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Gatekeepers No More

A fascinating article on WSJ.com about “Wool,” which launches in print today after already having made the author a millionaire on digital sales alone:

Hugh Howey’s postapocalyptic thriller “Wool” has sold more than half a million copies and generated more than 5,260 Amazon reviews. Mr. Howey has raked in more than a million dollars in royalties and sold the film rights to “Alien” producer Ridley Scott.

And Simon & Schuster hasn’t even released the book yet.

In a highly unusual deal, Simon & Schuster acquired print publication rights to “Wool” while allowing Mr. Howey to keep the e-book rights himself. Mr. Howey self-published “Wool” as a serial novel in 2011, and took a rare stand by refusing to sell the digital rights. Last year, he turned down multiple seven-figure offers from publishers before reaching a mid-six-figure, print-only deal with Simon & Schuster.

The publishing industry is in danger of losing control of the digital market as more and more tools are being put in the hands of authors to allow them to make and sell their books directly to readers. This piece is fascinating in detailing how this author knew he had the publishers under his power and not vice versa.

He’s even able to set his own pricing, which ends up with the digital, Kindle version of the first five books retailing for $6 and the paperback of the same retailing for $15, which resembles realistic and non-gougy pricing. Plus, when dealing with Amazon, he gets 70%, while with a traditional publisher he would get only 15% or less. The economy of this thing is a no-brainer.

Authors can now create their own books, package them, and sell them on globally-available marketplaces with minimal cost and with profit shares much larger than they can by going through the traditional publishers. They can also use blogs and social services to do all their own marketing nearly free of charge.

You can say how you wish things weren’t being controlled by DRM-laden marketplaces like the Kindle Store or iBooks, but the ease of access to the tools and methods or creation and distribution is eroding the traditional publishing market’s authority over the medium.

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Sign the petition! Get this book on Kindle IMMEDIATELY.

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Thoughts on Ebook DRM Standards

I’ve recently been performing some research into so-called “social DRM” as it applies to digital files for my own knowledge bank. I’ve been very interested in the approaches to DRM shown by groups such as The Pragmatic Programmers and ebooks purchased from outlets like Lulu, where the name of the purchaser is automatically embedded within the purchased file in order to provide it with some measure of discouraging sharing/piracy.

iTunes has done this from the start, and even though they have dropped the traditional notion of DRM from their music files now, they still mark each and every file you download with the email address of the Apple ID used to purchase the song. It’s not used in any sort of enforcement application (that we know of to date), but knowing it’s there stops some people from posting the tracks publicly or sharing them with anyone who is not a close personal friend or relative (my conjecture).

In doing this research, I ran across a two year old blog post from Bill McCoy of Adobe. He has some words to say about the same, which is fascinating coming from the GM of their ePublishing department. His comments are in reaction to the Steve Jobs note from 2007 regarding music and DRM—something that ended up happening less than two years after the fact. I also ran into some more recent comments from McCoy, speaking to the establishment of a DRM standard that is cross-platform instead of complete advocacy for the removal of traditional DRM systems from ebook titles.

Let’s talk about why this isn’t feasible and how we can learn from the past.

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Once Again, It Comes Down to Value

Electronic Cottage reports that there’s a small-scale user revolt boycotting Kindle titles that are priced higher than the new release and/or bestseller $9.99 price point:

Now, Amazon has many books over the $9.99 price it promised for new releases when Kindle was first launched. That price was a major selling point to convince buyers that the large investment in a Kindle would pay off over time. The price also acknowledged the obvious: a Kindle edition is less valuable than a hardcover; although you cannot pass along your Kindle edition to friends, you are at least paying a significant amount less than the hardcover price. Unfortunately, short-sighted publishers feel they are losing dollars instead of realizing that a $9.99 Kindle sale doesn’t usurp a hardcover sale. It is a brand new entity. A plus. Pure gravy.

Kindle owners have organized a boycott of Kindle editions over $9.99. The uprising is ably helped by Amazon’s own online tools: the 9.99boycott community and a boycott discussion forum. Cleverly, the boycotters are using the Amazon tags feature to tag books over $9.99 with the 9.99boycott tag. Boy, if I were a publisher or author, I sure wouldn’t want to see my books listed at the top of the tag’s “Popular Products” under the boycott tag.

Interesting that part of the article here is that Amazon has provided customers with all the tools they need to create an uprising within their own service. Pay attention to the number of books the author says he purchased at the lower $9.99 price point. Like iPhone applications, there appears to already be a price ceiling forming with the Kindle.

I don’t think this is what Amazon was going for, nor do I think they promised everyone $9.99 books, but (again) like the App Store, the customer base is showing what they’re willing to pay.

(Via Tools of Change for Publishing.)

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eBook Prices versus Print Prices – Are They Too High?

Are eBook prices edging a little too high for people’s comfort? Josh Quittner writes in Time:

If only the Kindle 2 were cheaper! Despite its other shortcomings, Amazon’s new and improved digital-book reading device does enough right that it could become the Model T of e-readers, capturing the imagination–and discretionary spending–of the masses. But in this wretched economy, in which most of us will purchase only nonessentials that save us money or make us money, I doubt folks will pony up $359 for a pleasure-reading gadget. And thanks to Amazon’s mysterious pricing policies, the old argument–that digital books are so much cheaper than their hide-bound ancestors–no longer holds.

Before a recent visit to my dear old mum, I purchased The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, a 992-page Nazi-palooza that, given the nearly 3-lb. weight of the new English translation, makes for an ideal Kindle selection. But when I got ready to buy it on Amazon, I blanched at the $16.19 price. Every Kindle text I’ve purchased since Amazon started selling the device in November 2007 has been $9.99. Indeed, that was one of the Kindle’s main draws: you could buy books wirelessly, on demand and at a fraction of the cost of their printed peers. Case in point: Littell’s book was listed in Amazon’s Kindle store with a hardcover price of $29.99, making the digital version seem like a real bargain. But later I discovered that Amazon’s bookstore was selling the new hardcover for $17.99. So the Kindle saved me all of $1.80. Big whoop.

Customers aren’t stupid. They realize that an eBook like that on the Kindle or on other electronic bookstores doesn’t cost as much to print, warehouse, or to distribute—because those things don’t cost anything. Quittner himself writes about an “old argument” that “digital books are… cheaper” than print pieces. A lot of people are used to purchasing a large portion of their books at the $9.99 price point on Kindle, because that’s an automatic discount applied to both new titles and to titles on the NYT bestseller list.

What shows the intelligence of the customer is that I don’t recall any publisher ever saying in public that eBooks would be less expensive than print ones. Amazon makes a big to-do about the $9.99 price point, enough so that Quittner believes in his article that Amazon is also the one who set the list price for the book he was trying to buy. (This is not true; list prices are set by publishers; Amazon decides what the sale price is, at least when it comes to Kindle titles. I don’t know how the print side of things works.) Customers are intuiting that digital books should not cost as much as print ones.

I ran into this myself just a few days ago. Now having the Kindle app for iPhone, I went to look at a few books to see if I wanted to buy anything. I landed on a book that in print is a mass market paperback. Its Kindle price? $7.99—identical to the pricing of the hard copy version. I don’t think I need to write long on how quickly that decision was made for me.

Companies—and this is not limited to publishers—are underestimating the human desire to own physical objects. To many people (and at least to me), physical ownership of a piece of property, such as a DVD on which a video game is coded, or a stack of paper on which words are printed, is more valuable than a collection of bits that make up even a functionally equivalent electronic version of the same product. In addition, I have more control over the physical piece of property, especially when DRM enters the picture on electronic files and I’m being told what I can and can’t do with it.

What do you think? When you have a choice, which one would you buy? Would you buy both? What do you expect to pay for it?

Discuss, and feel free to answer the poll in the sidebar.

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Kindle iPhone/Kindle 2: Usability

There’s been a small flurry of Kindle 2 and Kindle iPhone activity today:

Publishers Weekly says Kindle iPhone is a good app with flaws:

First, the good: the iPhone app gives you access to all of the books you’ve purchased at the Kindle store. It also syncs to the furthest page read in an e-book, so, in theory, firing up the iPhone app will take you to the exact spot where you left off reading in your Kindle. When it works, it’s pretty slick. But it doesn’t always, and the annoyed user then has to manually thumb through pages to find where they left off. Also, strangely, there’s no search functionality.

Their final words are also notable:

Amazon’s promotion of the iPhone app as a complement to the Kindle is spot on. It isn’t the most feature-packed reader and has irritating limitations, but it loads quickly and displays text as sharply as you’re going to find on a small LCD screen. Its kinship with the Kindle will make it the go-to ereader app for Kindle users, while its extensive catalog of e-books—nearly a quarter million—is the largest available and will certainly attract users.

I think that’s about the best appraisal of the Kindle iPhone app’s usefulness I’ve seen. The application certainly has flaws. I’ve been trying it out and playing with how it works, and I also have been comparing it to the Stanza reader, which I believe is the current front-runner for iPhone applications. Kindle iPhone is either rushed to market or intentionally gimped out of the gate, because it’s missing several key features that would have made it the de facto eBook reader on every iPhone.