Monday, 28 April 2008

Word of Mouth or Word of Pen...Has the Internet killed the Book Review?

Twenty years ago the power of the book review was the difference between a best-seller and a place in the obscurity bin with a sale sticker slapped across the front. Book reviewers held a position of power and high respect in the industry, but over recent years the need to obtain reviews from the mainstream press has diminished.

The arrival of the Internet has broadened the market for publishers and opened hundreds of new channels for small publishers so their books can gain recognition against the established market. Internet portals now specialise in areas of fiction and non-fiction, and many readers turn to these channels before opening ‘The London Times’ or ‘The New York Post’. The word of the new reviewer is 'Word of Mouth' (WOM) and the new reviewer can be you or me. The interesting thing is the influence and position of power is shifting and becoming more democratic.

A recent report showed that traditional book reviews only counted for 5% of sales, of course there are obvious exceptions. But if you look at the phenomenon of 'WOM' and see how powerful it can be, it becomes clear that a change in how people disseminate information and trust what friends, colleagues and even complete strangers are saying over traditional reviewers has occurred. WOM played a huge part in the success of JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series of books. I am sure reviewers from the traditional press would love to take claim for her success, but in reality it was WOM and children passing the word to their friends and family and via sites such as Amazon and social networking on the Internet that made this series such a worldwide success.

Now with the development of Web2.0 and social networking playing such a part in surfers daily net habits, authors and publishers alike would be mad to ignore the possibilities open to them. The term viral was coined on the web long ago and it is as apt a word as any to describe how quickly something can become hot on the web. Sites such as Shelfari, Goodreads and MySpace provide a platform for independent authors and publishers to get their product known and create a buzz. Chatrooms, forums, and messaging add a further dimension that gets people talking about books.

Publishers are also getting wise to the existence of You Tube and other video portals to make video promos. Many of these films are creative and appear to have a higher budget than the minuscule amounts of money actually spent. The book industry has traditionally ignored using film or video to promote its books but now new publishers are embracing every new method to get books in front of people and talking.

The Weblog or Blog is now one of the key ports of call for many readers wanting to know about their favourite author or genre. Many bloggers have taken on the mantle of the ‘new reviewer’ and their word is often trusted beyond that of established journalists. The reach of the blogger is global and for an author to receive a favourable review on a respected site can translate to not only sales but also that all-important WOM.

So where does the traditional reviewer sit in this new world of opportunity. Has he been consigned to the equivalent of the bargain bucket in terms of usefulness? No. A good review in a traditional magazine, newspaper or journal still translates into sales, maybe not as many as in the past but there is still the kudos element which all authors and publishers want associated with it. Believe it or not though, it is not all about sales, though they are important. It is all about word of mouth, which is no more than today's buzz word that encompasses 'product and brand' profile. WOM gives authors and publishers recognition. For the small, independent publisher this can be achieved with more frequency, through more channels and with greater scope on the net. After all, and here is the challenge; are the New York or London Times going to review the latest novel from Darren E Laws or will they stick with the established authors such as Stephen King. No prizes for guessing.


Wednesday, 16 April 2008

The London Book Fair 2008…Talkin’ bout an Evolution

If there was a buzz sweeping through the London Book Fair (LBF) it was the quiet gentle hum of indifference. I was expecting to attend an invigorating and lively event in a industry that is being challenged with new technology, communication and delivery methods but there was scant evidence of an industry even beginning to address these issues. Or if there was the industry was talking behind closed doors or within the hallowed and expensive closeted rooms above the main exhibition in the seminar rooms. Unlike many industry fairs, the publishing industry not only likes to charge a premium for entry to the exhibition but add a surplus tax to attend many of these industry talks, which is a great shame as I am certain that behind the closed doors there must be something of interest happening. What I did find on the main exhibition floor was an industry comfortable with itself. There was very little in the way of emerging marketing tools or the cutting edge technologies that are going to play such a prevalent part in the industry in the coming years.

Microsoft was plugging its 'Live Search' technology and Print On Demand was given a passing nod with Lightning Source occupying a busy stand, but I was pleased to find one stand bringing book content to a new and younger market via mobile phones. This technology is already big in Japan and is coming to the UK via Austria. The reason for its success in Japan could be that fiction is currently having a hard time with the established core groups of male readers in particular who are favouring business titles. Mobile downloads of novels through Bluetooth applications is a way to introduce fiction to a younger more net savvy audience. The technology uses special fonts to make reading on a small screen easier with less eyestrain. Having downloaded a trial copy of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Black Cat' and read a few pages on my Nokia 6300, which does not have the world's largest screen, I can say the technology works and provides publishers and authors a new route to market. Okay, so maybe a reader may or may not read a whole novel on their mobile phone but teaser chapters and the ability to read a novel in its entirety may lead new readers into bookstores or onto the web to purchase a physical copy.

Speaking with Jorg Hotter from Black Betty Mobilemedia, who specialise in this mobile phone technology it is clear that if the industry embrace this method of delivery then there is a cheap and viable alternative to deliver fiction to market using existing hardware and not reliant on purchasing expensive equipment such as Amazon's Kindle. The Kindle is without doubt one of the more exciting developments in the industry, though at present a costly investment for the average reader and currently unavailable in the UK. Mobile phones are ultimately portable and a piece of equipment that virtually everyone in the UK has access too. Mobile digital rights are going to be a growth area and certainly something literary agents will be brushing up on.

There can be no denying the usefulness of the fair; it is a great place to meet industry insiders if they are prepared to meet with you. This is easier said than done however, and using the LBF online diary system to pre-book meetings even months in advance can draw no response from the invitee. Which is a shame when the whole system is electronic and it takes nothing but a little time to respond with a polite ‘no’ rather than keep a person hanging on for months in the hope of a positive answer; but as you know the book industry is well-versed in doing that. So the large area on the second floor becomes home to literary agents holding meetings with existing clients and excluding any interlopers from the outside world. The cafĂ© areas on the fringes (which is an apt metaphor) appear to be the place where the real meetings happen. Maybe this is the transition area for new talent; if they survive here they progress to the inner sanctum.

To the casual observer the UK publishing industry still appears to be run by Oxbridge, there is nothing wrong in that if they are best qualified to do so, but one senses that the air of exclusivity which is so common in the industry, is also the thing which could be its downfall. Anything that changes or challenges the safety of this world is looked at with sceptical eyes. If something is not equal too or on par with its ideal, education or prejudice it is deemed a threat.

There are many exciting things happening within publishing and I draw parallels with what happened to the music industry in the 1970's when a small but significant core of people grew tired of the same old record being sung by supergroups, such as the Eagles or Queen. From the streets came what at the time many thought was a revolution called punk rock. History though shows us that there are few, if any, real revolutions in art or entertainments just evolutions. Sometimes the leap is a little large, maybe it misses out a generation and that is what can be frightening to the establishment. Are we in the midst of a revolution…no, but the industry is evolving and the leap ahead of it looks big.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Amazon – The Great Dictator. Is Robert Mugabe in charge at Amazon?

What is going on at Amazon? The Internet behemoth suddenly seems to be turning the screw on publishers. Last week it was Print-On-Demand publishers whose turn it was to feel its wrath, with its outrageous behaviour demanding that POD publishers use only Amazon's 'Book Surge' POD service or face putative measures. This week it is the publishing world in general. Amazon is turning its attention to publishers who sell their books cheaper on their own sites than at Amazon. Amazon say they will assume that the price on the publishers website will be the new rrp. An example of this is if a book is sold on Amazon for £20 and £10 on my website, then Amazon will only return £5 for a sale on their site after they take their 50% mark up. Surely it is the prerogative of the publisher to sell at whatever price they are comfortable with on their own site. After all they are not sacrificing at least 50% to Amazon and can afford to pass on a little more discount to the customer. Where does Amazon stop with this line of thinking? I can't help but think though that in both cases it is the small publisher that will feel the brunt of Amazon's bullying.

It seems that Amazon has woken up to the fact that it is the dominant retailer and holds an extraordinary position of power on the Internet. It is now beginning to flex its muscles and see how far it can go in intimidating the book world. Publishers, especially small publishers are resorting to all means to stay in business and if Amazon has a problem with them selling a very small amount of titles through their own websites to help balance the books (no pun intended) then it is a very sad day. So why is Amazon behaving this way? Does it foresee a threat coming that we do not know about. Is its margins being eroded by new online retailers or is it just greed, power and a failure to accept that there is a democratic world out there...oops sorry back to Robert Mugabe. Maybe Mr Mugabe is at the helm having negotiated a way out of one jungle into another.

Amazon's behaviour of late, should in all rights be a public relations nightmare for its PR team, or is its arrogance such that it blithely ignores such matters, much the same way it appears to be treating the book industry. The publishing world has enough problems facing it and everyday is seeing an erosion of profits and margins. One can only wonder what Amazon has up their sleeves for next week.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Crystal balls or no balls at all…The future of publishing.

The London Book Fair is one of the most highly anticipated events in the calendar year for publishers, authors and anyone connected with language and the ability to write captivating prose. As the event draws near the industry faces many new challenges, one thing that can be certain is that the Internet and digital technology is going to claim a bigger share of our thoughts and occupation. Sales of cut-price fiction in supermarkets, Amazon’s dominance of the book selling world on the net, digital technology, emerging markets, POD, e-Books, The Kindle and Internet piracy are all going to claim a stake for your attention. How the industry begins to tackle issues such as these often depends on the reaction of the leading players. The publishers, the retailers, the distributors, the movers and shakers – those 5% of authors who earn the lion share of the profits and royalties; these are the people who should be addressing the issues first. Why? Because their voices can be heard. The interesting thing when you look closely at this elite band of people is that while they control a large percentage of market they do little to embrace new technology, often choosing to view it as a threat rather than an asset. Many publishers have not even begun to embrace e-Commerce yet or provide websites for its artists. There are one or two that are exemplary but in the main they are positioned somewhere in 1998 rather than 2008.

If smaller publishers had the same income to invest in new technology or the resources to embrace podcast, vodcasts, email marketing and full-on public relations activities as these mighty giants, than I am sure the book industry would be a different game altogether today. Is it change that the established players fear? I don’t think so. I believe it is a mixture ignorance and arrogance. The upshot for the small guy though is that many of these new marketing and promotional tools can actually cost nothing more than time and intelligence. Many publishers have not even embraced blogging yet…why? Opinion matters and the Internet has enabled small and large alike to influence and help change opinion through argument and constructed thought.

It’s time to shape up and step up because the future of publishing does not always need a crystal ball, companies such as Amazon is already catching on that POD is becoming big. In its recent approach to digital printing and distribution, has recognised that there is ‘gold in them thar hills’. Obviously the decision has nothing to do with the fact that Amazon owns Book Surge and will reap vast profits from storing and printing titles from a digital catalogue publishers have to buy into. Amazon’s spin is that by making POD customers use Book Surge or its Createspace service, it actually serves customers quicker. This is a backhanded compliment paid by Amazon to the testimony, power and quality of both POD and many of the publishers using the technology. The problem with this line of thinking is that it stops major publishers from embracing POD. Why would large publishers want to relinquish their back catalogues (for instance) to Amazon/Book Surge to store in its digital catalogue and sacrifice the huge margin smaller publishers do to Amazon, to sell their books. Though the cynic in me thinks the big guys will get a far better deal and much more lenient terms.

One may rightly question whether this is a restrictive practice by Amazon, but Amazon do give the choice of continuing to use your existing POD company, there are, as always, caveats attached though. Publishing is changing; the future looks interesting if not maybe a little uncertain. POD gave the little guy a fighting chance, a chance to be heard, a chance to be read. Small, canny publishers then utilised the new tools available, to punch above their weight and gain valuable market space. Amazon’s move could be an attempt to castrate the small guy in favour of the big guys. Whether you are a large or small publisher or an author with a vested interest, you cannot simply ignore what is happening.