Failings and Opportunities of the Publishing Industry in the Digital Age

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times printed a story about the future of reading entitled "Book publishers see their role as gatekeepers shrink." The article covers most of the story fairly well, but leaves out some fundamental pieces of the business ...

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times printed a story about the future of reading entitled “Book publishers see their role as gatekeepers shrink.” 

The article covers most of the story fairly well, but leaves out some fundamental pieces of the business picture.  It discusses a few particular cases of some very well known authors in the publishing world including the likes of Stephen King, Seth Godin, Paulo Coehlo, Greg Bear, and Neal Stephenson and how new digital publishing platforms are slowly changing the publishing business.

Indeed, many authors are bypassing traditional publishing routes and self-publishing their works directly online, and many are taking a much larger slice of the financial rewards in doing so.

The article, however, completely fails to mention or address how new online methods will be handling editorial and publicity functions differently than they’re handled now, and the future of the publishing business both now and in the future relies on both significantly.

It is interesting, and not somewhat ironic to note that, even in the case of this particular article, as the newspaper business in which it finds its outlet, has changed possibly more drastically than the book publishing business. If reading the article online, one is forced to click through four different pages on which a minimum of five different (and in my opinion, terrifically) intrusive ads appear per page. Without getting into the details of the subject of advertising, even more interesting, is that many of these ads are served up by Google Ads based on keywords, so three just on the first page were specifically publishing related.

Two of the ads were soliciting people to self-publish their own work. One touts how easy it is to publish, while the other glosses over the publicity portion with a glib statement offering an additional “555 Book Promotion Tips”! (I’m personally wondering if there can possibly be so many book promotion tips?)

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Following the link in the third ad on the first page to its advertised site one discovers it states:

Learning how to publish a children’s book is no child’s play.

From manuscript editing to book illustration, distribution and marketing – a host of critical decisions can make or break your publishing venture.

Fortunately, you can skip the baby steps and focus on what authors like you do best-crafting the best children’s book possible for young inquisitive minds. Leave the rest to us.

Count on the collective publishing and book marketing expertise of a children book publisher with over thirteen years’ experience. We have helped over 20,000 independent authors fulfill their dream of publication.

Take advantage of our extensive network of over 25,000 online bookstores and retailers that include such names Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders, among thousands of others.

Tell us about your Children’s book project and we will send you a Free Children’s Book Publishing Guide to start you off on your publishing adventure!

 

Although I find the portion about “baby steps” particularly entertaining, the first thing I’ll note is that the typical person is likely more readily equipped with the ability to distribute and market a children’s book than they might be at crafting one. Sadly however, there are very few who are capable of any of these tasks at a particularly high level, which is why there are relatively few new childrens’ books on the market each year and the majority of sales are older tried-and-true titles.

I hope the average reader sees the above come-on as the twenty-first century equivalent of the snake oil salesman who is tempting the typical wanna-be-author to call about their so-called “Free” Children’s Book Publishing Guide. I’m sure recipients of the guide end up paying the publisher to get their book out the door and more likely than not, it doesn’t end up in main stream brick-and-mortar establishments like Barnes & Noble or Borders, but only sells a handful of copies in easy to reach online venues like Amazon. I might suggest that the majority of sales will come directly from the author and his or her friends and family. I would further argue that neither now nor in the immediate or even distant future that many aspiring authors will be self-publishing much of anything and managing to make even a modest living by doing so.

Now of course all of the above begs the question of why exactly is it that people need/want a traditional publisher? What role or function do publishers actually perform for the business and why might they be around in the coming future?

The typical publishing houses perform three primary functions: filtering/editing material, distributing material, and promoting material. The current significant threat to the publishing business from online retailers like Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and even the recently launched Google Books is the distribution platforms themselves.  It certainly doesn’t take much to strike low cost deals with online retailers to distribute books, and even less so when they’re distributing them as e-books which cuts out the most significant cost in the business — that of the paper to print them on. This leaves traditional publishing houses with two remaining functions: filtering/editing material and the promotion/publicity function.

The Los Angeles Times article certainly doesn’t state it, but everyone you meet on the street could tell you that writers like Stephen King don’t really need any more publicity than what they’ve got already. Their fan followings are so significantly large that they only need to tell two people online that they’ve got a new book and they’ll sell thousands of copies of any book they release. In fact, I might wager that Stephen King could release ten horrific (don’t mistake this for horror) novels before their low quality would likely begin to significantly erode his sales numbers.  If he’s releasing them on Amazon.com and keeping 70% of the income compared to the average 6-18% most writers are receiving, he’s in phenomenally good shape. (I’m sure given his status and track record in the publishing business, he’s receiving a much larger portion of his book sales from his publisher than 18% by the way; I’d also be willing to bet if he approached Amazon directly, he could get a better distribution deal than the currently offered 70/30 split.)

What will eventually sway the majority of the industry is when completely unknown new writers can publish into these electronic platforms and receive the marketing push they need to become the next Stephen King or Neal Stephenson. At the moment, none of the major e-book publishing platforms are giving much, if any, of this type of publicity to any of their new authors, and many aren’t even giving it to the major writers. Thus, currently, even the major writers are relying primarily on their traditional publishers for publicity to push their sales.

I will admit that when 80% of all readers are online and consuming their reading material in e-book format and utilizing the full support of social media and cross-collateralization of the best portion of their word-of-mouth, that perhaps authors won’t need as much PR help. But until that day platforms will significantly need to ramp it up. Financially one wonders what a platform like Amazon.com will charge for a front and center advertisement for a new best-seller to push sales? Will they be looking for a 50/50 split on those sales? Exclusivity in their channel? This is where the business will become even more dicey. Suddenly authors who think they’re shedding the chains of their current publishers will be shackling themselves with newer and more significant manacles and leg irons.

The last piece of the business that needs to be subsumed is the editorial portion of the manufacturing process.  Agents and editors serve a significant role in that they filter out thousands and thousands of terrifically unreadable books. In fact, one might argue that even now they’re letting far too many marginal books through the system and into the market.

If we consider the millions of books housed in the Library of Congress and their general circulation, one might realize that only one tenth of a percent or less of books are receiving all the attention. Certainly classics like William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens are more widely read than the millions of nearly unknown writers who take up just as much shelf space in that esteemed library.

Most houses publish on the order of ten to a hundred titles per year, but they rely heavily on only one or two of them being major hits to cover not only the cost of the total failures, but to provide the company with some semblance of profit.  (This model is not unlike the same way that the feature film business works in Hollywood; if you throw enough spaghetti, something is bound to stick.)

The question then becomes: “how does the e-publishing business accomplish this editing and publicity in a better and less expensive way?” This question needs to be looked at from a pre-publication as well as a post-publication perspective.

From the pre-publication viewpoint the Los Angeles Times article interestingly mentions that many authors appreciate having a “conversation” with their readers and allowing it to inform their work. However, creators of the stature of Stephen King cannot possibly take in and consume criticism from their thousands of fans in any reasonable way not to mention the detriment to their output if they were forced to read and deal with all that criticism and feedback.  Even smaller stature authors often find it overwhelming to take in criticism from their agents, editors, and even a small handful of close friends, family, and colleagues.  Taking a quick look at the acknowledgement portions of a few dozen books generally reveals fewer than 10 people being thanked much less hundreds of names from their general reading public – people they neither know well, much less trust implicitly.

From the post-publication perspective, both printing on demand and e-book formats excise one of the largest costs of the supply chain management portions of the publishing world, but staff costs and salary are certainly very close in line after them.  One might argue that social media is the answer here and we can rely on services like LibraryThing, GoodReads, and others to supply this editorial/publicity process and eventually broad sampling and positive and negative reviews will win the day to cross good, but unknown writers into the popular consciousness. This may sound reasonable on the surface, but take a look at similar large recommendation services in the social media space like Yelp. These services already have hundreds of thousands of users, but they’re not nearly as useful as they need to be from a recommendation perspective and they’re not terrifically reliable in that they’re very often easily gamed. (Consider the number of positive reviews that appear on Yelp that are most likely written by the proprietors of the establishments themselves.) This outlet for editorial certainly has the potential to improve in the coming years, but it will still be quite some time before it has the possibility of totally ousting the current editorial and filtering regime.

From a mathematical and game theoretical perspective one must also consider how many people are going to subject themselves (willingly and for free) to some really bad reading material and then bother to write either a good or bad review of their experience. This particularly when the vast majority of readers are more than content to ride the coattails of the “suckers” who do the majority of the review work.

There are certainly a number of other factors at play in the publishing business as it changes form, but those discussed above are certainly significant in its continuing evolution.  Given the state of technology and its speed, if people feel that the tradition publishing world will collapse, then we should take its evolution to the nth degree. Using an argument like this, then even platforms like Amazon and Google Books will eventually need to narrow their financial split with authors down to infinitesimal margins as authors should be able to control every portion of their work without any interlopers taking any portion of their proceeds. We’ll leave the discussion of whether all of this might fit into the concept of the tragedy of the commons for a future date.

Is the Los Angeles Times Simply Publishing Press Releases for Companies Like Barnes & Noble?

The Los Angeles Times published an online article entitled “Barnes & Noble says e-books outsell physical books online.” While I understand that this is a quiet holiday week, the Times should be doing better work than simply republishing press releases from corporations trying to garner post-holiday sales.  Some of the thoughts they might have included:

“Customers bought or downloaded 1 million e-books on Christmas day alone”?

There is certainly no debating the continuous growth of the electronic book industry; even Amazon.com has said they’re selling more electronic books than physical books. The key word in the quoted sentence above is “or”. I seriously doubt a significant portion of the 1 million e-books were actually purchased on Christmas day. The real investigative journalism here would have discovered the percentage of free (primarily public domain) e-books that were downloaded versus those that were purchased.

Given that analysts estimate 2 million Nooks have sold (the majority within the last six months and likely the preponderance of them since Thanksgiving) this means that half of all Nook users downloaded at least one book on Christmas day. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for those who would have received a Nook as a holiday present and may have downloaded one or more e-books to test out its functionality. The real question will remain, how many of these 2 million users will actually be purchasing books in e-book format 6 months from now?

I’d also be curious to know if the analyst estimate is 2 million units sold to consumers or 2 million shipped to retail? I would bet that it is units shipped and not sold.

I hope the Times will be doing something besides transcription (or worse: cut and paste) after the holidays.

 


The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method | The New Yorker

The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method? by Jonah Lehrer (The New Yorker)

Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article “The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” is an interesting must-read article. In it he discusses the “Decline Effect” and outlier statistical effects within scientific research.

Among other interesting observations in it, he calls attention to the fact that, “according to the journal Nature, a third of all studies never even get cited, let alone repeated.”

For scholars of Fisher, Popper, and Kuhn, some of this discussion won’t be quite so novel, but for anyone designing scientific experiments, the effects discussed here are certainly worthy of notice and further study and scrutiny.

New Measures of Scholarly Impact | Inside Higher Ed

New Measures of Scholarly Impact (insidehighered.com)
Data analytics are changing the ways to judge the influence of papers and journals.

This article from earlier in the month has some potentially profound affects on the research and scientific communities. Some of the work and research being done here will also have significant affect on social media communities in the future as well.

The base question is are citations the best indicator of impact, or are there other better emerging methods of indicating the impact of scholarly work?

Poor State of Automated Machine-Based Language Translation

You know that automated machine language translation is not in good shape when the editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Signal Processing Magazine says:

As an anecdote, during the early stage in creating the Chinese translation of the [Signal Processing] magazine, we experimented with automated machine translation first, only to quickly switch to professional human translation.  This makes us appreciate why “universal translation” is the “needs and wants” of the future rather than of the present; see [3] for a long list of of future needs and wants to be enabled by signal processing technology.

 

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The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved | Smithsonian Magazine

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved by Rob Dunn (smithsonianmag.com)
From hiccups to wisdom teeth, our own bodies are worse off than most because of the differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live.

A short and interesting list of examples showing proof of our evolution.

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The Hidden Player

Thomas Henry Huxley

Improved Reading and Workflows with Instapaper and Tab Candy aka Panorama for Firefox

Over the summer, Ars Technica and others reported about the new feature Tab Candy being built into Firefox by Aza Raskin.  Essentially it’s a better graphical way of keeping “tabs” on the hundreds of tabs some of us like to keep open for our daily workflows.  One can now group series of related tabs together and view them separately from other groupings.  Many of us loved the feature in the early Minefield build of Firefox, but the recent release of Firefox 4.0 beta 7 includes the nearly finished and stable version of Tab Candy, which has been renamed Panorama, and it is great.

Though Panorama is a brilliant, one of the functionalities it doesn’t have and which is mentioned in the Ars Technica article, is that of “reading later.” I find, as do many, that the majority of the tabs I keep open during the day are for things I have the best intentions of reading later.  Sadly, often days go by and many of these tabs remain open and unread because I simply don’t have time during the work day and don’t come back later in my free time to give them the attention they deserve.  (It also coincidentally has the side effect of soaking up additional memory, a symptom which can be remedied with this helpful tip from Lifehacker.)

I’ve now got the answer for these unread stories in neglected tabs: Instapaper.com.  Instapaper, the brainchild of former Tumblr exec Marco Arment, is similar to many extant bookmarking tools, but with increased functionality that makes it infinitely easier to come back and actually read those stories.  Typically I use the Instapaper bookmarklet tool on a webpage with a story I want to come back to later, and it bookmarks the story for me and is configurable to allow closing that tab once done.

The unique portion of the tool is that Instapaper provides multiple ways of pulling out the bookmarked content for easy reading later.  For those who are RSS fans, you can subscribe to your bookmarked stream with tools like Google Reader.  But even better, the site allows one to easily download .mobi or .epub bundled files of the stories that can be put onto your e-reader of choice.  (I personally email copies to my Kindle 3 (affiliate link.)) Once this is done, I can simply and easily read all those stories I never got around to, reading them like a daily personal newspaper at my convenience – something I’m much more prone to do given my addiction to my Kindle, which provides a so-called “sit back experience.”

As if all this isn’t good enough, Instapaper allows you to create differentiable folders (along with separate requisite RSS feeds and bookmarklet tools) so that you can easily separate your newspaper articles from your tech articles, or even your communication theory research papers from your genetics scientific articles.  This can allow you to take your daily twitter feed article links and turn them into a personalized newspaper for easy reading on your choice of e-book reader.  With the upcoming pending Christmas of the e-reader and tablets, this is as close to perfect timing for the killer app as a developer could hope.

The e-book reader combined with Instapaper is easily the best invention since Gutenberg’s original press.

(N.B.: One could bookmark every interesting article in the daily New York Times and read them in e-book format this way, but I would recommend using an application like Calibre for reducing the time required for doing this instead. Instapaper is best used as a custom newspaper creator.)

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Paul Halmos on Prerequisites

Definitely the quote of the day:

Paul Halmos (1916 – 2006, Hungarian-born American mathematician
in Measure Theory (1950)

 

This is essentially the mathematician’s equivalent of the adage “Fake it ’til you make it.”

Riemann’s On the Hypotheses Which Lie at the Foundations of Geometry

One must be truly enamored of the internet that it allows one to find and read a copy of Bernhard Riemann’s doctoral thesis Habilitation Lecture (in English translation) at the University of Göttingen from 1854!

His brief paper has created a tsunami of mathematical work and research in the ensuing 156 years. It has ultimately become one of the seminal works in the development of the algebra and calculus of n-dimensional manifolds.

Brief Thoughts on the Google/Verizon Compromise and Net Neutrality in the Mobile Space

This last week there’s been a lot of interesting discussion about net neutrality as it relates particularly to the mobile space.  Though there has been some generally good discussion and interesting debate on the topic, I’ve found the best spirited discussion to be that held by Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and guest Stacey Higginbotham on this week’s episode of This Week in Google.

What I’ve found most interesting in many of these debates, including this one, is that though there is occasional discussion of building out additional infrastructure to provide additional capacity, there is generally never discussion of utilizing information theory to improve bandwidth either mathematically or from an engineering perspective.  Claude Shannon is rolling in his grave.

Apparently, despite last year’s great “digital switch” in television frequencies from analog to provide additional television capacity and the subsequent auction of the 700MHz spectrum, everyone forgets that engineering additional capacity is often cheaper and easier than just physically building more.  Shannon’s original limit is far from a reality, so we know there’s much room for improvement here, particularly because most of the improvement on reaching his limit in the past two decades has come about particularly because of the research in and growth of the mobile communications industry.

Perhaps our leaders could borrow a page from JFK in launching the space race in the 60’s, but instead of focusing on space, they might look at science and mathematics in making our communications infrastructure more robust and guaranteeing free and open internet access to all Americans?

Global classical solutions of the Boltzmann equation with long-range interactions

Global classical solutions of the Boltzmann equation with long-range interactions (pnas.org)

Finally, after 140 years, Robert Strain and Philip Gressman at the University of Pennsylvania have found a mathematical proof of Boltzmann’s equation, which predicts the motion of gas molecules.

Abstract

This is a brief announcement of our recent proof of global existence and rapid decay to equilibrium of classical solutions to the Boltzmann equation without any angular cutoff, that is, for long-range interactions. We consider perturbations of the Maxwellian equilibrium states and include the physical cross-sections arising from an inverse-power intermolecular potential r-(p-1) with p > 2, and more generally. We present here a mathematical framework for unique global in time solutions for all of these potentials. We consider it remarkable that this equation, derived by Boltzmann (1) in 1872 and Maxwell (2) in 1867, grants a basic example where a range of geometric fractional derivatives occur in a physical model of the natural world. Our methods provide a new understanding of the effects due to grazing collisions.

via pnas.org

 

Terence Tao Teaching Real Analysis at UCLA this Fall

Holy cow! I discovered on Friday that Terence Tao, a Fields Medal winner, will be teaching a graduate level Real Analysis class this fall at UCLA.

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Surprisingly, to me, it ony has 4 students currently enrolled!! Having won a Fields Medal in August 2006, this is a true shock, for who wouldn’t want to learn analysis from such a distinguished professor? Are there so few graduate students at UCLA who need a course in advanced analysis? I would imagine that there would be graduate students in engineering and even physics who might take such a course, but perhaps I’m wrong?

Most of his ratings on RateMyProfessors are actually fairly glowing; the one generally negative review was given for a topology class and generally seems to be an outlier.

On his own website in a section about the class and related announcements we seem to find the answer to the mystery about enrollment.  There he says:

 I intend this to be a serious course, focused on teaching the material in the course description.  As such, students who are taking or auditing the course out of idle curiosity or mathematical “sightseeing”, rather than to learn the basics of measure theory and integration theory, may be disappointed.  I would therefore prefer that frivolous enrollments in the class be kept to a minimum.

This is generally sound advice, but would even the most serious mathematical tourists really bother to make an attempt at such an advanced course? Why bother if you’re not going to do the work?!

Fans of the Mathematical Genealogy Project will be interested to notice that Dr. Tao is requiring his Ph.D. advisor’s text Real Analysis: Measure Theory, Integration, and Hilbert Spaces. He’s also recommending Folland‘s often used text as well, though if he really wanted to scare off the lookie-loos he could just say he’ll be using Rudin‘s text.