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The Casual Optimist led me to this remarkable story of growth and prosperity in a traditional publishing medium in Fortune Magazine.

While storm clouds gather for newspaper, magazine and book publishers, the comic book market is surging ahead. And there’s nothing but upside for the two big publishers – Marvel and DC Comics – who share more than 80% of the market between them. Wow!

“In the quarter ended June 30, publishing accounted for $32 million of Marvel’s $157 million in revenues, and $11.7 million of its $85.2 million in operating profit. (The bulk of the rest came from licensing – which generates even higher margins of more than 80% – since the spoils from “Iron Man” won’t show up until the next couple of quarterly results.) Although its publishing revenue and profits declined in the first half of the year, the company has given guidance that it expects revenue growth in publishing between 3% and 7% for the year, and margins between 37% and 40%.”

My god. I’m not entirely sure if book publishers have ever had margins like that, have they?

Read full article: Spoiler alert: Comic books are alive and kicking

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Everyone loves to recommend a good read. Hell, it’s what makes the book world go round. So here’s your chance. I’m off to Canada and the US next week and I’m following Sherman Young’s lead and going digital all the way. So I’m looking to load up ye olde iPhone with things to read and books to listen to. Suggestions welcome, as long as I can get it in digital format.

Here are some examples of things I will be making sure are “packed”:

  • the last few episodes of Litopia After Dark [always a thoughtful and entertaining show]
  • Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Librivox) [this wonderful audiobook store now has 365 days worth of audio content available absolutely free]
  • Content – Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) [I actually recently bought this in hardcover but couldn’t be arsed taking the dead-tree version on the plane with me]
  • The Hollow Men – ABC TV [I missed the last few episodes on telly and am just loving ABC’s new free downloads]
  • Magic For Beginners – Kelly Link [available for 12 months as a free CC-licensed download]

What else, what else? Send your suggestions!

It didn’t bode well when, at the opening press conference of Frankfurt Book Fair, Prof. Dr. Gottfried Honnefelder, the Director of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association, described the computer as “a machine that looks like a typewriter with an upright picture.” Even more astounding, thousands of people can now use books, such as the encyclopedia, simultaneously!

Welcome to the Internet, Professor, the temperature’s balmy.

And while my hopes were foolishly raised when he said that “others have to learn how to handle it and accept that “Open Access” prevails time and again, and that Internet users don’t have any patience when the “free flow of information” runs into walls” [cute use of quotation marks there], in the next paragraph Prof. Honnefelder calls for a political debate about the basic conditions of handling intellectual property.

These resources must be protected! Anyone who steals a book out of a bookstore can expect consequences. Why should there be different laws on the Internet? Simply because this book is not printed on paper and bound?

Hopes dashed.

In the next 60 years the Frankfurt Book Fair will certainly be changed as a marketplace for content. It will, however, only continue to exist and continue to create international trends in the publishing industry when the handling of intellectual property proceeds down a regulated path. And only then can international knowledge be truly useful.

Funny. I always thought international knowledge was truly useful when shared openly, copied, improved upon, used as the basis of innovation, creation and ideas. Wasn’t that the hallmark of the Age of Enlightenment, ushered in by minor little invention known as the Gutenberg press?

BoingBoing has alerted us to a marvellous multi-channel fiction and photography project called Dr. Julius T Roundbottom. The puppetmaster of this fascinating world is Jeremiah Tolbert, who says of the project:

“It’s a little fantasy, a little steampunk, a little clockpunk, and I hope a hell of a lot of fun. The comment community that has grown up around the site respond to the stories in their own characters, and the characters of the site have a dialog with them. The audience, through comments, influence the direction of the story, often introducing new concepts to the world building.” [via BoingBoing]

The site structure is essentially a blog, beautifully designed in steampunk style, which follows the adventures of Dr Roundbottom, a naturalist studying faeries in City Park. Each post is fiction written in the first-person voice of the good doctor, with a few other characters thrown in. Tolbert accompanies his posts with high-quality art photography. He has also established an ‘encyclopedia’, a tikiwiki to expand and flesh out worldbuilding aspects of the site (there’s that quasi-spectral hypertext again)

I particularly love that readers are encouraged to engage with and extend the narrative by posting comments “in character” and conducting dialogue with Dr Roundbottom and his colleagues. Tolbert is monetising the narrative through sale of photographs and premium memberships to the site. I imagine there are any number of other ways he could introduce income streams to this, especially once the community builds up around it.

I used to turn over the problem of distribution for small press quite a bit. Distribution is a key challenge for most creative industries, at least those that aren’t digital. One of the business models my brother and I used to toss around was a co-op that would take on the functions of distribution, sales and marketing. Neither of us had the energy or time to tackle it but I’m really heartened to see strong cooperative efforts in independent publishing.

The best of these is SPUNC (Small Press Underground Collective) which has a well articulated vision and fantastic engagement with the broader publishing and bookselling industry.

Today I also learned the indefatigable Tehani Wessley has launched a blog to raise the profile of Australian small press.

It struck me that while Australian small press produce some amazing works, often they receive little wider recognition due to a restricted distribution. This means authors don’t receive all the kudos they should, general readership don’t get access to many of these productions, and has a negative impact on further projects. I’d like to see that change. This is just my way of seeing if I can help increase the visibility of small press publishers in Australia to libraries, retailers and readers outside the traditional sales sphere of small press.

An admirable project!  Tehani is so far focusing on speculative fiction publishers. Hopefully she and the gang at SPUNC will find each other and team up, especially as SPUNC has funding.

Recently the friendly-looking team at HarperStudio asked a question on their blog, The 26th Story, about whether to invest in a full-featured website or keep up the blog. Since they invited input, I weighed in with an oft-quoted phrase in the industry: “The author is the brand”.

The general idea (which someone else much smarter than I had a long time ago) is that customers don’t walk into a bookstore and ask for the latest HarperCollins or Macmillan. They seek out their favourite authors and genres. Readers want to buy the next Alexander McCall Smith or Stephen King or the latest crime thriller or epic fantasy.

In this context, there doesn’t seem much point in investing a lot of money in a publisher website with a lot of bells and whistles, unless you can master the challenges of searchability in order to drive attention to your authors and titles. Instead it makes more sense to invest in communities of interest around topics or genres, such as the Spinebreakers or tor.com sites, or individual author brands.

But then I had a quick look through the HarperStudio blog and static pages and was pretty charmed, actually. When was the last time you saw a publishing company website with candid photos of the publishers? Open, humorous bios with real human details? There aren’t a heap of publisher blogs that are more than publicity channels for the books they’re putting out. The Penguin blog is funky and well written with a diversity of voices, but these are still disembodied voices emanating from an opaque corporate behemoth. The 26th Story is one of the few blogs where I feel like I’m actually engaging in a conversation with the real people behind the enterprise, instead of being fed marketing copy. 

Perhaps that will change as HarperStudio signs more authors and has more titles to manage and promote. Perhaps it will change when they create their new site – although I note they’ve decided to stick with a blog platform for now, using WordPress (good decision!) – but for now I like the small team feel of the blog, the sense (however idealistic) that I could take an elevator to the 26th floor of the HarperCollins digs and find Bob & co sitting around the table much the same as they are in their photo.

And all this got me thinking… is the author the only brand? Isn’t it possible, however unlikely, that some publishers could create an identity so strong and a community so vibrant that audiences seek out their books because they trust and like the people producing them? It’s hard to imagine of the multinationals, but not so hard to imagine of the quirky independents who have well-known identities associated with them, such as McSweeney’s (Dave Eggars) or Small Beer Press (Kelly Link).

Of course, even a wildly successful publisher blog is unlikely to generate the kind of audience that would shift books in the quantities required to make the ROI worth it. Then again, when you look at blogs like Boing Boing it’s quite clear the awesome power of conversation and community. The publisher as brand may not be something to write off just yet. Perhaps publishers just haven’t worked out how to do it well in the new paradigm.

I’ve got some thoughts about author sites and branding too, but this is getting to be an awfully long post already so I’ll hold that over for next time.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s worth publishers spending the time and resources on their own brand identity?

P.S. Keep up the cello practice, Bob. It is the most sublime of stringed instruments.