ebooks), and if the courts do not uphold Random House’s position, it appears that what Galassi is not-so-implicitly saying is that publishers nevertheless deserve a portion of whatever profit is made from those digital books.

This gets even more interesting, of course – Galassi is essentially saying, “You wouldn’t even have a product if it weren’t for what we’ve done, so we should get some compensation beyond what we’ve earned from the production of this hardcover book. Those rights are implicitly granted in the contract with the author."

Which is basically an invitation to a large and long party attended by contracts and IP lawyers.

Practically speaking, however, the question then becomes, “How are you going to figure out what the hardcover publisher’s compensation should be?” Because in order to carve out that compensation, a monetary value has to be placed on each component of the publishing house: editorial, marketing, sales, product
ion, etc. And no traditional publishing house I’m aware of actually tracks these functions the way they would need to be tracked to create useful algorithms. Is Galassi saying they’re going to start?

There are other issues, of course. Not every author is a Styron – you’re not going to want to invest all that caring and tending in every single author. (And not every editor is Gordon Lish or Max Perkins, tenderly re-shaping, or in some cases gutting and renovating, what the author brings him.) When I worked in publishing 20 years ago, 80% of what my editors acquired went directly to copy-editing – no nurturing, no sitting down with the author…no reading. So I honestly have to question how much value is inherent in that 80% – obviously, the copy-editing process has value, of course, but what if the editor took a manuscript (as increasingly happens) from an agent that had already been edited, packaged, otherwise made publication-ready?

Authors have traditionally complained that their publishers aren’t doing such a great job marketing and selling their books; the explosion of self-publishing ventures and digital marketing consultancies (ahem), as well as the influx of new marketing-department hires at traditional houses, are evidence that these authors may in fact have a point. If an author can demonstrate an increase in sales after moving to a self-publishing model (as Steven Covey appears to be doing) or hiring a marketing consultant, what value is the publisher actually bringing? (I AM excited about publishing’s new digital marketing hires – many of them are very clued-in and will contribute a great deal of value – if they are allowed to do the things that need to be done.)

As for production, typesetting, paper selection – these are very important for print products, obviously, but ebooks use entirely different formatting and thus a great deal of print production is irrelevant to ebook creation.

I’d argue that we can’t take for granted that a traditional publishing house – simply by virtue of being a publishing house – adds value. The value a publishing house adds really depends on the editor, the author, the culture of the publishing house, and the book itself.

Whatever a “book” is. Wanna go there?

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Survey Says!

Recently I got into a discussion about how midsized publishers were managing their digital assets, and all parties in that discussion (who shall remain nameless) realized that we had NO IDEA how midsized publishers were handling increased digitization and proliferation of book formats.

So I decided to find out! And share! Because that is what we do here.

I devised a questionnaire that takes a reading on several departments within a publishing house: IT, Editorial/Production, and Marketing. These are the most likely departments to interact with a DAM system, to be experiencing pain points with insufficient digital asset management, and to appreciate good asset management in an agile content delivery framework.

I queried and submitted the survey to 50 publishers. Of those 50, 8 publishers flatly declined to participate (you know who you are). An additional 20 did not respond by the requested deadline. Or the grace period. Or the grace period after that. Eventually I had to close the door just for the sake of getting on with things. (Not that they noticed. I don’t think.)

So my results focus on the 22 publishers who did respond. Who have also asked for anonymity, but I want to extend my gratitude for quick turnaround and great information!

Some general trends in IT:

Most publishers surveyed use a mix of Macs and PCs. And most of these publishers either use Adobe InDesign or a mix of Adobe and Quark. No publishers surveyed use Linux or Sun. Most of the respondents have a mix of database platforms: Microsoft SQL, MySQL and Oracle.

As far as managing digital assets is concerned, the answers seem fairly evenly divided. Eight publishers feel they have this under control; five feel it’s not an overwhelming concern; six know that this is a problem they have to solve; and two are experiencing pain on this issue.

Most of the publishers surveyed store their digital assets on a central server, using filename conventions to keep them organized. Three also use physical media to store assets. Six publishers use an external service (such as their printer’s) to store digital assets. And one publisher stores digital assets on a central server, on physical media, externally, and in a DAM (which would seem to indicate that their DAM is not sufficient for their needs).

The bulk of publishers in this survey either adapt well to change, or note that a new implementation and rollout can be disruptive, but ultimately worth it. Two publishers state that they do not handle disruption well.

Most publishers have internal IT departments, or outsource specific IT functions while keeping a “base camp” of IT staff in-house. Only two publishers completely outsource their IT.

Some trends in Editorial/Production:

Overwhelmingly, most publishers plan for more than one edition of a book. Only one publisher claimed they do not – which was proven incorrect by a glance at their website, where there are simultaneous publications of hardcover and paperback. About half of publishers report that producing more than one edition of a title is part of their regular workflow and not much work.

Publishers seem to need to re-use digital files “frequently” or “about half the time”, in most cases. These publishers are fairly evenly divided in terms of how easy it is to retrieve files. About half say that it’s easy, and about half say that it’s a project to get them. No publishers reported severe pain in file retrieval. (Which is good!)

Publishers are, as we know, wedded to workflow and this survey bears that out. Most publishers surveyed claim their manual workflow works, although some changes could conceivably make it better. Six publishers say that their workflow exists for certain purposes and changing it would be a challenge. Two publishers are in active pain around workflow.

The publishers surveyed are moving towards making more ebooks available. About a third release an ebook for every print version; slightly more are making some of their titles available digitally. Two publishers are not planning on creating any ebooks at all.

Some trends in Marketing:

Overwhelmingly publishers report using digital assets from books for web or print promotions “all the time”. Only three report doing this “sometimes.”

Artwork requests from the media are, by and large, handled manually (presumably someone emailing a cover image to a book reviewer). Five publishers have an automated process to handle this; two publishers report having to scramble. And three publishers report significant pain in print to web processes. Half of the publishers report a “fairly smooth” process with a few glitches, while six publishers report that they have automated their print to web process.


According to our survey results, about 50% of publishers are repurposing digital assets frequently, and about 30% are doing this half the time.

The primary workflow concerns among these publishers are integrating freelancer or outside author content using internal tools; building an XML workflow; and increasing the number of digital titles available.

45% of publishers surveyed are just beginning to implement an XML workflow. Only 18% of publishers have fully committed to an XML workflow; 36% are either just starting to consider it, or have not given it much thought.

In terms of tolerance for change, 55% of the publishers surveyed say disruptions could possibly be worth it, although those disruptions would not necessarily be welcome. About 35% say they are flexible and open to change. And about 10% say that change is difficult.

If any other midsize publishers want to contribute to this pool of data, I’d certainly welcome it! for a questionnaire (and expect to get hectored and pestered for results). 

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PDFs and Kindles

I’m working on a couple of projects that involve more than a passing familiarity with XML – I don’t need to write actual code but I do need to explain things to people and really understand the capabilities (and business potential) of XML documents.

So I figured, why not put the Kindle to the test? I went onto the Kindle store and downloaded a sample chapter of XML Demystified. But that was the only title that seemed to fit my requirements – I needed more.

I went to O’Reilly’s website and found XML In a Nutshell – much more what I was looking for. It was available as a PDF! So I bought it and downloaded it.

Amazon doesn’t state explicitly that the Kindle supports PDFs. But I thought I would give it a whirl anyway – I emailed it to my Kindle account, and it appeared on my Kindle in about 10 minutes (it was a big file). It doesn’t look perfect. The conversion from PDF to mobi is less than dreamy. The table of contents is a little mucked up – not that it matters, because the Kindle doesn’t use page numbers anyway. But the text itself…is just fine. It’s good enough. It’ll work on the subway – I can read it during downtimes. It will, in a nutshell, do. At least until O’Reilly releases it in mobi format (not everything is available that way).

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Ebay not liking digital sales so much

According to WebProNews, Ebay is no longer allowing sales of digital products via its normal channels – purveyors of ebooks and the like have to go through its Classified Ads system. Apparently there’s been some manipulation of feedback on digital products. According to the letter sent out to digital sellers,

Using the Classified Ads format, sellers receive a 30-day ad at a fixed price. This solution enables sellers to continue to market their digital goods on eBay; however, because Classified Ad listings are a lead generation tool and do not result in transactions that go through eBay, Feedback cannot be exchanged between buyer and seller.


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No Lightning Source at Amazon?

The intertubes have been flapping today about Amazon’s latest move to get its POD publishers and self-published authors to exclusively use BookSurge for printing their titles. I just posted a over at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing blog.

Peter Brantley’s listserv is all over this, as is Michael Cader. It’s pretty huge.

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Ingram Gets Learned

Ingram Digital announced that it’s partnered with the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (and you’ve got to be learned and/or professional to be able to remember that) to create ebooks of the titles of ALPSP’s 260 member publishers. According to the press release quoted at LJ’s InfoTech:

The company said ALPSP members are invited “to contribute titles to an ALPSP-branded range of subject-based eBook collections which will be offered to libraries and other institutions” through its MyiLibrary content distribution partners including Swets. ALPSP members have access to all of Ingram Digital’s digital content solutions, like CoreSource for digital asset management, and member publishers can use Lightning Source Inc. to produce print-on-demand titles as well as enable digital content distribution to all markets and channels.

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