November, 2009

Fighting piracy: our 3-point program


I wrote about piracy in my prior post and suggested that I had some ideas. These are those.

Brian Napack will be presenting Macmillan’s Seven Point Program for fighting piracy at Digital Book World. Today I want to expose The Shatzkin Files THREE Point Program for doing the same. I don’t know whether my three points will be covered by Brian’s program, but I do believe these — in concert — would yield beneficial effects (although nothing will “stamp out” digital piracy.)

1. Flood the sources of pirate ebooks with “frustrating” files. Publishers can use all sorts of sophisticated tricks to find pirated ebooks, like searching for particular strings of words in the text. (You’d be shocked at how few words it takes to uniquely identify a file!) But people looking for a file to read will probably search by title and author. So publishers can find the sources of pirated files most likely to be used by searching the same way, the simple way.

But, then, when publishers find those illicit files, instead of take-down notices, which is the antidote du jour, we’d suggest uploading 10 or 20 or 50 files for every one you find, except each of them should be deficient in a way that will be obvious if you try to read them but not if you just take a quick look. Repeat Chapter One four times before you go directly to Chapter Six. Give us a chapter or two with the words in alphabetical order. Just keep the file size the same as the “real” ebook would be.

For peer-to-peer file sharing, the publisher would have to put a computer or five to work, not just “upload” the crap files to a central site. But the effect to be achieved is to make illicit file downloading frustrating for the consumer and a sufficiently widespread effort of this kind should certainly do that.

One digitally sophisticated publisher reacted to this suggestion saying “too much work.” Maybe, but if this became a standardized component of each publisher’s response, the pirate marketplace would sure have a lot of sludge in it. There is also the concern that we’re punishing the end user, the reader. But (while I’m not defending them), far more Draconian remedies, such as suing consumers and denying them Internet use for repeated offenses, have been proposed. Giving them a dose of frustration (and that’s all we’re suggesting here: not malicious code or anything like that) to discourage use of pirated content seems a proportionate response.

2. Form a publisher group or authorize a trusted third party to put a “seal of authenticity” on the web sites that are totally reliable to be hosting only publisher-approved and legitimately-trafficked files. To make this most effective, publishers should “stand behind” the file distribution from authenticated sites, guaranteeing replacements for defective files, for example. We believe that, to date, publishers have been willing to complain loudly and point fingers at sites that distribute illicit files, but they have done nothing to help the honest consumer know what are legitimate distribution points. Of course, some like Amazon and BN.com and Powells.com are obvious (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t want, and get, the “seal”), but as sources of ebooks proliferate (and they will), publishers will want to help steer consumers to the sources of ebooks that the publishers trust and believe the consumers should trust as well.

3. Promote like crazy to a) point people toward “seal of authenticity” sites and b) both scare and shame people from downloading from sites that do not have the seal. Promotion should be pretty easy: the authenticated sites can help, and so can a strong and forthright message with every ebook downloaded. Ebook readers should be constantly reminded that authors don’t get paid from pirated books, that pirated books can contain viruses or other undesireable code and that there is nobody to complain to if something untoward happens as a result of downloading one.

At the same time that publishers should be doing these things, they should also be trying hard to understand what the actual commercial impact of piracy is. The fact that there is a pirated copy of every book out there doesn’t actually tell us much; nor does the experience of the record business. We need to understand what real heavy book purchasers and readers are doing as the society moves from reading on paper to reading on screens. And, right now, we don’t have a clue.

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Some thoughts about piracy


As part of the program-creation process for Digital Book World, I had a round of conversations with the top executives of the Big Six companies to discuss the agenda, mostly with the CEOs. The purpose of the check-ins was to find out what topics the CEOs wanted their companies to speak about and, of course, which they wanted to avoid for reasons of diplomacy, commercial politics, or legality.

One topic I had left out of our program initially was “piracy”. Some of the executives I met with found this a very troubling omission. My first reaction was “what’s there to discuss? We’re all against piracy and there isn’t much we can do about it. So what else do we say?” Although there are two of the big houses where that view is, to some extent, shared, most of the others disagree, some vehemently. In fact, Macmillan has a “seven point program” to confront and combat piracy, which will now be the topic of a presentation by Macmillan president Brian Napack on the first morning of Digital Book World.

The topic of piracy is a part of the conversation about “digital rights management”, software that manages how a file can be used. DRM is a pretty standard aspect of software and DVD distribution but it comes in for a lot of complaint and criticism from very knowledgeable observers and participants in the ebook scene.

There is a “first sale” doctrine in copyright law that gives the purchaser of a book (or sound recording or DVD) the right to give away or re-sell that good. It does not give the right to sell or give away a copy, but it does allow you to “share” your book or CD or DVD with your mother, your sister, and your aunt and then to sell the used copy on eBay. Those rights have never really extended to software, which often knows if you’re trying to load it onto a second computer and won’t let you. Attempts to control sharing of music through DRM are commonly blamed for the piracy that became rampant in that sphere (although I don’t buy that; there are other explanations I find more compelling.)

The question of DRM-or-not in the ebook world is a very complicated one, although opponents of DRM often paint it as very simple. O’Reilly Media sells its ebooks “DRM-free”, as do some upstart ebook first publishers. The ebook self-publishing site, Smashwords, also sells only DRM free from their own site, although Smashwords-originated files might have DRM added by intermediary resellers, with which it is making more and more deals.

The opponents of DRM point to the incontrovertible fact that its existence does not stamp out piracy, which is transparent at a time when you can type just about any book title into Google with the word “file” after it and be directed to sites that offer you a free pirated download. In fact, even not publishing the book digitally is insufficent DRM to keep it from pirate distribution.

Mark Coker of Smashwords, despite the fact that he sells onlyDRM-free ebooks from his site, is an avowed opponent of piracy, and even of sharing. He suggests a boilerplate notice in his ebooks that tell you that you should go buy another copy of this book you’re about to read if you didn’t buy this one, or else you’re cheating the author. Mark believes the key to combating piracy is education; he admits to an unusually strong faith in consumer integrity.

But despite the lengthy introduction, this post is not about DRM; it’s to propose what is the ultimate defense against piracy: ebooks that aren’t static; ebooks that change.

The secret sauce behind O’Reilly’s DRM-free policy is that when you buy an ebook from them, you are entitled to the updates to that ebook…forever. The implicit message there is there will be updates.

There is no better antidote to piracy than this. If the pirated or peer-to-peer edition of a book is yesterday’s, or last week’s, and the book is changing, then it’s yesterday’s paper (which the Rolling Stones noted long ago, “nobody in the world” wants.)

This is beyond wrenching to publishers; it completely changes the workflow and it completely changes the business model. The rhythm of a publishing house is based on the fact that books are, at some point, finished. There is a Henry Ford assembly line aspect to how things have always worked. Whether you’re an editor, a marketer, or a sales person, new books have a pretty reliable “cycle” for you: their existence in your life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The conveyor belt moves the book away from you so you can’t spend too much time on it and can move on to the next one. Having authors not stop adding to or changing a book, even after it’s published, is totally disruptive. And what would we do about the ISBN numbers?

Yet, the possibility for ebooks to be totally up-to-date is one publishers can’t ignore. The Little, Brown division at Hachette has just announced that on December 1 it is publishing a 2,000 word update on the H1N1 (swine flu) virus in the ebook edition of “The Vaccine Book”, which was originally published in 2007. If something startling happened that should change that text on February 1, wouldn’t it make sense for them to update the book again? In October, Wiley published, as an ebook only, “The Swine Flu: The New Pandemic” because they wanted to get the most up-to-date information out quickly. By that logic, wouldn’t they also want to update their ebook if what was up-to-date in October isn’t in March?

And if they did that, what possible value would a pirated edition of yesterday’s ebook have?

Of course, swine flu is a dynamic subject. It isn’t a novel; it isn’t history. It isn’t even programming or software development or technology, the subjects O’Reilly publishes (and often updates.) But every editor knows plenty of authors of non-fiction books that wanted to keep writing and changing and adding past every deadline the house presented. Let the new process start with those; there will be plenty of candidates.

Furthermore, the biggest threat from pirated ebooks is to the most established franchise authors. I believe Tim O’Reilly is responsible for two cogent and pithy observations about piracy: that obscurity is a greater threat to most authors than piracy, and that piracy is “progressive taxation.” Both express the reality that the marketing for most books fails to reach most of the book’s potential audience. That Henry Ford assembly line conveys the book away from the marketers before the task of informing the entire potentially-interested public is anywhere near complete. So piracy, or file-sharing that may fall short of actual piracy, can serve the purpose of spreading the word about a book and triggering more sales. Except there are some authors, and those are the ones that sell the most books for the biggest publishers, who don’t need marketing to inform their audience; their audience, in effect, informs their audience! And those are the ones who would surely lose sales if there were no DRM and books could be freely shared or are made available through illicit channels.

But those authors are also the ones who have the biggest personal followings. They are the most capable of adding material: notes about what they’re working on, correspondence with fans or critics, even observations about other people’s books, that would add some value for many of the readers of their stories. In fact, a regular “update to my readers” from a top-flight author that is available only in their ebooks, or to purchasers of their ebooks, would be an attraction to many and could serve as a constant reminder that downloading their books from illegitimate sources is cheating them.

I’m not against DRM in principle and I’m all for combating piracy any way we can (and I have a couple of thoughts on that subject I’ll save for a subsequent post.) But I am far from certain that piracy represents the same existential threat to book publishers that it did to record companies, although we have others: the music business isn’t nearly so threatened by the shift to vertical.

One of my favorite people in the digital book business, who once worked in the music business said to me: “I don’t worry about piracy. I did in the music business because music was bought by kids. My customers are 53-year old ladies. They don’t go to pirate sites. They’d be afraid of getting a virus!” She’s right about that, at least for today. But for those who are concerned about piracy, I am not sure this problem can be attacked with toughness and muscle as effectively as it would be with creativity and delivering to the market something the pirates just can’t keep up with.

We have observed previously that the day will likely come when Big Authors will go straight to electronic distribution for some ebooks, bypassing the publishers to collect bigger royalties. What could be the first shot of that battle, and a reflection of the ideas in this post as well, may have been fired in the UK where Sony has announced a special edition James Patterson ebook which will contain the new book, “Cross Country”, a month before its general release plus other excerpts and a special letter from James Patterson. Of course, that deal was probably made by the publisher with Patterson’s cooperation, but it points to possibilities that should make publishers nervous.

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What it will mean when the ebook comes first


The “ebook tipping point” has recently been a frequent subject of discussion for me. I started out thinking about the business implications and that’s the main focus of the panel discussion on the subject at Digital Book World.

As I mentioned briefly in my last post, I have lately been turning my thinking to a huge shift I think might just be around the corner: that editors and authors will have to start thinking “ebook first”. When we get to that point, it will cause huge upheaval. And personnel changes.

The way things work today is that the author and editor work together to create the best possible print book. That involves figuring out what to cut more often than it is about what to add. (My wife is a freelance project editor; she announced this morning that she and her authors had just successfully completed cutting tens of thousands of words and over a hundred images from a book manuscript in order to skinny down to the publisher’s desired page count. This is not the least bit unusual.)

The ultimate result of that work is a “clean” manuscript which will make the right number of pages and a lot of material that didn’t make the book. Then that manuscript might go into an XML workflow that will tag it for structure and that will allow it to be rendered as a print PDF and an ebook in various forms. Or it might simply be made into designed pages in InDesign, after which an exported file will be turned into ebooks.

If you want video or links or extra editorial material in your ebook — an “enhanced” ebook — that becomes a new creative project that begins when the development of the print version ends.

If you actually want to end up with more than one final “product”: (presumably) one print version and (perhaps) more than one digital version, this is not the most sensible way to do it. It is far easier to look at a complex ebook and figure out what can be held static to create a print version than it is to go the other way around.

Up until what seems like five minutes ago, the static print version was where all the money was. But with the IDPF reporting industry-wide year-on-year gains of 300% of ebook sales through August and Crain’s saying Random House had an 700% year-on-year increase of Kindle sales through September, the day when ebook sales are financially significant has apparently arrived and the point when those revenues could be more important than print revenues is in sight. So it may be time to change the objective of the author and editor from “how do we create the best possible print book” to “how do we create the best possible ebook?”

This will require some radical changes in thinking.

1. “Space” will no longer be scarce. That means that nothing of value should be discarded; the question becomes how to best employ any thoughts, writing, or images, not whether to include them. (Warning of a likely unintended consequence: putting mediocre material in the finished product can become a temptation and that does not achieve desired effects.)

2. Background material of any kind will become useful. For fiction, that might mean more in-depth character descriptions or “biographies”. For non-fiction, that might mean source material.

3. Multiple media are desireable. Anything that is relevant to the book in video or audio form or art of any kind should be included. If rights and permissions are a problem, then linking out to the material wherever it is on the web becomes an option.

4. Linking is essential. The author should be recording deeplink information for every useful resource tapped during the book’s creation.

5. New editorial decisions abound. Should the reader be given the option to turn links off (to avoid the distractions)? Does it “work” if linked or multiple-media elements become essential to the narrative of the book? And, if that becomes the case, what are the work-arounds for the static print edition? Should “summary” material be added, such as a precis of every chapter than can be a substitute for reading the whole chapter? (That could help somebody skip and dive their way through a non-fiction book, particularly.)

6. How should all of this complexity flow? Books are pretty straightforward: you start at the beginning and turn pages until you get to the end. But ebooks can allow different sequencing if that becomes useful. Can we have beginner, intermediary, and expert material all in one ebook that “selects” what you see by what you tell the book you are?

7. When is the book “finished”? An ebook that is continually being enhanced and updated by the author, perhaps even by the addition of relevant blog posts (to imagine a situation which would be very easy to execute) is a great antidote to digital piracy. But it would surely separate the ebook from the print, which couldn’t keep up with that kind of change. As ebook consumption becomes more common, though, authors won’t want their books to be out of date and they will recognize how easy it is to add new material. O’Reilly Media already includes free “updates” in the ebook purchase price of their books. How long will it be before a trade publisher makes a similar offer? Or before an author requires it as a condition of doing their next deal?

I can’t imagine any veteran editor reading this and not gnashing their teeth, at least a bit. But I also can’t imagine these questions being postponed forever. If I were a 20-something employee in a publishing house, I’d be thinking about this very hard and watching for my opportunity to volunteer.

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Literary agents and the changing world of trade publishing


who can see the digital book possibilities in every idea before you peddle it.

I had a lunch conversation this week with three successful literary agents, who will remain anonymous for this post. They wanted to talk about the panel we’re having at Digital Book World called “The Changing Author-Agent Relationship: How Will It Affect the Business Model?”

That panel was born when I engaged an agent last summer with my observations about digital change and tried to recruit her to join a panel discussion about it. “Suppose you work with an author to develop her manuscript so your creative input becomes part of the work. Then you can’t sell it, or you get only a token offer for it, and the author wants to self-publish. Shouldn’t you, or any agent in that spot, be entitled to something in that case?”

The agent, sensing quickly that I was going to a model of “author pays agent for consulting help” said, “I can’t participate in a conversation like that. We have a canon of ethics in the AAR, and that might well run afoul of it.”

As it turns out, the canon of ethics of the AAR only explicitly prohibits agents from charging “reading fees” to prospective clients. Other charges are explictly permitted, such as for xeroxing and messengers. And others, such as consulting on self-publishing options, aren’t mentioned.

But, still, the question of whether the business model needs to change remains. The kind of book advances that agents have made a living on for years are diminishing in number. And now that self-publishing is legitimately part of the commercial continuum, authors have a right to expect that their career business manager, which an agent is, will employ it, or suggest that they do, when it makes sense. And agents will have a right to expect to be paid for that.

Of course, that’s not what these three successful working agents do. Their business assets are their personal knowledge of and relationships with acquiring editors; their ability to shape a writer’s concept and proposal into a commercial book; their knowledge of the ins and outs of book contracts and publishers’ accounting procedures. Exploring and keeping up with the various print and electronic self-publishing options: starting with Author Solutions and Smashwords, but including many others including our client Bookmasters, lulu.com, and many others, is a fulltime job in itself. (There’s a string started on Brantley’s list today by Joe Esposito who noticed announcements for four new self-publishing startups in his email in the past few days.) And searching out the authors with the money to self-publish, let alone to pay for advice on how to do it effectively, is also not what the successful agent in the current marketplace does.

I had spoken at a Writer’s Digest conference two months ago and told aspiring writers “get an agent” but also, “make sure the agent knows about the self-publishing options.” These very professional and desirable agents did not. But they agreed that when ten or thirty or fifty times a year a project they’d developed goes off for self-publishing, they’ll want to have a way to monetize that. We agreed that the likely solution will be an alliance with somebody who perhaps positioned themselves more as a “consultant” to aspiring authors. There is no shortage of such people.

The conversation turned to contract terms, particularly regarding ebooks. The agents asked me: “don’t the big trade publishers see that the strategy of paying authors half or less of what many ebook publishers will pay on digital book royalties isn’t sustainable? that we’ll end up splitting those deals?” I told them that I had raised this point with Big Six CEOs and they all said, “we won’t buy print-only; never happen.” The big publishers are counting on the authors’ (and agents’) desire for the advance to keep them locked into the current model. (Richard Curtis made this same point in a recent eReads post.) It is clear that the idea of splitting off ebooks from print contracts is one that these agents have been thinking about for a while. The relative attraction of the advance goes down as the level of ebook sales on which you’re taking half or less of what you could get goes up.

We also spent a little time discussing “verticals” and my theory that power is moving from “control of IP to control of eyeballs.” In the past week, I’ve had two conversations with Hay House executives (they’re on the Digital Book World program too) about their business. To somebody with a trade orientation, it’s pretty phenomenal. They run between 30 and 100 live events a year for their community. They have over 1 million email addresses that drive the sales of all their books. One of the agents said he had an author for whom he sold a book to one of the Big Six houses and they sold twelve thousand copies. He sold the next title to Hay House and they sold two hundred thousand. How long will the Big Six houses be able to compete for big-potential books in Hay House’s sweet spot (mind-body-spirit), advances or no advances?

One of the agents at lunch does a lot with juveniles. “Do I have to worry about this ebook thing much?” that agent asked. Soon you will, I said. After lunch I was working with my frequent collaborator Ted Hill on a proposal we’re making for another conference on digital tipping points. One we were talking about is “when does the publishing house have editors shift their focus from developing a print book with an author, with the ebook as afterthought, to developing the best possible digital product, with the print book coming out of it?” That gave me an answer for that agent: you better have somebody on your team now who can see the digital book possibilities in every idea before you peddle it. Now that you’ve made me think about it, I realize that if you’re not fully exploring the creative possibilities for digital products for every kids book you develop, you’re already missing the boat.

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Can the chains provide us with better small bookstores?


There is considerable concern among the trade publishing establishment about the future of brick-and-mortar stores. As well there should be. Retail stores provide the most efficient promotion opportunities for books: putting them in front of people poised to buy. They give clear signals about sales appeal by positioning and piles of stock of varying sizes; they make it possible to “look inside” of illustrated books in ways that no online presentation can match; they enable discovery through serendipity; and they put more different book choices in front of any person faster and more efficiently than any web page or smart phone screen possibly can.

But they’re troubled. Same store sales, or what the Brits call “like-for-like”, have been declining. That may be partly due to the recession, but it is also due to factors that won’t go away: shifts of sales to the Internet, to ebooks, and perhaps to substitutes in other media and the Web.

The magic that grew Barnes & Noble and Borders into behemoths was large store size and title selection. My first experience with this effect was a lesson from my father, Leonard Shatzkin. He took over executive responsibility for the Brentano’s bookstore chain as a vice-president of Crowell-Collier (later called Macmillan, a company subsequently bought by Simon & Schuster and not connected to the company now called Macmillan) in the early 1960s. The store in that chain that was doing least well was in Short Hills, New Jersey. They doubled the number of titles the store carried and it soon was the best-performing store in the chain.

But the “size as a magnet” concept took a back seat to mall store expansion by Walden and B. Dalton in the 1970s. As shopping centers were built across the country, the mall developers favored national chains, which were “bankable”, for their leases. Walden and Dalton rode that wave and added hundreds of stores. Meanwhile, partly assisted by the expanding wholesaling services offered by Ingram, independent stores thrived and grew their title selections beyond what the space-challenged mall stores could offer.

In the late 1980s, Bookstop, a discount chain in Texas, pioneered the “superstore” concept: a massive selection of 100,000 or more titles under one roof. This was the Brentano’s Short Hills effect writ large. By that time, Borders and Barnes & Noble, which already had larger stores than the mall stores, had bought Walden and B. Dalton, respectively, giving them critical mass to support robust central operations and provide leverage in their relationships with publishers. The new superstore concept suited Wall Street, and the two big chains were bankrolled to roll out superstores nationwide.

This was great for everybody except some of the larger independents which, up to that time, had the large title selection field to themselves. For publishers, it meant lots of additional shelf space for their backlist. For consumers, it meant a large increase in choice at hundreds of locations around the country. The attraction of 100,000 or more titles under one roof was compelling; these superstores didn’t need malls to bring them traffic. They were destinations worth traveling to on their own.

But then came the Internet, and Amazon. As we used to remind ourselves quite often ten years ago, “the Internet changes everything.”

And what the Internet did was to seriously dilute the attraction of so many titles under one roof. Now “unlimited” choice was available online: not a hundred thousand titles, but millions. Not just the books presented by active publishers and chosen by buyers, but all the books, in or out of print.

By the turn of the 21st century, it seemed to me that the powerful attraction inherent in the massive superstore selection was muted. I advised a client to “leverage your infrastructure to figure out how to make the small store work.”

But, by that time, both the big chains were phasing out their mall stores. This was not entirely a matter of store size, although it might have been seen that way. The malls the stores were in were often in suburbs from which prosperity had moved on. The effect of the Internet wasn’t just being felt by bookstores, but also by department stores, which were the “anchors” that brought traffic to the malls. So footfall at the mall stores fell, quite aside from any negative impact of a limited title selection.

In 2009, the mall store era has officially come to an end. First Barnes & Noble announced it was closing all the remaining B. Dalton stores. Then, this week, Borders announced it is shuttering more than half of the remaining Walden stores, which will leave only 130 operating, in January.

Meanwhile, it only takes a visit to a B&N or Borders store today to see that they are hardly stuffed with books; the ones I’ve been in lately appear to have more space than they need, and this is when stores are relatively full of merchandise.

Of course, larger stores can be more cost-effective than smaller ones for other reasons beyond the attraction of the title selection, even if that attraction is working well. There are per-store costs, of store management and central management attention, that don’t readily reduce with store size. And while the effect of a massive title selection at a retail location might not be what it was 20 or 40 years ago, more titles will certainly attract more traffic than fewer.

Meanwhile, the other big change in the book retailing scene in the past 20 years has been the growth in sales at mass merchants: Wal-mart, Costco, and the price clubs and supermarkets. These stores leverage existing traffic (one would think that few, if any, customers go there for the books) and deep discounting to make significant book sales with a very limited selection of titles, usually well under 5,000. They’ve been part of the problem for full line book retailers. Their pricing and ubiquity bleed off sales of the highest-profile bestsellers. In the 1970s, bestsellers pulled people into bookstores where they might buy lower-profile books. Today bestsellers are presented to the public at cut prices where people buy their groceries or school supplies, leaving the bookstores with the customers who still consider them a “destination.”

Both of the big bookstore chains, but particularly Barnes & Noble, own unmatched infrastructures to deliver a curated selection of books to dispersed retail locations. They found it impossible to make the small stores they owned in the mall locations profitable, even with those capabilities. (In fact, Borders, which doesn’t have a supply chain to match B&N’s, outsourced some of its shelf-stocking at Walden to wholesalers in recent years. It is inconceivable that B&N would ever do something like that.)

But bookstores are going to be getting smaller; we know that intuitively and the stock we see in the current superstores confirms it. And smaller bookstores, if they were planned to be smaller, would require less space, less traffic, and less sales to be viable.

Of course, smaller stores wouldn’t be a magnet for traffic; that’s what turned the Short Hills Brentano’s around and that’s what fed the whole superstore revolution.

So it would seem the combination for the future might be a B&N or Borders mini-store inside another large retailer. Remember, many other retailers are going to be having the same problem; figuring out to deal with having too much space, so there should be potential collaborators on the other side of the partnership. This will require a different kind of inventory management than the chains exercise now; more of a rack-jobbing approach. But their capabilities: to source books, select books, organize books for presentation, and to deliver books all over the United States, will have more consumer demand than they’ll be able to satisfy with only their own very large stores.

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Here’s a real vertical: PoetrySpeaks.com


I have been imagining “verticals” for more than ten years. My BEA speech earlier this year postulated that publishing power would shift from controlling “IP” to controlling “eyeballs.”

Lots of publishers have complimented me on my insights and have told me “we’re thinking along the same lines.” But what I see are mostly product catalogs organized vertically. Or some other variation of “we provide the content, you provide the audience.” That’s a start, but it isn’t a vertical that will lead to control of eyeballs.

Now, everybody’s got a model to follow. Dominique Raccah, the empresario of Sourcebooks, unveiled PoetrySpeaks.com today. THIS is the beginning of a real vertical portal!

Sourcebooks has already made the major breakthrough of creating poetry bestsellers (are they the first since Rod McKuen 30 or 40 years ago?) They did it by adding CDs with sound to the printed word and they did it with a printed book, not an online combination. So they already have demonstrated a commercial sense for the poetry market that is unique.

But PoetrySpeaks gets past the product and goes to the heart of community: they provide service. They give every poet a reason to come to them and use them. They provide tools to post poetry, critique poetry, share poetry, speak poetry, and sell poetry. They thought through the business models so that other poetry publishers can play and make money, and you can bet that, later if not sooner or immediately, they all will.

They’ve thought it through from the perspective of many stakeholders: poets, of course; but also poetry publishers, poetry professors, poetry fans, poetry devotees. Another way of saying “vortal” is “all things…” and PoetrySpeaks is on its way to being “all things Poetry.”

The revenue models, to start, all are based on selling poetry content and tickets to slams, readings, and online performances. That’s fine. But I’ll bet that within two years there’s another one: selling memberships to a premium level of access to other poets, teachers, critics, and workshops (a la the model of PublishersMarketplace.) And I’ll bet there will be databases of people and poetry and tools and ideas that will have been crowd-sourced, have extraordinary value, and effectively head off anybody else from competing for what it will have become. (As Publishers Marketplace has done.)

PoetrySpeaks is a vertical site that doesn’t lean on trying to sell you something; it presents itself as a service to the community. Hats off to a publisher that is still selling books by the boatload, even poetry books, but that also recognizes that future success requires an entirely different model.

Yes, there are thing missing. I didn’t see a blogroll (although there is a blog) and the site doesn’t appear to acknowledge whatever other poetry activity now exists on the web. I’m sure eventually it will. There’s room for a history of poetry, and a bunch of poetry bookshelves. They need more content about poetry. If there’s an FAQ there that explains iambic pentameter, I missed it. But their community will create these things over time. PoetrySpeaks has the bait that will make it “the online place the poets hang out.” All else will follow.

One observation by Michael Cader in his write-up on this that I want to echo and stress. He observes that you do not have to be a market leader in a vertical to take a leadership position. Undoubtedly, there are many publishers who, despite Sourcebooks’s poetry bestsellers consider themselves to be much more committed to poetry publishing than Sourcebooks has been. But anybody committed to poetry publishing will be saying one thing to Sourcebooks: thank you very much.

Dominique showed PoetrySpeaks to me and to Guy Gonzalez of F+W at the Frankfurt Book Fair under a strict NDA. We were sworn to secrecy and revealed nothing, but persuaded our colleagues to carve out a feature spot for Dominique to deliver our audience an update on this project as part of our first morning session on January 26. One more reason to sign up for Digital Book World.

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