Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How to Destroy the Publishing Industry: Take Three

It is now both easy and inexpensive for an author to self-publish his work, either as a print-on-demand paperback or an ebook; for the former I recommend CreateSpace, Amazon's POD subsidiary, which my wife and I used to self-publish a historical cookbook. Self-published books of either sort can be sold through Amazon, making them easily available to anyone who wants them. Thus two of the functions of a publisher, producing books and distributing them, are no longer necessary.

Publishers also help authors write their books by providing copy editors, locating cover artists, occasionally even providing useful feedback on the contents. But all of these functions can be provided almost equally well in other ways. Copy editors are for the most part self-employed free lancers rather than employees; there is nothing to stop the author from cutting out the middleman, or the author's agent from stepping in to fill that role. The best editorial help I ever got came not from a publisher but from my agent.

There remains one more function—filtering. The fact that a book has been published by a major publisher is no guarantee that it is worth reading but pretty good evidence that it is at least worth looking at. To finish the job of replacing the publishing industry, we need a substitute filter, a way in which readers can find, out of a million self-published books, the top ten thousand or so. My experience so far suggests that Amazon reviews are not adequate for the purpose; the novel that I self-published as a kindle has gotten reviews ranging from four to five stars, but sold few copies. We need something better.

My latest idea is to leverage the Kindle. Have Amazon get permission from Kindle owners to have their machines report, anonymously, on how long the owner spent reading each book on the machine. The longer the time spent, the better evidence that the book was, for that reader, worth reading. The rating algorithm should take account of differing book lengths and ignore books that were never looked at.

To make this work better, make downloading free for the first month, in order to increase the number of people who download each book and take at least a brief look at it. Once the month is up, the book price goes to whatever price the author chooses. A fancier version, probably not beyond the technology, is to make such a free book vanish from the Kindle a month after it is downloaded, leaving behind a link to where it can now be bought. 

An even simpler approach would be to leverage the "sample the beginning of this book for free" option that Amazon already provides, implementing it in some form that lets Amazon find out how many of the readers who started the free sample finished it.

As its title suggests, this is not my first post on the subject. Readers interested in my previous suggestions for eliminating the publishing industry will find them here and here.


RP Long said...

Great ideas, although I'm not sold on that particular algorithm. Sometimes when people really enjoy a book, they read it more quickly. (I.e., it's "a real page-turner.")

That's not to say Kindle's version of Hal Varian couldn't come up with a suitable algorithm, of course...

August said...

I read quickly, and find it more likely that a happy reading experience would be faster than something that I didn't like as much but felt I had to slog through- like a friend's recommendation, or a book club book. Karen Armstrong springs to mind- and that was Nassim Taleb's recommendation!

NonEntity said...

I read your post with mixed feelings. I like your thinking on this but at the same time am appalled with Amazon's decision to support an effective national sales tax. As a result of their decision I have chosen to no longer deal with them as a vendor, and they have been my "go to" place for around ten years. Which brings me around to the thought that government regulations seem to me to be the thing which drives small companies into the folds of huge corporations. Absent the massive regulatory structure we would have all of the benefits of which you speak but available from a myriad of sources, all vying for our piece of the pie. Of course there is great value in the simplicity of a trusted vendor who can offer all of this in one package. I wonder how/if the "open source" community can help free us from the constraints of one or two huge corporate suppliers. Maybe we just have to wait for the collapse. I sure hope not, but I don't see any indications that there is any other way out of the current anti-freedom mindset.

Bitcoin. Bitcoin! Starve the beasts.

- NonE

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the industry will be destroyed, but it will certainly reshape. Even though they can self-publish, breakthrough for new authors maybe as hard as ever.

jdgalt said...

My feeling is that the "filtering" function for books is the same one that applies to the news media, and the heir apparent to both is the same: blogs. Let the six or eight Big Media companies promote whom they will: I have a list of blogs, some well known and others not, whose authors share most of my own tastes, interests, and in some cases politics; and I generally find out from them about most books that would interest me which aren't by authors whom I already follow. I assume any thinking person of the younger generation can say the same.

This practice and the availability of on-demand printing services fill most of the bill. What remains is to develop a more reasonable form of "digital rights management": one the consumer can trust not to enforce rules that go beyond the copyright owner's legitimate rights, and not to so strongly insist on "phoning home" that the work you've purchased stops working because the publisher went out of business, or merged, or changed its policies.

The best way to accomplish this is simply to get government out of the way by modifying the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its successors. But that is unlikely to happen until the old publishing model is long dead, since it would require changing the votes of a bunch of legislators who are now firmly in Hollywood's pay.

Another View said...

I do think that the publishing industry is in for a huge change, however, I think you have simplified (or omitted some of) the roles a publishing house plays.

Most significantly, the investment they make in a writer's book in terms of promoting and selling it.

You seem to be asking google, amazon, or some other distributor to take on this role for you free of charge. There is almost a sense of entitlement in your posts which assumes that these companies have nothing more they would like to do than promote your book for you.

Although marketing is getting more and more targeted these days, I think it is both dangerous and naive to simply expect that some algorithm is able to tell people what they want. So much of the personal experience is bound to be lost in a world like that.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest number of pages read rather than time spent to account for individual reading speeds.

Jonathan said...

I'm a fast reader. However, when I like a book I tend to reread it periodically, so the total amount of time I've spent on my favourite books would be quite impressive if added up.

Mat Stroller said...

@Another View

Leaving aside the quality signal given by the endorsement of a publisher, promoting books is a zero sum game.

Pedro said...

What about sites like "Goodreads" and "Shelfari". Maybe that sort of thing will take the responsibility of filtering content.

Anonymous said...

The kindle can already tell you how many other kindle users have highlighted certain sections of books. So, the tech to track time spend reading is likely already in place. Good idea.

DB said...

I have found a few self-published works I quite enjoy. Most have been through word of mouth, reading internet reviews, or an insightful YouTube video by the author who mentioned his book which I later looked into, read the reviews to see if it would interest me, then purchased it. Some authors provide digital copies free and hard copies for limited cost on self-publishing sites, only requesting that you pay them what you think it is worth if you enjoyed it and this does not seem to hurt them financially. That may well be the way of the future.

Homer said...

I'd think that some measure of time unit per page read (or, a standardized "word volume" measure rather than page) would also have to be considered; if I read a Robert Parker novel in 3 hours but spend 30 hours absorbing an engineering text, I wouldn't say that either was necessarily "less worth reading."

The quantities read would certainly be different, but the quality of either is of such a different value as to not be readily comparable. To tackle that difference quickly drives one down the rabbit hole of establishing a myriad of categories to establish and measure the "worth reading" value.

And, as to the filtering function provided by established publishers, I've run across lots of worthless crap, of all categories, bearing the logo of prestigious publishers. Mr. Friedman's reference to Amazon's free sample program seems to offer one solution. That, however, is much more easily accomplished with e-books, which is what is giving the cellulose-based houses so much grief.