Where Is the Reader?

My write-up of Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, over at the Book Oven Blog:

I’m back from TOC and still mulling over the problems, and maybe some solutions to problems in the publishing business. There are lots, but a fundamental problem seems to be that most publishing houses have never had much to do with their readers. Their clients, traditionally, have been book stores. And outsourcing relationships with the people who are your reason for existence is a bad idea.

If you look at the talk around the perilous state of the publishing business, and the challenges of ebooks and DRM and digital and the web, it ends up being this old sad story of: “How do we maintain our financial viability when fewer people are reading?” And not, “What do readers want and how can we best provide it?” [more…]

Categories: buisness, myprojects

Interview at Allentrepreneur

Allentrepreneur has just posted an interview with moi:

Allentrepreneur: Welcome to Allentrepreneur Hugh and thanks for taking the time to talk. You’ve got quite a start-up resume to your name. LibriVox.org, earideas.com, datalibre.ca and your latest one, The Book Oven, which has me particularly curious since I’m a book junkie. Could you give us an introduction?

Hugh: The book business is going through massive changes, there are cutbacks all over the place in publishing houses, bricks and mortar booksellers are in trouble, and there’s angst everywhere about how digital and ebooks will upset business models that have been entrenched for 100 years. But books are still a $50 billion business, and there are passionate readers and writers all over the world. The book business looks a lot like the music business did 10 years ago, with these huge companies knowing things are going to change, but having great trouble adjusting.

One really exciting thing is new technologies that make publishing a book cheap and easy: print-on-demand and ebooks. In some sense these technologies can take the publisher out of the picture – in the same way that musicians can now make and distribute their music online, writers now have the same abilities.

But making a book is an arduous and collaborative process. Book Oven will help bridge the gap between writing, and publishing a finished product. [more…]

Categories: buisness

Canada’s New Media Corridor

From Michael Geist:

The federal government has announced plans to spend over $10 million to establish a “Corridor for Advancing Canadian Digital Media” from Stratford to Kitchener. Coming on the heels of the Nortel bankruptcy, this initiative reinforces the tech shift westward from Ottawa to Waterloo. While tech leadership once resided with Nortel, JDS, Corel, Newbridge, and Cognos, the shift to RIM, Open Text, etc. has a direct effect on the location of future tech iniatives in Canada.

Bookcamp: The Books Are All Right

[x-posted at Book Oven & Huffpo]

bookcamplogoAs the death watch continues for the publishing business and perhaps even the book itself, a group of writers, technologists, publishers, agents, designers, booksellers, and social architects convened in London for BookCamp, a one-day thinking session (bookish experimentation) about what the future of the written word might be.

The event was organized by Jeremy Ettinghausen, digital publisher at Penguin UK; James Bridle, of BookTwo, and Bookkake; and Russel Davies.

Thinking about books

If the amount of thought and enthusiasm generated that day — and evening — is any indication, I think we’re going to be OK. The book is alive and well, even if defining “book” is becoming more complicated; and the publishing business, bracing itself for the biggest shake-up since the paperback, will come out the other end, transformed certainly, but alive nonetheless. That’s my projection anyway.

An open slate

If you’ve never been to a “camp” or “unconference,” you should find the next one near you, show up and dive in. These un/conferences vary from place to place and event to event, but tend to share a few characteristics: they are free, they are open, and the sessions are not formally presented by the organizers, but rather decided by participants. Everyone is supposed to contribute. The result is that you get a much wider mix of people and perspectives than at industry conferences.

BookCamp London started with a blank grid: 6 timeslots and 5 spaces (or 5 spaces, 6 timeslots?), with participants asked to fill in the grid, adding sessions they’d like to discuss. (For some reason I didn’t write anything in. First time I’ve ducked that responsibility at a camp.)

The sessions

ebook gadgetsSessions included (paraphrasing titles): Talking to Terrified Writers about the Web, the Book as Social Object/What Happens When Books Are Free?, EBook Gadgets, Is the Web Making Writing More Oral?, Social Networks and the Book, Encouraging Kids to Read. And more.

Fellow-BookOvener Suw Charman-Anderson lead a session about the Book as Social Object; or, What happens when all books are free? The group struggled with this difficult question: what happens if writers can no longer make their money from just selling books? The answer wasn’t so clear, but several things are certain: ebooks are coming; DRM won’t stop infinite reproduction on the web; no one likes DRM; and no one really knows how the business is going to work in a decade. But music, for all the worries about the industry at the corporate level, is thriving. How will writing evolve?

book as social objectThe next session I attended was Bookkake: How to Start a Publishing Company in Your Bedroom. James Bridle,Bookkake founder & BookTwo writer, has published new editions of five public domain titles, using ebooks, print-on-demand, and covers designed from photos on Flickr. An inspiring view of indie publishing’s future.

Michael Bhaskar of Pan Macmillan hosted a session on the web and the increasing orality of text, how text is taking on characteristics that we once associated with oral communications: quick feedback, ephemeral, linear, disposable ; Mark Johnson and Kate Hyde of HarperCollins (and Authonomy and BookArmy) lead a discussion of social networks and the book, that the successes and challenges they’ve had with their initiatives.

talking about networks

Speaking of books ….

In addition to enjoying talking with these smart people, I had great conversations with too many more to list, but some particularly good ones with Peter Collinridge of Apt Studio, Anthony Topping, of lit agents Greene & Heaton, Lucy Crichton, Alex Ingram, digital buyer at UK bookseller Waterstones, Naomi Alderman, and Adrian Hon. It was also nice to see some familiar faces, Aaron Straup Cope of Flickr, and Matt Biddulph of Dopplr, as well as Cory Doctorow, who I’ve crossed paths with numerous times online, but never met in person.

It was a great event, and I am very happy I decided to make the trip to the UK. Well worth it, and a real encouragement that what we’re up to at the Book Oven, behind the curtain, is on the right track. My only complaint was that it lasted one day, and not a week.

Can you see the future?

While there are nerves about the future of the book business, the overwhelming sensation I had leaving bookcamp was optimism. What else could be the result of spending a full day with so many bright people, excited about books, and actively shaping their future?

For some other thoughts on bookcamp (I’ll try to keep this up to date, as I see links) see:

[Photos by: Matt Biddulph, Annie Mole, and Russell Davies]

Categories: books, buisness

What If the Book Business Collapses

[X-posted at Huffpo & Book Oven]

Question: What would happen if, tomorrow, every publisher, and every book store, went out of business? What would you do?

The Big Stores

About fifteen years ago I walked into my first of the new breed of big book stores, Chapters in Toronto. I thought to myself: how can the book business support such a huge store? How can book selling pay for all this real estate? How can there be so many books?

At first I was encouraged by these stores. The choice of titles seemed endless. They were comfortable, well-designed. There was attention to detail. The coffee-shops were a nice touch, especially in the old days when you could get a stack of books from the shelves, get a coffee, and flip through books to your heart’s content. If these book stores could be profitable, I thought, maybe there was hope for humanity after all.

Soon these big book stores were everywhere: Barnes & Noble and Borders in the US, Chapters and Indigo in Canada (now merged, but with separate branding to create the fiction of competition), Waterstones in the UK, and others elsewhere. They invested massive amounts in real estate, getting huge commercial spaces in prime locations in major cities, and bigger spaces in the suburbs. They stocked their stores with a dizzying array of books.

Boon or Bust?

But things started to go a little sour early on. The first indication that the new book behemoths might be bad for the long-term health of the book ecosystem came quickly, when the little guys started going out of business. Economies of scale and and pricing clout meant that the big stores could charge less than their smaller competitors; and because of their size, their selection was always bigger. Following their in-store caffeine partners, Starbucks, they liked to choose their locations near existing successful independents. The little guys couldn’t compete, and went out of business, or got bought up, and absorbed into the book selling borg.

So now, there are precious few independent books stores left even in big cities.

The indie stores weren’t the only ones complaining. Because of the volume that goes through these stores, they could squeeze the publishers, on cost of books and return policies. They could charge for prime shelf-space. Small publishers found it harder to get the attention of the readers. But even the big publishers complained about the policies of these stores – and a little later, the other behemoth on the scene, Amazon.

Then there’s that odd feeling of being in a book store staffed by people who don’t know much about books. Any inquiry about a more obscure title more often than not ended up in front of a terminal. It seemed as if book stores, if their hiring policies were any indication, no longer cared much about books.

More: as time went on, it turned out that book sales weren’t really the most profitable kind of business these stores could do. Solution: reduce the shelf-space for books, increase the shelf-space for candles and trinkets. In Canada Chapters/Indigo has reduced book shelf-space from 75% to 60% (with Canadian fiction losing, and publishers cutting their lists in consequence). If the trend continues, books will be the minority in bookstores, and we might consider renaming them smelly candle stores that carry books.

The book business has stopped caring much about books.

Step One: Make Profit

These big stores are public companies, and big businesses. Like all businesses listed on stock exchanges, the people running them (boards of directors, and executives), have one central responsibility: to increase shareholder value.

The problem is that “shareholder value” has been defined almost exclusively as: “increased profits.” The owners of shares of Borders or any other large company don’t give a shit about books. They care about increased profits and increased share prices. The same is true in all businesses listed on stock exchanges. Mutual fund managers and institutional investors don’t buy stocks because of what a company does; they buy stock in companies whose stock prices will rise. And stock prices rise when profits go up.

But extracting profit is not necessarily related to long-term creation of value. In the book business (selling and publishing) what we’ve witnessed in the last couple of decades might be considered a stripping of true value, in order to deliver shareholder profit.

The “fault” does not lie with the big companies. They’re driven by a particular motive – profit. It’s built into the DNA of public companies, and the way stock exchanges work. There’s no use blaming them, might as well blame beavers for chewing through trees. But we should all remember that these companies are not driven by “value,” if you define value as healthy long-term prospects for readers and writers.

The state of the book publishing business is dire. Publishers are cutting back staff, editors are getting fired, or leaving. Amazon is putting the squeeze on everyone, and bookstores across the land are having a hard time, with major closures expected.

The Future?

So the rest of us, readers and writers and lovers of books, entrepreneurs and technologists, those of us really interested in the voracious appetite of the powerful and relatively affluent group, are going to have to come up with new and different ways to get books written, published and in the hands of readers.

Imagine: what would happen if every publisher in the world went out of business tomorrow? If every book store closed it’s doors?

Here’s what I think: I think we would see a flourishing of innovation and the kind of excitement the book business has not seen since the printing press was invented. These companies (sellers and publishers) aren’t all going to close their doors, but a good number might.

Lamentable? Maybe. Or maybe this is a fabulous opportunity for something new.

I’m optimistic. New technologies are coming along that change the economics of books: ebooks, ipods, print-on-demand, the web, and more to come yet. The readers are there, maybe fewer of them, but no less passionate. The writers are there. And let’s face it, if the doom and gloom in the business is right, whatever model these companies were using hasn’t worked all that well.

So it’s up to us — all of us who care about books — to figure out what the book business is going to look in the next decade or so.

Exciting times.

Categories: books, buisness, web, writing

Bookkake – Print-On-Demand Publisher

[cross-posted at the Book Oven Blog]

Bookkake, is “an entirely print-on-demand, and web-oriented, publisher,” launched by James Birdle. Either he’s a pervert, or a good marketer, but he’s starting with … well, let’s call them saucy books.

fanny hill coverInterestingly his first batch of books are all old classics, and out of copyright, such as John Cleland’s 1748 porn classic Fanny Hill (which, incidentally, is available in audio at LibriVox, and I highly recommend hearing this one in audio as well as reading the original). Bookkake is launching with five titles: Fanny Hill, plus Liber Amoris by Wiliiam Hazlitt, Memoirs of a Young Rakehell by Guillaume Apollinaire, The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau, and Venus In Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

I expect to see many more of these small indie publishers popping up (do you know any others?), and for all the worry about the publishing behemoths collapsing under their own weight, this is the future of interesting publishing, I have no doubt.

Says James:

The website, which is at the core of my approach, comes with extensive extracts, high-resolution covers, all the social media dooh-dahs and, most notably I think, entirely free ebook editions of every title.

Right on. Bookkake has a blog, where you can follow progress on the project.


Michael Geist has an article in the Toronto Star about Canadian book 2.0 projects. The two projects cited are Evan’s Wikitravel Press, and LibriVox.

About Wikitravel Press, says he:

For example, Wikitravel, one of the Internet’s most acclaimed travel websites, was launched in 2003 by Montreal residents Evan Prodromou and Michele Ann Jenkins. Using the same wiki collaborative technology that has proven so successful for Wikipedia, the Wikitravel site invited travelers to post their comments and experiences about places around the world in an effort to build a community-generated travel guide.

In less than five years, the site has accumulated more than 30,000 online travel guides in 18 languages, with more than 10,000 editorial contributions each week. The content is freely available under a Creative Commons licence that allows the public to use, copy or edit the guides.

Building on Wikitravel’s success, Prodromou and Jenkins recently established Wikitravel Press, which introduced its first two titles earlier this month. Wikitravel Press represents a new approach to travel book publishing based on Internet collaborative tools and print-on-demand technologies that should capture the attention of the industry for several reasons…

[there’s more]
And on LibriVox:

Canadians are also playing a leading role in reshaping the creation of audiobooks. Hugh McGuire, a Montreal-based writer and Web developer, established LibriVox in August 2005. The site is also based on concept of Internet collaboration. In this instance, LibriVox volunteers create voice recordings of chapters of books that are in the public domain. The resulting audio files are posted back on to the Internet for free.

The LibriVox project, which does not have an annual budget, has succeeded in placing more than 1,200 audio books on the Internet, including Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, works from Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and hundreds more.

He finishes:

New technologies are rapidly reshaping the book industry and it is exciting to see how Canadians are quietly playing a leading role in the re-imagining of how books are created and distributed.

Categories: buisness, librivox

amazon buys audible for $300M

News from the commercial side of audiobooks, amazon dishes out 300 smackers for audible.com.

quick calculation:
-the article indicates that audible’s catalog is roughly 90,000 works
-@$300M for the kit, that’s about 3k/title
-so that makes librivox’s donation to the universe roughly worth (in grubby capitalist terms): 1200*3000 = $3.6 million.

let’s discount by 50% for our quirks, and, which puts us at $1.8 million, which sounds very low to me.

We’re adding about 70 books a month now to our catalog, so next year we should we “worth” twice that!

Not that we’re for sale (now or ever) but it’s … kinda interesting.

a standout job

Montreal movers/shakers Ben and Fred have officially launched Standoutjobs Reception, with a little help from their friend Austin.

Here’s what it is:

The product is called RECEPTION. It’s a suite of web-based tools to power your online recruiting efforts. At its core you’ll find a do-it-yourself, interactive Career Site. The idea is to give companies the power to truly showcase their cultures and teams. Candidates want more information and interactivity from companies, and we hope to provide that. By allowing companies and candidates to build on-going relationships we make the process of hiring a more human one, which is ultimately, what it’s all about any way. Job descriptions and job requirements are nice (or not!) but what candidates really want is an inside view into your company – they want to know if it’s a good cultural and personal fit.

It’d be nice to be in a position to need to use the tools there, cause they look great, but we ain’t there yet.

Anyway, congrats on the launch.

Categories: buisness

saving newspapers, one post at a time

I wrote a long piece partially about how newspapers might be able to save themselves, a while back.

Here’s another thought: advertising is where newspapers make their money, with local ads and classified making up a big percentage of the dough.

What if newspapers leveraged their existing ad networks, to build a localized advertising platform for local web sites and blogs. [Or if a company built such a system to sell to newspapers, to allow them to implement with little or no technical requirements, or just on their own… and finish off newspapers for good].

I’ve long thought that google adsense is a terrible tool for small websites – the ads are mostly irrelevant; the money insignificant unless you are getting thousands of visits a day.

But if there was a good way to get decent local ads on a more local blog, it would make more sense. Newspapers are well placed to provide that service to blogs.

Most local merchants are probably not savvy enough to recognize the need to be advertising online; so probably this service should be offered free to merchants to start; but with a year of statistics, a newspaper could much better quantify the value of such a proposition.

I wonder if the guys at Praized have thought of this business angle? Seems to me there’s a big space for someone to build a good online ad system for meatspace commerce.