Publishing noob

Notes and observations from the world of book publishing

Archive for the category “Amazon”

Amazon usability woes

I did some shopping again at the Amazon website and once again I was facing some major and minor usability flaws. I mostly get my books from elsewhere so there might be something between six months to a year between visits. I always secretly hope that they would improve meanwhile, but no.

My biggest complain is the clutter in the layout. For example look at the Books category page. Amazon is probably lying more on brand and all the long time customers know from their heart where all the relevant stuff is, but for a casual visitor like me, it’s very confusing. There a hundreds of links and around twenty or thirty buttons scattered all around.

Generic product category pages. I was trying to check if I could find a proper reading lamp to the bedroom while I was at it. But the Lamps & Fixtures section was so tedious to navigate, so I finally gave up. I pretty much knew what I was looking for, but could not effectively use the search & filtering functions provided.

Non-SEO optimized URLs. Here is the link to the e-book version of The Hunger Games, I think this is kind of self-explanatory.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Hunger-Games-ebook/dp/B002MQYOFW/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1321984314&sr=1-2

Plain text only confirmation emails. The order confirmation emails are boring looking, messy looking and is way too long. Where is the “track your order here” link? Why not make it visually appealing and use it for up and cross-sell?

Maybe I have been harsh on the big boy, because there are some things I actually like. But that is an another topic.

 

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SOA and the art of coding

There was interesting bit of news that was caught by almost all news sites. It was a Google Developer who accidentally posted a public rant about Google’s architectural designs not in a very nice way. It was supposed to be seen only by co-workers, but as we all know, soon as you post something in the internet, it is stuck there forever. I read the lengthy post and was pretty surprised how Steve Yegge managed at the same time burn bridges also behind him, but probably a few in the front as well. Calling your previous boss (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) a terrible leader and taunting your current employer about incompetence does not seem proper behaviour to me. Even though the post was not supposed to be public. But the post mostly contained how both of the big names are incorporating Service Oriented Architecture.

I have to admit, for a while I have been a big fan of Service Oriented Architecture or SOA and agile methods. To put it simply, instead of programs keeping all the logic and functionalities to themselves, in SOA they can be used as interoperable services. These services can be then utilized by any other programs. The benefits are quite obvious, like reuse and easier integration. Where as API is more an interface to a certain tiny function, SOA in its best can define the API of the whole organization.

In Steve’s post, he told how Jeff Bezos back in 2002 decided that all Amazon services should be built on the SOA principle. The execution might not have been perfect, but in the end it offered Amazon a very big competitive edge. Because Amazon already used SOA to provide basic infrastructural services, like computational power, databases and disk space internally, why not also sell it to outside customers as a trendy cloud service? And it has been a huge success. And if you happened to stumble upon the Facebook Developer page, you can see how much they have placed effort on making sure that  apps utilizing those APIs are popping up everywhere.

But if you choose this open path, I have to agree with Steve that you have to be ready to eat your own dog food. The two past posts have been mostly about IT, I promise to come back to book publishing next time!

Spotify for books

These discussions around subscription based business models have boomed lately. Customers have been already rejoicing around Netflix and Spotify which satisfy all their needs for movies and music for a fixed monthly payment. Personally I just love Spotify. For a mere 15 euros per month, I can listen to good choice of artists as much as I want. They also have put effort for usability, so all the songs are also available in offline mode for my phone. So no pesky DRM’s to hinder my user experience. I would probably go for Netflix too if they were operating here in Finland.

It is quite easy to understand why some people prefer subscription based models. They like predictability of the fixed monthly fees and the fact that in some models you can engorge the products in all-you-can-eat style. It is also pretty convenient, there is no need to whip out that credit card every time you want to do a micro scale transaction. So in another sense, people including myself are insecure, greedy and lazy. And businesses are abusing this fact. For them it also means more predictable business with steadier flow of income and some motivation to actually develop the product. Because buyer can just cancel the subscription if he/she is not happy with the service received. At least I hope it is so.

From here on, lets concentrate on subscription models in publishing. This week it was being rumored that Amazon is probably going to offer a subscription based service for its Prime customers. Also an interesting spanish version of the same idea by 24symbols have just popped up.

Finnish publishing company Otava launched this kind of service “Luekirja” or “Readbook” with a HTML5-based reader earlier this year. This decision to create their own reader  is probably made to avoid Apple/Android app market royalties. Otava has created a pricing model where you can buy one month subscription for 20 euros per month with a limit of three books. Another option is three books for two months for 25 euros. I have not tested out the service for a while, but in the beginning it was filled with technical problems. But kudos to them for at least trying. It would be interesting to know how it has proven to be business wise.

So When you think about media consumption there are tons of subscription based services selling magazines, newspapers, movies and music already out there and doing just great. Now when you think about it, we have had these so-called book clubs for decades here in Finland. Now e-books and online reading devices just make the delivery part now so much more cost-effective.

This is not without implications too, this will need a lot of work on the publishing contracts and how the revenue is trickled down to the author. There has been some nasty comments around Spotify, like Lady Gaga getting played over one million times and getting royalties for 112 euros. As you can imagine, a lot of artists then quickly pulled their songs from the service. But I have not heard such news for a while, but seems like there is still a lot of debate around this subject. I think if done properly and in honest sense, it is possible to create a subscription based model, where all three major participants (service, publisher, author) benefit from it.

I have no doubt in my mind, that there will a Netflix or Spotify for books. But by whom and when, that is the question. Amazon has a pretty good chance, unless they mess it up somehow.

Whats up with Amazon imprints

Lot of buzz has been around Amazon lately, not just around ever-increasing sales of ebooks. Amazon has announced quite a few imprints including Montlake for romance novels and Thomas & Mercer for thrillers and mysteries which already signed the self-publishing evangelist J. A. Konrath. You thought that Amazon was still missing a general trade imprint, but soon that will be covered up as well. Now Amazon hired the former CEO of Time Warner Publishing who will most likely lead a new general imprint for Amazon. I have read that all publishers visiting the BookExpo America were bit worried by the news. Now they are facing even more stiff competition from Amazon.

This will have multiple effects in the American book publishing and retail sector, which I have not quite grasped and understood yet. Seems like the opinion on these acquisitions depends so much from whom you maybe asking (publisher, major or indie retailer, author). But what is interesting how different is the Amazon approach in the publishing business. They started from the distribution and storefront and now moving to offer services that are key elements to a publisher, like editorial services. For any aspiring self-author that sounds pretty much like a turn-key solution.

Why is Europe lagging behind?

I think most of you have heard the news from Amazon who announced earlier this year how they are selling more e-books than hard covers. Of course it is still small potatoes in the big picture, but I think the trend has been set in a pace that surprised most of us. When reading these kind of news in a country like Finland I feel that we are lagging so much behind. If you look the sales statistics from the Finnish Book Publishers Association, digital products (including audio books) represent only around five percent of the total sales of 260 million euros.

There are many reasons for this situation. First of all if somebody asked me six months ago about buying an e-ink based reading device, I would say no unless the person was consuming a lot of books written in english. We are a small language group with only around 5 million people, so the big sales potential is lacking. The amount of titles is finally gotten to the point where it is actually justified to buy a reading device purely for reading books. I think the situation around the variety and amount of titles has gone way better, but I think this is still an issue to be tackled. I think the idea of producing e-books aside with the printed versions is now generally accepted in most major publishing houses.

Second most important thing is the lack of key players like Amazon and Barnes & Noble back in the States. They have huge R&D resources to develop stuff from the reading devices to a complete ecosystem around it. My hats of to Wernel Vogels (CTO of Amazon), who is said to be the man behind the cloud services. Here in Finland we waited and waited to see what were the results of the reader and format wars. Now that the dust is settled, we are just starting to build things when others are already sipping their ice tea in the porch. I think everybody acknowledges that in the European businesses are more likely to play it more safely than their oversea counterparts where risk taking and possible failing is generally more accepted. Small players in Europe should have the edge on being innovative and flexible, but that is not actually happening. Instead we see big players dominating the publishing business.

Also one peculiar thing has happened in Finland. Major mobile and broadband operators (Sonera and Elisa) who used to provide just the infrastructure are now very keen also selling content which is delivered through their wired and wireless connections. Elisa for example has set up an online service which sells only digital audio and e-books. I think it is an interesting concept, but I wonder how sustainable it is. But at least they have the guts to build the infrastructure and applications to support the sales of digital products. Of course this is upsetting some old players in the value chain, like traditional brick and mortar chains.

To sum it up, there are still lot of unanswered questions and the whole publishing industry is struggling how to monetize digital content. I have been following the publishing industry for such a short time, that even I do not have a clear vision who is going to be the winner here. But what comes to books in general, I do not see them struggling with the same problems as other content types like news and magazines. Books have managed to obtain a steady state in the consumers media usage starting all the way from the Gutenberg days. I think e-books just a different format aside with hard covers, paperbacks and audio books. Just enable readers to find relevant and interesting books and let them choose in what format they want to consume them.

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