Tuesday, January 28, 2014

AuthorCare Begins With Transperancy

Today we read Hugh Howey’s blog post ‘Bread and Roses’ on what he believes the Authors Guild should be focused on and an author’s perspective on today’s marketplace. His views will not be shared by all, but they convey a frustration that is often felt by many, not necessarily on the activities of the Guild, but on their position within the market.

It is a given that we have to both encourage authors and reward them. Yesterday they often could secure healthy advances and had a clear measure of their sales and expectation of royalties. If there was an issue they could instigate an audit. Today they increasingly see a net receipt environment where they can often lose the distinction of sales and revenues and performance between the different channels. There is also is an increasing tendency by some to create a catch all bucket called ‘special sales’ and the author may be left with a feeling of ‘take it or leave it’ and potential frustration.

Does the reward match their expectation, exceed it, or disappoint? Some publishers will work hard to manage expectations, communicate openly and explain the results, but others may only supply consolidated entries on their statements.

Digital sales in particular should be transparent to all. Everyone should be able to track sales in real time and calculate revenues accordingly. However, that isn’t often the case and sales reconciliation across digital channels isn’t always easy for publishers, let alone agents and authors, and some publishers even outsource the process to specialist. Imagine, an ebook licence is sold today. There is no reason why with today’s technology that can’t be reported either in real time or near time to the copyright owner. There is no reason why every online retailer can’t supply a standard feed. Alas that isn’t the case.

When we look at Amazon’s KDP self publishing facilities, the author sees sales as they accumulate and can see payments due, which are then paid monthly direct into their account. Even if we ignore the percentage of receipt paid as being significantly higher than that paid by publishers, the transactions are transparent and the money often flows quicker.

Today we see a growing self publishing movement and although many make little money, they often feel that they are at least able to seen what sales they make. In creating an open and relatively transparent service, the likes of Amazon are also nurturing trust and swaying authors to follow them. Getting them back into the traditional publishing process may be harder than some imagine.

Customer service and Authorcare begins with communications and transparency and the one thing that counts is the reward in units sold converted into royalty paid.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Digital Warming: Can We Avoid the Destruction of the Physical Book Habitat?

In our last article we wrote about the market impact of Digital Warming, which like its more famous environment equivalent, global environment warming, can result in unpredictable effects. Today we have to ask the question of whether it is now not wise to adjust our behaviour, not only to mitigate some of the extremes of today’s trade, but to also protect and reduce the risk from irreversible damage tomorrow.

When CDrom digital ebook content first appeared many rushed to add extras and in doing so often took their eyes off the costs and the lack of market demand. The inevitable result happened and CDrom ebooks were banished to Room 101. When the ebook that we know today appeared many choose to avoid the extras and merely pour the physical content into the new digital container. Market growth was driven by the adoption of the new dedicated ereading devices and we simply swapped the physical paper for a digital representation. As ereaders matured into platforms, tablets and smartphones they had to compete with more than just another book. The straight adoption of the physical content may have appeared a less risky path than that taken by the CDrom pioneers, but is its impact is potentially far more damaging and some would suggest its adoption equally short sighted?

We are increasingly living in a time poor society with more and more competing offers both for our time and money. Some no longer watch live TV and broadcasting schedules, but stream and watch it on demand. Others increasingly find themselves channel hopping for their instant gratification, or simply seeking background noise. Maybe an understanding of the medium is the answer?

When we take a book and make it into a film, the screenplay writer adapts it to the media and the audience. Whole swathes of content may be discarded or be heavily abridged. The point is that there is little point in making a ten hour film that follows the text religiously. Film media is different, is valued differently and that is why a release of the film will often help increase sales of the original book.

When we make an audio of War and Peace we rarely engage actors to read the book from cover to cover. We abridge and adapt it to the media, its own economic models and the audience demands. Maybe understanding what the audience can absorb is the answer?

So why do we continue today to simply take the physical content and pour it into a digital container and think that that is it and its down to social media and discovery?

Today’s book is born from the economical print model and although it can vary significantly between genre, within them it is often predictable. The trade novel is often 70,000 words and 256 pages and this is because this optimises the print economics and authors are now trained to produce it.

So making a digital copy of the physical book could be a short term fix and a long term nightmare should we be looking to create digital value by adding more stuff, or may we may create more value by abridging it and creating less digital content? The question of which comes first the physical or the digital is also an interesting one. In merely pouring the physical content into the digital container are we not creating our own greenhouse effect?

When the Victorians gave us the age of mass literacy they didn’t immediately expect these new readers to ingest War and Peace, but instead fed their appetite with Penny Fiction, Penny Dreadfuls, Serialised works and short fiction. Do we expect today’s new mobile society to switch onto reading 256 pages on the smartphone, or read social snippets, emails and other short time investment and high valued content?
Today’s other issue is that time poor readers are reading less and less new readers are getting into books. So giving them something they can digitally digest may be the answer.

If we continue to blindly undermine the traditional physical book model we may loose it as it becomes increasingly uneconomic. Digital warming is a given but the wholesale destruction of the physical book habitat is maybe now down to what proactive steps we take to differentiate the ebook from the pbook.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Digital Warming

Global warming is effecting our weather and being blamed for the extreme weather we are witnessing around the world. This year alone we have had exception gales and flooding across the UK, a heat wave down under and polar freezing weather in the US and Canada. We understand some of the causes, but we still appear powerless to predict the future weather past the short term.

Publishing has been effected by its own digital warming which has seen the extreme performance of some, demise of others and a general unpredictability of most.

Is there a critical digital point which tips the scales of all other channels, or are there a series of tremors and spikes that we now have to live with? Technology is fairly predictable but the combined impact of this and changing consumer and social behaviour is making what was once fairly predictable market into one which now appears to be stormy and highly volatile.

Polarisation and consolidation is a given and if anything will increase as the big seek to retain market share and control and the small carve out viable niches. This is not just impacting a few but is now prevalent across the value chain. However, the traditional industry is no longer defined by the book but increasingly by technology, markets and media. Amazon is barely twenty and Google, Facebook Twitter are all relatively newcomers. The recent combination of Random House and Penguin pales into insignificance against the size of the new technology, social and online players. Size as once defined is no longer as relevant as community, touch, engagement and the Wow factor.

Interestingly we see a relatively flat overall market. Some sectors may be experiencing greater decline as their market accelerates online, whilst others are more resilient and subject to a more unpredictable path. Prices have fallen and are under constant pressure, merely raising the RRP to compensate for the discount given becomes a vicious circle where the market will increasingly dictate the price in a price comparison world. We have seen publisher declare increased revenues but is this a trend or merely another spike? We have seen other publisher flat line, or decline and is this reflective or the corporate adjustments being made, their publishing mix and offer, or digital warming? Retailers have experienced the same volatility and only recently we have seen John Smiths go one way whilst other flat line or go the other way. Many retailers no longer have the property asset to fall back on and are now a one trick pony. The ebook market is also changing. No longer are we obsessed with ‘lookie likie’ eink readers that offer little but now are focused on mobile platforms and towards a permanently connected online cloud world.

Technology has done wonders to raise the profile of the book but appears to have done little yet to increase reading. We have continued somewhat naively to pour the physical content into the digital container without questioning the logic and consumer need. Some would say it is like giving the early mass literacy readers of the Victorian age ‘War and Peace’ to read as their first book. Books must now compete even more in a time poor, channel hopping, and choice rich market.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Adobe Accept ACS4 Broken?

Adobe have long been associated with publishing and the development tools associated with the development of content and although they have successfully seen off the likes of Quark and established InDesign as the tool of choice to many, they have long floundered in the area of DRM.

Today we read of their latest step change to introduce ACS5, which is aimed at tightening the security and replacing the easily broken and much maligned ACS4. There is a question as to whether it will be widely adopted and also of whether how quickly it will be broken by those who wish to break it. There is also the question that if they accept that they are doing it to primarily address ACS4, what of the ACS4 licences being issues and charged for in the market today?

Some 8 years ago they dropped the then much broken ACS3 offer and with the backing of Sony and Overdrive delivered ACS4. The objective was to establish a cross platform ‘open’ service that could be used by all, on any device and at a small transaction licence fee to Adobe, which was centrally controlled with real time licence authentication. The problems started early. Much of the original specification was done with the help of a single party who mainly operated in a single market and whose input made it unfriendly and cumbersome in other sectors. The original restrictions on devices and the interface with Digital Editions was restrictive and confusing to users and although these have been greatly relaxed the basic process and controls remain. Eight years on it remains cumbersome and unfriendly.

A few years later they found that they were not geared to dealing with small accounts and collecting micropayments. So they outsourced this activity to a couple of partners who were more incentivised to dealing with customers. Prior to this move and after the departure of the main driver and movement of his successor within Adobe, it was almost impossible to find the person in Adobe who could make any commercial decisions or even knew much about it.

ACS4 had other problems. The model was based on a server licence plus transaction fee on each purchase download of some 25 cents and a reduced fee of 8 cents for each library loan up to 60 days. As the demand grew for ebooks and the prices dropped the transaction cost often became a thorn in the side of many. It is in effect a fixed sales tax that is imposed irrespective of the cost of the sale and is not include in the publication price. Today Amazon and Apple each have their own DRM which obviously are incompatible and others such as Kobo and Nook have understandably quietly started to go their own way. Sony remains an also ran and probably still has two DRM solutions one of which is ACS4. More importantly some 85% of all sales in all markets are driven by proprietorial DRM solutions and although ACS4 is still seen by some as ‘open’, to many ACS4 is in reality the same. However ACS4 is only one DRM service that directly charges the retailer and lives off their sales.

Perhaps Adobe should have adopted a more long term and integrated approach by embedding both encrypted and later watermarked solutions within InDesign and collected the money in the upstream development. They could have still offered the downstream licence operation but would have probably achieved greater control of the market. Files could have been automatically exported in multiple formats all offering the publisher multiple channels and retailers an incentive to do what they do best – price and sell. Also it should be noted that as Adobe move towards the subscription based licencing of all their tools, this simpler approach could have been bundled in as a value added incentive to publishers.

We have seen the emergence of streamed cloud based ebook services. Whether these are app or browser driven they do not need ACS4 or 5 and can effectively be far more secure in their offer and more transparent in how they achieve it. Maybe ACSx was built for a downloaded file world that may not be so relevant in the near future.

There remains questions about the cost of ACS5 migration and its associated family of change. There remain questions on how Adobe are going to stimulate the transition and whether, like in the ACS3 to 4 move, they will effectively force it to happen even though their hand is considerably weaker this time round. There remains questions on the backward compatibility of ACS5 and ACS4 licences. However, to many today there is still a bigger question over encrypted DRM and whether we should not migrate to a watermarking soft DRM with authentication of ownership , or be factored into an epub format and service, or whether we should just go no DRM?