Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought ___

John McFetridge

People are talking about different publishing methods since last week’s announcement of Joe Konrath’s deal with AmazonEncore and most of the discussion has to do with how the deal will affect publishers and writers.

So, I’m going to talk about how it affect readers.

It’s going to be good.

There’s no shortage of books being published every year. I often hear how there are too many books published. But when you start breaking them down into categories and niches are there really too many? And are they easy to find?

One thing that led to Konrath selling so much of his backlist himself as e-books was that Hyperion dropped its crime list. Other publishers have reduced the number of books they publish as well. It really looks like the publishing industry is following in the footsteps of the movie business and spending a lot of time looking for a few big blockbusters.

I’m not sure that’s a good model for books. Or really, it’s not a good model for books sold online – either print books ordered online or e-books. Because the online world isn’t the real world. Just look at the comment threads, so much of what’s posted there would never be said out loud in the real world. This blog is not a good example of that, too many reasonable people here, but we’ve all been to those other kinds of sites. This one, Get Off the Internet is depressing and funny at the same time, something the online world excels at being). There was a story on that website awhile ago about a knitting group getting into a huge argument and having to ban people. A knitting group.

Wait a minute, there’s an online knitting group? Of course there is. There’s an online group for everything.

The online world is about niche.

Joe Konrath’s sales are plenty good enough for him to keep writing books, just not good enough for a big publisher to keep making enough money off them.

So there are probably hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people out there who are in niches too small for publishers to go after. Up until now maybe those people sought out self-published books or fanzines (remember those?) or more likely just did without. Maybe they didn’t even notice they were doing without.

But now they (I really mean ‘we’) have a way to get books that appeal to a very small audience. Books that will look and feel just like big publisher books. This is especially true of e-books, but click over here and order a copy of Needles and you’ll see that POD books have come a long way, too.

And that may be the biggest change to the book business. Not self-publishing or e-books or Amazon Encore or POD or the iPad or the Nook or any of that.

The biggest change to the book business may be buying online where all books get the same amount of shelf space and they’re always in stock.

Of course that means that the pile of books is ten miles high and it’s impossible to find one in your niche.

And that’s where the next most important change is (have I now said that three or four things are the “most” important change? Well, change happens pretty fast online, I can’t keep up). It’s the accuracy of the, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought___,” button.

And it’s going to get even better.

Amazon will probably follow in the footsteps of Netflix and offer a million dollar prize to anyone who can come up with a collaborative filtering algorithm (of course I had to look that up) that will increase their business by 10%. Here’s the story of the Netflix algorithm .

When this kind of filtering system gets even more sophisticated for books it won’t matter where they come from – self-published, small press, big publisher, AmazonEncore – makes no difference on the Amazon page.

The other announcement that came out last week from Amazon that I think is also great news for readers is the introduction of AmazonCrossings, the new division that will sell english translations of books that up until now haven’t been available.

In many (most?) cases a translated book simply won’t sell enough copies for a big publisher to buy the rights, pay the translator and market in North America and those things are usually too expensive for a small press to be able to pay for upfront.

But if Amazon is the publisher itself it can ammortize those costs over... well forever, I guess. If the books are available as e-books and POD print books and they sell a couple hundred copies a year for fifty years, eventually it’ll pay off.

And it means even more books are available for us. Just imagine the cool Italian noir, the French, the Swedish ones that aren't about some girl who did something but about women?

It really is going to be good.

Now, I should say that like Joe Konrath I don’t think it’s a good idea to self-publish an e-book to the Kindle. But I should date this post because that could change fast, too.


Jerry House said...

The problem with translated books is that they rely on a good translator. I hope that, while eliminating many standard publishing costs, Amazon does not stint on the quality/ability of its translators. That said,
I'm looking forward to being able to read a lot of books now unavailable to me.

Dana King said...

The possibilities for ways to sort through books online to find what you like are limitless; the surface has barely been scratched.

I gave my NetFlix password to my daughter when she left for college, so she could download movies straight to her iBook at school. Boy, has that got the NetFlix algorithm confused about what I might like.

John McFetridge said...

That's good, Dana, I want those guys to earn that million bucks.

And yes, Jerry, a lot will depend on who Amazon get to be the translators and it goes against my nature to be optimistic, but I'm starting to think it's possible that the future may not be a bleak wasteland ;)

Jarrett Rush said...

Sorry this is a day late, but a question for John.

Why don't you think it's a good idea to self-pub an ebook to Kindle? I've been following the ebook/self-pub debate on a few different blogs and I'd love to hear why you think it's a bad move.

John McFetridge said...

Jarrett, the main reason is because I'm old.

Really, that's all I've got. Self-publishing has a bad reputation, that's it.

For some reason the Do It Yourself approach has been celebrated in movies and music but not books.

Of course, there's never been online publishing before making it easy to create a professional product.

It may now be at the stage of a band selling their own CDs out of the back of a van. Some bands wanted to use tha as a springboard to a major label and some were happy to stay indie.

And there may be a lot of publishers starting with e-books, kind of the publishing version of Sub Pop and indie labels like that.

Jarrett Rush said...

I like the indie band analogy. I think that's about where we are too.

I think it really all comes down to expectations from the author. There are probably many, many, writers who would be over the moon to sell a few thousand copies of a book and earn $2 each to do it. If you can self-pub an ebook and, in theory, do it for free, then why wouldn't you at least give it a shot?

I think the problem is that too many people don't see Konrath as the exception, but the rule. They figure if he can do it then they can too and they rush something onto one of the ebook sales platforms. They never consider that he is a traditionally published author with an already existing fanbase and a very popular blog. He already has an audience. He's selling well now because he has the name recognition, competitive prices and a quality product.

John McFetridge said...

Lately I've started to think we're overselling Joe's print book success as a factor in his e-book success.

It's only anecdotal, of course, but I've heard a lot of people saying they'd never heard of him before they saw the e-books. I'd never heard of him before he started publishing e-books, but I don't know what kind of distribution his books received in Canada.