Publishing noob

Notes and observations from the world of book publishing

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.

About The Flow

I have talked about this topic with a few different persons lately. Those who not familiar with the subject, “The Zone” or Flow in psychology is defined as:

“Mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”

So anyone who has ever lost the sense of time or awareness of hunger and other bodily functions working exclusively in one interesting task, please raise your hand. This is a universal phenomenon, which is a desirable state of mind in education, sports or programming just to name a few. The benefits are quite well-known, like higher productivity and feelings of enjoyment. I have experienced this many times during coding sessions or when reading a good book. I do not intentionally try to achieve the flow, sometimes it just happens. Now replaying those times, I found some key elements or requirements for achieving the flow:

  • Good working conditions, no interruptions
  • Clear goal for the task at hand, such as delivering a working prototype
  • Task completion takes around 3 to 5 hours
  • Immediate and clear feedback
  • Good balance between challenge level and required personal skills for completing the task

So what this has to do with publishing or working in the publishing industry? Authors are often asked about the writing process and I cannot count the times they have actually described the Flow. One could say that publishers purpose might be to bring out stories that captivate people enough to produce the flow state.

Same thing in the workplace, you should be able to offer a working environment which actually helps people achieve the flow. But if you think about the three basic conditions for flow:

  • Clear set of goals
  • Balance between challenge and skills
  • Clear and immediate feedback

For me they sound pretty basic principles in any good management practices. In real life, it might be difficult to achieve the conditions for getting to the flow. A lot of people suggest removing distractions, like shutting down phones, email clients, IM’s and the if possible, the door. Also other sensory distractions like office noise can be cancelled with headphones. Choice of music is up to you, but it is suggested that you pick something that is familiar and preferably does not have any vocals. Banging techno or any electronic music works best for me. I have also some people reporting that they have never actually experienced being in the zone, which is a pity. But if not, I would suggest trying this by first getting all the conditions for achieving the flow and trying it without trying too much. If after a session you have feelings  of lost self-consciousness or track of time, congratulations, you have visited the zone.

Internet is filled with posts about the subject, here just a few I picked up:

Staying Sharp: Getting and Staying in the Zone – TIME
Want to get in the Zone? It’s as easy as child’s play.
7 Tips for programming in The Zone
How To Get In The Zone, And Stay There

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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