Giving Away Digital Books for Free

May 30, 2008

Credit where credit is due: I was first informed of this fascinating tale about the future of writing and book publishing from David Pogue’s always fun, provocative and illuminating weekly column in The New York Times. His May 22nd column provided his take on whether he should provide free downloads of his (many) books.

After a couple of bad experiences he’s now firmly against it, while admitting that “I realize that it puts me, rather awkwardly, on the same side of the piracy issue as the record companies and movie companies, who are suing teenagers for downloading songs, and of whom I’ve made endless fun.”

But a far more intriguing story is referenced in Pogue’s column: the story of author Steven Poole, who took a successful book, “Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames,” and posted it for download on his blog. The book was first published in 2000, to favorable reviews, and, according to Poole, continues to sell well. But last November, as a simple experiment, he offered Trigger Happy as a free download, under a Creatives Commons license, which meant, if not in legal terms, but in technical reality, “no strings attached.” He asked only that “if you like the book, you can leave a tip via PayPal,” and provided a link for PayPal donations. The total was a vanishingly minuscule fraction of what I earned from the book’s traditional publication.”

The results were, to say the least, disappointing from a financial perspective. As Poole reported in an April 2008 blog entry, “the proportion of [31,697] people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%” and as he comments later in the responses to his entry, “the average donation was a (very reasonable) couple of bucks. What I found most important here are the nearly 230 comments found in both the original blog entry offering the book, and in its follow-up. A few of the comments are of course inane, but the sum of the comments (with a generous series of responses from Poole) amounts to the most fascinating discussion I’ve yet encountered on how writing and publishing are faring in the ongoing struggle to find an effective new business model that will encourage book-length publications (rather than articles and blogs) to flourish in the age of the Internet.

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QuarkXPress 8 Announced

May 29, 2008

After leading the page layout sweepstakes for many years, QuarkXPress was slowly but surely falling behind Adobe InDesign in sales and functionality as the #1 page layout program (primarily for print). When Bruce Chisholm was at the helm at Adobe he championed the concept that Microsoft has used so effectively for years: bundle a bunch of strong applications into a “suite” and become untouchable in the market.

I still feel that Microsoft Office is more of a Halloween grab bag that a true suite of software. While there are meaningful software connections between Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, etc., I for one rarely exploit those connections. They must add value for some users, but the function of these disparate products is so…disparate…I find the major advantage of Microsoft Office is just saving big bucks over buying a program I use daily (Word), frequently (PowerPoint), infrequently (Excel) and never (Access). And then there’s Microsoft Publisher which I use (never).

Adobe’s Creative Suite makes a lot more sense. Most designers use Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Acrobat. Adobe InDesign, which was still behind the 8-ball when Creative Suite first entered the market, suddenly became more appealing as part of a bundle. The first versions of Adobe Creative Suite also tossed in Adobe’s ill-fated Web-authoring application, GoLive.

Fast forward to today, with the announcement of version 8 of QuarkXPress. The first thing to note is that this product will appear just over two years since the last upgrade to the software (oddly enough called QuarkXPress 7). This from a company where you used to be able to raise a family in the gap between upgrades. As such Quark is approaching Adobe’s revision calendar, usually about 18 months between versions.

The initial reaction of several commentators to QuarkXPress 8 is in the ho-hum category, but I think that QuarkXPress 8, while officially a new version, has to be seen as the completion of the major revision that was version 7. I wrote about that release on my Gilbane blog, “The Importance of QuarkXPress 7.0,” and also in a Quark-commissioned brochure, “QuarkXPress 7 for Output Service Providers.”

The best commentary on the new version is found, somewhat ironically, on AppleInsider, which I now discover leaked the news on May 13. Its commentary examines in some depth the smart moves that Quark is making to try to bring the software into parity with Adobe InDesign and make it compatible with Creative Suite 3. That’s an essential mission for Quark, while it continues into other market areas with products like the Quark Dynamic Publishing System (which I cover here).

And of course Quark needs to keep checking to see who’s walking behind in the darkened alley: if Adobe sticks with its 18-month revision cycle, Creative Suite 4 will be available by the end of this year.

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The Financial Crisis: An Interview with George Soros

May 25, 2008

I am not an economist (thank God), but have always been fascinated and perplexed by sudden changes in the economy and their secondary effects. I’ve just updated my article on “Current Economics and the Future of Publishing,” using my admittedly limited knowledge to make some modest observations on how the current economic crisis in the United States could impact the short- to mid-term future of publishing.

It’s no doubt more informative to read the observations of one of the world’s acknowledged (although of course, not unbiased) authorities on economics, George Soros, and you have the good fortune that a detailed interview from May, 2008 with Mr. Soros is available on The New York Review of Books website.

One quote from the interview (very much in keeping with my perspective): “…the situation is definitely much worse than is currently recognized. You have had a general disruption of the financial markets, much more pervasive than any we have had so far. And on top of it, you have the housing crisis, which is likely to get a lot worse than currently anticipated because markets do overshoot. They overshot on the upside and now they are going to overshoot on the downside.”

An excellent read…

Is This the Future of Publishing?

May 20, 2008

I’m thrilled to have received permission to post Heidi Julavits’ short piece of creative nonfiction, “The Writers in the Silos.” It projects the future of publishing as nothing has before.

I first encountered it in the September 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine, though it was a reprint from “Creative Nonfiction Issue #31: Imagining the Future,” published by the provocative journal Creative Nonfiction.

As I wrote to Ms. Julavits when I discovered “The Writers in the Silos”: It’s hilarious, of course, but also wonderfully anarchic and apparently prescient. I was completely delighted to have found it.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

(Click here to read “The Writers in the Silos.”)

Is the Internet Really Destroying Newspapers?

May 18, 2008

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) is a superb research organization funded by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Its website is a rich treasure trove of research, analysis and commentary tackling the challenge of “understanding news in the digital age.”

PEJ’s flagship report is its annual State of the News Media. The 2008 edition was published on March 17th, 2008. The report covers not just newspapers, but television, magazines, radio, online and more. The full report is some 700 pages, highly-readable, and exhaustive – but also exhausting. I quote from parts of the report in various sections of this site.

PEJ drops a little bombshell in the introduction and overview to the 2008 report. While acknowledging that “state of the American news media in 2008 is more troubled than a year ago,” it continues that “the problems, increasingly, appear to be different than many experts have predicted.”

Pointing to Chris Anderson’s famous The Long Tail theory, it states that “critics have tended to see technology democratizing the media and traditional journalism in decline. Audiences, they say, are fragmenting across new information sources, breaking the grip of media elites. Some people even advocate the notion of “The Long Tail,” the idea that, with the Web’s infinite potential for depth, millions of niche markets could be bigger than the old mass market dominated by large companies and producers.”

However, the introduction continues, “the reality, increasingly, appears more complex. Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience than in the legacy media (emphasis mine). The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists (emphasis mine).”

As I’ve pointed out repeatedly on this site, and others never tire to reiterate, newspapers are unquestionably facing serious circulation and revenue challenges. But as the heavily-concentrated newspaper industry slowly adjusts to the new economic realities of the Web, and quite conceivably masters them, they may find their brands stronger than ever.