Michael Tamblyn, who heads up the Kobo global ebook operation, delivered a brilliant talk at the BISG Annual Meeting last week. The meat of his speech was to instruct publishers in very specific terms how to title, price, release, and identify their books in metadata in ways that really matter to sales and which are, almost amazingly, not universal practice. Any publisher, particularly of series fiction, who doesn’t take every word Tamblyn says on board is derelict in their duty to their company and their authors.
One part of Tamblyn’s set-up caught my attention. He referred to us having arrived in the”fifth era” of bookselling. He identified the first four as:
1. Independent bookstore
2. Chain bookstore
3. Online bookselling
4. Ebooks and audiobooks
and now we are dealing with
5. The attention economy
Although I have my quibbles with the way Tamblyn divides things up (for one thing, I’m a couple of decades older, so I remember the department store era and the mall store era that took place before Ingram’s microfiche and national wholesaling buildout enabled the growth of the independents in the 1970s), his analysis makes a really important point.
Until now, a “book” was a unit of content that had its own marketing and distribution infrastructure regardless of subject, genre, or audience. What Tamblyn’s paradigm demonstrates is that this is changing.
And the change Tamblyn is pointing to now is, by its nature, both much broader and much more pervasive than the ones that preceeded it which really only were about book formats and book sales channels.
Tamblyn’s point is the flip side of the enormous opportunity publishers are iteratively discovering and exploiting: the ability to use digital marketing, and especially social network marketing, to build awareness of their books. And the cherry on top is that just about any online marketing attention can be quickly tied to an online-brokered sale, whether of a print book or a digital one.
On the other hand, anybody reading or reading about a book can at the next minute be interrupted by an offer of a more enticing article or video or Ted talk, also available in a click and, much more often than with a book, for free.
The print book itself provides a “closed” experience, one that has no built-in interruptions, only better places and less good places to interrupt the experience yourself. As digital content consumption has moved to mobile devices, however, every content consumption experience becomes easy to interrupt.
That’s bad for books in two ways. One is that any online book reading we do is likely to come with interruptions that no author or editor would be happy to contemplate as they think about their readers’ experience. And the other is that those interruptions all represent competition for attention, which is what Tamblyn was focused on, most of which are cheaper than what you want to get for a book.
But books still generate an impression of prestige, gravitas, and credibility that mere content chunks or articles do not. They also do have a “marketplace” of people shopping for things to read that present an avenue to put book-packaged content forward to people who might not otherwise encounter it.
And what that means is that people or entities who are doing digital and social network marketing for some other purpose will increasingly be enticed to use books in their arsenal. And, by their nature, these people or entities will be starting with a batch of assets that will make a book more marketable both in the online world they can see how to hook up to but also, to greater or lesser degrees, around the online and physical worlds of book marketing and distribution.
So, in this new attention economy, lots of other institutions — associations, corporations, brands, retailers — will find that books need to become part of their overall attention economy strategy. Indeed, Bradley Metrock of Digital Book World has already identified a number of specific examples of this.
The change of everything that creates what Tamblyn sees as a bookseller (albeit a unique one: totally global and totally digital) as a “fifth era of bookselling” really signals a whole new era of publishing as well.
Of course, publishing a book properly, so that the benefits are maximized, marketing costs and/or profits are optimized, and the content is delivered in all the possible physical and digital channels, requires both infrastructure and expertise. Publishers provide those, of course.
And publishers are alert to this change. In their language, it means they’re looking for author brands with “platforms” that give them a head start on creating digital marketing support for a book, or provide mailing lists to target for sales, or that give them some steady stream of potential customers to promote to. A better reporter than I am (or a literary agent), with more granular knowledge of what each editor and imprint is looking for, could probably name people who identify this kind of potential collaborator as a generic opportunity.
Certainly, among the hundreds of thousands of entities we call self-publishers who have placed content with Amazon’s CreateSpace and/or IngramSpark, there are many that fit the description of a viable operation primarily doing something else and using books or ebooks as part of a marketing or brand-building strategy.
Doing that largely covers the infrastructure requirement. Both provide global ebook and audiobook distribution, print-on-demand services, tools to help create audio and global print book delivery. The best margins on Amazon are available through CreateSpace; real access to the whole world of book sales and marketing is really available only through IngramSpark.
But doing the best job of publishing will still require dedicated and focused expertise that it is not the job of CreateSpace or IngramSpark to provide. They’re providing a machine that works for everything and publishing properly requires detailed attention to each little thing: the format, the number of pages, the price, the precise title, the marketing budget and its allocation, and the overall publishing plan, such as how much risk you want to take pushing inventory into the supply chain in anticipation of sales. And that’s a starter list.
Fortunately, there is a pretty big roster of solid publishing professionals who have, over the past several decades, each participated in the publishing of thousands of individual titles and who could fill the expertise gap for a large number of fledgling publishers and publishers-to-be. (I am not one of them. It’s something I’ve done, but it is not what I do.) The hunch from here is that a few years from now there will be an identifiable group of successful publishers who got started with CreateSpace or IngramSpark, got some savvy help from an experienced pro, and built a program that aggregated an audience from both their own proprietary network and the publishing world.
I have been writing about the climate change fight, the new endeavor in my life, on Medium. The update is that I’ve narrowed my focus to two principal concerns. One is to institute carbon-fee-and-dividend, the procedure by which we tax fossil fuels and return all the money in equal shares to everybody. The other is discourage closing nuclear power plants until we can replace their power with something other than fossil fuels. My interest in book publishing is undiminished. I am really proud of my new book from Oxford University Press, The Book Business, co-authored with my late friend Robert P. Riger. And I was proud to recently receive the Sally Dedecker Award for lifetime service to the book business from the Book Industry Study Group.