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An excerpt from

Beyond the Literary-Industrial Complex:

How Authors and Publishers Are Using the Amazon Kindle and Other New Technologies to Unleash an Indie Movement of Readers and Writers

By Stephen Windwalker

Copyright 2008, 2009, Stephen Windwalker and Harvard Perspectives Press.

Now that we have seen how technological advances such as the Kindle, CreateSpace, and [insert Next Big Thing here] make it possible for authors and independent publishers to bring their work to readers (and, yes, “to market”) without any significant financial investment (except for the obvious fact that time is money), it is important to bring the focus back to where we started in this book: to issues of quality and distinction.

Have you ever wondered how, before the rise of the publishing industry and the New York Times Book Review, cultures managed to confer distinction on quality literary work? Who told the Beowulf poet, if not to keep “writing,” exactly, then at least to keep composing? Who told an earlier bard: “Keep up the fine work, Homer! You’ll need a good editor, but I think I hear a single!”

The processes by which cultures filter and distinguish between quality artistic work and lesser efforts are constantly subject to their own reversals, second-guessing, and border wars. At times these processes are not so different either from a game of “king of the mountain” among ten-year-olds, or from the process by which religious sects confer the status of “messiah” or “madman” on someone who walks the earth making unexpected pronouncements.

One’s acceptance (or not) of a jury’s judgments will always be intrinsically tethered to, and will sometimes inform, one’s considerations about that jury’s composition. Controversies over who gets to serve as a culture’s jury become especially fierce when the culture is undergoing major structural changes as a result of changes in audience, artistic process, and the means of production and dissemination employed by the culture’s various media.

But this relationship between the “what’s worth reading?” question and the question of “who thinks so?” is not a simple one. Even if we could agree on what constitutes excellent writing (which we can’t), there would be myriad other considerations of lesser or greater importance to individual readers. Beyond the domain of the relatively small number of books that become bestsellers, there are hundreds of thousands of books and authors with smaller but still significant followings based on genre, topic, style, personal loyalties, their linkages with other books and reading communities, and, of course, their quality as received and registered by individual readers. In a “long-tail” literary world where there is a seemingly limitless choice of individual titles, what we must do to find the books that we want to read is changed dramatically and depends on the ways in which we, and the cultural marketplaces that we frequent, are organized into tribes and sub-tribes of readers and writers. But before we explore that Googlezon present and future, a look at where we have been may help us to be clear about what there is to lose and to gain in the transformations that are shaking the 21st-century publishing world.

In the grand early- and mid-20th century world of American publishing, the Olympian judgments of venerable publishing houses such as Scribners and Alfred Knopf were accepted, by and large, by writers, readers, and other gatekeepers and tastemakers of the book trade such as critics and booksellers. Most authors trusted editors and agents to give fair consideration to their submissions and to make selections that corresponded in some discernible way to their relative quality, even if anti-artistic censorship led occasionally to the temporary suppression of distinguished efforts such as Ulysses, Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Howl. The fact that the publishing industry was overwhelmingly a white man’s world was but a sad mirror of similar barriers that flawed the society at large. And although it frequently did not deliver on its promises, “the life of the writer” often seemed to promise a way out of many ghettoes of race, gender, class, and psychopathology.

Authors such as Hemingway and Faulkner enjoyed special status as literary celebrities, with face time on the cover of Time and work excerpted or serialized in widely read magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s. This mass culture validated, reflected, and extended the literary culture, and several such authors enjoyed the kind of popular status that later became the terrain of rock stars, respected at times for literary achievement but just as often for their legends as rugged (or not) individualists who rose by their own remarkable efforts to live lives that inspired a kind of Lifestyles of the Literary Rich and Famous envy or emulation.

The fact that the mass culture was able to provide fair representation of the literary culture is testimony to the poverty of each in their common homogeneity. Still and all, 20th century literature often broadened and illuminated the human experience, helped us to fathom if not always to embrace the ghastly and lovely and banal range of human behavior, and seemed often to anticipate or give form to nearly every preoccupation of the species. The incubation and development of writers has never been precisely a democratic process, even with respect to opportunity, but these paths appeared accessible to so many that “to become a writer” became at once a lifestyle dream, a therapeutic cure (or enabler), and one of the world’s most glorious and widely held career objectives. The overall selection processes seemed fair or seamless or logically Darwinian enough that both authors and audience tended to trust and accept the roles of editors, agents, and other gatekeepers. Such trust was based on several key assumptions:

· manuscripts submitted to agents and editors would usually get a reading, and a fair reading to boot;

· agents would make a serious effort to sell any work they arranged to represent;

· there would be a rough and uneven yet still plausible correspondence between those works accepted for publication and those deemed to have either literary quality or commercial viability or both, underpinned by a widely shared if sentimental trust that the publishing world was well-populated with individuals genuinely committed to pushing the equation whenever possible in the direction of literary quality; and

· once a book was accepted for publication, its publisher would make a serious effort to market it so that it would stand a fair chance of getting inclusion and notice in the thousands of independent bookstores that were as ubiquitous then as hardware stores and in the literary periodicals that reviewed a much larger selection of literary work than they consider nowadays.

None of the foregoing assumptions has survived recent dramatic changes in the publishing industry. Only a tiny percentage of outsiders’ manuscript submissions sent to agents and editors gets even a cursory reading now. Pragmatic agents often see it as a quixotic enterprise even to submit literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, or other good work to the major publishing houses unless something about them nearly guarantees bestseller status. These houses are so driven by the need for scalable revenues and high turnover bestsellers that literary quality or enduring cultural value usually takes a distant back seat to considerations about whether an author has a marketable brand-name (think Paris Hilton, Danielle Steel, Jenna Jameson, or Tom Clancy) or a powerful cross-media sales platform (think Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Dr. Phil, or Sean Hannity).

These failures of the mainstream publishing industry and its gatekeepers to meet the cultural and economic needs of readers and writers might lead in any event to challenges to the traditional roles of judge and jury in our literary culture. But part of the publishing companies’ power also accrues from a mighty self-censoring tendency among many writers, a walking-on-eggshells phenomenon that Jonathan Franzen, in his essay collection How to Be Alone, has aptly described as “the idea … that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do.”

Underlying these issues of fairness and sensibility is a more fundamental sea change that guarantees the continuing transformation of the publishing industry. Whatever its grandeur, much of American culture in the middle decades of the 20th century was built on assumptions of stunning homogeneity. In music, literature, film, television, and politics the only significant differences recognized by the mass culture were generational, and any cultural expressions on the “other” side of the culture’s primary racial divides were, to white audiences, for all intents and purposes “underground.”

In contrast, we now swim in a sea of limitless cultural choices. Although the explosions of the internet and digital technologies are the primary enabling forces for the existence of this long-tail world, its mere existence is not its most significant distinction. More importantly, a remarkable confluence of forces has created an active appetite for such a wide array of choices. These forces include the early indie movements in music and film, the political ferment of the sixties, changes in educational approach and, most importantly, the growth of the internet as a social and cultural networking infrastructure.

While the mainstream mega-publishers seem bound by economics and their own retrograde pre-occupation with bestsellers to fall short of satisfying the growing appetite for choice, independent publishers and entrepreneurial indie authors are well-situated to respond. Small, fast-moving publishers and authors can respond to niche needs and tribal tastes not only in fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction but also in a wide array of other nonfiction categories.

At the most recent turn of the century, important advances in technology and the marketplace were empowering independent-minded writers and pushing the publishing world toward, if not a precipice, a significant tipping point:

· First, digitized print technologies made quality short-run book manufacturing so inexpensive that an independent publisher could surpass the production break-even point with a printing of 2,000 to 3,000 copies of a paperback original and a sell-through of as few as a third of the print run; and

· second, such publishers gained easy, inexpensive access to a gathering critical mass of sales and distribution channels including their own websites, the Amazon Advantage program, the Internet’s thousands of independent third-party booksellers, and a critical mass of independent bookstores and libraries. Wholesalers such as Baker & Taylor and Quality Books began to work proactively with small publishers and some short-run book manufacturers began to offer their small-publisher customers reliable bundles of ancillary services such as warehousing, fulfillment, distribution, order processing, regular inventory and sales reporting, and collections.

More recent developments have only intensified the velocity of change: with the advent of the Amazon Kindle and Amazon’s CreateSpace publishing platform in 2007, authors and publishers can bring literature “to market” at little or no cost, and even more importantly, with immediate connectivity to potent established markets and distribution channels that lead to millions of readers.

Each of these developments is likely to subvert traditional gatekeeping roles in the publishing industry. Will they also subvert the literary culture itself by committing it to a relentless downward spiral in quality, cheapening and “democratizing” what is available in book or any other form to the point where quality written work goes begging because it is lost in a swamp of mediocrity? Although I personally welcome, and include myself in the ranks of, an independent publishing movement, I do not diminish the importance or reasonableness of this concern about quality. I must admit to being less sanguine on this issue than former Random House editor Jason Epstein, one of the most respected elders of the American publishing industry, who wrote in his thoughtful 2001 volume, Book Business: Publishing Past Present Future, that “these new technologies will test the human capacity to distinguish value from a wilderness of choice, but humanity has always faced this dilemma and solved it well enough over time…. The filter that distinguishes value is a function of human nature, not of particular technologies.”

But we are fortunate to have particular technologies to give human nature an assist. The internet offers a viral post-advertising expansion of communication channels and platforms by which readers may communicate not only with each other but also inter-actively with writers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians about the content and quality of books and other media. Within these protean networks all advertising is forbidden but almost any medium can carry, in its DNA, an acceptable alternative to marketing.

There is much for an indie publishing movement to emulate in the processes by which the “do-it-yourself” spirit in music and film during the last two or three decades has broken through to build a kind of positive if generic “brand” distinction for “indie” maverick movements in their own right, as compared with the self-publisher’s “vanity press” stigma that must be overcome by independent book publishers. It is no accident that one of the more articulate voices promoting an indie book publishing movement, editor-in-chief Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, would write in a recent Poets & Writers article that “I entered the book business through the portal of underground rock music.

“The idea,” wrote Temple in describing the musicians’ indie movement, “was that hardworking bands, upstart record labels (often launched by musicians) and dedicated fans could forge a vital, idealistic alternative to the mainstream music business.” The importance of those “dedicated fans” should not be underestimated; writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and mindful readers should seek out every available opportunity to cultivate vehicles for reader communication, reader-writer contact, and reader self-identification with an indie movement of writers and publishers. Both in the physical world of reading groups, bookstore readings, library discussion groups, and Oprah segments and in the web world of book blogs, meet-ups, online social networking sites and Amazon customer reviews, the potential for such interaction is exploding far more dramatically than the population base of physical or digital book readers is atrophying. Writers’ groups, which tend as it is to function simultaneously as readers’ groups, would do well to seek out any chance to broaden their base and replicate or extend themselves as reader-writer affinity groups. One can easily imagine the Kindle itself, with its huge (and mostly still untapped) potential for file-sharing, annotation, and networking, as a primary hub for such communities if future price breaks and next-generation input enhancements allow.

Even in a cultural environment such as the blogosphere – a seeming narcissist’s paradise where the ego-gratification of traffic and comment is instant and almost every reader is also a writer – literary culture is braced by forces that are, in one sense, as old-fashioned as book discussion groups or the knowledgeable independent bookseller whose recommendations join her wide reading experience with her understanding of her customers’ reading interests and tastes. Yet as old-school as they may be in basic form, the internet recapitulators of these natural outcroppings of human nature can be almost unimaginably more powerful because they are also viral, instantaneous, and global.

Readers and book browsers in every age have wanted to know, in evaluating whether to take a chance (either with their time or their money, or both) on a book, how many others are reading it, who they are, and what they think of it. This information serves not only to send signals about quality; it also feeds a deep and powerful tribal urge for many readers. They want to read books (or see movies or hear music) that will spark and perhaps elevate their social and intellectual interactions with others, and when they read good books they want to seek out people with whom they can discuss the books, their ideas, their characters, and so forth. Disclosing one’s reading, musical, and film tastes has become such an automatic self-branding ritual that, in addition to helping to bring you new recommendations for a book to read on Sunday morning, the act may also help you to find a date on Saturday night.

Just as buzz breeds buzz, the process by which sales success breeds sales success is not limited to those permutations that involve readers (or all the book trade’s gatekeepers) noting a title on the New York Times bestseller list and then making room for it in their own plans. On the internet, whether in book blogs, among the apparently democratic and accessible book review and rating templates to be found on Amazon.com or its emulators, or in countless other venues yet to be imagined, the information that a title is selling well is instantly available, easy to use, and all the more likely, because of its own seemingly transparent and unmediated character, to serve as a quality filter or signaling system for readers and for all the other aforementioned gatekeepers of the book trade. The natural consequence of these processes in our hit-obsessed culture will be to ensure that we will always have bestsellers, perhaps even long after we have book publishers in the traditional sense, even if over time the sales requirements for attaining such status are somewhat moderated.

For all of its fertility as a vineyard for individual creativity and differentiated voices, the web is also an elegantly complex yet exquisitely simple binary world where, as with the inner meta-biology of the human brain, content and process may eventually be equivalent. Every word that is typed, read, linked, or clicked becomes traffic and velocity, and every hit is its own unmediated form of comment, and therefore of content. Every time we tag, visit, rate, buy, link, bookmark, download, sample or otherwise engage content, let alone when we write a comment or customer review or include it in our blog or blogroll, we are buzzing: asserting that certain content appeals to us or appalls us or bores us and may have a similar effect on others in the various tribes or networks to which we belong. We often choose these groups on the basis of the shared appeal of certain content; indeed they often spring up on an ad hoc basis around certain authors or books, certain musicians or films, etc. Importantly, given the leisure-time deficits with which many of us live, the bar of participation can be set as high or as low as we like.

These processes are as important for audience as they are for artists. It is obviously my intention here to be an advocate for the kind of cultural citizenship or activism that helps to define and organize the tribes and literary affinity groups of which we have been speaking, and to sort and distinguish the work of authors and other creators. I will always encourage people to exercise their rights as audience members in these ways and to recognize that the infrastructures of Amazon, Google, YouTube, iTunes, MySpace and countless other websites are so effective and seamless that – in ways that are so automatic that they may deserve the phrase “whether we like it or not” – we are all buzz agents.

What was that I called you? Well, pardon my presumption. You may not have a marketing bone in your body, but you are a rare individual if you haven’t weighed in with others on a few of the following topics: books, politics, music, film, cars, television, technology, destinations, sneakers, swimming holes, food, restaurants, bars, businesses, business models, magazines, babysitters, schools, fashion, driving directions, or plumbers. We learn early on how to influence others and how to find value for ourselves in the influence of others, with varying degrees of mindfulness and vigilance about the process depending on the forum in which it is occurring, the self-presentation of others, and our individual natures. Increasingly, as our culture gets meaner and more cynical, we are distrustful of influences that appear to be directly commercial, only to find that the marketing wizards are spending billions on buzz that is indirectly commercial. We may think that it is at the point when we have to stop and apply a bullshit detector to all this buzz that we have left Eden, but the truth is that we have not been to Eden for a while.

Being a lover of books and reading, a bibliophile, early in the 21st Century, often means being a pro-active and curious inquisitor, scouting out writers that appeal to you among the offerings of trusted authors, small presses and literary magazines, the remaining independent bookstores, reading groups, Amazon reviews, and book blogs. It often means making early commitments to the careers of authors you love and tracking every printed or digitized word they produce. It may even mean giving up a smidgen of your intellectual privacy, whether to your local bookseller or librarian or to the algorithm aces at Amazon.com, in order to allow them to use their gifts at what the marketing mavens call “collaborative filtering” to help you, who loved the book of Richard Ford stories you read on the beach last summer, to find a Ray Carver selection to read this summer.

I have no doubt, as one who has satisfied his own reading appetites through various combinations of these and other means for the past few decades, that a large part of what motivates us as book scouts and buzz agents is the joy of discovery and then the gratification and validation of sharing what we discover with those with whom we sense some common ground: “Eureka! I’ve been reading the most wonderful book! I’ll pass it on to you as soon as I’ve finished.” However much we may experience the reading itself as either solitary or, in connection with the author, dyadic, it can also become, with our bibliophile soul mates, satisfyingly social. And in our internet age, we can carry out these interactions either locally or globally.

As with most other scouting enterprises, scouting for good books to read – and especially for books that suit our very individual reading needs — is often a two-way street. The more we “speak,” the more we will “hear.” The more we listen, the more we will know about who we want to speak to, what to say to them, and what to ask them about. Along the way, we even learn a fair amount about how to conduct the conversation. One of the remarkable things about cultural marketplaces such as Amazon is the way in which they seem to train their visitors to become better and better at using the wealth of material that exists there to get their needs met.

Of course, to raise concerns about quality as if they only applied to the new forces in publishing is to beg the question regarding the performance of the traditional publishing institutions as defenders of literary quality. I am far from being the first writer to experience the relationships between authors (or, for that matter, readers) and the mainstream publishing industry as adversarial. I suspect that most of us, either chronically or episodically, are inclined to view almost anyone who tries to regulate our creative and cultural lives with some mixture of annoyance and contempt. If the issues that annoy us seem increasingly to be systemic rather than personal, then it is entirely appropriate for us to develop a sense of mission about the need to make things right. The mainstream publishing industry and its more Olympian apologists may prefer to cast such struggles as occurring between the guardians of publishing excellence and the rabble of artistic democracy, with the subtext that those in control, as much as they might like to suffer a thousand new flowers to bloom each publishing season, are, at the end of the day, the last remaining protectors of literary quality.

But all one must do is look around, in any chain bookstore or on the latest bestseller list, to conclude that, while the mainstream publishing industry may in some places have the elitist trappings of snobbish self-importance, it is not meritocratic in any way that is connected to literary quality. We note, without taking any pleasure in it, the fact that the quality filtering process that helped to make a bestseller of such a magnus opus as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star or the latest scribblings of Paris Hilton or Rush Limbaugh is something less than meritocratic to begin with.

Once one determines that the big publishers could care less about quality at the expense of blockbuster bestsellers, it follows naturally that any renegade movement to allow independent creative people to make more of the decisions about what to publish and how to get that product into the hands of interested and discerning readers could be, and should be, less about artistic democracy than about artistic meritocracy and literary freedom. As growing numbers of writers accept the gifts and challenges of new technologies and our ubiquitous American entrepreneurial spirit and embark upon non-traditional publishing ventures to get their work before the reading public, we would be wise not to leave these issues of quality filtering, of “the cream rising to the top,” either to the happenstances of human nature or to the vagaries of an untended marketplace. Along the way, some of us will be able to bring the universe of choices into smaller scale by connecting, if you will excuse my overburdening of that “cream to the top” metaphor, with consumers who prefer soy milk, goat’s milk, buttermilk, and so forth.

For the self-interested author who believes that she has just self-published the next Great American Novel, the admonition in the previous paragraph may seem to be just another way of saying, “Don’t just sit back and wait for the orders to start rolling in.” But I mean to make a broader point: readers and writers, and especially those of us who locate ourselves vocationally anywhere in the literary culture, stand to benefit both directly and in a more general cultural sense by doing all we can to nurture those networks and informal associations that in one way or another honor, advance, and extend the market viability of literary work of distinction, of writing that is thoughtful, interesting, edgy, experimental, or, in the best sense of the word, ambitious. Perhaps this has always been true, but the stakes are higher now because the publishing industry at large is failing so miserably at these tasks and because, to be blunt, of the sheer volume of choices when something in the ballpark of 300,000 new titles is being printed each year.

There is already quite enough angst and hand-wringing about this flooding of the marketplace; I don’t mean to suggest that any of us should posture or anoint ourselves as some sort of high-culture quality police. We can celebrate the candles without cursing the darkness, and I am much more troubled personally by the market flooding that is the result of the vast overprintings of individual titles, to the detriment both of the planet and of that quaint old phenomenon known as the mid-list title.

From here onward, there will be many good works, some in book form and some in shorter form that, because of the opportunities provided through the Kindle, the CreateSpace print-on-demand feature, and other yet-to-be-realized technologies, will be available “forever” and, absent any marketing, will sell usually in trickles of one or two each month, several each quarter. We can embrace this good fortune and, at the same time, be pleased that, much further out along the farthest reaches of the long tail, there will be works of the least significance and distinction, supported by the weakest of networks or no networks at all, that will exist only as onesies, twosies, or seldom-transmitted digital files. In the utter absence of buzz, quality, or usefulness, there will be only the sound of trees not having to fall in the forest because there is nobody there.

The moment may even come, as the role of the large commercially drive publishers declines, when one of those unreadable and unsellable titles will indeed be one that in another era might have been printed, remaindered, and ultimately destroyed by the hundreds of thousands. Of course we will never know when that elegantly silent moment occurs, but even without our being able to circle a date, I suggest that we should be able to celebrate its advent.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author or publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review, article, book, or academic paper.

Unattributed quotations are by Stephen Windwalker.

ISBN 0-9715778-6-2

First Edition, 2008; First Printing, 2008

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Windwalker, Stephen.

Beyond the literary-industrial complex: how authors and publishers are using the Amazon Kindle and other new technologies to unleash an indie movement of readers and writers / by Stephen Windwalker. – 1st ed.

Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-9715778-6-2 (trade pbk.: alk. paper) 1. Self-publishing—United States.

Following a Successful Author’s Experience with New Publishing Technologies

Sunday afternoon

He calls it “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing“, but don’t think for a moment that Joe Konrath hasn’t been to Night School. As I have already discussed in the Kindle Nation newsletter, Joe is my eye idea of an author who is working hard at connecting with his base of readers. As a direct consequence, that base is expanding by leaps and bounds.

Most recently, due in part to some nice symbiosis between Joe and Kindle Nation, “his” novel Serial has soared to the #1 bestseller position, among 290,000 Kindle books, in the Kindle Store. (Why the quotation marks around the word “his”? Because Joe’s the human behind the Jack Kilborn pen name.)

Joe is also the successful author of the Jack Daniels suspense-with-an-edge series, hold the garnish and the little umbrella, that began with the 2004 publication of Whiskey Sour.

If you are an author or independent publisher who wants to learn how to work the new technologies to find your readers, here are two suggestions:

Kindle Blog headcount approaches 5,000, but … Readers? That’s another story

The explosive growth of the Kindle Store’s Blog selection, following the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Publishing For Blogs Beta Program about ten days ago, continues apace. We’re approaching 5,000 as I post this morning, up from about 1,500 prior to the beta:

Of course, nobody knows if any of the new blogs are gaining any traction, since — because of Amazon’s convenient 14-day free trial for all Kindle Store blogs and other periodicals — they won’t show up in publishers’ sales reports until at least 14 days after they go live. I can tell from my Amazon Associates report that a couple of hundred people followed the link in my New Kindle Blogs for Your Consideration post to check out the page for this blog, but that doesn’t tell me if any of them were moved to click for the trial once they got there. We’ll see. What we can tell — based on the fact that no Kindle blog ranks in the top 18,000 titles overall in the Kindle Store — is that nobody, not even Ariana, is living in the lovely world envisioned by the GeekMBA360 post to which I linked a few days back:

Let’s say that you can attract 5% of the overall Kindle user base, which is 50,000. The total monthly revenue from your blog would be $100,000. Amazon will get $70,000 while you get $30,000. You get paid at a rate of $0.6/user.

To put it another way, my considerable experience with the relationship between Kindle Store sales rankings and actual units sold says that there are fewer than a handful of all Kindle blogs that are currently averaging more than 1 or 2 sales per day. I wish I could put this more sweetly.

There are various reasons for this:

  • On the way to becoming the upload society we may have forgotten, or left ourselves without sufficient time, to continue fulfilling our responsibilities as the download society. It’s just another wrinkle in that old curveball epitomized in the widely observed notion that we have more poets than poetry-readers.
  • Blogs, they’re just not that into you. Blog reading isn’t nearly as big a deal as book reading for most people, or, more precisely, for Kindle owners.
  • Then there’s the one that makes you say “Duh,” or, perhaps, if you are a Kindle blogger, “D’oh.” Blogs are free everywhere else but in the Kindle Store, and you can get them pushed to your Kindle via the services that work with RSS feeds and other aggregation processes. While I have tried to make the case that it can be convenient in various ways to have them pushed to your Kindle in something close to real time, it would be insane to think that people will beat down the doors of the Kindle Store to pay for something that is free everywhere else.

Maybe there’s one more thing that we as Kindle owners and readers can influence in a positive way. While it is true that the 14-day trial takes the financial risk out of checking out a blog in the Kindle Store before we invest 99 cents a month, that does not address the perhaps more significant risk that we might waste our valuable time reading stuff that we don’t care or need to read.

Unfortunately, there is little for us to go on in terms of the kind of reader feedback that often helps us connect with interesting or distinctive or simply very good work among books in their Amazon store incarnation. As of this morning when I took the above screen shot, as you can see, there were only 221 customer reviews for all of the 4,915 blogs in the Kindle Store. There’s a customer feedback system that is not working.

So, I suggest that we as Kindle Nation citizens might want to exercise a bit of civic responsibility rating and writing brief reviews of blogs on their Kindle Store pages when we have something to say about them. A couple of lines, or a couple of minutes, is really all it should take. You’ll find a link to read or write reviews near the top of any blog’s detail page, just below some pithy line such as: “The Kindling point for thousands of Amazon Kindle owners.”

A must-read piece on independent publishing

About ten years ago Michael Pastore wrote this thoughtful, detailed piece which was published widely around the country under the title, Publish Your Book Yourself: Some Simple and Sensible Advice. He has published it again over at ePublishers Weekly and, although there are some obvious things that have changed, it remains well worth reading.

As for the changes, they are in many ways for the better. But the most dramatic of these is that it is no longer necessary to lay out $3,000 to $5,000 up front for short-run offset printing. The speed and pricing offered independent publishers by a quality POD printer such as Amazon’s CreateSpace now make it possible for indie publishers — even those who anticipate sales of over 5,000 copies — to handle all their printing needs without ever laying out more than a few dollars in advance. This, of course, changes everything, and allows for indie authors and publishers to make smart plans that accomodate both print and electronic publishing.

Michael Pastore is author and publisher of 50 Benefits of Ebooks, available in ePub format for just a dollar.

Scribd Solves Gateway Glitch and Opens the Scribd Store to New Author & Publisher Uploads

If you are one who shared the frustration of a strange error message when you tried to access the Scribd Upload to Sell page, perhaps after reading our earlier post, Scribd Beta DIY Launch for eBook Authors and Publishers Looks Viable, you’ll be happy to learn that the problem is solved. Here is a screen shot of the page as of this morning, May 22, 2009:

Beta Bonanza: Number of Kindle Store Blog Titles Triple as Blog Sales Sink

You may have noticed, in just the last few days, a tremendous explosion in the number of blogs available in the Kindle Store. The number of Kindle Blogs has nearly tripled in the past week to over 4,000, all as a direct result of the fact that Amazon has — finally, some would say — launched a beta program allowing anyone to upload a blog. When the Kindle first launched the blog listings were dominated by major corporate blogs (New York Times, Associated Press, etc.) and Amazon only gradually began opening the door to the individuals that we might ordinarily think of when we think of bloggers. Now, the floodgates are open.

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. As Kindle owners have become increasingly savvy about how to get free online content onto their Kindles — a process for which Kindle Nation happily takes some of the credit — it has become apparent that Kindle sales of blogs and newspapers have declined relative to the Kindle editions of books. Not by just a little, either. As I write this on Tuesday, May 19, here are the latest sales rankings for the three best-selling blogs in the Kindle Store:

  1. Amazon Daily – Price: $0.00 – #18,181 in Kindle Store
  2. The New York Times – Latest News – Monthly Price: $1.99 – #43,879 in Kindle Store
  3. Huffington Post – Monthly Price: $1.99#51,897 in Kindle Store

These are titles that have spent significant time among the top 100 overall in the Kindle Store in the past, so I have to admit that the phrase “sink like a stone” comes to mind. And the word “Wow.” This can’t be what those “bloggers” were hoping for, or what they expected. These sales rankings translate into just a handful or two of units per week.

It’s too early to say how the new blogs are doing, since none of them will emerge from their 14-day Free Trial Period or, consequently, have sales unit reports or trackable sales rankings for another week. Prior to the beta launch last week, only 92 Kindle blogs had been introduced in the previous 90 days, and the bestseller among them, a New York Times called Laugh Lines, showed a lackluster sales ranking of #96,998 in the Kindle Store.

Unlike Kindle Books, Kindle Blogs have standardized prices set by Amazon with no negotiation between the blogger or publisher and Amazon. When I made Kindle Nation Daily available as a Kindle Blog, Amazon unilaterally set its price at $1.99 a month. While I will certainly endeavor to make it worth that price, my hope had been to set its price 99 cents per month, but I failed in my efforts to get Amazon to bring the price down. Although I was disappointed at the response that I received under the salutation “Greetings from Amazon Blogs” — “I’m sorry, but please note that Amazon will define the price based on what we deem is a fair value for customers” — I am certainly willing to grant the possibility that this is the best approach for Kindle owners, in that it should mitigate against some of the mixed signals and Wild West atmosphere that have developed with Kindle Book prices. (Mind you, I am a strong believer in free-market pricing for discretionary items, but the Kindle Books pricing market is not a free market, given Amazon’s deep discounting intervention to try to keep as many books as possible at $9.99 or under).

As these thousands of newly offered Kindle Blogs begin to acquire sales rankings after Memorial Day, we’ll see what relationships seem to emerge between prices and sales rankings. For my own part, I took some encouragement from the message I received from one Kindle technical account manager, who researched the issue for me on Day 1 of Kindle Nation Daily’s life as a Kindle blog and reported back: “I was told that we don’t negotiate the pricing with the blogger at this time, but personally feel that the $1.99 stamp is kind of a compliment. (As in, we feel that your blog is so cool that customers would pay more for it.)” Oh well, don’t think I don’t know when I am being sweet talked; it’s just that I like it.

Another difference between Kindle Blogs and Kindle Books involves the royalties paid by Amazon to the rights holders. Kindle Book royalties for books uploaded via the Kindle Digital Text Platform or Amazon’s Mobipocket subsidiary range from 35% up to 87.5% of the actual proceeds (price paid by the customer) or 35% of the suggested retail price set by the publisher. Since Kindle Blogs are not discounted, Amazon pays a set fee of 30% of the retail price to all bloggers and blog publishers.

For an insightful analysis of the economics of blogging for the Kindle, and whether it makes sense, I recommend an article entitled “Is Amazon Kindle Publishing For Blogs Beta Program a good deal for bloggers?” on the GeekMBA360 blog.

One last note on all of this, upon which I’ve touched before: The relative demise of Kindle Store sales of blogs and newspapers, compared with Kindle Books, is certainly due in some small (or large?) part to rising use of the Kindle for iPhone (and iPod Touch) App, since the App does not allow for the purchase of periodicals from the Kindle Store.

(And yes, stay tuned for some discussion of the blogs that I am publishing for the Kindle, what they provide, and why, as well as a guide to other new Kindle blogs).

Cartoon Credit: Thanks to Dave Walker and We Blog Cartoons for permission to use the great cartoon above.

Scribd Beta DIY Launch for eBook Authors and Publishers Looks Viable

San Francisco-based startup Scribd has just launched the beta version of a potentially exciting new opportunity for authors, publishers, and readers. I hesitated before including the DIY label in the subject line because it may be misleading, given that Scribd has done some business with major publishers such as Random House, according to today’s New York Times piece, “Scribd Invites Writers to Upload Their Work and Name Their Price.” But Scribd’s roots are all about document-sharing and a Youtube-like DIY approach for those who understand that uploading is the new downloading.

Scribd stands out among innovators in the arena of connecting digital text authors and publishers with digital readers, because (1) it offers some compelling reasons for faith that it could actually work; and (2) it is not Amazon.

By “actually work,” I mean that it could actually lead to significant sales and exposure for ebook authors and other content providers. By “not Amazon,” I am getting at the notion that, if it proves viable, Scribd could actually provide authors and publishers with an effective counterbalance in a marketplace where Amazon currently threatens to establish such hegemony that the rest of us could end up feeling as if any effort to influence pricing, royalties, sales, and important issues such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) and copyright is utterly ineffectual.

Scribd will allow authors and publishers to upload their content, establish their own approach to DRM, and keep 80 per cent of the proceeds from content sales. That’s not a bad start, and these claims from the Scribd site go even further:

  • “Tens of millions of people visit Scribd every month; your work could be discovered by the world.
  • Every document on Scribd gets frequently indexed by Google, which means better audience targeting for your work.
  • Your documents will be viewed the way it was meant to be – with its unique fonts, graphics, and other details.
  • Check out detailed stats on viewers, ratings, downloads, and more.
  • Take your document anywhere; just copy the embed code and insert it into a blog or website.”

The site also provides user-friendly uploading tools for Mac as well as PC users.

Naturally, I’ll want to have my cake and eat it too: to upload content to Scribd and to be able to read it on my Kindle. No doubt there will be a number of ways to do this, and we’ll be posting more about them in the future.