19 century.jpgMy wife, Peggy, and I watched the lead story of the March 14 “60 Minutes,” where Scott Pelley interviewed author Michael Lewis, who dissected the recent financial crisis. Lewis’ new book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” was hitting the publicity jackpot.

Unlike many stiff, stuffy authors, Lewis was loose, brilliant, articulate, charming and very persuasive as he detailed the stupidity and utter incompetence of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, as well as the bankers, brokers, fund managers and corporate directors who contributed to the disaster.

None of them understood the toxic financial cocktail they’d mixed, nor had any clue that human nature is driven by pure greed to the exclusion of common sense and moral decency.

At the conclusion of the Michael Lewis segment, Peggy said, “He is one very smart guy.”

I agreed.

As a news junkie, I was hot. I wanted his book—NOW!

I fired up my Kindle to order it instantly—fully intending to pay cash money so I could start devouring it in the promised 60 seconds.

It wasn’t available on the Kindle.

Huh?
A Personal Digression

On my left hand I have what the doctor calls “trigger fingers”—a pinky and fourth digit that painfully snap open and shut due to a mass of something or other at their bases, possibly the residue from a fracture when I was 9. And from endless hours on the computer mouse, my right hand has developed carpal tunnel syndrome, requiring a wrist brace.

As a result, I no longer buy, read or travel with heavy, cumbersome books. I order information as bits of weightless electricity that show up as books on my tiny Kindle, literally in seconds. It holds 200 titles and slips into my jacket pocket.

Launching a Product

I started out in the book business—first as a publicist, later as a traveling salesman and finally a sales manager. One lesson I learned early on: Never spend time and money advertising a book, or anything else, that’s not yet available for purchase. The exceptions: films, theatrical productions and travel, where pre-orders are essential.

With a book, you pick a publication date eight, 10 or 12 weeks hence, then get bound galleys into reviewers’ hands with a personal letter, press release and author’s book signing travel schedule. At the same time, you set up TV and radio appearances and cut deals with bookstores.

Check out “Blitzkrieg PR: How to Launch a Book, a Product, a Service—or Anything Else,” which appeared in these pages in March 2008. This amazing marketing technique was developed by Marji Ross, the brilliant president and publisher of arch-conservative Regnery Publishing, which has had 53 New York Times best-sellers in the past 10 years—34% of all new titles published.

The object is to have everything break at the same time—reviews, advertising, author interviews, e-mail blasts, cable and talk radio commentary—with product available in every practicable format—hardcover, e-books, Kindle, audiobooks—online, at bookstores and in your local library.

The Morning After

The morning following Michael Lewis’ explosive appearance on “60 Minutes,” The New York Times ran Michiko Kakutani’s rave review of “The Big Short.” From the review:

No one writes with more narrative panache about money and finance than Mr. Lewis, the author of “Liar’s Poker,” that now classic portrait of 1980s Wall Street.His entertaining new book does not attempt a macro view of the financial crisis, but instead proposes to open a small window on the calamities by recounting the stories of some savvy renegades who cashed in on their conviction that the system was rotten.

I sadly closed “The Arts” section of the Times and discovered that the entire back page was taken up by a giant ad for the book with the headline:
On sale today from the

#1 New York Times Bestselling author
[In Circle] AS SEEN ON “60 MINUTES

Meanwhile, Vanity Fair is running an 11,700-word excerpt from the book in its current issue (free on the Internet).

For publisher and author, “The Big Short” achieved that rare, orgiastic confluence of publicity and excitement that turned it into a literary supernova. Within days it would be a fading star, eclipsed by lurid photos of Johnny Edwards’ bare-bottomed mistress, Hillary Clinton’s busting Bibi Netanyahu’s chops over new construction in eastern Jerusalem, Barack Obama’s bruising battle for health care reform, the delicious prospect of Lehman’s Dick Fuld going to jail, Kate Winslet’s divorce, Sandra Bullock’s separation and the glorious media frenzy when Tiger Woods returns to championship golf at the upcoming Masters.

The idiots at W.W. Norton screwed me out of a great reading experience, and screwed themselves and their author out of a nonreturnable sale that would represent pure profit with minuscule carbon footprint.

How dumb is Norton? Visit the Web site and this blockbuster is nowhere to be found on the splash page.

Only Amazon comes up the winner in this corporate nitwittery as I ordered Lynne Olson’s “Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour”—which I am loving (on my Kindle). In my Kindle queue are “The Patton Papers 1940-1945” and “The English Assassin” by Daniel Silva.
I’m not alone in my frustration. “The Big Short” page on Amazon is alive with angry Kindle owners venting.

Is Kindle big business? On Dec. 26, an Amazon press release reported the amazing statistic that, on this past Christmas Day, it sold more Kindle books than print books.

Last Tuesday, it was announced that crime-thriller author John Grisham had an epiphany and ordered his publisher to release 23 titles on e-book formats.
Quite simply, by not offering “The Big Short” in e-book editions, W.W. Norton left big money on the table for competitors to scoop up.

What Are Mainstream Publishers Thinking?

My archive is bulging with stories about e-books, and I’ve included a number of links below that give you a smattering of the mind-set of publishers operating under a mid-20th-century business model (unlimited returns) and offering 15th-century products (hardcover books)—W.W. Norton, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, Scribner, Random House and Macmillan.

At the Publishing Business Conference in New York two weeks ago, a string of old-guard book industry tastemakers were wringing their (non-trigger finger and non-carpal tunnel) hands over e-books. The misguided beliefs some of them espoused:

* The low price diminishes the perceived value of a BOOK.

* Many customers love the look, feel and smell of real BOOKS, so why offer them as e-books?

* E-books hurt the sales of more profitable hardcover BOOKS.

* Readers like to impress their friends and neighbors showing off their shelves of printed BOOKS, so why offer them as e-books?

Book publishers no more understand the e-book than bankers and investors understood credit default swaps.

At the Publishing Business Conference, one presenter talked airily about offering a special combination of hardcover and e-version, so a reader could enjoy the book at home and continue reading it electronically on the road.

I’ve got news for these book marketing dilettantes and theoreticians: consumers who spent $250-plus on an e-reader are not going to order hardcover books. Maybe a paperback for a long overseas flight when the Kindle battery has run out, but emphatically not a hardcover. Period. End of discussion.

13 Reasons Why I Love My Kindle

1. Physical ease of handling (even with trigger fingers and carpal tunnel).

2. Physical ease of carrying a library in my pocket when traveling.

3. Price is often $9.99—sometimes more, but often much less.

4. A vast library of 450,000 new titles and classics available from free to peanuts
(e.g., “The Complete works of Mark Twain,” $1; King James Bible, 99 cents; and “Mr. Midshipman Easy,” free).

5. The built-in wireless system puts new titles in my Kindle within 60 seconds from virtually any locale in the country. (Ahhh, instant gratification!)

6. Even though I’ve given up drinking, I can impress people at cocktail parties how “au courant” I am.

7. Living in a 16-foot wide row house in Center City Philadelphia—with minimal storage room—I no longer have to lug finished books down to the Book Trader or leave the damn things on the front stoop with a sign that says, “FREE!”

8. A teeny jolt of electricity leaves a lot smaller carbon footprint than paper, printing, binding, shipping and reshipping returns, and then sending them to a land fill.

9. I love seeing a book one page at a time, rather than enduring the deep depression of seeing how little progress I’ve made in that 800-page behemoth lying like a lox on the coffee table.

10. I can order a free sample of any text on my Kindle, and it will arrive in 60 seconds to help me make up my mind.

11. I can make the type larger or smaller to fit my eye comfort.

12. The Wall Street Journal technology guru, Walter Mossberg, said of the Kindle, “I did find that the screen was good enough to make me forget I wasn’t reading the book on paper.”

13. The built-in dictionary enables me to look up words on the fly.

9 Reasons Publishers Should Love Kindle (and All E-books)

1. Logistical ease—no paper, printing, binding, shipping.

2. No returns—normally 40% of all books produced.

3. Immediate payment—no marginal bookstore owner jerking around the accounting department with clichés such as, “The check is in the mail.”

4. Once sold to a Kindle user, the book is in that Kindle and cannot be resold, given away or read by someone else unless the Kindle is relinquished (fat chance!).

5. Selling a wee jolt of electricity means virtually no cost of goods sold and therefore pure profit.

6. The online store is open for business 24/7 to shoppers from anywhere in the world (even on Christmas).

7. Titles are never out of print or out of stock.

8. The timeline from manuscript to finished product can be a fraction of that of its printed cousin—which means faster return on investment.

9. An e-book can be updated and a new edition published in minutes.

Editor’s Note: this article is reprinted, with permission, from Denny Hatch’s Target Marketing site. For a long list of links related to the topic Denny discusses please see the end of his article. PB

4 COMMENTS

  1. Simple answer – $9.99 is not a sustainable price model or a brand new title.

    If Amazon were willing to raise the price a few bucks to a level that reasonably compensates writer and pubisher, you would have your EBook.

    Otherwise, wait a few months just as in the old model, you wait for a cheaper, (and older), paperback edition.

  2. I absolutely agree with the author. Not only that, but $9.99 would be a perfectly sustainable price if the pubs weren’t determined to make ebooks bear “their share” of the overhead they incur because of the inefficient and outdated business practices they’re determined to cling to (and at a guess their share of executive salaries totally unjustified by how the business is doing and golden parachutes to boot). So a lot of us will cheer when they go belly up and the smaller, smarter, and more efficient small pubs who can and do put out ebooks at reasonable prices take over.

  3. @Bookperson: you completely missed the point. A few months later the sale would be lost because the title was no longer relevant to the buyer. These are sales the author / publisher would not otherwise make.

    @Everyone else: The “13 Reasons Why I Love My Kindle” remarkably reflects my own view. Is it true that psychic plagiarism exists? Or is it just a sweet example of great minds thinking alike … 🙂

    A little more than four months of ownership is proof. I use the darn thing almost everyday; the downloadable samples drive interest, confirm value; the dictionary is remarkably complete and useful; the ability to adjust the type size to suit my mood; the utter convenience and portability.

    And for the publishers … e-books expand the market, they don’t cannibalize it. If you can just grasp that, everything else falls into place.

    Finally, for Kindle: please reconsider the flat-rate $2 wireless delivery tax in favour of something related to usage — like 50¢ + xx¢/MB.

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