Some Initial Thoughts on the Kindle Serials Program

I was very excited to hear about the new Kindle Serials program that Amazon announced last month. Amazon has a way of carving out new marketplaces for digital content, and though serials are nothing new, the Kindle Serials program brings some new life to the form.

Here are just a few initial thoughts:

The new program got lots of attention during and just after the Amazon press conference on September 6, but one thing that I haven’t seen written up is the very low price point — at least with the serials that the program launched with, you pay just $1.99 upfront and you get ALL installments of the serial novel delivered as they come available. I realize this is an introductory price, but if you start out low, it’s tough to then attempt to set a higher price standard later on. Naturally, people respond positively to lower pricing, and go negative if prices start to climb.

And the very low-price point, again, while great for customers, is going to make it difficult to develop a true serials business. The percentages just aren’t going to make much sense. I get the low pricing for the short-form (Kindle Singles), but this is installment-based short-form writing that adds up to a long-form piece. It makes sense to price it closer to a full-length work.

Paying up front for all installments makes it much easier for consumers — they don’t have to remember to come back when new installments become available, as they will just get delivered to the purchaser’s device, slotted right into the serialized ebook. But it takes away the option of incremental payments for each new chapter. There’s no revenue incentive to keep a serial going — for the writer or publisher. It actually makes sense to wrap it up fairly quickly. That’s too bad because part of the fun of the serial form is to draw out the experience.

Another aspect that has come up with the Kindle Serials program is that writers of serials can interact with and take into account fan reactions, comments and suggestions as they work their way through the writing process. Amazon has said they will use the forums on the product pages to encourage this. The problem is Amazon’s forums are pretty lacking in terms of true online community. More likely, writers will be able to leverage their own online platform — most likely Twitter and Facebook — to foster this kind of writer/reader interaction.

Perhaps most of all, Amazon’s full circle ecosystem for publishing and delivering digital content direct to consumers gives it clear advantages. Technically, publishing a serial is pretty easy — you can do it on a website, in a stand-alone app, in a print magazine — but being able to seamlessly deliver content to a device that millions of people are already buying and reading content on is very clearly one of the most effective ways to establish a viable serial program.

All this being said, it’s fantastic to see these new pockets in the marketplace for digital content opening up. Readers obviously benefit from the options, and writers have new ways to present and publish content.

What Writers — and Publishers — Can Learn from Louis C.K.

Louis C.K.’s show Louie is awesome. But he’s doing even more awesome stuff via his website — selling digital files of his shows, and even tickets to his upcoming concert tour, directly to fans. Writers — and publishers — can learn a great deal from the things Louis C.K. is successfully pulling off. Here are some things to take special note of:

He’s doing it for the fans, making what works best for them the priority. I think everything really does start from there. He’s got this material, he wants to share it, and he knows fans would be interested in getting it. With this as the foundation, he set about figuring out a simple and seamless way to make this happen. Digital files sold direct from his website, available to anyone and everyone.

Of course he wanted to make a little money. But he also wanted to keep the cost to fans as low as possible. So he took out the middleman. Simple as that. This is the opposite of what we see in publishing. Lots of middlemen. If it isn’t a retailer, it’s a production and distribution service provider, or a digital publishing operation that tries to sell itself as a “marketing” company. They all take a percentage, the net effect of which is higher pricing (not to mention less for the artist).

Keeping with the theme of simplicity, he released digital products without DRM. This way, fans can easily download and listen/watch on the device and platform of their choosing. Louis C.K. acknowledges that this means the files may end up on file-sharing sites, something he discourages for obvious reasons. But putting fans first trumped concerns about piracy. Let me just say again the key point here — he put fans first.

And remember, he’s still working with major corporations to fund and distribute his work. It’s not like Louis C.K. has completely gone independent. His current hit show Louie is on FX, a major cable network. The works he’s selling directly originally appeared on HBO. He’s only selling direct with a component of his works. This acknowledges that if Louis C.K. had not ever gotten the backing of major networks like HBO, he most likely would not have enough of a platform to successfully pull off the direct selling venture. The lesson here for authors is to find ways to track multiple paths. The individual DIY projects will have their own unique ways of strengthening the collective, long-term body of work — and the end result will be more control of your total artistic enterprise.

It’s important to call out one of the key aspects of Louis C.K.’s direct-to-fans offerings. He now has a commerce-based connection to his fans. He knows who they are, where they live, what they bought, how much they spent, and most importantly, he can communicate with them directly. This is THE single most valuable asset in the artist/fan relationship. It’s important to note that in book publishing, authors do not have this level of a connection. Neither do publishers. Amazon, Apple, and BN do.

But most of all, Louis C.K. is experimenting. He has no idea if any of this is going to work out when he pushes these offerings live on his website. So far, things have been wildly successful. He’s broken new ground in the industry in going direct to fans, he’s getting a lot of attention and raising his profile, he’s made money, and his fans (clearly growing), are loving it and developing a deeper sense of loyalty. Most of all, he’s taking what he’s learned and keeps on pushing forward. He’s emboldened. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking — the App

When we first started working on the Julia Child app, I recall Judith Jones (Julia’s longtime editor) telling me a story about walking into Julia’s kitchen while she was cooking and seeing notes on paper taped up all over the walls and cupboards. I wish there was a picture of this, a young Julia Child working in a vintage kitchen in Paris, scratching notes and taping up papers so that she could document the best way to show the home cook how to make a particular dish. She went through the paces and kept at it until she felt she got it right. That’s truly inspirational, and something we used as a guiding principle as we worked on the Julia Child app over these last 6 months or so.

I really like the picture above because it encapsulates this principle. That’s photographer Marcus Nilsson and food stylist Rebecca Jurkevich working to photograph a soufflĂ© for the app. The one in the picture didn’t cut it, so it was back to the kitchen to do it all over again. I think it took about five to get it right.

The app — Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Selected Recipes — is available today (July 19, 2012) on the iPad and NOOK.

Ebook Samples Have Dramatically Improved My Reading Experience — Let’s Make Ebook Sample Functionality Even Better

Nowadays, If I hear about or come across a book that intrigues me, I don’t just buy it. I make sure to sample it first.

Not by browsing through pages in a bookstore, not by reading an excerpt online, and certainly not by flipping through those awful “browse” interfaces where I digitally “flip” pages to go from one page to the next. I simply click a button on the ebook product page and the first 1,000 words or so show up on the device of my choice. I love this feature. I’ve come to rely on it in order to decide if I really want to buy the book.

It’s this simple: If I like what I’m reading in the sample, I click the buy button at the end of it, and the whole book is instantly on my device. If I’m not won over, I delete the sample and move on to the next.

It’s about the money, of course. I don’t want to spend money on something that I might not actually want to read. But mostly it’s about time — I want to make sure I’m spending more of it reading books that I truly enjoy.

The ease in which you can get a sample on your reading device to read at your leisure, free of ads or pop-ups or clunky interfaces, is one of the best things to come about in the ebook revolution. And while it doesn’t get mentioned very often, I think it’s now a huge factor in how people make decisions about what book they’re going to buy and read next.

Yes, there has been some talk about how the ease in which the first pages of a book can be sampled means writers have to pay extra attention to making sure those opening pages are truly amazing. But writers have always had to open with their best. The lead is the lead, always has been, always will be.

What I’m interested in is what the online retailers may be able to do to improve the sample experience. This isn’t so much about technical innovation — we don’t need anything too fancy here — it’s more about increasing word counts, convenience and options for the customer.

Here are some ideas to improve the ebook sample experience:

— Automatic samples delivered to me by my favorite authors. Or an alert via email that a sample is available, as I understand it would be rather intrusive to just put something onto a person’s device, even at some earlier point in time they opted-in to this auto-delivery.

— Earlier availability of samples, well before the book’s publication date. I often hear about books well before their release date. Why should I have to wait until the book actually comes out to get a sample, which is what Kindle and NOOK do? iBookstore is the only one doing an early release of the sample, a nice competitive advantage, if you ask me. Early release of the sample should be standard. People are more than comfortable pre-ordering, which is what they will do if they read and like a sample before the ebook is actually on sale. And of course both publishers and retailers consider pre-orders a huge positive. It begs the question: why this isn’t already a standard?

— Offer “Send An Excerpt” bookmarklets, so savvier publications and publishers, and of course the authors themselves — even fans of the authors or books, can embed on their websites, thereby allowing users to just click a button and send a sample to their device of choice without having to be on an online retailer’s product page.

— More text — why stop at 1,000 words, or whatever the exact word-count limit is? The more text that’s available, the more I will be able to tell whether or not the book is something I want to read. And if I get that far along, and invest that much time in a sample, clearly I am hooked — I’m most likely going to tap to purchase.

Things I don’t want: messaging from the author or the publisher. The less the authors and publishers actually control the sample, the better. They’ll want to load it up with letters and descriptive copy and the worst of the worst, blurbs, which are nothing more than manufactured praise. Just give me the opening pages from the book, preferably as many as possible.

Overall: Samples are a huge positive for readers out there. It helps make sure what we read next will most likely be worth our while. The more ebook retailers can do to improve upon and expand this service, the better our reading experience will be. It goes without saying that the better our experience, the MORE we will read (and buy). It’s a win for all involved — retailers, publishers, writers, and most of all, readers.

Content Creation vs. Curation: Finding the Right Balance

Man is it easy to reblog, retweet, or share a link on any number of social networks. What’s not so easy is creating the content that gets reblogged, retweeted and shared. It’s not that it’s super hard, but it certainly takes more than the click of a button.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of how I am spending my own time in front of my computer. The balance seems off. Too much reblogging and link sharing, not enough time writing and posting other types of original content. I’d like to get a better handle on the ideal balance between content creation and curation.

My gut answer to this is:
70% content creation.
30% curation of content by others.

Here’s how I would breakdown what really goes on:
80% curation of content by others.
20% content creation (on a good day).

I totally want to share and curate the content of others. I get the important role it plays in being a part of the digital conversation. I love discovering cool stuff online and then telling other people about it. I do get fulfillment from that. But not as much as I get when I actually create something of my own.

I can break this down by showcasing a couple of scenarios:

An ideal Saturday morning:
What I would like to happen: I wake up early, like 7:30 — the morning is fucking mine. I’ve got hours before the household gets going. I make some coffee, cut up some fresh farmers’ market fruit and eat it, fire up the computer, and immediately start tapping away at the keys. I only stop to refill my cup with coffee. About an hour in, I log into tumblr and post a photo, and reblog a few cool posts that are flowing through my dashboard from the many tumblr bloggers I follow. Then I log into twitter, reply to a few tweets, share a couple of links, and then close it up. This tweeting and tumbling and checking out various links takes about 20 minutes. But now it’s back to my doc-in-progress. I commence writing for another half-hour or so. I feel fucking great. I throw on my running gear, put on my headphones, head out the door, and run like the fucking wind. This day is mine, and it has just barely begun. Go. Go. Go.

A far-from-ideal Saturday morning:
I wake up at 8:30. I am pissed that I didn’t get up earlier, but lie there for another twenty minutes instead of rolling out of bed immediately. I have half a mind to just go back to sleep, because I’m exhausted, but after about two seconds of closing my eyes I realize this is just totally not going to happen. My jaw clenches down even tighter than it was already clenching. I finally crawl my way out of bed and a hint of a smile does streak itself across my bloated face as I begin to look forward to making that first cup of coffee, only to realize that there is no fucking coffee in the house. Fuck! I mean, Fuck! I throw on some clothes and walk to a nearby cafe looking like I haven’t slept in a week, and also, just got violently knocked off a bike. I decide to pick up a bagel even though I am off bread. Actually, I pick up two bagels (one for me, and another for me). I get back to the apartment and the cat is freaking out because he is hungry but thinks he is starving. I go to feed him and thank God there is one can left but fuck, I have to add “get cat food” to the list of things to do today. I go and fire up the computer. I want to get some writing done, so I immediately open up NYTimes.com. Then Slate.com. This leads me to google one of the writers, who has a twitter account, which links to her blog, which I go and check out, which leads me to some other sites based on this post she wrote that have nothing to do with the original article that initially caught my attention, and all of the sudden a half-hour has gone by. I tweet the link to that Slate story. I retweet a few tweets that are rolling along on my Twitter feed. I log into Tumblr. Whoa. Who took this cool picture of these flames in the desert? I reblog this shit and go check out more of the photographer’s work. Turns out he has a flickr account. I’m looking at this guy’s photos and the next thing I know I’m jumping around and looking at all kinds of photos taken by I don’t even know who. I recall that I’ve been meaning to post photos from my trip to India from back in February. Shit. Another half-hour is gone. I haven’t written a thing. I throw open an empty doc screen, and a wave of disgust washes over me. I write a few sentences, realize it is going nowhere. Staring at the terribleness is making things worse, so I throw open Tumblr and reblog a few more posts. Finally, I post one of my own photos. Of a sandwich I ate the day before. It was just okay. The picture is who cares. I don’t even know why I posted it. I realize I am hungry, even though I ate a bagel. Make that two bagels. I close down the computer and head into the kitchen, and start looking to see if I even have what I need to make a sandwich — any kind of sandwich will do at this point. As I am staring into the cupboard and realizing that there’s no God damn bread anywhere to be found, I think to myself, I didn’t get jack shit done. And the day is half gone. I think about going for a run, but flip on the TV instead. Nothing is on, but I don’t turn it off. I just sit there and click through the channels.

Obviously, I’d like to experience the ideal scenario more often than not, so here are some things I’m doing to help strike a better curation vs creation balance:

— Casually logging how I am spending my time in front of the computer, so I can get some better clarity of just how much time I actually spend curating vs. creating.

— Setting some loose parameters on how retweets, reblogs and link shares I’ll do on any given day. I don’t want to get too rigid here, but by establishing some guideposts on the numbers, I keep the amount of time I’m spending on this type of activity in check.

— Setting word count goals — at least 500 words a day. If I accomplish this, I can set aside my concerns about spending too much time on curating and not enough on creating.

— Another goal: at least one solid blog post a week. This used to be so easy — I was writing lengthy blog posts daily, if not more than once a day. I know what happened, and I don’t know what happened. I should probably write about it and try to figure it out. Maybe it will be a blog post. Because I have to write one a week now.

— Being strict about keeping only one window open on my desktop when it’s time to write, going so far as to turn off the internet connection when I can’t help myself from popping over to some news site or amazon.com or imdb or who knows what I really don’t need to look up right at that moment but find myself doing it anyway.

— Also, I make a point of firing up the computer at appointed times with a very specific agenda. On Sunday mornings, for example, I wake up and write (and only write) for an hour. Once the hour is up, I head out for a run.

— This sounds silly to actually note, but I use a reward system as well. Here’s an example: on Sundays, I reward myself with a jelly donut(s) if I’ve gotten up early, had a good writing session, and been able to get out and come back from a run before 11:30 a.m.

Overall, I don’t want to get too rigid in how I strike this balance. If I create a workplan that is too hardline, I’ll end up ignoring it. But I do know that I want tip the balance so that I am spending more of my time creating. This post is actually a good start, though of course now I’ll go spend some time curating around this subject. Let the battle for an ideal balance between content creation and curation begin.

Why I Dig Instagram: Focused Mobile Experience Coupled with Seamless Sharing to Other Social Networks

I came late to the Instagram craze — post the Facebook acquisition. But I’ve come to really enjoy it. Easy to snap a photo on the iPhone, and then share it not only on Instagram’s mobile social platform, but, if I so choose, on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, and Foursquare. In fact, Instagram is probably the best social platform in terms of being able to seamlessly share content into your other social networks.

I’d go so far as to say that if it weren’t for this sharing functionality, I don’t think I’d be as interested in using Instagram. I love that I can easily send pictures to my Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Yes, I dig the Instagram photo filter options, but I could live without those. It’s the easy to use mobile front-end experience coupled with the seamless sharing that keeps me thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to Instagram this.”

And I love that I can share a picture via Instagram either in the moment, or while I have a few minutes to spare well after the photo has been snapped — while I’m above ground on the subway, sitting in yet another meeting, perhaps waiting at the bar for my pals to show up.

Everyone is talking about how this is a mobile-only play, that it doesn’t have a web component. I would say that it has smartly deferred the web component to the major social networks that everyone is already using and fully entrenched in. By the nature of the platform, native mobile sites need to stay feature-lite and focused — Instagram does this pitch perfectly — a focused and no-frills way to share your own photos, as well as scroll through, like and comment on the photos of the people you follow. It’s not anything more than that, and I hope it stays that way. But at the same time, the photos you take on Instagram are worth sharing on more feature-rich platforms like Facebook and Tumblr, sites that people are accessing and experiencing beyond their mobile device. Instagram has recognized this and makes it as easy as pie to push out your photos to those more web-dominant platforms (would love to see Google+ and WordPress added).

The takeaway: Keep the social mobile experience simple and focused (don’t load up on too many features or options), and allow users to seamlessly share into their additional, and perhaps more important, social networks (don’t get greedy).

The Exciting Possibilities of the Digital Library

The current model for how publishers sell ebooks to libraries, and how libraries purchase and distribute/loan ebooks, is broken. There is no easy fix, no way to meet in the middle. Publishers sell books. Libraries buy them to loan them out for free to their patrons. This works nicely with physical products. Publishers put out new books, libraries buy them and stock their shelves. If a book is popular, or written by a well-known author, libraries buy multiple copies. And since books suffer from wear and tear, libraries place reorders for older titles.

But with ebooks, this model gets uncomfortable for publishers. For one thing, there’s no need for patrons to actually visit a library — they can just visit the library’s website to “check out” an ebook. Why buy the ebook if you can get it just as conveniently via a library’s website? The current result is that publishers are either not currently selling ebooks to libraries, or offering up pricing structures that libraries do not like. It smacks at the larger issue publishers face with regard to the economics of digital books.

Solutions? Various arrangements will be offered up. I’ve seen the stories about what the publishers are willing to try, what the libraries are rejecting. None of these deals will last long-term. More aspects of the digital marketplace for books overall need to be firmed up before the model for library ebook-pricing and loan limitations can be established.

But setting aside the current reality, here’s some fantasy with regard to what could be for libraries with regard to ebooks — in the long run, patrons, and books, will win out.

Here are just a few hopeful ideas why I believe this:
— More titles will be available to more people.
— Title loaning between libraries will transcend local/school library systems, and it will be instantaneous.
— It will be easier to find titles, and immediately begin reading them.
— They’ll be better organized.
— The organization of data will be more fluid and easier to update.
— There will be better metadata.
— There will be ways for the patrons to update, fix, improve and add to metadata.
— No need to replace damaged physical books — once it’s on a server, it’s available forever..
— No need to worry about wear and tear.
— No need for wait lists – easy to serve up the same file to as many people that want it at any given time.
— No need to limit the number of titles a patron checks out.
— It won’t be about how many titles are in your collection, it will be who has them best organized.
— Physical structures won’t be necessary.
— It won’t be necessary for patrons to actually visit a library to check out or, more importantly, return books.
— In terms of the physical space, more emphasis can be put on programming, exhibits, training and classes.
— Libraries can specialize in offering ebooks by local authors, or ebooks of local interest.
— Self-published titles can more easily find their way into the collections of libraries (no more “limited shelf-space excuses”).
— Archives and papers can be made available more widely and in a variety of digital formats — better preserving local history.

So much more is possible. Of course, even if all the issues with regard to publishers and libraries got worked out and allowed some of the above to actually happen, libraries wouldn’t have the necessary funds to actually execute any grand digital plans. It’s a shame that their budgets are being cut — severely — just as the the ebook revolution explodes. If there was ever a time that libraries need funds, and access to titles, it would be right now.

Poetry Event with Philip Levine, Tracy K. Smith, and Poets from the Tumblr Community

Knopf and Tumblr have put together an amazing LIVE celebration of poetry featuring Poet Laureate Philip Levine, 2012 Pulitzer Prize Winner Tracy K. Smith, and two fantastic poets from the Tumblr community: Saeed Jones and Karolina Manko.

The event takes place on Monday, April 23, 7 pm, at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in NYC. Open bar. Amazing poetry. Poet Laureate. Pulitzer Prize Winner. Poets from the Tumblr community. Put it on your calendar and come out to celebrate poetry with us!

Celebrate Poetry with Knopf and Tumblr

Every year Knopf celebrates National Poetry Month through its Poem-A-Day program, highlighting an amazing poem every single day throughout the month of April. This year, we had the awesome opportunity to partner with Tumblr to create a Tumblr blog with the specific goal of celebrating poetry. We’re featuring the daily Knopf poem, but we’re also showcasing poetry submissions from the Tumblr community. So check out the Tumblr blog — Celebrate Poetry, and be sure to submit your own poem(s).

Robert Reich on Getting Beyond Outrage

Robert Reich has just published a new ebook — Beyond Outrage. It’s e-only, and the enhanced version includes 5 original videos created by Jacob Kornbluth.

Here’s one of the videos, which outlines what the ebook is all about:

Reich is hoping you’ll read the ebook, and then share your ideas for getting #beyondoutrage on Facebook and Twitter. As he points out, “You need to be outraged, but you also need to move beyond outrage, and take action.”