Tools of Change: Thoughts from a Reader’s Perspective
I attended the 2010 Tools of Change conference in New York this past week (which is why some of the posts were late, sorry!). I have three main takeaways and then I’ll try to summarize what else I learned.
- Facebook is where it is at. Facebook has 400 million users and 100 million of them are mobile. Facebook directs more online traffic than Google.
- What we know and use today will be obsolete in a few years.
- Change is more likely to be forced on legacy publishers by outsiders who have no burdensome infrastructure to maintain.
Initially I was heartened by the tone of the conference. It seemed very focused on delivering the content to the readers in the manner that the readers want where the readers are. This may have been my own bias shading what I was hearing.
The opening keynote speeches made the point that we are in a period of acceleration. We are adopting new media faster than ever before. The way we change our method of consuming media moves quickly. One presenter said, tongue in cheek, that customers are always complicating the situation by getting new devices. The iPod entered our life the first time in October of 2001 and in a decade, it is ubiquitous. Facebook debuted in September 2006 and now it has 400 million users. In the last decade, several big chains and over 500 indie booksellers have closed as a result of customers moving toward internet retailing.
Skip Pritchard of Ingram noted that consumers can be paralyzed by too many choices. He gave an example about a grocery store that featured a huge assortment of jams one day. The press came out; there were long lines of customers to taste the jam. The next day, the store put out only a tiny selection and that day, the jams sold more than on the previous day. The publisher Twelve, put out one book a month and had eight bestsellers. Ingram noted, though, that there are over 1 million books published worldwide each year.
New players can change things faster because they don’t know what the limitations are supposed to be.
Arianna Huffington said that books are conversation starters and that the internet is the perfect place to continue the book story. This is the golden age of engagement as readers want to share with others. Goodreads has almost 3 million users and Library Thing a little over a million. Huffington pointed out that this should mean that the publishable period is gone. The three weeks between release and oblivion should be a thing of the past. The way that books can remain visible is by editors, interns, publicists getting out there and starting conversations. Reviews should be conversation starters not ends. This is something I’ll want to work on in the future.
But the participation by editors, interns, publicists can’t be limited to “hey, read this book”. As Mike Hendrickson of O’Reilly said, you have to promote other people’s things twelve times as much as your own to enable you to build your brand. In other words, for a publisher to come and talk about books with a reader, that publisher needs to build authenticity with the audience. It’s why Facebook is directing more traffic than Google. Facebook users trust their friends’ recommendations versus Google’s search results. I heard this as suggesting that those who want to promote to a community have to be part of a community. In the Bowker presentation, it was noted that personal recommendations are important to readers, second only to author reputation.
I attended an eclectic selection of seminars, most of which were product demonstrations but all of which gave me greater insight into how publishing works and how it affects us as readers. First off, the reason that we readers get such crappy metadata is because there is no standard. Metadata is the part of the digital book that contains the author, title, publisher, date of publication and anything else the publisher sees fit to provide.
Ingram is a third party distribution service which means they take product from the content creator, like an ebook, and distribute it to a retailer, like Fictionwise. The problem is that they don’t require metadata to all be standard. They don’t “enhance” the metadata for a customer (and by customer I mean the publisher). This is why some books have author firstname author lastname and some have author lastname, author firstname and some books have author “null” or author “unknown”.
There is no consistency and no requirements for even a standard level of information. Ingram says that some of its customers are very touchy about their metadata and the customers do not like a third party changing it.
The lack of consistent standards was driven home when I attended the Bowker session. Bowker is another third party distribution service. Bowker is a bibliographic information service provider. Bowker helps to provide unique identifiers to published products as well as ways for readers and students to find these products. The problem is that there is no standard for identifiers. Most print books have an ISBN, a unique identifying number.
Digital books, however, are not required to have an ISBN and the unique identifier can vary from retailer to retailer, particularly when there are different types of formats. In publishing terms, an asset is just one version of the product. For example, a title is a family of assets with the parent as the hardcover and each version of the product is a different asset such as the audio book, the multiple digital copies, the mass market, a POD file, and so on. Each one of those assets needs a unique identifier and each unique identifier and method of tracking said identifier is costly. One audience member said that it was simply too expensive to get a separate isbn for each digital asset.
Why doesn’t the industry get together and decide on standards? Standards for metadata; standards for DRM; standards for identifying products? It seems like lack of standards only creates more cost for publishers.
Liza Daly and Keith Falgren spoke about the new wave of digital devices. Landlocked devices are a thing of the past. I concur. They also urged publishers to invest in creating a way to deliver their own content directly to the consumer.
Publishers told Perseus in a survey that they are going to test the market by varying pricing based on version and monitoring of sales. 50% of publishers said that there won’t be fixed pricing. I have a sad feeling that the data that customers give back to publishers won’t be in line with what they want. Apple might not be the savior of publishing. $4.99 is the sweet spot for the app store and $2.99 is the optimal price in the Blackberry App store.
One of the last presentations I attended was the case study of the promotional efforts of Courtney Milan’s book, Proof of Seduction. It was the most fun session because LibreDigital showed video of actual readers! Holly from Bookbinge was shown first talking about her reading habits. She reads everywhere, all the time. Another reader who was unfamiliar to me shared that she fell in love with the historical genre after reading Courtney’s book. Isn’t that wonderful and amazing? One book changed her reading habits, maybe forever.
Then I went to the BISG presentation on ebook reader behaviors. The data presented befuddled and worried me. Befuddlement from some of the results: For example, it said that more men buy than women (51% v 49%) and that only 14% of ebook readers buy romances. WHAT? I mean, when you look at the bestseller lists, it is always populated by romance books. In other words, publishers have an opportunity to change readers mind about the value of ebooks. Worry: The BISG data says that ebook sales are cannabalizing print sales at a much lower margin. BISG says that readers getting into the ebook market are driven by the affordability of ebooks but, BISG says, that publishers have an opportunity to save themselves because every six months the market grows by a third. BISG also said that ebook readership would likely top out at 30%.
In the end, I felt like publishers have a huge challenge. We readers want content at the right price, in every format that exists now or may exist in the future (I was amazed at the number of people there buzzing about the iPad). Because change is happening so fast, many existing publishers are ill equipped to move to meet the changes. I feel that the status quo looks more promising to many than adapting. Ultimately change will come but as Peter Collingridge said there will be winners and losers.