Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dandelion Publishing is the Worst Idea Ever

Spring has arrived in New Jersey. Newark's Branch Brook Park is home to the the nation's largest collection of blossoming cherry trees in the nation. You can't go outside without being stunned by something living and beautiful. Also, the weeds like it. I spent Sunday pulling dandelions. They have long, deep roots, and they love depositing thousands of baby dandelions anywhere you try to grow anything else.

Which reminded me of the stupidest thing I heard at London Book Fair two weeks ago. It was in Neil Gaiman's "Dandelion" talk at the Digital Minds conference. Apparently Gaiman thought it went over like a lead balloon, but I was there and the London digital publishing establishment just loved it. You can watch it here:




Or (quicker) read the transcript at the Falls into Writing blog :
Mammals, which all of us are, I hope, put a tremendous amount of effort into raising our children, into what we do. Child – it’s, you know, a solid 15, 16, 17, 18 years. They go onto higher education.  It could be 22, 23 years, and you’re still raising these things. And you put effort and you put life into it. Dandelions don’t care. They just have thousands of seeds, and they throw them to the wind. And there’s a level in which, as time goes on, I’m enjoying throwing things to the wind. 
Two days ago, I was in New York, bored over lunch, and I started drawing on the paper tablecloth. And I just did a drawing on the paper tablecloth. And at the end of the meal, I was getting up, and my wife looked down, and she said, ‘Are you doing anything with that?’ 
And I said, ‘No, just leaving it behind for them to throw away.’ 
And she said, ‘We should do something with it. It’s a great drawing.’ So she stole it, folded it up, walked outside, put it under a rock by the restaurant, and twitted a photograph of herself putting it under the rock and the location. And she said, ‘You can retweet that. Some of your fans, somebody’ll find it. It’ll make them happy.’ 
And I said, ‘Okay.’ And we walked the 70 seconds to our hotel. Went up to our room. 
And she said, ‘Oh. No point in you retweeting it. Somebody’s already found it.’
and later:
The truth is, whatever we make up is likely to be right. It’s time for dandelions. Embrace the old as we embrace the new because we’re on the frontier, and there are no rules on the frontier.
The reason this is a bad idea for publishing, and maybe the reason Gaiman thought he had bombed, is that book publishing is all about suppressing the weeds and fertilizing the flowers. Suppressing weeds is fashionably called "curation" and the fertilizer is politely called "marketing".

It's only the dregs of publishing that makes money off of weeds. And dandelions are weeds in most contexts. The righteous publishers treat their books like children, and yes, they put lots of effort into them. My organic gardening friends assure me that dandelions are delicious in salads; by the same token, I have a friend who works at Marcal who assures me that books make excellent pulp.

Even the most inexperienced self-publisher knows that scattering seeds to the wind is a recipe for financial disaster in book publishing. A seedling book of the very best variety requires careful nurture. To think you can hide a masterpiece under a rock and expect anything other than worms is the height of narcissism.

Also, dandelions are spammers. Please don't be a spammer.

(To Neil Gaiman: the rest of your talk was just brilliant; if you want to unglue one of your books, we'll be happy to fawn over you like teenage beliebers.)
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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book Publishing After the JOBS Act Revolution

On Monday, the US Senate confirmed Mary Jo White as the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the SEC). The book industry will never be the same. No, that's not a non sequitur.

A year ago, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed the "Jumpstart Our Business Startups" or JOBS Act, and President Obama signed the legislation on April 5, 2012, thus accomplishing the first major overhaul of the nation's securities laws in over forty years. Perhaps the most far-reaching provision of the JOBS Act is the legalization of equity crowd funding. But not quite yet. The SEC has not published the rules that would implement the JOBS Act, and so it's not yet legal to crowd fund a business, unless your crowd is all millionaires.

#strangersproject
"But what about Kickstarter?" you may be asking yourself. "Isn't that legal?"

Kickstarter and businesses like it (Unglue.it, which I run, is one) take great pains to prevent projects on the site from offering any sort of tangible equity. Instead of equity-based crowd funding, these site offer rewards-based projects and products. People become backers on Kickstarter because of the rewards they get if the project a success. In many ways, Kickstarter is just a site where creators pre-sell products that don't exist. A supporter on Unglue.it might get a signed manuscript or some other reward,  but it's the intangible equity of making a book free to the world that drives the site.

By contrast, the backers on an equity-based crowd funding platform could receive shares in a business.  So on a crowd-funding site for books, the backers might become investors in the individual books, and would make money if the books turned a profit. If you happened to invest in Fifty Shades...

From an author's point of view, this would completely change the game of publishing. Instead of relying on an insider network of literary agents who market book properties to publishers, an author would put proposals on a book-funding site. They'd line up a team of free-lance editors, illustrators, designers and developers, and the literary proposal would look like a mini-business plan. (More likely the author would seek help from a new class of social-media-savvy literary product-manager-agents who specialize in marketing to the crowd funders.) The crowd – probably consisting of voracious readers hoping to earn a little money from their obsession- would fund the books that had the best chance of success. That same crowd would be the marketing vanguard for the book when it's finally published; how can corporate publishing compete with that?

There's nothing intrinsic about crowd-funding that restricts this sort of fund-raising to unknown authors looking for a first advance. The JOBS act restricts the amount raised from "unqualified investors" to $1,000,000, so the really big name authors would have to tap the "qualified investor" funding market. (An individual with more than a million dollars in assets excluding home and vehicles is considered "qualified")

Once equity crowd-funding becomes established for books (and it WILL happen!), incumbent publishing houses will have lost, at a stroke, their oligopoly on books as investment vehicles. Already, publishers are outsourcing their design, editorial, production, distribution and sales functions; providing capital is their last bastion of essential function. They will have to participate in the new markets or they will dissipate into irrelevancy.

The reason the SEC has not issued the new regulations implementing JOBS is apparently because the previous Chairwoman, Mary Schapiro, had reservations about opening the gates to crowd-funding. The SEC's mindset is to protect ordinary investors from being fleeced by Wall Street sharks.  One would assume that President Obama's new appointee will be motivated to implement what could be a signature accomplishment of the Obama administration. So Monday's confirmation of Mary Jo White could signal the start of a new era of American investment.

Tim Draper at SVCrowdFund
by Return On Change
I had not paid attention to the possibilities of equity crowd funding for books until I attended last week's "SVCrowdFund" conference in Palo Alto. There I met many of the people who had been instrumental in getting the JOBS Act introduced and passed. There was electricity in the air, and my head is still spinning.

What's needed to make equity crowd funding for books a reality is a platform that has both crowd funding and publishing functions. Mostly, investors in books need to be protected from the sort of accounting shenanigans that prevent advances from earning out and royalties from amounting to more than a few pennies per copy. They also need some insurance against authors who don't deliver their promised manuscripts. All parties need sound legal agreements, business plan templates and investment entities. But above all, none of it will work without copious transparency and openness.

I've been trying to think some of these things through. It's a pretty big project, needing a variety of expertise. If you'd like to join me and others in some discussion, please let me know, and I'll organize something. Or leave a comment.

Resources
Community/Crowd Funding for Books
Disaggregated Publishing
JOBS Act
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Monday, April 1, 2013

Introducing the Invalid ISBN System


We're pleased to help introduce a revolutionary new identifier system for ebooks, based on a new numeric identifier, the Invalid ISBN (or InvIS BN, for short). InvIS BN works together with the legacy ISBN system (ISBN Classic) to extend identity to ebooks without all the hassle and expense of the real thing.

InvIS BN takes advantage of two of the ISBN system's fatal flaws
  1. ISBN Classic wastes nine out of ten perfectly good numbers.
  2. ISBN Classic ignores the error-producing power of real users.
Humans have been shown to have a 1% error rate in transcribing digits. As a result, they have a 9.6% error in transcribing 10-digit ISBNs; the shift to 13 digit ISBN has increased this rate to 12.3%. As a result, many ISBNs in circulation are incorrect. While the so-called "check digit" helps to expose these errors, there is no way to correct an error once made.

The InvIS BN system, by contrast, collects these human errors in a registry, allowing them to be fixed. But most potential ISBNs are still unused, despite a growing need to identify the proliferating digital versions of books. For example, the recent acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon has caused the death of millions of ISBNs, all of which will have to be replaced somehow.

Toxic leftovers from ISBN mining.
Similarly, the Economist has noted that ebooks will cause the demise of ISBN, resulting in renewed demand for viable identifiers. Invis BN will help meet this demand.

InvIS BNs are salvaged from the 77.7% of numbers which are unused by valid or mistaken Classic ISBNs. They will be available, for free, from the invisbn.org website, now under construction.

The InvIS BN system is expected to have huge environmental benefits. The current ISBN system leaves huge piles of toxic numerical "tailings" in the regions where ISBNs are mined. These tailings are now being recycled into useful identifiers.

Arual Noswad, Mayor of Invalid, Texas, the town at the center of the American ISBN mining region and namesake of the new system, welcomes the new developments. "If you don't use this, I will break you" she threatened an innocent reporter.

Invalid, Texas was incorporated in 1948 due to a data entry error. By a quirk of our modern technology it cannot be found using modern GPS systems, which has resulted in a boom for data-security related business.


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