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The Hard Part

I’ve talked a lot lately about how metadata is to marketing efforts.

And certainly I’ve spoken and written a lot in the past about an XML workflow, and how critical that is to developing the sort of publishing that will be required of us in the near future.

I don’t think anything I’ve said is particularly controversial, even among the most paper-pervy of publishers.


Nobody said it was easy.

Dominique Raccah talks about running two companies at once – the company you’re currently running and the company you are scoping towards in the future. (The future happens fast.) Retooling anything systematically – workflow, back-end systems, metadata – is disruptive. This is why companies call in enormous fleets of consultants who speak in very generic terms and look at you like they secretly think you’re from some primitive continent where nobody’s ever heard of SharePoint. (That would be Bookland, and yes, we DO know about SharePoint.)

And dealing with these guys (it is, mostly, guys – although more and more women are entering this field as well) kind of takes the wind out of your sails because you have to spend so much time explaining things when you could, in fact, be feeling a whole lot more productive if you could just get to your desk and have another crack at figuring out the Fall list.

Changing workflow is hard. And any of these processes – a new metadata strategy, an XML-first strategy…hell, even a new office building – is hard to adjust to.

In fact, it’s extremely helpful to think of these changes as a form of moving. (To a better place! With a new stove and more closets and a big patio for grilling!) First there’s the packing – assessing exactly what you have right now, sorting it into what you want to keep and what you want to throw away, and determining who’s going to help you move it (what vendors will you need?). Then there’s the actual moving – of your metadata from spreadsheets into a title management system; of your digital assets into a DAM. And then there’s the unpacking – seeing what broke along the way (oh, yes, there’s always breakage), seeing what items you need to replace, putting everything into its new space and seeing if it looks good/fits/works well there.

I hate moving. I hate it with a passion – it is nearly May and I am still raw from having moved house in November. And I completely, completely empathize with those who, while feeling some pain, are also to some degree comfortable with where they are, and who really don’t want to upset their everyday routine with the necessity of putting things in boxes. They also get it that immediately after you move, you can’t find anything you need, like a fork or a can opener (or a corkscrew, God help you, because isn’t that what you need most after the trauma?). Plus all your muscles hurt.

But of course it needs to be done. You can’t continue living in a situation where you have universally faulty wiring that shorts all your appliances, or you’re paying way too much for too little space, or the kids next door just will not stop setting your trashcans on fire. You don’t want to spend your entire time putting out fires and not getting anywhere.

So yes, moving is painful. The stress of developing and implementing a new workflow is not something anyone should underestimate. And it’s no surprise that at every company there are folks who balk. They are smart to balk. They understand immediately what a royal pain it’s going to be. But good managers will coax them along through their balking to the other side. And once you find that corkscrew, things will begin to look up.

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A Note From the Desert

While everybody who matters is at SXSW this week (another conference? I am utterly exhausted just thinking about it), I’ve had an amazing shortage of phone calls and emails, and hence the opportunity to mull some things over.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in Southern Delaware. The interesting thing about the area is that it’s so verdant – fields and fields of soybeans and corn, and chickenhouses lining the routes to the beaches. It looks like a foodie’s paradise.

It’s not.

Those soybeans and corn are all genetically-modified. The chickens are stuck inside those chickenhouses and never let out, and many cannot even walk. They are stuffed with that GM feed and grow at an alarming rate, and turn bright yellow. Then Purdue slaughters them and ships them all up and down the East Coast.

If you want to eat well…it’s difficult. There are a few independent diners in the area. There is one upscale sort of bistro. There are no food co-ops. The only farmstand is 40-minute drive from just about anywhere – it is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is, in the words of Michelle Obama, a food desert. People shop for food at Wal-Mart, and a couple of bodega-like stores, and that’s pretty much all there is besides the stunning number of fast-food restaurants.

I’ve also mentioned previously that the area has no bookstores. In addition, there are no movie theaters. No concerts – classical or otherwise. No plays, except for the high school productions. There is a small library. It is a cultural desert until you cross the state line into Maryland.

It sounds grim! It is. Were it not for the gorgeous beaches, it would be an extremely depressing place. This is how I grew up – and why I no longer live there. I went back to visit my mom not too long ago, and the Enterprise Car Rental guy who picked me up said, adamantly, “If it weren’t for the Internet, I couldn’t stay here.”

And that’s it. The Internet has literally made things tolerable for folks who have no access to anything beyond subsistence. Netflix, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, Overstock.com, iTunes – these make a richer, more interesting life even possible. The Internet has just enabled my high school Home Ec teacher to organize a CSA – connecting a few independent farmers and large gardeners with people who are hungry for fresh produce.

Three times in the last month, I’ve found myself in conversations with entrepreneurs who attest that the appetite for a richer, more interesting life is more or less universal. And there are many, many deserts all over the world – quite a lot of them literal deserts.

The Internet is really making it possible for people in developing areas (nations, counties, what have you) to get access. To books, music, movies, ideas – knowledge. Appetites are huge – even for English-language content. People are starving for more than just food in these deserts.

People like Arthur Attwell and Ramy Habeeb are focused on watering these deserts. I find their work extremely exciting, for some very visceral, obvious reasons. If I had had access, as a kid growing up in my desert, I might not have had to flee just to preserve my sanity. I might have been able to stay and help make it better. I might have found good work to do right where I was, and improved things for others who – for a myriad of reasons – couldn’t have ever left and had to suffer where they were.

Arthur Attwell was telling me that some Africans are downloading books via text messages on their phones. SMS by SMS, they are reading. It won’t be long before smartphones invade the African continent, and real ebooks will be possible. But already, the hunger is such that these readers are willing to put up with an insanely inconvenient way to read – because the drive to open up the world beyond their own desert is so great.

That drive is what will improve developing areas – it is the oasis. And the Attwells and Habeebs can provide all the direction, all the assistance, they possibly can. But the infrastructure – metadata that makes search and discovery easier, less arcane; identifiers that point out exactly what it is you’re looking at; rights information that makes it clear what is accessible to whom – is the irrigation. That’s what will ensure life.

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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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ISBN hour on Twitter – Aggregating the Tweets

Many folks have asked me to aggregate the ISBNhour tweets – if you click you will get them all.

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DBW, the iPad and Amazon

Digital Book World, held in New York City on January 26 and 27, was an unqualified success. I’d initially had doubts as to how it would hold up against TOC, which can be a life-changing conference – and is at the forefront of where technology meets book publishing. I was, in fact, leery.

But the focus of DBW was somewhat different than TOC’s. Trade publishers were in abundance, as were agents (of all things!). And the tone of the conversation was rather implementation-focused – how to use social media for marketing purposes, how NOT to design ebooks, what publishers and online stores are thinking about when they set ebook pricing.

The Tweetstream is a good indication of what folks were thinking while they attended. Two presentations in particular nearly brought Twitter down – Brian Napack of Macmillan speaking on digital piracy (urging publishers to spend heavily on finding pirates and issuing takedown notices “while they still have the money to do so”, and noting that it had gotten so expensive to do this in the music industry that many labels had laid off their anti-piracy staff); and Robert Gottlieb’s participation in Brian O’Leary’s panel on the challenges ebooks face when so much content is available for free on the web.

So it was lively! And educational. And extremely well-attended. And the iPad launched right in the middle of my panel on Wednesday, which I absolutely take as personally as it’s possible to take something.

But DBW is not done yet!

Every Thursday afternoon at 1 EST, DBW is hosting a Digital Roundtable. Pablo Defendini of Tor, Kate Rados of Chelsea Green, Bridget Warren (former co-owner of Vertigo Books), Guy Gonzalez of F&W/DBW, and I discuss our evolving landscape and take questions from those who’ve dialed in.

And! There are webcasts – an archive of them here and more to come.

Most importantly (to me) is an upcoming one-day intensive seminar called Digitize Yourself: Real World Skills for the Future. I’m hosting this, and we’ll be looking at tools, workflow issues, and other extremely practical matters for those folks who have to implement the blue-skies thinking their colleagues pick up at conferences. This will take place on April 15th in New York City, and more details will be available soon. Ish.

Well…after the DBW and iPad excitement, many of us were figuring we could sit back and breathe a little bit. But no! Talks between Macmillan and Amazon broke down on Thursday and by Friday Amazon had removed the “buy” button from all Macmillan print titles, and clicking on Macmillan’s Kindle titles only got you a “this book not found” error. Macmillan books also evaporated off of wish lists.


The unicorn is why. Apple is working on an “agency” model with publishers – pubs tell Apple how much they want to charge for a book, and Apple keeps a percentage of that. Amazon sells a book for whatever it wants. And while some argue that the Amazon model nets publishers more money in the long run, this is about one thing that’s more important to publishers than money: Control.

In the agency model, publishers set the price. In the Amazon model, retailers set the price…and customers come to expect extremely low prices for certain things, even though the retailers are losing money on those things. Those low prices are loss leaders for the retailers’ other inventory.

Amazon claims they are capitulating, though they are certainly taking their time about it. But in another sign of their concern about the iPad, they just bought a company called Touchco, which makes touch-screens.

As for publishers…I worry that publishers’ extreme desire for control in a world they can increasingly NOT control (piracy, author behavior, new business models that disintermediate them) is pushing them to make decisions that are not really in their best interests. If you are getting more revenue by NOT controlling prices, why is it so important to do so? If you are selling more books when you’re NOT controlling piracy, why spend boatloads of money going after torrent sites? Ebooks may not be viable to sell at $9.99 right now – and may serve as a loss leader for the time being – but costs of producing ebooks will go down (they always do) and eventually publishers can make a nice amount of revenue from $9.99 ebooks.

Controlling the scene is not always good for you. The need to control may indeed be an irrational (and rather panicky) response to uncertainty.

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Peter Pan and Copyright

Just an interesting thing I ran across while spelunking around today.

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Missing People Section!

I sent out my newsletter and for some reason the "People" section did not appear. So I am posting it here:

Kate Rados, formerly of Sterling, has been named Director of Digital Initiatives for Chelsea Green. According to the press release, “Rados will be responsible for shaping the overall digital strategy for the company, from web/mobile development, to digital publishing, to digital marketing and social media.” She also gets to work from home, in New York City. Follow Kate on Twitter at @katerados.

David Gitow, formerly VP of Marketing at Cengage, has left the company.

Stephen Abram, the public face of SirsiDynix, is decamping for Gale Cengage, where his former SirsiDynix CEO, Pat Sommers, is president.

The new Executive Director of BISG is Scott Lubeck, whom I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday. He was formerly with Wolters Kluwer. More information on Scott can be found here.

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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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