Blogs

Tangible assets

As a certified, dyed-in-the-wool Internet Person, I am forever mystified by the electronic hills that publishing chooses to die upon.

If you're going to get into a life-or-death struggle with Amazon, it certainly shouldn't be over book pricing or co-op—it should be over data.

I just came off a US tour for my YA novel Homeland, which Tor Teen published in the US in February, and which Titan will publish this coming September in the UK. I went to 23 cities in 25 days, a kind of bleary and awesome whirlwind where I got to see friends from across the USA—Internet People to a one—for about 8.5 minutes each, in a caffeinated, exhausted rush.

Inevitably, I had this conversation: "How's the book doing?" and I got to say: "Oh, awesome! It's a New York Times and Indienet bestseller!" (It stayed on the NYT list for four weeks, so I got to say this a lot). And then, always: "So, how many copies does that
come out to?" And my answer was always, "No one knows."

This is where the Internet People began to boggle. "No one knows?"

"Oh, there's some Nielsen reporting from the tills of participating booksellers—you can get that if you spend a fortune. But there's no realtime e-book numbers given to the publishers. We'll all find out exactly how the book performed in a couple of months."

And that's where they lost their minds. The irate squawks that emerged from their throats were audible for miles. "You mean Amazon, Apple and Google knows exactly who comes to their stores, how they find their way to your books, where they're coming in from, how many devices they use and when, and they don't tell the publishers?"

Making a guess

Yeah, that's about the size of things. When Amazon or Google want to test out a commercial proposition—moving a certain button a few pixels over to see how it performs relative to the old spot, say—they get to make the change, run it against a few thousand users, and examine the data on the spot. When a publisher wants to try out new cover art or different catalogue copy, it makes the change, waits six months or a year, and makes a guess about whether that was a good idea or a bad idea.

Is it any wonder that the e-book channel is running circles around publishing? They've chucked in all kinds of creepy, privacy-invading rubbish that lets them know how and where you're reading, which search terms you're using to get to where in the book, and they won't even share it with authors or publishers in realtime! This is the worst of all possible worlds—e-books that threaten the intellectual liberty of their readers and provide virtually no realtime intelligence to publishers and authors.

If the publishers want to go to the mats with Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, and BN.com, this is the issue they should be fighting over and for: realtime equitable retail intelligence and a reader's bill of rights to ensure the long-term health of books' special penumbra of
virtue—this latter is an intangible asset far more important than the "intellectual property" rights, and the DRM deployed in the name of the latter lays waste to the former.

And once you've got a realtime view into the e-book numbers, hire a couple of coders (for God's sake, don't outsource this, especially to a lumbering Big Six consultancy!) and start to build apps that do stuff with it. Little apps, the kind of thing you can build and deploy
in a week or two. Try a million things.

The future is unpredictable, and it's not the sort of thing upon which you want to be making big all-or-nothing bets in the dark.

 

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger.

Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross is out now from Titan Books. Pirate Cinema (June 2013) and Homeland (September 2013) are released later this year.

Comments: Scroll down for the latest comments and to have your say

By posting on this website you agree to the Bookseller comments policy. Comments go direct to live please be relevant, brief and definitely not abusive. Report any "unsuitable comments by clicking the links"

I publish under two pen names through all the major ebook channels.

I get sales data in more or less real time. I would assume that Amazon et al do not treat me, J. Random Indiepub, better than they treat, say, Random Penguin when it comes to providing sales data.

I can see where you would make the claim that nobody knows how many *print* books you sold, but to claim that your publisher can't find out how many ebooks you sold on a timely basis I find utterly bizarre. Maybe *they* don't tell *you,* but I assure you that *they* know.

@MarcCabot: no, actually. at the house where i worked until recently, the print data for how a book was shipping, not selling, was updated every week. the ebook data was, strangely, a month late. so our print data was actually better. and it was terrible. not that there was anything we could have done in response to it.

let's say a publisher discovered that consumers hated a cover. (let's also stipulate that publishers had a mechanism for knowing this AND cared enough to pull their people off their new tasks to redo an old one AND wanted to pay the rights/costs for new art.) it would take several meetings and rounds of approvals to create the cover, then they'd somehow have to purge many retailers of the old cover and replace it with the new, which might take weeks. meanwhile the print book cover can't be changed because not only can you not recall the books to be rejacketed, you have 5000 extra covers (in case of needing to reprint quickly) you'd have to pulp along with the expense of printing more--and the printing would take a month. so now there are two covers, one for the ebook, one for print, and the consumer is confused as to what the book actually is now because the covers are likely sending different messages. they might not even realize the two covers are for the same book. and even if a publisher went to all this trouble, which they never would, given the time, energy and expense, they still wouldn't know if consumers would prefer the new cover. of course all this is moot. by the time publishers could figure out they needed to do something and actually did it, the book would be dead at the retailers, say, 5 weeks out, and b&n would be a week away from returning it or remaindering it in place.

so while i agree that etailers should provide better data more quickly, ultimately the only number that matters in publishing, which is a consignment business, is how many copies you have in the warehouse. when you run low, you print more.

As a former CEO of a multimillion dollar company, I was shocked to find when I recently published my first novel that neither Amazon nor Createspace provide an author with ANY information about who purchased their book. While I accept that purchasers are, in this case, Amazon's customers, they are also my customers. What business doesn't have access to it's customer list? I was told that giving me any info about who bought my book went against their stated rules about sharing info with third parties. Rules are made to be changed. Both Amazon and Createspace have the data, they just aren't sharing it.

This amazes me because giving an author their customer's info so they can form a relationship with their fans is a basic premise of building a following. If you build a following with one book, chances are you can sell the same group your next book. This benefits ALL parties.

I think third party rules need to be amended to exempt authors. Information shared with authors can boost sales and the entire industry can prosper.

Just my two cents.

L. R. W. Lee, Author of Andy Smithson: Blast of the Dragon's Fury, available at Amazon

We know exactly how many ebooks we are selling. I'm not sure why so many people are having a problem with this.

@LRW Lee.

No retailer shares their customer database with suppliers. In their eyes you are of course a supplier, not an author and they are trying to protect the trading relationship with their consumers. This is nothing new and I don't actually see why any retailer should openly share such information. I am critical of Amazon on many things, but this is not one of them.

@Anonymous: That was all just fascinating, but I don't see what it has to do with what I actually said.

E-booksellers provide sales data in nearly real time to publishers. Period, end of sentence, full stop.

Now maybe the one person at your former house who had, you know, the Amazon login or whatever liked to sit on the data and nobody ELSE got it in a reasonable and seasonable time. Or maybe they didn't know that you have to click on "Monthly Report" to get it to give you the latest numbers after you reach the "Reports" page. But that's an entirely different subject.

I publish under two pen names through all the major ebook channels.

I get sales data in more or less real time. I would assume that Amazon et al do not treat me, J. Random Indiepub, better than they treat, say, Random Penguin when it comes to providing sales data.

I can see where you would make the claim that nobody knows how many *print* books you sold, but to claim that your publisher can't find out how many ebooks you sold on a timely basis I find utterly bizarre. Maybe *they* don't tell *you,* but I assure you that *they* know.

@MarcCabot: no, actually. at the house where i worked until recently, the print data for how a book was shipping, not selling, was updated every week. the ebook data was, strangely, a month late. so our print data was actually better. and it was terrible. not that there was anything we could have done in response to it.

let's say a publisher discovered that consumers hated a cover. (let's also stipulate that publishers had a mechanism for knowing this AND cared enough to pull their people off their new tasks to redo an old one AND wanted to pay the rights/costs for new art.) it would take several meetings and rounds of approvals to create the cover, then they'd somehow have to purge many retailers of the old cover and replace it with the new, which might take weeks. meanwhile the print book cover can't be changed because not only can you not recall the books to be rejacketed, you have 5000 extra covers (in case of needing to reprint quickly) you'd have to pulp along with the expense of printing more--and the printing would take a month. so now there are two covers, one for the ebook, one for print, and the consumer is confused as to what the book actually is now because the covers are likely sending different messages. they might not even realize the two covers are for the same book. and even if a publisher went to all this trouble, which they never would, given the time, energy and expense, they still wouldn't know if consumers would prefer the new cover. of course all this is moot. by the time publishers could figure out they needed to do something and actually did it, the book would be dead at the retailers, say, 5 weeks out, and b&n would be a week away from returning it or remaindering it in place.

so while i agree that etailers should provide better data more quickly, ultimately the only number that matters in publishing, which is a consignment business, is how many copies you have in the warehouse. when you run low, you print more.

@Anonymous: That was all just fascinating, but I don't see what it has to do with what I actually said.

E-booksellers provide sales data in nearly real time to publishers. Period, end of sentence, full stop.

Now maybe the one person at your former house who had, you know, the Amazon login or whatever liked to sit on the data and nobody ELSE got it in a reasonable and seasonable time. Or maybe they didn't know that you have to click on "Monthly Report" to get it to give you the latest numbers after you reach the "Reports" page. But that's an entirely different subject.

As a former CEO of a multimillion dollar company, I was shocked to find when I recently published my first novel that neither Amazon nor Createspace provide an author with ANY information about who purchased their book. While I accept that purchasers are, in this case, Amazon's customers, they are also my customers. What business doesn't have access to it's customer list? I was told that giving me any info about who bought my book went against their stated rules about sharing info with third parties. Rules are made to be changed. Both Amazon and Createspace have the data, they just aren't sharing it.

This amazes me because giving an author their customer's info so they can form a relationship with their fans is a basic premise of building a following. If you build a following with one book, chances are you can sell the same group your next book. This benefits ALL parties.

I think third party rules need to be amended to exempt authors. Information shared with authors can boost sales and the entire industry can prosper.

Just my two cents.

L. R. W. Lee, Author of Andy Smithson: Blast of the Dragon's Fury, available at Amazon

We know exactly how many ebooks we are selling. I'm not sure why so many people are having a problem with this.

@LRW Lee.

No retailer shares their customer database with suppliers. In their eyes you are of course a supplier, not an author and they are trying to protect the trading relationship with their consumers. This is nothing new and I don't actually see why any retailer should openly share such information. I am critical of Amazon on many things, but this is not one of them.