Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shelf Space and Paper Trails

Whoever has their name on the most pieces of paper, wins.

This has been true in the print world since the beginning of print. The more copies available, the more exposure people have to those books. The more exposure, the more potential fans.

With authors, having big print runs is always a good thing. Even if a hardcover run doesn't sell that well, the books get remaindered. While authors don't get any royalties on these $3.99 discount titles found in the sales sections of bookstores, these books do find new readers, some of who will go on to buy the author's other, newer work.

If your book stays in print, and it's joined by other books of yours, this improves your chances to be discovered, because now you have shelf space. If your books take up five, ten, or twenty spots on a bookstore (or library) shelf, you're more likely to be noticed by browsers.

But your name on books isn't the only paper that counts.

Your name in reviews leads people to your books. Your name on the blurbs of other writers' books can also have a similar effect. Every short story you write and sell widens your potential fanbase.

Ads. Press releases. Articles. Every piece of paper your name is on can help your career, because it's one more reminder to the world that you exist. It's a paper trail that leads right to you.

But does this apply to virtual paper? How about ebooks and the Internet?

Yes. A thousand times yes.

The Internet is permanent. Every mention of your name and your books will last forever, leading people in your direction. And unlike print, which can take a long time to build up to reach that critical mass/tipping point where you become a household name, the Internet can work much faster.

As far as I know, no author has gone "viral" yet. Though some, like Cory Doctorow, Boyd Morrison, and Scott Sigler, have used the Internet wisely to widen their fanbase and turn popularity into money.

This blog gets thousands of hit per week. On weeks I blog about ebooks, my ebook sales go up. When I release a newsletter to 10,000 people, my Amazon numbers spike. If I Twitter something timely, I get more traffic.

Your digital name on digital paper (the world wide web) works twice. First, it works for those who see it when it happens. Next, it works for those who see it weeks, months, or years after it happened.

It can be both instant and cumulative. And it can be very effective.

As of today, Feb 24 at 9:07am, I've made $2750 this month on Kindle.

Next month, I'm putting four more ebooks up on Kindle (including an updated version of the Newbie's Guide to Publishing book.)

I'd be a fool not to. More ebooks means more chances to discover me, which means more potential sales.

The more shelf space I have, the more books I'll sell.

Which brings us to the obvious question: What can you do to get your name on more pieces of paper?

1. Look At Your Past - My early novels, which were rejected more than 500 times, have become long-term investments that are finally paying off. I wish I had more rejected novels. If you've got a book that was good enough to land an agent, but didn't sell, there's no reason you shouldn't be getting some of this ebook traffic. Just make sure the work is good.

2. Previously Published Work - Got some out-of-print novels? Some short stories or articles? Turn these into ebooks. Put them on your website for free, and on Kindle for a small fee. The more virtual shelf space you take up, the better.

3. Blog, Website, Social Networks - Your Internet presence is the perfect opportunity to find new readers. Surfers are looking for content. If you write a thoughtful blog, have a lot of free stuff on your website, and you're an active participant in online communities, you're getting your name out there, both passively (thanks to search engines) and actively (thanks to links and signatures.)

4. Reviews - Recently, several large NY Print Publishers announced they were discontinuing printed galleys and instead giving ebook advanced readers to booksellers and reviewers. Guess what? I've been doing this for years. I've sent out hundreds of ebooks for free to reviewers and bloggers and booksellers. If you can trade an advance ebook copy for a review, that's a small price to pay.

5. Writing. Writers write. If you're avoiding writing for the ebook market, you should perhaps rethink your priorities.

My third bestselling ebook on Kindle is TRUCK STOP. I wrote TRUCK STOP specifically for Kindle. And I had an insidious reason for doing so.

TRUCK STOP is a Jack Daniels novella, where Jack chases two killers. The first is Donaldson, the villain from SERIAL which I wrote with Blake Crouch under the name Jack Kilborn (and which has been downloaded more than 200,000 times.) The second is Taylor, the villain from AFRAID by Jack Kilborn.

TRUCK STOP is basically a gateway drug. Those who read SERIAL for free, or TRUCK STOP for $1.59, will often go on to read AFRAID and the entire Jack Daniels series. TRUCK STOP is a fun story, with some thrills and laughs, but its ultimate goal is to lead people to more of my writing. It's currently the #380 bestseller in the Kindle store.

is currently #756 in the Kindle store. It came out ten months ago, and is priced at $5.59.

is currently #3174 in the Kindle store, priced at $4.79. That's not too shabby, considering it came out six years ago.

Why is a six-year-old book selling better than 420,000 other Kindle titles, many by big bestselling name authors?

Because of shelf space and paper trails. Because I've positioned myself there, with low cost Kindle books and timely blog topics. Because I've blurbed a lot of authors, and keep my website updated, and use Twitter and Facebook. Because I've toured, and been reviewed, and gone to conferences, and generally done all that I can to get my name out there.

I never got big discounting in the bookstores, or coop. I never got huge marketing campaigns. I never got big print runs, or my books in Sam's Club and CVS.

Yet I'm still standing. And I can't help but think it has something to do with my efforts to get my name on as many pieces of paper--both dead tree and virtual--as I possibly can.

Quality counts. But quantity is important too.

It would be wonderful if every new book got a huge print run and a major advertising campaign and a giant marketing push. I'm still waiting for that to happen to me.

But while I continue to wait, I'm doing everything I can to make my own luck. And as the tide shifts from DTBs to ebooks, more and more authors are going to make their own luck, too.

Do you want to be one of them?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Understanding Kindle Bestsellers

This blog title is misleading. I make no claim to understand why a book becomes a bestseller on Kindle. I have a few hypotheses, but no real way to test them.

So I'm going to ask you what you think.

Currently, I have four self-published ebook novels on Kindle, each priced at $1.99. As of right now (Feb. 17 at 7:20am) one of these novels has sold 1327 copies so far this month. Another has sold 519 copies. The third has sold 212. And the fourth novel has sold 166.

There's a big gap between 1327 and 166. And I've been scratching my head for months, wondering why that gap has stayed so wide.

Is it cover art? Is it genre? Is it the writing sample people can download for free before they buy? Is it the product description? Is it bestseller ranking (meaning a bestseller continues to be a bestseller because people see it on the bestseller list)? Is it word of mouth?

The natural assumption would be that this book sells the best because it is my best. But I don't feel it's better than the others, and neither do readers if we go by reviews and the email I get.

This gets even stranger, because if I look at the downloads on my website (three of these books are available for free on my site) the bestseller on the Kindle store isn't the bestselling download on my webpage, even though the ebooks all have the same cover art and description as their Kindle counterparts.

Color me confused.

These books have been on Kindle since April. One might think that the numbers would have reached some kind of equilibrium by now. That the biggest seller would slow down, and those who read it and liked it would be buying the other three books. Or that the top bestseller slot would change.

But it hasn't. These four books have been in the same bestselling order since April. Here are their total sales so far:

First bestseller: 9691
Second bestseller: 5014
Third bestseller: 2239
Fourth bestseller: 1716

My question to you is: why?

I'm going to post the covers and the product descriptions for all four. I'm also going to post links, if you're so inclined to download the free sample.

After you look at the covers and descriptions for each, tell me which you think is best, and why.


A medical investigator tormented by secret guilt.
A beautiful doctor with an illicit desire.
A millionaire businessman indulging a passion for murder.
And a human guinea pig who has been awake for seven straight weeks.

DISTURB by JA Konrath
You’ll never sleep well again...

JA Konrath is the author of six mysteries in the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series, including Whiskey Sour, Bloody Mary, Rusty Nail, Dirty Martini, Fuzzy Navel, and Cherry Bomb. Disturb is Konrath's first medical thriller.

Disclaimer: This novel is filled with extortion, conspiracy, taboo sex, hidden secrets, shocking violence, and murderous betrayal. Not recommended for the faint of heart.

This ebook version also includes the bonus horror short story, "Dear Diary," about a very special pom pon girl.


A billionaire Senator with money to burn...
A thirty year old science experiment, about to be revealed...
Seven people, marked for death, not for what they know, but for what they are...

THE LIST by JA Konrath
History is about to repeat itself

JA Konrath is the author of six novels in the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series. The latest is CHERRY BOMB.

THE LIST is a bit of a departure for Konrath. It's a technothriller about a group of ten people who each have tattoos of numbers on the bottoms their feet, and don't know why.

One of them, a Chicago Homicide cop named Tom Mankowski, has had one of these strange tattoos since birth. When he investigates a violent murder and discovers the victim also has a tattooed number, it sets the ball rolling for an adventure of historic proportions.

To say more would give away too much.

Like the Jack Daniels series, The List combines laugh out loud humor with serious suspense and thrills.


Thriller writer J.A. Konrath, author of the Lt. Jack Daniels series, digs into the vaults and unearths a technohorror tale from the depths of hell...

1906 - Something is discovered by workers digging the Panama Canal. Something dormant. Sinister. Very much alive.

2009 - Project Samhain. A secret underground government installation begun 103 years ago in New Mexico. The best minds in the world have been recruited to study the most amazing discovery in the history of mankind. But the century of peaceful research is about to end.


ORIGIN by J.A. Konrath
All hell is about the break loose. For real.


Several million bucks, stolen from the mob...

All caught on video, with no chance of redemption...

Now one man must face the entire Chicago Outfit, a group of hardened Mafia enforcers, a psychotic bookie, the most dangerous hitman on earth, and Detective Jacqueline Daniels...

His name is Tequila. And he likes those odds.



So tell me, based on the above, which is the most appealing? What's the best cover? What's the best description? Why is the bestselling ebook selling almost seven times the number of the least selling ebook, when they're all thrillers written by the same author and with similar styles?

I'm eager to hear your responses, because I flat out have no idea why one book sells more than the other three combined.

If you follow this blog regularly, or click on the links to read the free samples (you can download a Kindle reader to your computer for free), you already know which one is my bestseller. But please refrain from trying to explain why it's the bestseller, because that's attributing significance to an occurrence after it happens.

Instead, tell me what does or doesn't appeal, and if you had to buy one of these books, which one it would be and why...

Which JA Konrath Kindle Ebook Would You Buy First?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Kudzu and Kindle

All along, the goal has been to build a fanbase.

In the history of publishing, this was usually a slow and steady process. You write a book. Then you write another a year later. And another a year after that. Hopefully the publisher keeps them in print, the bookstore keeps them on the shelf, and the fans like them and talk about them. This linear approach, if kept up long enough, can lead to a career, and even a spot on the bestseller list.

But there's an easier way to achieve market penetration and saturation.

Instead of releasing one book at once, you release sixteen.

There's a plant known as kudzu, which is widely hated in the south because it takes over cropland. It grows fast, and uses runners to spread. Kudzu can quickly saturate an entire field. One patch becomes two patches, then four patches, then sixteen patches, and pretty soon it's everywhere you look.

I'm noticing a similar phenomenon with writing in general, and ebooks in particular.

I've always believed that being prolific and diverse are the two biggest things a writer can do to create fans. Because of this, I write a lot of short stories, in various genres. The effect works as intended. I've got a few hundred thousand novels in print. But my short stories have been printed millions of times. Each published story is an opportunity to gain a new fan, some of whom will buy my books.

This approach has served me well. I get a lot of fan mail about my short work, and it often leads to the intended effect; to point readers toward my novels.

But this still isn't literary kudzu. It's a slow, gradual build up (albeit faster than if I only did novels.)

Then along comes the Kindle.

For those new to my blog, here's a recap of how I got started on Amazon.

Ever since my first novel, Whiskey Sour, was published back in 2004, I've had a website, I understood early on that people on the internet are looking for free content, and the two main forms of content are information and entertainment. So, from the very beginning, I've had free downloads on my website. Lots of short stories, and several of my pre-Whiskey Sour novels that couldn't find publishers.

After the Kindle's debut, I had Kindle readers contact me, saying the pdf downloads I offered on my site weren't compatible with their ereader. Could I please somehow make my ebooks available on Kindle?

So I did. But I wasn't allowed to give them away for free. So after some experimentation, I settled on a $1.99 price point.

This was in April 2009. In ten months and a few days, I've sold about 26,000 ebooks. In the first fourteen days of February, I've already made $1600. My bestseller, The List, isn't just the number one bestseller in the Kindle police procedure category, it's the number one bestseller in the overall police procedure category. In other words, I'm outselling print novels from Jonathan Kellerman, JD Robb, James Patterson, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, John Sandford, and everyone else. (For the curious, this book is averaging 82 sales per day.)

That's pretty astonishing. All of these writers are NYT Bestsellers. I am not. I'm just a midlister with a low cost ebook.

But here comes the kudzu tie-in. I've recently learned that all six of my Jack Daniels ebooks are among my print publisher's top 50 Kindle bestsellers. These books are priced higher than $1.99. In fact, one of them costs $9.99.

On the Kindle police procedure bestseller list, I currently have 7 books in the top 100.

This is instant market penetration and saturation. Unlike a slow, gradual growth, this is more like kudzu, which pops up in a bunch of places at once and keeps spreading out. Different readers discover different ebook titles of mine, and it sends them to other ebooks.

The more chances you have to be discovered, the more you'll be discovered. Building a fanbase, which used to be linear and gradual, now becomes more like a patch of weeds, spreading out in all directions and at great speed.

So you want to be a Kindle bestseller?

The more quality content you have, the better your chances. Short stories. Out of print books. Unpublished work that your agent couldn't sell.

This is more than just a quick way to make a buck. This is getting a firm foothold in the oncoming digital revolution.

I used to be known as the guy who wrote nine unpublished novels and got over five hundred rejections before landing a book deal.

Now I'm known as the guy who pays his mortgage selling books on Kindle that NY rejected.

Be the kudzu. Join the revolution before everyone else figures this out and it's harder to get noticed.

Friday, February 12, 2010

You Can Pry My Ebooks From My Cold, Dead Fingers

Recently, I've been blogging about the inevitable dominance of ebooks over dead tree books.

My own experiments show I can make more money selling ebooks than print.

I talked about how Amazon was losing money on Kindle ebooks sold, and envisioned a new publishing system involving estributors.

I refuted some of the common arguments against ebooks.

I predicted what the future of ebooks might be like. And how format is largely the reason we haven't fully embraced ebooks yet.

I considered the new agency model in selling ebooks, and came to the conclusion that publishers seem to care more about selling paper than connecting writers with readers.

I talked about the perception of ownership and the perception of value with print and ebooks.

Barry Eisler put forth a terrific argument about the inevitability of digital dominance.

And finally, I considered the difference between destination value and journey value, and concluded that the sentimental connection people have with print books will likely change, as it is no more compelling than an attachment to any other outdated method of media.

The overwhelming conclusion I've come to is that ebooks will one day be the preferred method of reading. This day is inevitable, and is coming quickly. Print publishers don't seem ready for it, and their methods to delay this eventuality will only lead to annoying their customers, piracy, and alienating their authors.

When I first talked about ebook piracy, I made an argument that cheap sells, free sells even more, and the only way to fight file sharing is with cost and convenience.

The music and movie industries tried to fight piracy, and failed. As a result, companies not previously associated with music and movies have become rich by doing three things.

1. Understanding consumer need.
2. Giving the consumers what they want at a price consumers are willing to pay.
3. Making it as convenient as possible for consumers.

As a result of this, the biggest music player maker and music seller is a computer company, and companies such as Tivo and Netflix, along with services like Direct TV and On Demand, are changing the way people watch movies.

Apple, and the companies that rent TV shows and movies through subscriptions, have discovered something interesting about the media habits of humans.

It used to be thought that we really valued the physical object the media was presented on. As consumers, it was important for us to own VHS and cassette tapes, DVDs and LPs, CDs and BluRay.

And yet, consumers have shown, in greater and greater numbers, that they don't care about the delivery system, and they don't care about ownership of a tangible product. They just want a cheap and easy way to watch the damn movie and listen to the damn song.

Where did this trend begin? When did we start to realize that ownership of an experience didn't require a physical object?

Oddly enough, I think piracy plays a large part in the acceptance and adaptation of new technology.

Let's look at three types of media. Music, movies, and video games.

I've already yakked at length about the many different formats music has had over the years, so I won't recap it here. But when we did fully embrace CDs, it seemed to coincide with the invention of the CD recorder. Being able to share media, ironically, led to the sales of more media.

The RIAA says that the widespread adoption of mp3s lead to more piracy than ever before. But perhaps piracy is what lead to the widespread adoption of mp3s. While music companies tried to block it, Apple created a player for it, and a store to sell the media. Apple looked at what consumers were doing, and responded accordingly.

In the latest video game console wars, is it a coincidence that the only system that has remained hack proof, the PS3, has also sold far fewer units than the hackable Xbox 360 and the Wii? The PSP and Nintendo DS are also hackable, as is the iPhone. All are flourishing.

People like being able to do what they want with their media, and with their media readers. They like to share, and copy, and customize. And as a result, more units, and more media, winds up selling on systems where piracy thrives.

There's a lot of movie and TV show piracy online. But it's a very odd phenomenon. On one hand, there are those who sneak camcorders into films still in the theaters, and upload their copies. There are also those that make 1:1 copies of DVDs and BluRay disks, complete with cover art, so you have a perfect copy of something you'd otherwise pay for.

But, believe it or not, the majority of movie and TV piracy isn't with first run flicks and full DVD copies.

It's with rips and with recent TV shows.

A "rip" is taking a movie and stripping out most of the extra stuff so it's still good quality, but under 700mb (a DVD is normally 4.7 to 8.5 gigabytes.) 700mb fits on a CD, but more often than not, pirates will watch these directly on their computers.

Right after any TV show airs, the torrent sites and file lockers are flooded with people sharing the latest episode of Lost or House or The Biggest Loser.

The conclusion I draw from this isn't that pirates are interested in stealing media. They're more interested in file sharing as a cheap and easy distribution method. You search for what you want. You download it quickly. You experience it.

So along come Tivo, On Demand, Direct TV, and Netflix. What do they do? They allow consumers to experience media cheaply, easily, and quickly. And consumers have embraced these distribution methods to the point where Blockbuster Video--the same dominant force that squeezed out all the mom and pop video stores across the country--is now themselves closing stores left and right.

Consumers have shown us what they want. Ownership of a tangible product is becoming less and less important. Downloading a song, or a movie, or a TV show--either permanently or temporarily through a subscription model--is how many people are deciding to experience media.

I've said before that piracy is human nature. The internet was created to store and share information. It's directly tied to how we communicate. That's why we lend each other blooks and movies, and send emails linking to YouTube videos, and link to each other's blogs and then Tweet the link on Twitter.

How do books play into this? A hardcover book is a luxury item in today's market. It's eight hours of entertainment for $30. That's a month's worth of movies on Netflix, or thirty songs on iTunes. And a paper book is far from an instant delivery system.

If books are going digital, as most seem to predict, the ability to share media, and get it instantly, will help advance the adoption of ebooks by the masses. And as companies like Apple and Netflix and Gamefly (for videogames) have learned, the masses dictate what they're willing to pay for this service.

Not the film producers. Not the music producers. And not the videogame producers.

It's a third party that stepped in, saw the need, and exploited it.

So along comes Amazon. They already have a huge advantage over any other third party. They're the largest online book retailer. It didn't take a huge leap in faith for Jeff Bezos to realize he could also become the biggest online ebook retailer, if they only had an ereader device.

Now the Kindle is the market leader. The technology is only going to become more widespread, more advanced, and cheaper, as time goes on.

Where are the print publishers? Why aren't they making ereaders? Why aren't they allowing for cheap ebook downloads on their websites? Why don't they have customer forums and subscription models? Why are the clinging to an outdated model so tightly that they're now demanding to set both wholesale and retail price of their products?

The videogame industry got it. The PS3, Xbox, PSP, and Wii all allow for downloadable games and online subscription-based play. And guess what? The PS3 finally got hacked. I predict sales will rise as a result.

People want inexpensive media at the press of a button. Books will follow the same model as movies, music, video games, and TV.

It will be an ebook future. A cheap, instant, ebook future.

And we'll embrace it. We always do.

Monday, February 08, 2010

You Can Pry My Paper Books From My Cold, Dead Fingers

People have an emotional attachment to printed books. So much so, that the most repeated argument against the universal adoption of ebooks is "I love print, and no ebook will ever be able to take its place."

Let's analyze this position. At its heart, the argument is emotional, not logical, for reasons this essay will explain. But an emotional response is still a very effective one. We're an emotional species, and the history of mankind shows that emotion often dictates our actions.

Looking at the history of technology, it isn't too often that a new tech completely replaces the tech that existed previously. The automobile became the preferred method of personal transportation, but many people still own horses, and every big city offers the expensive horse and buggy ride around town.

Consider the bow and arrow. When gunpowder was invented, a natural assumption could have been that there would never again be any use for arrows. Yet archery is still a thriving business, and you can go into any sporting goods store and buy a crossbow.

People used horses to get from point A to point B. People used bow and arrows to hit a target from a distance. When cars and guns came, it was easier to get to point B and hit targets using these new techs. As a result, they became the widely adopted methods to complete these tasks.

Let's say that a technology used to complete a task has "destination value." The goal is getting the task done, and if one tech is advantageous over another tech, it often becomes the preferred method.

But there are still archery ranges and horse riders. That's because these offer an experience as well as a destination value. It's fun to get to point B on a horse, and ask any Ted Nugent fan about his affinity for the compound bow.

Sometimes it isn't just about the destination value. Sometimes the journey is also important.

Let's call this experience "journey value." It's a large part of the reason the horse and bow never went away.

These techs, however, aren't media.

Media, by definition, is a delivery system.

But is the end result the destination? Or does the journey also have value?

Let's use the music industry as an example yet again, because I believe there are parallels to the publishing industry.

The LP was the dominant music format for years. 8 track tapes were invented as an alternative, and though they had some advantages (you could now play music in your car) they didn't replace LPs.

But in the case of both the LP and the 8-track, they had similar destination value. They both allowed you to listen to a song. Their comparable journey value was negligible. How you listened to the song really didn't add much to the experience. The point was being able to listen to a song, not the format the song was in.

Along come cassette tapes. These had an advantage over 8-tracks and LPs, because they could record music. But they didn't replace LPs. Music stores sold LPs and cassettes side by side, and different consumers had different preferences.

Again, the experience is the song itself, not the delivery method. High destination value. Low journey value.

Then CDs came on the scene. It was originally thought by the industry that cassettes would be the death of LPs, because cassettes allowed for piracy. But the two mediums co-existed peacefully for years.

With the advent of CDs, the quality of music went up. Digital allowed for a lossless version of the musical artist's master tapes, with a delivery system superior to both LPs and cassettes.

Digital also allowed those original masters to be digitally remastered, to make the quality better than ever.

But consumers didn't warm up to CDs right away. First of all, the device to play CDs on was very expensive (I recall it being the most expensive part of a stereo system for several years after it was introduced.)

Music publishers, however, wanted people to adopt this new format. I'm not sure why. Maybe deals with CD player manufacturers. Maybe CDs had a higher profit margin than LPs and cassettes, or were easier to ship or mass produce. Whatever the reason, they wanted to push this new technology. And one of the ways they did this was to stop making as many LPs.

At one point, you would walk into a music store and it was all LPs, and some 8 tracks. Years later, it was about half LPs and half cassettes. Years later it was a few LPs, cassettes, and a growing CD selection. Then it was no LPs, a few cassettes, and mostly CDs. And eventually, it was all CDs.

CDs did provide a better way to experience a song. They sounded better (though a few diehard LP audiophiles may argue against the point.)

But a CD was just a vehicle for the thing that hadn't changed: the song.

The destination value of a CD was equal to the destination value of a cassette. They both played a song that you could listen to. And the journey value to each was negligible. They could both be played on portable Walkmans, and in cars. CD had better sound quality. Cassettes could record music.

The ability to record music adds an interesting dynamic. One of the things I find interesting is that cassettes weren't fully replaced by CDs until another invention came out: the CD burner.

Like the CD player, the burner started out as very expensive. And it actually wasn't invented as a way to copy music. It was invented as a way to store data on a personal computer. But computer users soon realized that this new technology could be used for piracy.

A CD is digital. This digitized information could be copied onto a computer, and then that could be copied onto a blank disk.

Piracy then evolved. A CD of 12 songs takes up a lot of megabytes. So users began to play with ways to compress this information, so more songs could take up less space. The MP3 was born.

With the advent of the MP3, something interesting and unexpected happened. Consumers of music, used to having a physical, tangible product that was the delivery system for their music (the LP, cassette, or CD) realized they didn't need the tangible product. Music could exist solely as digital binary code on a computer.

Apple looked at this user trend, and created a user-friendly device that played MP3s. Today, a computer company is the biggest retailer of music players (iPod and iPhones) and music itself (on iTunes) in the world.

You'd think that maybe Columbia Records, or some other big record company, would have been the leader in this industry and spearheaded the MP3 movement. But they didn't. They tried to block it, and hired lots of lawyers and sued a lot of people and invested a ton of money in copy protection that didn't work.

Or perhaps a major retailer, like Sam Goody or Musicland, would have realized they were losing CD sales, and taken a good look at where there customers were now getting music. Surely they could have found a way to make money off of this trend.

But they didn't. They went out of business.

So a computer company now rules the music industry.

Now let's go back to destination value and journey value. While Apple changed the way the world listened to music, the destination value was still the same thing it has always been: the song.

While listening to a song on an iPod is easier and has many advantages to listening to an LP, the song is still the important thing. How you listen to a song has continually evolved since Edison. But this experience can't be logically compared to shooting a bow or riding a horse.

When you close your eyes and listen to a song, it's for the song. It's not for the experience of using a record player, cassette player, CD player, Zune, iPod, or computer. The joy is not sticking the tape in, or putting the headphones on.

I'd say that the delivery system for music is not nearly as important as the music itself. Which is why we've had so many delivery systems, and will no doubt have many more in our lifetimes.

The song remains the same. Technology will always march on. And neither the big record companies, nor the big record stores, ever figured that out.

So let's bring ebooks into this discussion.

By stating they won't ever give up print books, print aficionados are giving value to the journey. The act of turning pages, the smell of paper, the feel of a book in their hands--to print fans, this seems to be just as enjoyable as the story itself.

I don't buy it.

The joy of riding a horse, while destination can be important, is also closely tied in with with the experience. You can ride a horse with no destination at all and still have a great time.

You don't need to hunt with a bow and shoot an animal to enjoy the feeling of pulling back the bow string and letting an arrow fly, no matter the target. Using a arrow is fun just shooting it into the air (make sure no one is around first.)

Can you picture yourself popping a CD into the stereo without music coming out? Can you imagine going for a walk with your iPod, putting in your ear buds, and selecting a song on iTunes with the sound on mute? That's journey value, and the journey value is zero.

Now picture being curled up on a couch with a book. Smell it. Feel it. Stick out your tongue and taste it if you so desire.

How often would you repeat that experience if the book had no words on any of its pages?

In fact, the journey experience with media is imagined. Or it's tied into nostalgia, pleasant memories, and previous pleasurable experiences. People love paper books because it was the only way they've had, in the hundreds of years the medium has exited, to experience a story.

But a story is not print on a page. It never has been.

A story is the writer's words in your head.

And guess what, print book aficionados? You can get the story into your head without dead trees.

(This is the first part of a two part essay about changing media technology, the role of piracy in adopting new media technology, and why an online bookseller is now feared as having a stranglehold on the future of publishing. Part 2 is HERE.)

Monday, February 01, 2010

Digital Perception

Digitization has really screwed things up.

Whether the screw up is a good thing or a bad thing still remains to be seen. But recent talks of ebooks and piracy brings up two important (and I feel thought-provoking) issues.

First is the perception of ownership.

Second is the perception of value.

Ownership used to be an easy concept to grasp. If something exists tangibly (you can see, hear, taste, smell, and/or touch it) and it is in your possession (you bought it, traded for it, found it, created it, were given it), then you own it.

People get loans in order to own big things, like houses and cars, and until they pay off those loans, the bank is the true owner.

It's a pretty simple concept. Equally simple is the concept that if someone takes something you own without your permission, it is theft.

When we bring multimedia into the picture, things get sort of odd.

If you buy a CD, you own a physical object (the plastic disk) and also have the rights to listen to the music on it. You can legally sell the CD, though it would be considered illegal to make a copy for yourself first, because you're only entitled to listen to that content if you own the CD.

If you buy a song on iTunes, you don't own anything physical. You own a bunch of code that, when played on your iPod or computer, you can listen to the same as you can listen to a CD. You are allowed the rights to listen to that music depending on the terms of the sale. iTunes currently limits the number of computers you can have an iTunes account on (it's 5). If you try to transfer songs you bought to a sixth computer, you can't through iTunes.

If you listen to a song on the radio, you have the rights to hear that song, because the radio station and advertisers paid for it. It is within your rights to make a copy of that song from the radio and listen to it over and over.

It is not within your rights to borrow a CD from the library, make a copy of the CD, and listen to the songs over and over. That is considered theft.

So what constitutes ownership in a digital world?

If you digitally copy a song off the radio, and sync it with iTunes, do you own it?

I don't know the legal answer. I don't really care about the legal answer. I know I can record TV shows and cable movies, put them on a DVD, and keep them legally. I know I can buy used DVDs for dirt cheap and keep them legally. I know I can download pay-per-view movies, and depending on the terms, keep those movies for an extended period of time on my DVR, or forever on Tivo.

Do I own these movies or shows? Do I have the rights to watch these movies and shows?

If you Tivo a TV show, and skip through the commercials, is that stealing? The ads pay for the show. If it is stealing, I don't believe the average consumer cares.

Digitization has changed the perception of ownership in a digital world.

Those who create digital products know that these products are easy to copy and share. Even with the restrictions they put on these products (Macrovision, DRM, proprietary formatting) anyone with a bit of ingenuity can find their way around these copy protections.

In fact, a lot of people believe there should be no copy protection at all. If you legally buy a CD, it is yours to do what you want with. You can sell it, or loan it to your mom, or legally make a back-up copy.

These people wonder why they can't do that with intangible, digital media. They wonder why their rights are restricted.

If I bought a song on iTunes, shouldn't I be able to do the same thing with that song that I could do with a CD I bought?

And what of experiences? What constitutes ownership of an experience, rather than a tangible object?

If you sneak into the movie theater, it's stealing. You didn't pay for that experience.

If you borrow a DVD from the library, or watch it over at your friend's house, it isn't stealing, even though you didn't pay for the experience.

If you borrow a DVD from the library, and copy it to watch later, it is stealing.

If you Tivo the same movie to watch later, it's legal.

The concept of ownership is muddied in a digital world.

I'm sure there are laws that show the dividing line. I'm also sure that most people don't know, or in fact care about these laws. A movie is a movie. A song is a song. You can get them buy paying for them, or for free, through legal and illegal means.

In a digital world, without a tangible object (the plastic disk that is the CD or DVD), perception of ownership is cloudy.

But perception of value is not cloudy.

I don't know a lot of people who go into Best Buy and steal DVDs. They believe that it's wrong to do so. Theft of a tangible object means a monetary loss to the owner of that object. A tangible object has a perceived value beyond what the set price is, simply because it can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched.

Someone created it. It exists. Therefore, it has a perceived value.

I do know people who download music illegally. They feel it isn't theft, because there is no loss of a tangible object. They aren't paying for the experience the music provides, but there are other ways to experience music without paying for it, so why not download it for free? Downloading doesn't equate to a lost sale.

Now let's bring up books, since you all know I was heading there.

A book has a perceived value. That value varies wildly. You can buy a book for $24.95 new, or get an unread used copy of the same book in perfect condition for $3 at a used bookstore. What is the book truly worth?

What if you got the book from the library? Is the perceived value of a book in the ownership of the tangible product, or is it in the experience of reading the story?

If a book is only read once, the reader who bought it for $24.95, and the one who bought it for $3, and the one who got it from the library, all had the same experience.

In a normal system of supply and demand, goods are worth what consumers are willing to pay for them, dependent on the number of goods and the number of consumers. Those who want a book right away are willing to pay a higher price. Other are willing to wait for it to be sold used, or for the cheaper paperback edition, or they put their name on the library waiting list. While the experience of reading is the same, and the prices varies, there still is a perception of value because the book is a tangible object. Books are loved, treasured, shown respect. Books are our friends. We display them proudly in our homes.

Now along come ebooks.

The perception of ownership is tougher to define with something that exists digitally, as a bunch of ones and zeros in binary code.

But what's really tougher to define, is the perception of value.

A print book exists as a physical object, and has a perceived value based on supply and demand.

With ebooks, the supply is unlimited. They can be reproduced and delivered for free (or for pennies.)

Even though the experience reading an ebook is the same experience as reading the $24.95 hardcover or the library copy (and by experience I mean the act of the words being absorbed by your mind), there is a much lower perceived value in ebooks.

Because ebooks aren't tangible. Everyone believes they cost less to create and distribute than their print counterparts. And they're correct. They do cost less, and they aren't tangible.

And their intangibility makes the perception of ownership sketchy. Do you own an ebook if you buy it? Or do you only own the rights to use it on a specific device? Is that true ownership?

It's easy to price a print hardcover at $24.95, because the market will decide if it can sell at that price. Only so many exist. Supply and demand.

But I believe publishers are making a mistake trying to use a supply and demand model, and its pricing structure, with ebooks.

Because the perception of ownership of ebooks is sketchy.

Because the perception of value of ebooks is lower than with print books.

And because ebooks, like all digital media, are damn easy to copy.

There aren't many bootleg print books. Costs too much to print and bind, and there are no outlets to sell them.

There are a lot of bootleg DVDs. They cost less to produce, and there are markets for them.

But there are a lot more illegal digital movie downloads than there are pirate DVDs.

It's much harder to stop illegal movie downloads. One reason is because they aren't being sold--they're being shared. Another reason is because the people sharing them are numerous, individual users.

In fact, there are over a billion of them.

Downloading illegal movies is a pain in the ass. For a good quality, lessor known movie, let's say something 8gbs, it can take weeks, even with a lot of bandwith and a decent server.

DVDs have come down so much in price, I'd much rather pop over to Best Buy and spend $5 on a new copy of the Bad News Bears than download one. (the original, not the crummy remake)

Still, a lot of people experience movies by pirating them. And they don't find it any more wrong than borrowing a movie from the library or recording it on Tivo. Because perception of ownership and value is different for digital products.

Now publishers want the price of ebooks to be high, for several obvious reasons.

First, they don't want ebooks to cannibalize print sales.

Second, because they make a larger profit on high priced ebooks.

Third, because if ebooks fully take over, their role in the publishing process could become greatly diminished.

But ebooks aren't subject to the rules of supply and demand, because they can be copied and shared by pressing a button. And because the consumers have a lower perception of an ebook's value, but still want the experience, I predict they won't pay what the publishers are asking.

The consumers will go elsewhere.

One growing option is piracy.

Downloading a 4.7 gigabite DVD movie, at 1mb per second, takes over an hour.

Downloading 30 ebooks in .txt format takes 8 seconds.

Downloading 1300 ebooks in various formats (epub, mobi, pdf, doc) takes 13 minutes.

Is it really in publishers' best interest to price ebooks at $14.99?

Is it in authors' best interests?

Is it in readers' best interests?

One of the headlines in Publisher's Weekly today was "Agent Community Happy With Macmillan Move."

Well-known and respected agent Richard Curtis called it a "terrific thing." Curtis said the move “restores control of book pricing—on both e-books and print—to the publishers,” and that this is the healthiest thing for the industry.

You're free to draw your own conclusions. I've drawn mine. I believe that people won't pay $14.99 for ebooks. It will lead to fewer sales and more piracy. I believe the way to fight piracy is with cost and convenience. I believe a cheap, or free, ebook model is coming in the future, no matter how much the entire industry seems to be hoping otherwise.

But then, who am I?

I'm a writer.

The reason the publishing industry even exists is because of writers.

We create the content. And in most cases, we get paid very little for this.

Now Amazon and Apple are offering writers 70% royalty rates on ebooks, and the ability to set our own prices.

"A terrific thing"?

Indeed it may be. For the writers

But not for the publishers and the agents.