You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2008.

I’ve been reading about Destra. I hadn’t really known much about them until recently but as Australia’s largest (and fastest growing) independent media company there’s plenty about which to be impressed.

On their About page, they describe their business model, which is essentially

  1. Create, represent and acquire IP
  2. Build communities to consume entertainment content
  3. Monetise via these services

It occurs to me that traditional media companies, especially publishers, have always done steps 1 and 3. That’s their model. The market for the content is assumed and the books are monetised via well-worn retail distribution channels.

What’s relatively recent and increasingly important is step 2 – building communities to consume entertainment content.

Amid increasing noise in the distribution channels – both physical and digital – building loyal and active communities is a good way to ensure there’s an audience for your products.

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The blogosphere has recently been alive with chatter about free. From Oprah giving away Suze Orman’s book Women and Money on her website to Chris Anderson’s cover article on ‘freeconomics’ in this month’s issue of Wired, everyone has been talking about free. Even Random House jumped on board, offering Charles Bock’s novel Beautiful Children as a free (and DRM-free) PDF download not just from their own site but also through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. All the frenzy must be amusing for Cory Doctorow who has been making his books freely available in various electronic formats for years.

While these discussions have, in the main, been about digital goods, Sydney Festival was putting the concept into practice with the massive Festival First Night – completely free – to open this year’s festival. The festival organisers offered a city-wide menu of top international entertainment and cultural events to kick off the three week program with more than 200 artists across 6 stages around the city, including Brian Wilson, Sufjan Stevens and even three public weddings (!)

It wasn’t too much of a gamble when you consider how much Sydney loves a party. But by all accounts, the free gift to the people of Sydney paid off – big time.

Reports of smashed sales records tumbled in over the three weeks. More importantly, the festival was raised to an unprecedented level of awareness among the residents of the city. The opening night ‘sampler’ created the mood, appetite and appreciation for the rest of the program.

Other examples of free littered the festival offerings. A clever promotional campaign saw the distribution of thousands of Festival Sampler CDs featuring songs from artists including Brian Wilson, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, The National, Kev Carmody, The Triffids and Pink Martini. These could be accessed from the same outlets selling tickets to these artists’ events. That’s beautiful strategy – linking the free sample to the distribution point and easing the path to purchase.

The festival even created a whole area of the website called “Free” to highlight the events festival-goers could access for, well, nix.

Most Australian arts festivals have substantial free content in their programs. These are often the components that are heavily subsidised by government funding (and the City of Sydney Council has just increased funding for Sydney Festival’s First Night party by nearly double) In Brisbane, for example, Riverfestival is defined by Riverfire, the biggest annual cultural event in the city’s calendar.

But Sydney Festival elevated ‘free’ to a whole new level of strategy, entwining it in their marketing and programming to create added value that has exploded the festival’s brand in the city’s consciousness.

Hats off to you Sydney, you romped it in. Literally.

I’m working on my first multi-part blog series – to whet your appetite, it’s to do with Borders and their new partnership with lulu.com to offer publishing services in their new concept stores in the US.

While that’s percolating, here are a few links of related blogs to add to your readers:

Brad’s Reader: All things literature and writing

Chris Webb: A Wiley book editor’s thoughts on technology, social media, social applications and their effect on publishing

Issues in Publishing

Publishing Results: View, news and commentary on publishing

Nearly a decade ago I spent a few wonderful months living in San Francisco. I got a short contract position at a web company in SoMa. It was an exciting time to be in the industry, still before the Tech Wreck. For a wide-eyed young graduate from Brisbane it was the funkiest place to work I could imagine. There was a games room with a pool table. You didn’t have to put coins in the softdrink machine. There were free massages for staff on Tuesdays. But my favourite part, geek that I am, was every Friday when people would bring their lunch, sit around on beanbags and listen to one of the team deliver a lecture or presentation on some aspect of technology or culture that interested them. That’s where I first heard about collaborative filtering.

They’ve been talking about collaborative filtering, a subset of recommendation engines, over at ReadWriteWeb.

In January 2000, recommendation engines were still building up a head of steam, but of course now they’re everywhere. Our daily experience of the internet is so completely overwhelmed by data – email, websites, youTube videos, music, widgets – that it’s almost impossible to self-impose any kind of filter. That’s where recommendation engines come in – they help people to find content they should (in theory) like based on their own past behaviour, or someone else’s past behaviour, or the nature of the content they are seeking.

The second one – recommendations based on someone else’s past behaviour , or collaborative filtering – is used by retailers like Amazon. 67% of people who bought that book also bought these other four books.

It makes sense to apply this to consumer models. Retailers want you to buy more things, so they make it easy for you to find content you’ll like.

But it occurs to me that the algorithms of recommendation engines could be used by publishers as well. How could, for example, this modelling provide a clearer picture for book publishers sifting through piles of unsolicited manuscripts? Publishers are always searching for the next big hit and often only have the last couple of successful books as a benchmark. But what if they could turn the data into more meaningful decision-making tools? Would it enable them to make more commercially accurate calls on manuscripts they are considering taking to market?

I guess unpublished authors try (most often unsuccessfully) to do this in their queries. “My young adult fantasy would sit comfortably next to Harry Potter…” 

But it is an interesting thought-experiment to consider how recommendation engines could guide content publishing decisions not just consumer purchasing decisions. It may require manuscripts to be tagged or scored in some way, which ultimately could be as onerous as simply assessing them subjectively or qualitatively based on an editor’s experience and instinct.  Perhaps it’s something that could be combined with a crowd sourcing platform to harness the power of a pool of readers or fans.

Okay, this post is not actually about RSS. Well, it is, but only kind of. This post is about author sites and how writers promote themselves on the web.

I heard a new term just the other day. Completely new (to me) industry buzz word that I’ve never come across before. I gather that’s because Australian publishers and agents are not using it. Or if they are, they’re not talking about it with their authors. You ready? Here it is…

Platform.

Author platform, to be precise. I read about it over at Joe Wikert’s blog. And then followed the host of links he provided on the topic. And then read some articles. And then Googled it. And then got very concerned that I’d never heard this term, and doubly concerned that the 2,300 QWC members probably hadn’t either.

Now, first things first… Joe’s blog entry is now more than 18 months old and it may not be worth getting too hung up on an industry term that, by the time Aussies catch up with it, is already passe. But the principles underlying the concept of author platform are just common sense, and applied by any author to their own writing and reader base, will benefit them immensely in promoting themselves.

So what is author platform? Renee Wilmeth of Literary Architects described it better than I could when blogging the topic in 2006:

What is your platform? Your platform is who you are in relation to your topic. How much of an expert are you? If you’re offering your readers a solution to a problem (or giving them a treatise on your topic of choice), your platform is what makes you a reliable source. Do you have training in the field or industry? Are you an “expert”? Do you have experience other than just “I did it and want to help others do it, too”? Do you have a following? Do you speak? Do you blog? Do you have a website? Do you have readers for a newsletter, or hits on a web site, or great quotes from names who say “this person is terrific! Read what they have to say!” Your platform is your base of credentials. It’s your credibility on a topic. It’s your position in the industry, your company, your topic. It’s any related certifications, degrees, speaking experience, work, or involvement. What difference does it make to the success of your book? All in the world.

This seems to have a natural relationship to non-fiction but I think it’s also applicable to fiction writers as well. I circulate in the Australian speculative fiction community and can think of several new authors who have excellent platform. Jason Nahrung comes to mind. He has invested considerable time and attention (not to mentioned good old fashioned sincerity and nice manners) in his relationships with other individuals in the community, not just other writers but also fans. He attends the National SF Convention regularly. He reviews SF for The Courier Mail. He maintains an active blog and MySpace page. He puts zombie smackdown on other chump’s zombies on Facebook. He is generally well-known and very well liked. Jason writes horror and dark fantasy and through his passions and activities he has become indelibly associated with these genres. He is known as a bit of an old goth, a fan of all things dark and mysterious. He has Australia’s most comprehenive collection of vampire movies. He is fond of wearing black (and yes, I’m being a little facetious now). But for a horror writer, Jason has great platform.

This platform served him incredibly well last year at the launch of his first novel, The Darkness Within (Hachette Livre Australia), at which there were over 200 people (it was booked out, you literally couldn’t get tickets to this thing) There were plenty of booksellers and media in the crowd. There were Jason fans and friends from very conceivable interest group Jason is involved in (and there are many). Jason sold a lot of books.

So what about the RSS? Well, it occurs to me that many of the authors I talk to at QWC don’t realise they can develop for themselves a very powerful web tool with freely available blogging software. They can update their readers with RSS and email. They can even update them on the mobile phones or by podcast. They can put up info about reviews. The can post images and video. They can receive comments. They can have a conversation. In other words, they can build platform.

And they could probably create all this in a day, with little or no expertise, and for $0, with freely available tools like WordPress or Blogger. Too many author sites I see are still brochure-ware, circa 1998. The communication only goes one way, and more often than not the authors don’t even know that people have stopped listening to them.

So to my members I will be saying blog, feed, podcast, converse. Build platform. Because when the Australian publishing industry does catch up with the terminology (and I’m sure they already have) they’ll be looking around to see who has it, and who doesn’t.

I found something very informative (many things actually) among George Walkley’s notes from the O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference. (I’m annoyed, by the way, that I didn’t stumble on George’s excellent blog earlier but my helpful friend, sf author Marianne de Pierres, recently pointed him out to me and I’m glad she did)

Anyway, I’m glad I read George’s notes because it helps me settle an argument I had with Rob in the car on the way to work this morning. We were arguing vigorously discussing what it is that will make e-books tip. Rob says it’s the device. He pointed to Blue-Ray and said the writing was on the wall way back when Sony shipped Blue-Ray players in Playstation 3 consoles. It wasn’t the retailers and movie studios signing up with Blue-Ray that ultimately did Toshiba in, he argued, it was the fact there were so many Sony players already out in the market that the retailers and movie studios could do little else but follow consumer demand. Fair enough point (or at least, I begrudgingly acknowledge that now) He also pointed to the iPod, now an almost ubiquitous device which has fuelled a billion-dollar market in digital music.

Aha! I cried. But it wasn’t the iPod that tipped digital music, it was the mp3, in other words the format. I argued that e-books will tip when we have a universal file format that publishers are prepared to support and e-book readers are configured to read. Perhaps it will be the .epub format, I hope so anyway since a reflowable format is going to enable faster uptake of e-books on mobile devices, especially phones.

Turns out neither of us were right, as Brent Lewis of Harlequin pointed out in his presentation Digital Strategy and Action at Tools of Change. (Harlequin, by the way, have been quietly setting out being world leaders in e-book publishing since 2005)

Brent said something so profound yet so simple I’m sure it’s the reason many publishers, especially Australian ones, haven’t noticed what they’re missing out on:

“E-books are about benefits not technology.”

He went on to explain what the most desirable benefits are to e-book consumers:

  • immediacy
  • volume
  • portability
  • product opportunity

Seems obvious, so why is this so profound? Well, because usually the most profound things always seem obvious when they’re uttered, and then they’re followed by a slap upside the head for not thinking of it earlier. It’s natural to be seduced by the technology when thinking about e-books. There’s a host of sexy devices out there now, even oh-so-naughties matte white ones like the Kindle. There’s a dizzying menu of e-book formats and proportionately astronomical permutation of possible decisions to make about which formats to produce, distribute and market. And underneath it all there’s always the nagging doubt that people don’t really want to read on a screen, do they? (Forgetting of course, the 8-10 hours most of us spend in front a screen everyday already)

The reality is, if we re-orient our thinking away from technology and toward the customer (pretty much marketing 101) we can clear our foggy heads and start thinking about how to create a value-proposition that customers will go for. And that’s what Harlequin have already done. They’ve understood the unique and inherent benefits that e-books offer over print books – immediacy, volume, portability and product opportunity. They’ve also done a good job of understanding who they’re customers are. Romance readers, like a lot of genre fans, are inclined toward community. They’ll make good use of social networks, so eHarlequin.com does too.

The reality is, as it turns out Rob and I were both really arguingconfidently asserting (and refusing to acknowledge we essentially agreed with each other) it will be a set of conditions that tip e-books not a single element. It will be a whole combination of things: device, format, pricing, distribution, volume of content, DRM and many others. Some of these are chicken and egg factors too. But publishers will get there faster if they think about benefits first and technology second.

Over on Mike Banks’ blog The REAL Writing Life, I came across an excerpt from an interview he did with Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of the paradigm-rocking The Long Tail. Chris was talking about how much time he spends blogging daily, which transformed into a commentary on why he blogs:

Basically I devote an hour a day to blogging-related functions. That is, either writing posts, or editing other people’s posts, composing drafts, or thinking about or pulling together research that will go into drafts. I wish it were three hours a day. I’d love to spend more time. It’s a really satisfying process. I think I do my best thinking via my blogs. Because that is really what a blog is about: a blog is a scratch-pad, and a discipline to collect your thoughts, compose your thoughts, advance your thoughts, and do it in public in a way that can amplify your thoughts by not only reaching an audience, but also getting feedback on your thoughts. Blogging for me is really largely a way to make myself smarter.
I’m really heartened by this comment. One of the reasons I decided to start this blog was that I was reading dozens of blogs daily, especially on publishing trends and the future for authors, but feeling like I had no output for the questions and ideas they prompted in me. Making comments on other authors’ blogs is one way to participate in the conversation, and it’s a great way, but for those ideas that would marinate for a while, sometimes months, I wanted a place I could publish them and refine them through community feedback. Basically, I’m betting on the millions of people smarter than me who can spot the flaws in my reasoning. I’m looking forward to that process and to a regular practice of critical writing.

I finally established the blog to publish the essays, thoughts and ideas that have been accumulating in my mental miscellaneous folder. Give me a few days to get everything polished and shiny and I’ll get some posts up here.