The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?  

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Episode XIV: "A conundrum for all"

Published 5/13/15
In this installment, I speak with David Wilk. Topics include leveling ebook sales, subscription reading platforms, Kindle, the biggest mistake publishers make, long tails & more.

I’m here with David Wilk, a publishing lifer in every since of the word. He’s been a writer, an editor, a book designer and a publisher. He runs Booktrix, a publishing consultancy, and he produces books through Armory New Media, Prospecta Press and Frederator Books.

I know David personally because he was really the first press 0s&1s received, when he asked me to be on his podcast, WritersCast. (He’s also moderating a panel I’ll be on at IDPF called “Born Digital: New Forms of Publishing and Outreach to Readers/Participants”.)

That day last summer seems both like it could be yesterday and five years ago. He asked me about why I started 0s&1s, what we hoped to accomplish, and then conversation slid into the more philosophical. Now it’s my turn to ask the questions.

We’ll get back to that in a second. We’re not in the same room anymore, far from it. To bridge the digital divide, where are you? What do you see?

I am sitting in my second floor home office surrounded by books and digital devices.

Sounds right. Let’s play catch up: in the world of digital publishing, what do you think has been the biggest (or most surprising) change since last summer?

Well interestingly, the last year has actually been marked by less visible change than in previous years. We've seen a leveling off of growth in digital book sales (which I think is temporary) and the rise of subscription reading platforms, but nothing that has significantly changed the landscape. I would say that the unexpected shutdown of Readmill was a surprise for me. It was a great reading platform with a lot of potential.

That was unfortunate. Why do you say the leveling of digital book sale growth is temporary? In turn, do you think the rise in subscription reading platforms is temporary?

I think digital books growth of market share will accelerate again based on hardware and software improvements that are coming in the future. As smartphones become predominant tools (64% of US residents have smartphones now) digital reading will increase. And as we get better reading apps and people get more used to reading in browsers, and new forms of reading experiences emerge (because creators and producers will not quit being creative), digital reading will increase. Conversely I do see the value of reading on paper as continuing, in the same way that many people have turned to vinyl for a warmer experience than digital audio can provide.

As far as subscriptions, I think for certain categories of products and certain categories of readers, subscription model is fantastic. But I do not think it will continue massive growth unless free becomes the driver.

But I think the economics of production and the inevitable power of digital convenience will drive digital adoption in the future.

I agree about the software improvements, the move to smartphones and the overall convenience of digital, but I want to ask about the hardware.

Every time I use an ebook reading device, I can't help but think how much simpler it could be, at least to the effect of reducing costs. Do you think we'll continue to use devices driven by a brand, or will we move towards a more agnostic platform?

My response to this is colored by my opposition to walled gardens (the Kindle model). We need to evolve away from them. But Amazon, as the dominant force in the ebook market, has plenty of incentives to keep the walled garden model in place.

You get reduced costs with an open market, but the dominant player loses market share, so has no desire to enable a change to common standards. How does this get resolved?

And it is fair to say that Amazon is able to offer users a lot of services when they have locked them in that they would not offer otherwise. So it is a conundrum for all.

That's true. It's hard to imagine Amazon letting their massive user base go that easy.

Then again, Amazon is really smart. There are ways one could imagine them being able to continue to keep their user base and let us move to epub3. Amazon Prime, for example, could be all they need.

I imagine you're on the same page as me as far as DRM-free goes. But let's transition to realism: do you think DRM is going away any time soon?

DRM won't go away anytime soon, until and unless more of the large publishers find a way to sell ebooks to significantly large numbers of readers, something we would all presume to be unlikely.

You predicted subscription services will need 'free' as a driver in order to continue growth. Why do you say that? Isn't Netflix still experiencing growth despite their paid model?

I was thinking more of the glory days of book clubs. The sub services will need to use free and nearly free to attract a large enough base for them to be sustainable. I am not smart enough to guess at their long term viability. Also I think Epic and Farfaria, providing kids content, may have an easier go than Oyster et al, providing adult content. By the way, for me the value proposition at Netflix, at $9 a month, is a lot better (for consumers) than the value propositions of the ebook subscription services. Netflix is not free, but considering what you get from them for $8.95 a month, it is an incredible bargain, such that it is "almost free".

Yes I think kids services can offer a lot without being as comprehensive. And also their markets are constantly renewing. And parents like the protected universes they offer their kids. That is a well-established proposition.

Okay, switching gears and zooming out a bit, I’m going to ask a frustratingly broad question. From your years of experience in the industry, especially those spent as a marketing consultant: What makes a book sell? Why do some books catch and some don’t?

This is an impossible question to answer.

It sure is. I'll alter it slightly: From your experience, what is the biggest mistake(s) publishers make in marketing books?

Publishers know that it is catching lightning in a bottle when a book captures the attention of large numbers of readers. But it is not entirely about luck. So the mistake it is easiest to make is to not try to understand whom the readership for a book is before you set out to connect your book(s) to them. Because marketing is hard, takes a lot of time and resources, and books are ephemeral.

It's actually easier to look at publishers that succeed in marketing and learn from them. Workman, Sourcebooks, Rodale are all good examples. Also Chelsea Green, O/R Books, and Tor.

What are the most graspable lessons we can glean from that set?

Deep commitment to relentlessness. Publish the right number of books to enable your marketing talent to not be diluted across too many products.

That's an interesting insight. A lot of times I'll find an indie press really succeeding, and I'll look them up, and I'm shocked by how few books their publishing a year. The way you see it, that makes a ton of sense.

Yes. I think models that are based on shelf space no longer function. And if you look at the larger field of product marketing, you see the challenges you face by publishing many books without sufficient marketing effort attached to them.

Do you think there's temptation (given, well, the cultural climate) for publishers to produce as much as possible?

Long tail is not a viable publishing strategy!

Which do you think is the bigger trouble for a publisher without marketing resources: people or money?

Money. Book marketing now is more about time, energy and creativity.

We're nearly out of time, and I want to ask what's to come: for you, for digital publishing, for publishing in general. (Knowing you, you've got a lot ahead of you, and it's impossible to predict what's next.)

For me, I am enjoying working now with publishing startups, some who are, like you, creating new models of publishing. Two examples are Tom DeLonge's To the Stars publishing, which launches officially in May, and Frank Beddor's Automatic Publishing, which is already publishing graphic novels and soon, fiction as well.

For digital publishing, I am most excited about new tools that will enable creators to explore the form and take new and exciting directions.

Can we get a quick rundown on what differentiates these two startups?

I don't want to give away too much about what To the Stars is up to, ahead of the launch. The website is not even up yet. But if you look at how his band, Angels and Airwaves, has operated, you will get some clues.

That's fair, and Automatic Publishing?

I think Automatic is really committed to readers the way that comix and graphic novel publishers are, really connecting through every means available. This is publishing to, of and with a community of readers.

Sounds wonderful. Thanks for your words David—and see you soon.

Thanks Andrew, this was fun. I appreciate the opportunity.