Seltzer's home page Publishing home
PUBLISHING AND EBOOK
ARTICLES BY RICHARD SELTZER
addition, my original samizdat.com web site, which I used as a
sandbox to test ideas about the Web, has been preserved by the
Internet Archive as part of their Wayback Machine. They have
stored 666 versions of that web site, captured from November 1996
to September 2017. This
link takes you to the part of the archive that is devoted to
samizdat.com. Select the date you are interested
in; then you can browse the archive the same as you do the live
web, clicking on link after link. Everything from the web
site is there, including all the issues of my Internet-on-a-Disk
newsletter and the hundreds of articles from my blog.
How Ebooks Can
Change Our Lives
appeared before Kindle and other devices
One of our customers, Bruce Blanchard,
suggested, "... appeal to a sense of culture which brings us
together as people. Make us feel part of the process of our
history and bring the "need to know." Politicians have
been doing this for ages. Richard, bring the reader into to
the sale Bring him/herself into the future. Politics
holds few apologies. What i am saying is sell what you have
with the needs we reach out for. Encourage us to grasp beyond.
Your words will matter big time. You are not grasping money
from our hand, you are providing the product to make us
realize our dreams."
So here's the big picture:
The transformation of books to
electronic form is a revolutionary technological innovation.
But while such books are now readily available from many sites
on the Internet, they are not yet widely used, enjoyed, and
appreciated. What's needed are creative applications of this
technology that capture the imagination, that make these texts
truly useful and valuable in everyday life.
The nature and size of a "book" is an
accident of paper and print. Electronic publishing makes new
forms possible, but for the most part we continue to mimic the
printed book in a new medium.
So what is there to capture the
imagination? Three elements, I believe.
1) books as building blocks for
With paper, every additional page means
more cost as well as bulkiness and weight, making the work
more difficult to handle and to store. In electronic form,
size does not matter. A file is a file is a file, whether it
is 10 kbytes (a page or two) or 300 kbytes (about the size of
Huckleberry Finn) or hundreds of megabytes or even several
With books in electronic form, the
"book" need not be the finished product, rather it can be a
building block. By putting books together in interesting
combinations, readers can be stimulated to recognize important
connections that could have passed unnoticed, at the same time
as making it easy for a reader to follow-up references and
also follow trains of thought inspired by the first work.
Books take on new meaning when
juxtaposed with other works and messages from those books are
amplified. In ebook collections such as those found at our
bookstore, Quench Editions, the reader is able to download
numerous books by the same author, which may function on an
entire cultural tradition, an environment that fosters the
growth of new ideas.
2) books and contexts can change and
With paper, books tend to be static --
once a book is published, change is expensive and slow. It
might be a year or ten years before another edition is
released. More often, the book goes out of print without ever
achieving a second edition.
Books in electronic form can be
dynamic. It is very easy to make changes and to disseminate
new versions. Over time, we expect that authors will take
advantage of this capability, though for now the best known
are still caught up in the world of paper printing, and don't
continuously improve and grow their works, while making them
For now, most readily available books
in electronic form are older works, in the public domain. So
creativity and change show up in the combinations of these
works rather than in their creation and modification. Quench
Editions updates the contents of collections, adding dozens or
even hundreds of new books two, three, or even four times a
3) books as an environment in which
readers can actively participate
With printed books, the book is an
object to be held in the hand. It is something separate from
the reader, who may well appreciate and enjoy "great works",
but at the same time be intimidated.For we, in awe, study
Electronic books immediately immerse
the reader in an environment of ideas and creativity. Books
can be saved on a hard drive and readers can add highlighting,
comments and related thoughts which are saved with the
original book. Each ebook can become a reader's personal
commonplace book -- like a diary, reflecting personal
development, tastes, inspirations,personal thoughts, and
related writings. And of course, it is possible to connect
various works through hyperlinks.
At the same time, the barriers to
"publication" go down as the costs of copying and
disseminating works plummets.That means that more people
venture to "publish" their own works -- on the Internet,
on -- sometimes doing it for free (for the pleasure and
the stimulation of having an audience and interacting with
that audience). The best example I've seen of that phenomenon
is "fanfics". These are story-length and book-length works
based on popular TV, movie, videogame, and book characters and
situations (many are based on Japanese anime creations). They
are typically written by teenagers and posted on the Web,
available for anyone to read for free. There are tens of
thousands of them available today, with the numbers growing
fast. In some cases, the writing is exceptional. The
imagination and creativity shown by these authors is
extraordinary. Some creative fans make their own selections of
what they believe to be the best, acting as volunteer
At some point, hopefully -- if we're
lucky, sometime in the next century -- legislators will alter
copyright laws to make more, rather than fewer books freely
available in the public domain, to encourage adaptability and
growth of works of the imagination, and to encourage
creativity. But even within the limits of current law, much is
possible that was never possible before. We can all begin to
participate in, rather than just watch and study, the joint
adventure of mankind -- trying to understand ourselves and the
world we live in and the ways we interrelate; using the
written word to talk together across the globe and across
centuries, finding words that spark new thoughts in us and
writing words that spark new thoughts in others.
"Books" and "Ebooks"
This is the text from the radio program "The
Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP in Lowell,
Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in Plymouth.
Amazon.com, "An e-book, or electronic book, is a digital book
that you can read on a computer screen or electronic device. A
reader is the device or software to which you download your
e-book in order to read it. Amazon.com currently supports the
Microsoft software reader. You can purchase an e-book from
Amazon.com at any time, but you must have a reader installed
and activated on your computer before you can download an
e-book you have bought."
For the world's largest
seller of books, that is a very limited definition of ebook, and
an even more limited policy -- as if Microsoft needs to be part
of the equation? Actually, I've been selling ebooks -- plain
text on ordinary diskettes -- through Amazon for a couple years.
And now I'm adding a line of audio-text books on CD ROM. You can
find my works by searching their main catalog. But you'd never
know I was in the ebook business from the ebook section of their
site. In my righteous indignation, I wanted to send a message to
Amazon, giving them an accurate definition of ebook.
So what is an ebook?
What's going on? What's likely to happen? And how does this get
tied into all the silliness over Napster?
A book in digital form is
an ebook. It need not have a physical form that can be carried
In an ebook, the content
may be stored as text (etext) and/or sound and/or images. It may
then be copied, distributed, and output in a wide variety of
ways. It may be distributed by email, ftp, on diskette, on
CD-ROM, on DVD, etc. Its format may be plain text, HTML, SGML,
PDF, or any of a variety of encrypted formats. Unless special
restrictive technology is applied, an ebook can be freely copied
to computers and from computer to computer and saved on digital
storage media of all kinds. It can also be printed on a computer
printer and read in paper form.
But what is a book?
Surely, not just a large number of printed paper pages bound
together, or a mechanical gadget for displaying text...
A book is a large and
meaningful set of words. It can exist in many forms, both analog
and digital, but its ultimate destination is the human mind.
Computers can remember any
sequence of characters or code, regardless of whether it has
meaning. But humans can only deal with lengthy content if it can
be interpreted by them -- they can store very little raw data,
but vast amounts of meaningful information. So you might say
that when it comes to large sets of data, computers can store
anything, but humans can only store books.
Today, very few people
bother to memorize entire books. It takes talent, training, and
dedication to do so. In our day, it would probably take the
incentive of strong religious belief to accomplish such a
monumental feat, like memorizing the Koran, when such easier
means are readily available for saving and accessing book
content. But when necessity dictates -- e.g., prior to written
language and in imagined scifi worlds like Fahrenheit 451 --
humans can expand their memorizing capability far beyond what we
consider normal today.
The content of a book can
be created by a human, communicated from one human directly to
another (by voice or other direct signals), or stored in code
for later retrieval by him or someone else (if there is
agreement on the code). The first codes were visual (written
language and its forerunners on the walls of caves). A visual
code can be implemented by hand (using a chisel, stylus, pen,
etc.) on virtually any solid medium (including sand) or by the
use of machinery (like printing presses and typewriters) on
media designed for their use (such as paper or cloth).
In the past, whatever
could be represented visually could be duplicated
photographically. And whatever you could duplicate
photographically, you could make multiple copies of, using
printing equipment, at some cost. And whatever could be
represented with sound could be recorded using analog media,
like tape, and then duplicated or broadcast, at some cost.
Today whatever can be
represented visually or in sound can be easily converted to
digital form. Once in digital form, it can be stored, copied,
and distributed at practically no cost.
The mind also converts
sound to meaningful form to remember it -- as words or music or
both combined. I hear a story and retell it to my kids. I hear a
ballad and play and sing it to other audiences. I hear a tune,
whistle it, sing it, play it on a variety of instruments,
improvising along the way. Someone hears that and does likewise.
The brain serves as a storage medium -- sometimes imperfect,
So where does this lead
us? What is the end point?
We need to remember that
the human brain is the ultimate storage and retrieval device for
books and music and that this means of storage and retrieval
fundamentally involves interpretation and change. "Meaning"
refers to the brain's interpretive power. We see or hear raw
data and remember the "meaning" -- what results when we have
decoded the data and adapted its content to our unique needs and
Sooner or later technology
will make it possible to vastly enhance the memory power of the
human brain -- biologically, electronically, or a combination of
both. Whether it's a pill or a microchip that provides the
enhancement, the brain itself will become the primary storage
medium for books -- just as it was in the days before written
language.Today, advanced computers can store and retrieve
everything that their user sees or hears over the Internet. In
the future, your enhanced brain will be able to store and
retrieve everything that it sees, reads, or hears.
In other words, sooner or
later, books and music will be free. The pace of adoption of
technology and the speed bumps of legislation can slow our
approach to that point. But that's where we are headed.
In the digital world, what
do you sell and buy when you sell and buy a book or a piece of
music? In the past, you sold and bought physical objects that
were needed to store the information. It cost money to reproduce
those physical objects, so you paid enough to provide incentive
for producers, manufacturers and distributors to perform their
Now there is no physical
object and there is little or no associated cost for
reproducing, storing or distributing the content.
Today, publishers of books
and music are fighting a rear-guard action, trying to
artificially create in the digital world barriers to
reproduction, storage, and distribution. They are doing this by
means of encryption schemes and associated devices for reading
books and playing music.
Mechanical and electronic
devices (known as readers) may help and may even be needed to
make the content of a book understandable. Such devices include
print-to-audio converters, etext-to-voice converters, computers,
cassette players, MP3 players, and specialized gadgets designed
to deal with encrypted etexts.
Up until recently, the
purpose of mechanical and electronic reading devices was to make
books accessible by more people in more ways. The purpose of the
new generation of readers is somewhat bizarre. Publishers
deliberately make their content inaccessible through encryption,
and electronics manufacturers sell devices and software designed
to unencrypt that content and present it in usable and
attractive form. You wind up paying them not just for the
content, but for the means to solve the problem that they
I hope that this is a
temporary aberration -- an attempt to use technology to block
the advances of technology and thereby allow old and obsolete
business models to persist. I hope that both publishers and
electronics manufacturers will eventually return to the task of
making books accessible to more people in more ways.
Publishers are also
depending on legal barriers to defend both their ownership of
the content and their means for limiting access to it. They are
turning to the courts again and again to fight off new threats.
But since their content no longer needs to be embodied in
physical objects, it becomes very difficult to trace where it
goes and who copies it and stores it and redistributes it, or to
figure out the path by which the copy on this computer got
there. Also, in the past, if there was an instance of theft, in
most instances, the perpetrators had the same economic incentive
as the original producers -- they wanted to make, distribute,
and sell physical copies of the content. If they were
successful, they were easy to track down. And if they weren't
successful, they were insignificant and not worth bothering
about. But today, the folks who are copying, storing, and
distributing books and music are doing so just to enjoy it and
to share it. There are millions of them, all doing it on a small
scale, and using technology that makes it easy for them to
cooperate with one another without ever communicating directly
with one another. Just imagine the enforcement nightmare that
It would be better
for publishers to devote their money and their creativity to
finding new business models that work in a world where books
and music can be duplicated, stored and distributed for free,
where they have no control over content once it has been made
available to the public, just as they have no control over it
once it has entered my mind.
Internet and Books: Transformation of an Industry
This article is the text of a radio
program "The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP
in Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM
in Plymouth, Mass.
Sooner or later we'll all be reading
electronic books like in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the
Galaxy -- using portable computer-like gadgets. Then the
nature of books themselves will change since they won't have to
be read linearly from beginning to end, but rather will have
many hyperlinked and search-based paths; and with sound and
video as well as text. Already there are tens of thousands of
books in plain text electronic form available for free over the
Internet, thanks to volunteer projects like Gutenberg. But while
I applaud those efforts and download many of those texts, I must
admit that I rarely read them -- only when I haven't been able
to find a print edition of the same book. That's partly a matter
of habit and largely a matter of eye balls -- it just isn't
comfortable yet either with regard to the experience of text on
a screen or portability. My eyes get tired when trying to read
something lengthy -- so I'm inclined to print out the articles
and book chapters I come across on the Web. Also, my laptop's
batteries run down too fast, and my palm's screen and type size
are a nuisance for anything but short messages.
But in the meantime, long before the electronic
book comes of age, the Internet is having an enormous impact on
the book industry.
Take for instance, the Harry Potter phenomenon.
I got hooked reading the first three books aloud to my son. So
when word got out four or five months ago that a fourth book was
in the works, I went to Amazon and placed my order. At that
time, I was surprised to find that many others had done so also
-- that already the new Harry Potter book was the number one
best seller at Amazon, even though it had not yet been
published. This was truly extraordinary. Books are usually not
purchased in advance of being manufactured. It's usually a wild
gambling game on the part of the publisher -- guessing how many
will sell, printing that number, shipping them off to
distributors and stores, hoping that they get shelf space and
visibility and word of mouth, and then having those distributors
and stores return unsold copies for full credit.
Before, the publisher only learned about demand
after the crucial decisions had been made. Before, the
publishers only contact with the reading public was indirect,
based on feedback from the distributors and book stores.
Now, thanks to online book sellers like Amazon,
the process has been speeded up greatly, and buyer behavior is
changing radically. In fact, by Saturday, July 8 -- the official
publication date -- Amazon alone had sold 357,644 copies of the
new Harry Potter book. They have even set up a special "Harry
Potter Store" where they try to point fans to other similar
products and where they also keep a count, updated hourly, of
how many copies have been sold at Amazon.
But what about immediacy? Here's a book in high
demand, a book that people have been anxiously awaiting for
months. Why order it over the Internet and wait for days or
weeks for it to be delivered, when you could drive around the
corner and pick up one at a local bookstore?
When I ordered my copy, I selected "standard
shipping" -- 3 to 7 days. I didn't want to pay a premium price
to get it quickly, even though I was tempted to do so. I
suspected that with this high level of demand, local stores will
soon be out of stock. I even suspected that Amazon would soon be
out of stock, and that in any case, it would probably be a
couple of weeks after the publication date before I could get my
Much to my surprise, I got an email from Amazon
the night before telling me that at no extra charge they had
upgraded me to FedEx overnight/Saturday delivery and that my
copy was on the way. Then at 11 AM on the day of publication, it
arrived. That's service. That's delighting your customers. And
that's turning what could have been a logistical nightmare into
a triumph. In a broader sense, the Internet, by changing the
nature of ordering and distribution is redefining the rules of
the game for printed book publishing.
Meanwhile another important change has crept up
on us, without anywhere near the fanfare of the Harry Potter
book. Technology has been making it possible to economically
produce printed books in smaller and smaller quantities.
Typesetting has become a matter of converting ordinary word
processing files. And the machines used for printing and binding
have become so flexible, thanks to computer control, that it is
no longer necessary to print thousands of copies of the same
thing at the same time to drive down manufacturing costs. In
fact, it is now possible to economically print and bind a single
copy of a book.
In other words, with this approach, customers
could order books before any copies are printed, and publishers
would be able print and distribute individual copies on demand,
eliminating the enormous waste in the present hit-or-miss
system. But how would that actually work?
People who frequent bookstores typically want
to hold a book in their hands and flip through the physical
pages before making up their mind. But people who have grown
used to buying books over the Internet, don't need that tactile
experience any more. Descriptions, reviews, and excerpts are
sufficient to help them decide. And clearly there are hundreds
of thousands, probably millions of people who have gone through
that change of habit already.
But what about immediacy? I recently bought a
print-on-demand book from 1st Books. I had heard about a new
translation of Good Soldier Svejk, a comic novel set in the
First World War that has an enormous reputation in Europe, but
which had been rarely read in English because of the poor
quality of the translation in the Penguin edition. I placed my
order at the 1st Books Web site, paid my $10.95, plus standard
shipping by credit card. And five days later the book arrived at
my house -- an attractive, professional looking, easy to read,
and well bound paperback book.
If the word spreads, this way of producing and
distributing books could and should become the norm. With no
waste in printing and distributing and warehousing large
quantities of books that people don't want, the costs and risks
of book publishing could diminish greatly. And that could lead
to an increase in the variety and quality of books readily
available to the public. In other words, today, thanks to the
Internet as a means of connecting buyers and sellers, we are
seeing the beginnings of a major revolution in book publishing,
still long before electronic books begin to replace paper.
of Electronic Books and Print On Demand
We are used to thinking of a book as an
artifact -- a physical object. Yes, an author might return to a
project later and make revisions and additions, but each
successive edition is fixed and permanent. Now that books can
exist in electronic form, not just on paper, and can be made
available over the Internet, not just in physical stores and
libraries, such assumptions are becoming obsolete.The Internet,
print-on-demand, and electronic book formats don't just change
the physical form of books and the means for distributing them.
They also change the nature of the content, the relationship of
the audience to the content, and possibly the relationship of
the audience to the author.
First, we need to begin thinking of books as
living entities, that can grow over time, and that need not have
a fixed form.
Creators of imaginative worlds and characters
often return to and add to them. What began as a single novel,
might be expanded in a sequel, become a trilogy, and then just
keep growing. Examples are Asimov's Foundation series, and
Herbert's Dune series. Sometimes the additions to the ongoing
narrative are in the form of short stories or novellas, which
get published in magazine rather than book form, and are hard to
find, until finally assembled into anthologies and multi-volume
sets. Sometimes, too, authors clarify their intent in articles
and interviews; and critics and fans publish related articles
and books, which may some day be collected. And editors assemble
similar works by numerous authors into anthologies, which they
issue again and again, adding to and subtracting from the
content with each new edition. In other words, the creative
effort grows and changes over time, but its published form has
always been fixed -- like still photographs -- and reproduced
thousands of times.
Making a virtue of necessity -- for there was
no other way to "publish" -- we came to depend on the sameness
of these literary artifacts as the basis for our common
understanding and discussion of the content. In the days of
Homer, when composition was oral, the content and the experience
of the audience may have differed widely from one performance to
the next. But for modern man, Moby Dick was the same every time,
everywhere; and to be precise, scholars could specify the
Now, thanks to the Internet and
print-on-demand, books need no longer have a fixed form. Every
electronic copy or print-on-demand copy might differ -- due to
decisions of the author and also decisions of the reader/buyer.
Authors could add chapters or paragraphs or sentences anywhere
in their works, at any time. The work need never be "finished"
so long as the author remains alive. Authors could also make
everything they write available through the same online
publishing/printing service, leaving it up to the reader/buyer
to decide which pieces to take and how to assemble them.
For instance, Jeff Thomas has written numerous
stories about the same fantasy realm, a paperback from Ministry
of Whimsy Press. Say he makes those stories available online and
writes half a dozen more Punktown stories over the next year and
makes them available through the same service. Then a reader who
had never read any of them could choose to buy the whole set of
stories and have them printed and bound in a single volume. Or
someone who already had the first Punktown could choose to, for
a different price, just buy the new ones. And maybe Jeff makes
the stories available as he writes them, rather than waiting to
collect them; and adds ones he wrote earlier that have been
gathering dust in his attic; and occasionally goes back and
polishes one or more of these stories; and even makes available
online works-in-progress that he knows aren't "finished", in
hopes of getting useful feedback from enthusiastic readers.
And suppose articulate readers do send him
feedback and reviews and Jeff decides to (with their permission)
include their comments, articles, and even related books through
that same publishing service. Then folks interested in his work
could benefit from one and another's insights, and he'd probably
end up selling more books. Then, too, some readers might choose
to include some of this criticism and fan commentary in the
"book" that they choose to buy. And some readers will choose to
purchase an "anthology", including not just Jeff's work, but
also stories and articles that they perceive as related and
would like to experience together -- like assembling your own
"mix" of music, making your own music tape or CD. In fact, some
readers may wish to include selected music and images along with
the text they buy.
Meanwhile authors begin to recognize the value
of feedback and strive to encourage it. In many cases,
insightful comments are more valuable to authors than money --
both in helping them to improve their work and also in helping
them reach a wider audience. So, in this environment, it makes
sense for authors and publishers to offer credits and
recognition in return for quality feedback and reviews. And with
the resulting proliferation of reviews and reader commentary,
new online services evolve that rate and aggregate the best of
this writing about writing. And that, too, becomes content that
readers could choose to include in the "books" that they buy.
In other words, the traditional sharp barriers
between writers and readers fade. The act of writing becomes
more explicitly a collaborative effort. The act of buying a book
becomes more of a creative act, with the buyer choosing what
belongs in the package. The "rules" of writing and publishing
change radically; the concept of "book" changes radically; but
the writing and appreciation of fiction flourishes.
Electronic Rights and
the Public Domain
Twenty years ago, when the small press movement
was gaining momentum, I started a little company to publish a
children's book I had written -- The Lizard of Oz.
Offset printing had become so inexpensive that anyone could
become a publisher. There were book fairs everywhere, and a
spirit of camaraderie and sharing prevailed among beginners like
us. Everything seemed possible. The world would be transformed.
Gradually, I woke up to the fact that while it
was easy and inexpensive to put words onto paper, distribution
was slow, expensive, and inefficient. Even with good reviews
(the media were actually looking for small press material to
review), it was very difficult to get books into stores. And
even if the books arrived into stores, they did not stay on the
shelves for long.There is only limited space on shelves.
Now we are experiencing the same kind of
excitement and sharing with the Internet. Only this time the
information is in electronic form. That means that not only can
anyone publish, but the means of distribution are available to
everyone as well. Often we presume that while the score and the
players change, the rules of the game remain the same. But we
are now at a turning point in the history of publishing. With
the proliferation of electronic texts, old rules do not
necessarily apply and new ones have not been established. The
choices that authors make today can help establish what will be
common practice for many years to come.
Traditional publishers are waking up and
beginning to include "electronic rights" in their contracts and
are trying to get their authors to sign over electronic rights
for previously published works. Authors should think very
carefully before signing such documents, should consider the
other options and their implications.
Step back. Why do you write? -- to be read.
Yes, authors would like to be paid for their
work, though that is likely to be more symbolic than substantial
-- an indication that work is valued and accepted by the
establishment. (Very few writers receive significant sums for
their work). But, most likely, the primary motivation is to
share thoughts and creations with others.
Why does a traditional company publish authors'
works? -- to make money.They invest in work because they expect
to get a return, whether from the marketplace or from grant
money. Even university presses will not keep a book in print if
they cannot make a profit from it.
In cyberspace, an electronic book can stay in
print indefinitely, at practically no cost. As long as the work
exists at one public site on the Internet, it remains available
to everyone who is interested, everywhere in the world. And
electronic texts on diskettes can be quickly and inexpensively
copied for colleagues and students. This means authors can keep
their works alive either by placing them in the public domain or
by retaining copyright, but making them freely available in
By all indications, this parallel
approach actually increases sales of traditional print editions
by making the work more widely known.
- New life for out-of-print works:
- Norman Coombs has placed his The
Black Experience in America in the public domain and made
it available over the Internet.
- Outlet for works of limited
- Dale Grote placed his
never-before-published Study Guide to Wheelock's Latin in
the public domain on the Internet.
- Jean-Michel Margot. president of
the Jules Verne Society, is making available through
PLEASE COPY THIS DISK, a little-known Jules Verne novella
that was recently published for the first time: Le Mariage
de Mr Anselme des Tilleuls.
- Free electronic edition available
in parallel with print edition:
- Bruce Sterling retained the
electronic rights to his Hacker Crackdown and made it
freely available over the Internet, in parallel with its
paperback publication by Bantam.
- Eric Raymond retained electronic
rights to The New Hacker's Dictionary and made it freely
available over the Internet in parallel with publication
by MIT Press.
- And I've made my Lizard of Oz
available in electronic form, while the paper version is
still in print.
When authors put their work in the public
domain or retain electronic rights and make their work freely
available in electronic form, the public gains access to their
work for the indefinite future, and the authors win new readers.
Beyond Banner Ads: Turn A
Newspaper Audience Into Revenue
In the past, many of the most
successful public Web sites based their business on banner
advertising. The larger their audience the more the ad revenue.
Hence they did everything imaginable to increase their audience
-- including giving away content and many different kinds of
services for free.Now,
with the sharp decline in advertising revenue, they need new
business models. That means reassessing what they should give
away and what they should charge for. For instance, many
newspapers are considering charging for their online
This article is text
of a radio program "The Computer Report," which is
broadcast live on WCAP in Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated
on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in Plymouth,
Charging for Content Based On Age
The news value of newspaper content changes over
time, and the marketing value of content on the Web also
varies over time -- but in different ways.
Some newspapers now provide current news for
free on the Web and charge for access to their archives. That
model presumes that current news -- having inherent value,
that people are used to paying for in the print world --
should drive traffic to the site. But, unless you go to great
expense to build your brand name or unless you have the right
partner agreements, no one will know that you have the latest
story -- no one but the people in your traditional audience,
who you can prompt with notices in your print edition.
The best way to capitalize on free current news
to draw new traffic is in partnership with news distribution
services, such as NewsEdge, YellowBrix, and ScreamingMedia.
For instance, NewsEdge provides newsfeeds to Individual.com,
which distributes them, tailored to individual needs, for free
to individuals and Web sites. It's far more valuable to have
your headlines dancing across the screens of thousands of
users than trying to charge subscription fees for the latest
content, like a subscription to a print newspaper.
But the revenue likely to come from charging for
archived newspaper stories is very small, because only a
handful of experts and researchers have sufficient interest in
old news to be willing to pay for access to it. It makes much
more sense to make the archives available for free, and use
them to build traffic to your site -- storing all that text in
search-engine friendly ways (e.g., as static Web pages, rather
than in a database).
As for old news, a story from six months ago
doesn't matter anymore to very many people, but such a story
would have had time to be included in search engines, to have
been bookmarked by readers and linked to by sites devoted to
that particular subject -- hence such a story could bring new
traffic to your site.
In other words, while the news value of content
declines over time, the marketing value of that same content
increases over time. So it makes sense to use the old content
as a marketing asset, rather than trying to sell it.
So what should you charge for? Not the old news
and not the very latest, but rather recent news -- stories a
day to a month old. Those are the stories people pointed you
to in email or that you heard about the next day or that you
didn't get a chance to read on the day of publication. You
know what you want. You know that you need it. You understand
its value to you. And you'd be willing to pay to get it --
either by subscription or by the article.
But don't expect miracles. Live newsfeeds
(through services like individual.com) and archives fully
indexed by search engines can both boost your traffic. But,
while you could make some money selling "recent" news, that's
not likely to amount to major revenue.
Giving Away Base Level Content and Selling
Professional Level Content
Other companies today offer a base level of
content or service or software for free, and charge for the
In the case of a newspaper, you could provide
headlines and the first few paragraphs of each story for free;
but charge (a la carte or by subscription) for the complete
detailed story and related services (like tailored news
alerts). For this approach, you would want to have huge
content resources available -- perhaps the content of other
newspapers owned by the same group as yours; or perhaps
content you pick up from other newspapers in partnership
If I am interested in following a story about an
election or a major archealogical find or a riot or a very
successful business, can I easily search across a whole set of
newspapers and easily access all those stories? Can I have
access to the complete text of stories that were shortened or
that never made it into the paper because of space
constraints? Can I have access to similar information provided
by content partners? Can I request alerts of followup stories
about the same or similar subjects?
Consider making the classified ads at your
online site far more extensive than those in the print edition
of your paper.
With classifieds, you want to make it easy for
both the seller and the buyer them to do business with you. If
all classifieds from numerous print publications are available
through the same site, then I could search for a particular
kind of product and focus my search however I like. That's
very convenient for me (instead of having to search separately
three or four times at different sites), and it gives the
advertiser broader reach. Hence partner with other sites to
build a larger pool of classifieds.
Selling Your Audience
Even if you provide free access to the content
at your site, you might be tempted to force your visitors to
register, because you could then sell mailing lists based on
detailed demographic information you gather.
That model presents two problems. First,
mandatory registration greatly reduces traffic, even when
registration is free. People simply don't want to go through
that hassle. Your traffic might drop to a quarter or even a
tenth of what it is today if you suddenly added mandatory
registration. And if you then sell those mailling lists, you
could make lots of people angry, from all the spam they would
It is an entirely different matter if you make
registration voluntary, and offer incentives for people to
sign up (like the customer discount cards at supermarkets).
Let people opt for email alerts etc. on subjects of concern to
them, and also for email ads for special deals they might be
interested in. Make it optional. Make people want to do it.
And then you can sell the mailing lists -- but only very
carefully, so these people will only receive mail related to
the interests they have expressed.
Actually, this approach is a variant of
advertising -- you are generating revenue by selling access to
Serving Your Audience
Instead of selling your audience, consider
offering them paid value-added services.
First build your audience -- and remember that
your online audience may well be both larger and very
different from your real-world audience. Then strive to
understand what they need and value, and build new businesses
around what they want.
For instance, how many of your page views are
for business-related stories? how many for sports? how many
In terms of business, you probably have readers
who are investment managers, investors, people looking for
jobs as managers, people looking for companies to partner
with, to sell to, and to buy from. Such people would probably
value alerts (by email, to pager, to cell phone, etc.) when
news directly affects something of importance to them. They
might also value online events that put them in touch with
decision makers and people with the reputation of experts.
For teens, online interaction is probably more
important that static content (and is probably far cheaper to
generate). How many people in your audience, for instance, are
teenagers who are into video games? what value-added services
might they be interested in?
Think audience. Then think how can you serve
that audience. Your present content is an important element of
the services you will provide (so long as it is searchable and
alerts can be automated).
But once you have assembled such an audience,
creatively consider the other ways you could serve them.
Also, remember this is the Internet. You don't
have to do everything yourself. You could partner with
companies that specialize in financial services or business
information and research. Use incentive-based opt-in
registration to glean good info about people's wants and
needs. Then have other companies offer in-depth services to
Partner galore. Find people/companies who have
services that would be of interest to the dozens of
sub-audiences you already reach, and link those services to
those audiences -- quickly and smoothly, with you taking a
piece of the action.
vs. the Print Industry
I recently answered a question from a student
studying Print Management at Dublin Institute of Technology in
Ireland. She is writing a paper on the ability of the print
industry to compete with ecommerce. Can the improved printing
technologies which are available today, compete effectively to
maintain market share?
It's easy to imagine that a school with
"technology" in its name would structure its courses in terms of
competing technologies. But in the real world, companies that
expect to survive don't blindly support one technology rather
than another. Rather, they evolve and adapt, using whatever mix
of technologies make sense to both serve their customers and
earn a profit...
Companies that expect to survive and thrive
should operate with a mixture of techniques, changing what they
do and how they do it to take advantage of new opportunities,
while capitalizing on existing assets. I'm reminded of the
Circuit City ads on TV promoting the idea of buying goods online
and then picking them up quickly at a physical store. In other
cases, the customer may want to shop online -- using search
capabilities to learn about many possible products, as in the
case of shopping for books; or using decision support tools to
consider a multitude of complex options, as in the case of cars
or top-of-the-line entertainment systems. They then might do the
actual buying face-to-face. In those cases, retailers face the
challenge of how to hook online shoppers into buying from their
stores. That's not much different from the challenge that
computer stores faced in the early 1980s, when customers would
first go to the stores that had knowledgeable retail personnel.
The customers would ask all their questions, decide what they
wanted to buy, and then go to a store that had no help but lower
But I'm digressing...
Returning to the question from the student in
Ireland, I don't see a conflict between the printing industry
and Ecommerce. The printing industry is a set of companies that
in the past depended on paper printing and now is rapidly
evolving towards electronic printing. Ecommerce is a sales
channel, an alternative way of selling products and services,
which most printing companies already use and should use far
more in the future.
Printing companies that are savvy should use
Ecommerce to market their services: 1) traditional printing 2)
print on demand and 3) electronic duplication and delivery.
Traditional printing and print on demand today
typically require that manuscripts be submitted in electronic
form. Print on demand is even more demanding, requiring Acrobat
(pdf) format, with the person doing the submission (whether a
publisher or an author) taking care of all the formatting.
There's a natural evolution toward more and
more of the process being digital/electronic, until the final
product is also electronic.
The changing role of printers in some ways
resembles the changing role of video stores, which now rent and
sell analog tapes, and increasingly also rent and sell DVDs. At
the same time, cable TV companies and some Web sites make the
same movies available on a pay-per-view basis. The stores could
and should create DVDs on demand (from online files) rather than
stocking inventory. In general, they should look for new ways to
add value and serve their customers, taking full advantage of
Likewise, printers should be looking for new
ways to serve publishers, authors, and readers. Rather than
presuming that their business is putting ink on paper, they
should look more closely at what their customers want and how to
better meet those needs.