First Audiobooks; Now Podiobooks

August 30, 2008

Audiobooks have become a respected and profitable appendage to the book publishing industry. According to the Audio Publishers Association: The Voice of the Audiobook Industry, audiobook sales were estimated at $923 million in 2006 (this year’s survey has not yet been released). The Book Industry Study Group estimates that total U.S. books sales in 2006 were nearly $36 billion, so with audiobook sales at roughly a billion dollars, the industry is nothing to sneeze at.

Achoo! Today I discovered Podiobooks, or at least I discovered www.podiobooks.com, “Free serialized audio books, delivered on your schedule.” I came to it via the Podiobooker blog, where an August 25th entry called “Scott Sigler on the future of publishing” sings praises to Mr. Sigler, who “is more than just the most successful podiobook author — he’s also a shining example of how individuals can use new media and social media to create opportunities.”

In the interview Mr. Sigler states that podiobooks “give the audience a chance to get to know you as a content creator, and as a performer, and know whether they like your stories. Then, once the audience develops that relationship and that affinity for you, then they’ll go out and buy your books, knowing that it’s going to be money well spent. They know what they’re going to get. So you’e allowing people to try it before you buy it.”

Podiobooks are free on this site (although donations are rigorously encouraged). I thought I’d look into how well Mr. Sigler’s argument translates into the world of books on paper.

Mr. Sigler’s science fiction novel “Earthcore” is rated #3 in the “list of the titles our members have voted as the best overall, sorted by the number of votes.” It is available on Amazon.com only in used editions, where it ranks as 499,098 in books. In fairness, his latest novel “Infected,” published to good reviews earlier this year, ranks 43,582 in books on Amazon.com, and the first chapter is now available as a podiobook.

Sigler’s “Bloodcast, Season 2” is #1 on Podiobooks.com’s list of “the most popular books by number of subscriptions in the last thirty days,” although it is not yet in print. The second most popular is “Darkfever” by the prolific Karen Marie Moning, rated 34,633 in books, and described thusly: “MacKayla Lane searches for her sister’s murderer in Ireland. Her only the clue is the Sinsar Dubh, a magical book. When MacKayla meets Jericho Barrons, a man with magical powers, she discovers she can sense the Faeries and other unworldly, scary creatures, including a Faerie prince who ignites her libido with some potentially offensive sex scenes.” Yet I note also that the paperback version of her more recent “Bloodfever” is rated 2,006 in books sales on Amazon. Although the results appear to favor books of science fiction, fantasy and faeries, it appears that podiobooks can help book sales after all.

As Scott Sigler further notes in his interview, “You’ve got your core story, which will be in the [physical] book. You’ll probably be having to give that away as a podcast, just to compete. But then there’s a lot of other things you can do. You can do the “back story” of your characters. You can do all kinds of background information. You can combine the extra podcast content with wiki content, with links to websites. The book sort of becomes the “gem in the tiara of entertainment,” if you will, instead of just the whole crown all by itself.”

Nice metaphor, Scott!

I don’t mean to keep twittering away on this subject, but the evidence continues to mount that book publishers (indeed all publishers) must seek to maximize the opportunities in electronic media to support their core product.

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I Just Hate the News, Don’t You?

August 24, 2008

I first met Mark Anderson about ten years ago when I was Program Director at Seybold Seminars. He was a frequent keynote speaker, and justifiably so. I learned then of his remarkable newsletter, Strategic News Service, to which I’ve subscribed since just after meeting Mark. Two things struck me about Mark: he’s brilliant, and like the best of the brilliant, as affable a man as you could ever wish to encounter. As I note in my Friends links, Mark’s newsletter is not widely-known or quoted. It’s pricey (although there are several generous introductory prices), but its subscribers, as you will see, are a who’s who of the high tech industry.

In the last issue Mark wrote what I felt was the best and most heartfelt analysis of what’s wrong with the news (and newspaper) industry today. He has kindly agreed to allow me to reprint it in full:

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Where Is the News?

I just hate the “news,” don’t you? And it starts with where we get it from.

It used to be that the picture of contentedness was Dad in his slippers, in the Big Chair, with a pipe and a brandy, Lassie at his side, reading the evening newspaper. Or a young couple on Sunday, spending all morning in bed reading parts of the Sunday New York Times.

Forget that.

Today, here is where my news comes from:

1. I wake up in the morning to my clock radio, set to news, National Public Radio. All I hear is stories of bloodshed and death, and I always end up turning it off as I feel the headache coming on, replacing it with classical music from Canada.

2. I see the morning Seattle papers, and USAToday. If I read one of them, the other two are pretty much copies of the first. There is rarely anything they deem important that occurs in only one: they are clones. And most of the stories they carry are wire stories, so I read about the kinky dog thing in Oklahoma in two or three papers.

3. I see the morning national papers, such as the WSJ and NYTimes. Their stories, too, are rote, generally remixes of press releases, or providing the propagandic mouthpiece for political hacks, without doing any investigating to find the “truth of the matter” being sold to me as fact.

4. I go to the Net, where I get more of the above in online form, or the Wild West of bloggerland, with its best (fresh, independent) and worst (no fact-checking or little editing) sides.

What Is the News?

Who decides what the news is? Perhaps it used to be Edward R. Murrow, but today, it’s someone with an economic gun to his (or her) head. If you doubt me, ask anyone at the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune, whose most recent owner is cutting jobs as fast as he can, after his plans to sell ball clubs and other assets went south; or ask anyone from the NYTimes, which is so badly managed now that its independence is doubtful; or ask anyone from the WSJ, whose happy new owner, Rupert Murdoch, didn’t bother waiting a full year to break his agreements with the Bancroft family and violate the editorial integrity of its staff.

Newspapers are vanishing, as their classified ad revenues are stripped away by Craigslist and other Net offerings, as they cut their news staffs to nothing, and as they shift to tabloid headlines or become reprinters of wire stories.

A friend of mine used to run the TV news for NBC in Los Angeles. You’ve all heard the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra, but things are worse, and more detailed in practice, than that. At least in his case (and he was a rising star), the priorities for this top American market were simple: fires, murder, gunshots, disasters. FMGD. You can use “Fairy Makeup: Gossamer Diamonds” to remember this critical in-house mantra for the crap you’ll be seeing on the local news for the next 10 years.

For whatever reason, this remains the norm for the local TV news today. My friend Barry Diller, whose media sense I greatly admire, thinks local news will survive, even as other traditional news media decline, and he’s probably right. My only request: just stop calling it “news.” It sure doesn’t contain anything I want to hear about, and it is almost clinically depressing.

Even in such rarefied markets as Technology News, Green News, and Business News, I find that the news redistributed by major channels is just a re-chewing of press releases from the major companies. Here is this product: review it. Here is this new CEO: interview him or her. This is usually followed by a sidebar by one of a million “pundits” who have really strong opinions, but no track record, nor any reason I can fathom that they are even being asked for input.

And that is the “news.”

The News Experience

Which brings us to the experience of taking in the news each day — for many of us, throughout the day. Whether you’re a trader, investor, manager, or product chief, you tend to keep coming back to learn what’s going on. (When CNN began branding individual Iraq wars with their own logos and lead music, I started to understand how warped the coverage of news had become.)

The experience of taking in the news today, on a regular basis, is punishing: emotionally, spiritually, intellectually.

When I said “clinically depressing” a few paragraphs above, I was being deadly serious: I have a theory that today’s “news” is generally mentally, perhaps even physically, depressing. Subject matter is often dark — even if pandering to morbid group fascination for dark subjects — and is chosen to be so. And there is a lot of it, so it weighs heavily on the soul. (How many thousands of deaths can you take per day? And there is not a thing you can do about any of it.)

Today’s news, no matter how you get it, is a passive experience. The handful of remaining owners (in U.S. markets) are the distributors, and we are, quite literally, the victims. Feeling a little down lately? Try staying away from the “news” for a couple of days, and take a walk in the woods in the mornings instead. Wow! What a difference.

The whole news establishment is “off,” in my opinion, and the Net has helped to give people enough choices that TV and Newspaper news operations are going to be completely dumped, whatever is left of them. Local news consumers will split between the lurid National Enquirer crowd and those who care about local sports, events, and charities.

Alcohol, a chemical depressant, is also addictive, in perhaps the same way that news is. Lucky for us, news is easier to walk away from, and that is what many people today are doing. The majority of the younger U.S. demographic now watches comedians, rather than news anchors, for their nightly news. The reportage of Walter Cronkite, who served as the conscience and news filter for several generations of Americans, has now been replaced by that of stand-up comic Jon Stewart.

Is there any confusion about this trend, or what is behind it? No. People are replacing Goebbels-like propaganda with comedic entertainment, and getting more honest information-handling in the process.

Rupert’s Fox News channel, once claiming to be “Fair and Balanced” before this became so patently laughable on a propaganda-only station, would be Exhibit A of what is wrong with TV news today. Its news actually contains proven lies. And Fox knows it: it has even dropped that disgusting motto. Wow.

As comedian Stewart once publicly said to CNN’s Tucker Carlson: “You’re harming the country. Stop it.”

A lot of people — particularly in the 18-25 age group — have just stopped watching, and reading, the “news” altogether.

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Mark did not just write a polemic, but also offers a solution. As I wrote to Mark when requesting permission to republish this piece, the solution would be somewhat obscure to those who are not familiar with Strategic News Service, and he agreed with that. As he wrote in the newsletter, “I am also pleased to announce that, as of today, we at SNS have created a new way of selecting, experiencing, and relating to the news. We’re calling it SNS Interactive News — or “SNS iNews.”

To my mind it is a stellar version of the long-awaited “community of readers.” The SNS community is a close group, interested in one another’s ideas and undertakings, and Mark has created an ideal platform for readers to keep track of what matters to them, and to keep in touch with each other.

You have two choices now. Send $14.95 to SNS for a four issue subscription, or write to me directly (thad@thefutureofpublishing.com). As a subscriber I’m allowed to forward this issue to you, cc’ing Mark, and you’ll receive four issues for free. You will have a chance to make your own evaluation of SNS iNews, as well as the remarkable newsletter. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

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Watching Lawrence of Arabia on Your iPhone

August 23, 2008

I’m catching up on my old New Yorker magazines. I prefer the print version because the best articles are long, and, I think, far more enjoyable to read in print than on the Web (although The New Yorker has become increasingly generous in sharing most of its content on the Web). Today I read a March 31, 2008 essay by the always erudite and often hilarious film critic Anthony Lane examining the career of film director David Lean, who directed many fine films, but is probably best known for Lawrence of Arabia.

I do not watch the Oscars, as the pain outweighs the pleasure, and so missed the incident in this year’s affair, described by Lane as follows: “(The big screen)…That is (the film’s) natural habitat: the only place, you might say, where its proud and leonine presence has any meaning. Anything more cramped is a cage, as Jon Stewart showed during this year’s Oscar ceremony. At one point, we found him gazing at his iPhone. ‘I’m watching “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s just awesome,’ he said, adding, ‘To really appreciate it, you have to see it in the wide screen.’ And he turned the phone on its side. Deserts of vast eternity, reduced to three inches by two.”

It was a great reminder to me than in this age of Kindles and iPhones and more, there remains an issue of optimal form-factor. I keep seeing comments on blogs from folks who insist that they get as much pleasure from reading an eBook as they would from holding and reading the book itself. I have no reason to doubt them, but they do not sway me. Why do people buy 42-inch plasma TVs if the iPhone is such a great way to watch video? I remain convinced that the best devices for perusing electronic content have yet to be invented, and the current mania for the mini is merely that, a mania (with the possible exception of music).

BTW: Later in the article Anthony Lane reminds us of the marvelous quip by Noel Coward after the premiere of “Lawrence”: “If Peter O’Toole had been any prettier the film would have been called ‘Florence of Arabia'”

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News Audiences Now Blend Online And Traditional Sources

August 20, 2008

The title of this blog entry is approximately the title of the ever-reliable Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’ latest report, “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online And Traditional Sources,” subtitled “Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey.” As I’m fond of saying, the report is both exhaustive and exhausting, weighing in at some 129 pages. Perhaps this is more than most of us would like to know (although in fact the analysis and commentary comprises about half of the total, the rest being devoted to detailed statistical analyses).

The report adds bulk by segmenting the audience, for example into:

1. Integrators, who get the news from both traditional sources and the internet

2. Net-Newsers, who principally turn to the web for news, and largely eschew traditional sources

3. Traditionalists, who say that seeing pictures and video, rather than reading or hearing the facts, gives them the best understanding of events…and the

4. Disengaged, who stand out for their low levels of interest in the news and news consumption

There are numerous informative charts in the report; one of the most startling is below.

Decline_in_Print_Readership_Outpaces.jpg

I’ve been clapping my hands for newspapers, hoping this will keep them alive, but this data does depress. It’s certainly bad news for the printed versions of newspapers (which should not surprise unless you’ve been vacationing in Tonga for the last year, waiting for the new monarch to emerge), but also doesn’t bode well for the online future of newspapers either.

When you look at the slightly broader picture painted by the chart below, it’s difficult to put on a happy face, although you see a more complex picture, as suggested by the title of the report. “Traditional Sources” in the Pew study refers largely to television. While the nightly network news has taken a big hit since 1993, followed by local TV news, both cable news and morning news are holding their own, or gaining slightly.

Newspaper_Readership_Declines.jpg

The more delicate and yet most intriguing fact in the report is stated bluntly: “In spite of the increasing variety of ways to get the news, the proportion of young people getting no news (emphasis mine) on a typical day has increased substantially over the past decade. About a third of those younger than 25 (34%) say they get no news on a typical day, up from 25% in 1998.”

I’m still in the camp that believes that getting some of the news, some of the time, is an essential part of living in a democratic society. To imagine that a third of those half my age do not share this opinion is troubling to me. Change is coming, we just don’t know what it is.

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The Kindle Could Become Your Best Friend on an Oil Rig

August 11, 2008

An hilarious short imagined monologue by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos appears on the McSweeney site. Written by Evan Johnston under the title “Jeff Bezos Says Hi to You in the Waiting Room of Your Doctors’ Office,” Bezos confesses that the inspiration for the Kindle began in his childhood: “As a small child, I loved books, and dreamed of a way to read them on my Etch A Sketch or calculator. And dreams, as we all know, have a way of coming true.”

Things get more bizarre as Bezos tries to engage you in understanding the value of the Kindle. “Now, like you, I get a lot of my reading done in the least hospitable of places. There’s the airport, the ensuing plane flight, and the subsequent crash in the middle of an ocean, followed by being marooned on a deserted oil rig.” Continuing with the oil rig conundrum Bezos explains that “assuming it doesn’t get wet, the Kindle could become your best friend on that oil rig—unless there are other survivors. In the likely event that those survivors turned against you—let’s say they know that you caused the accident by demanding that the pilot look at your Kindle—you would be forced to deal with them. Harshly.”

Enough. Please go to the link above and enjoy this little gem for yourself. You could even read it on your Kindle! (Thanks to Quill & Quire’s Quillblog for the tip.)