This is the blog of a company that fell into the publishing industry through the love of feeling an ink-and-paper book in your hands.

We don't pretend to know what we're doing, leaving us dealing with the realities of the modern publishing industry, harboring numerous iconoclastic ideas, and having an internet-sized repository of information at our fingertips. The blog is here to let us express our ideas, communicate among members across long distances, and act like we're an authority on something we know little about...and isn't that exactly what blogging is all about?

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Book Sales In Unexpected Places
18 Dec 2005, 2:37:39 pm

Earlier this summer, I happened to find myself in Minnesota's "lake country," around the Brainerd area. As usual, there was a fuel-and-food break. We found the Oasis Liquor / Oasis Express.

Inside, in a small hallway-like space that doesn't really appear to be a good place for products to be located, I found a small shelf of used books.

Shoved under tree-shaped air fresheners, dashboard compasses, and ball hitches is found a makeshift "book club", as the sign calls it. The dog-eared, broken-binding books are all priced, according to the sign, at half their cover price -- see, the book club wasn't even important enough to waste price-tags!

I'm done mocking the store's book club now, for a very good reason: the books are there in the first place. Sure, it's not Barnes & Noble, with cushy leather chairs and double-double frappuchinos nearby, but it's not an unbelievable venue. Besides the package shoppe and gas station shown here, there's also an attached restaurant, and fishing/camping supplies above and beyond the normal convenience-store fare. Everything sold could be considered useful to their clientele, the campers, hunters, fisherman, and hikers who frequent northern Minnesota.

When departing from civilization to parts unknown, a camper can pick up everything they'll need for their time away...garbage bags, nightcrawlers, propane tanks -- and a couple books to help pass the time. There are two lessons in this:
  • First, do not assume books need to be sold in bookstores. Books should be sold where book customers can be found. Yes, book-shoppers are quite often found in bookstores, but if Harlequin taught us anything it's that it's better to go where the customers are than to try and train the customers to find you. Harlequin focused on grocery-store sales, and built their empire on it.

  • Books are more than a frivolous purchase: they are a neccesity to many people. The shelves pictured above could easily have held a couple other cases of small-engine lubricant, or bottled water. However, they saw a demand for this product and devoted space accordingly. While they're not making a fortune off the books, the shelves wouldn't be there if it didn't have a purpose.

Publishers need to consider that 'purpose' -- the reason that books can be for sale in a non-bookstore environment, and be worth their shelfspace. The idea that people want eBooks on their celphones is a misguided interpretation of the fact that people want books no matter where they go. Downloading a book into a machine that you carry everyplace is the wrong side of Occam's Razor: a solution with far too many components. The solution would be to figure out how to have books available to people in all the places where they might wish to select something to read, in a simple and convenient way. Selling books for cheap, in environments where likely bookbuyers are located, will be a simpler and more convenient plan of attack. An entrepeneur willing to manage the rotating-used-book-shelf business for gas stations could build a business off it...or publishers, who already hate the used-book market, could put their new titles on the shelves in their place.
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Erotica: The Little Sister Who Suffers In The Shadows
13 Dec 2005, 1:29:19 pm

Gracie writes: Erotica is the little sister who is cute enough to keep around, even if she is naughty & annoying to some. But will she ever be taken seriously?

What do you think?

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Project Gutenberg: 35 Years of Electronic Texts
12 Dec 2005, 11:35:59 pm

I first heard about Project Gutenberg in the early-90s, pre-web, in my early online dealings, so I had assumed they started sometime around 1993. Little did I know that Michael Hart started the Project in 1971 (before I was born!), when computers were big and expensive, and books were much more the norm. Hart talks about his Project with the Wall Street Journal, telling all about how and why it started.

The Project is a labor of love, unlike Google's book-search aspirations, and bears little resemblance to the commercial search-scanning being done today. It echoes copying the paintings of the Great Masters by hand, or refinishing furniture. The purpose is not to create raw data: instead, the transcribers participate in the project to show their devotion to their books, laboriously bringing their old books to a modern world.

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DROP: Communal Publishing
1 Dec 2005, 11:42:30 am

Here is an interesting concept: DROP is, essentially, a writer-run publishing co-op operating under the principle of "cyclical publishing". All profits from the sale of previous books goes into the development and publishing of the next round of books. When sales are slow, publishing slows down, but the better the books are, the more that will be published.

I'd be remiss if I didn't use the word "communism," but the performance-based quality control is distinctively capitalistic. And, as with capitalism, start-up costs are something they are going to struggle with. Unless they start producing some best-sellers early on, their plan will be little more than a pyramid scheme revolving around self-publishing: the early-adopters' money will fund their books, and unless those profits are more than the cost of printing the 2nd-round of adopters will have to contribute, and so on, without the system getting ahead. Without significant outside sales -- people other than the writer's friends and families buying the books -- the process will never get ahead.

They also don't seem to realize that a lot of money has to go into advertising, and possibly into distribution (although many POD services help with this today), and at the very least they'll have to shell out for ISBNs and barcodes. Advertising costs the most money, but advertising also drives profits. It takes money to make money, but throwing money at a business doesn't guarantee profit. I hope they've got a good business manager to run things, and enough of a user-base to make their collaborative editorship worthwhile.

From an industry point of view, the DROP plan continues the motion away from monolithic publishers and literary agents. In the past, only well-funded unique works could self-publish, and only well-known writers could make their way on their own. Self-publishing still has an icky ring to it, but it doesn't take much to cross the line into publishing today -- like we did. A publishing company, today, can be started with a couple thousand dollars, one editor, and a number of eager writers. None of those are hard to come by, especially with a well-written business plan and the willingness to cold-call eloquent bloggers (believe me, they've all got a novel or book in the works). The big publishers aren't afraid of slowing book sales -- it's their own book sales that will be sliding, as writers rely less on the big companies and shop their wares to numerous small publishers who can distribute their books everywhere the big guns do.

As long as DROP keeps their eye on the prize -- publishing quality books that sell well -- and does not try to appease everyone's egos, there's no doubt that they will succeed and become a name in alternative small press. There's definitely room for more niche publishers, and collaborative editing is definitely an underappreciated niche. They stand to fail by trying to publish books that are worth less than the money put into them, and that's the same regardless of the size of the publisher.

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