Sunday, October 30, 2011

The self-publishing conundrum

In 2002, when I was running a home video distributor, the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was a huge success. The movie cost $5 million to produce and was distributed by IFC Films, an independent distributor owned by the AMC cable channel. It grossed almost $370 million (U.S. dollars) worldwide. That film, along with "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999 and "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004, led movie producers worldwide to conclude that inexpensive, independently-distributed films could make a lot of money. The problem was that all three films were outliers--totally unrepresentative of the fate of the vast majority of inexpensive, independently-produced files, most of which never even make it into movie theaters.

A lot of money was lost by independent producers and distributors in that period, as they tried to duplicate the success of those three films. The producers of "The Blair Witch Project" even made a sequel with a much bigger budget, but it grossed only a tiny fraction of what the original film took in. A second sequel was planned but never made.

History is repeating itself in the world of self-publishing. Amanda Hocking and John Locke are both said to have sold more than a million copies of their self-published works. As a result of their success, many other authors have decided to go the self-publishing route. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of self-publishing success stories to point to beyond Hocking and Locke. There are some self-publishers who make a nice living from a series of titles, or who have one particular title that does well, but the vast majority of self-published titles sell few, or even no, copies.

Self publishers start with several strikes against them:
  • They have to bear the expense of hiring an editor and designer or do the tasks themselves and risk releasing a book with typos, an amateurish cover and poor layout.
  • They also have to pay for a book publicist or do the work themselves.
  • Self-publishers also have to get (and pay for) ISBN numbers in order to sell their books through most retailers.
  • If they're selling print books as well as eBooks, self-publishers have very limited ways of selling to retail bookstores, and they don't have salespeople who are regularly calling on bookstore buyers.
Self-publishers can almost always make much more money "off the top" for each copy of their books sold than if they work with a publisher, but they have a lot of costs to bear that they have to pay upfront. On the other hand, self-published authors and authors working with a publisher are fairly equal when it comes to promotion. Most publishers offer little or no promotional support for new authors beyond including them in their catalogs and listing them in Bowker's databases. If you want a book tour or want to get press interviews, you're either going to have to hire a publicist or do the work yourself.

I'm a fan of self-publishing, and I don't want to discourage you from considering it. However, keep in mind that you'll have to bear a lot of costs and do a lot of work that a publisher would do for you (albeit at a high cost, especially if your book is very successful). One final point: Both Amanda Hocking and John Locke are now working with publishers: Hocking with St. Martin's Press, and Locke with Simon & Schuster.
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Friday, October 28, 2011

YouTube's scattershot channel strategy

Earlier today, the New York Times reported that YouTube will launch more than 100 channels of third-party video programming. YouTube is said to be paying the producers of the new channels, which will begin launching in November and continue throughout 2012, as much as $100 million to create original programming. The producers who have signed on with YouTube range from well-known media brands such as The Wall Street Journal, The Onion, Lionsgate, Reuters, Rodale Press and the WWE, to companies that were entirely unknown until today. Celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Deepak Chopra are also involved.

YouTube's plan, which is intended to eventually produce 25 hours of original content each day, is to build the new channels into places where viewers will return day after day, and advertisers will be willing to pay substantially higher rates than they pay for user-generated content. It's a good idea, but YouTube is taking a very scattershot approach to implementing it.

In the past, I've written about YouTube's plans to attract more and better programming. Last December, YouTube gave $1,000 credits to 500 of its YouTube Partners. At the time, I wrote that there's not much useful that a video producer can buy for $1,000 that would make a significant improvement in their productions. YouTube would have been much better off giving $10,000 credits to 50 well-targeted producers.

I feel much the same way about YouTube's new plan. The channels selected are all over the board in terms of content, and are likely to be equally all over the board in terms of quality. Instead of starting with 100 channels, YouTube should have started with 20 or 25, and worked carefully with the producers to insure that the quality of the channels would be high. Then, they could roll out a second wave of channels, perhaps six months down the road. By greenlighting 100 channels at the outset and rolling them out rapidly, YouTube has almost guaranteed that it will end up with a confusing mishmash of shows.

YouTube's intention is to build up a big library of compelling original programming quickly, but they're just as likely to create an assortment of channels carrying junk that would have never been produced had YouTube not committed to pay for it.
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

The eSingle revolution

No, I'm not talking about online dating services or individual music tracks. eSingles are short (usually 30,000 words or less) eBooks, most often non-fiction. Amazon calls them Kindle Singles (hence the eSingles name); Apple calls them Quick Reads. There have been printed short stories and novellas almost since the birth of Gutenberg's printing press, but short non-fiction books haven't fared as well, especially in retail bookstores. There's an implicit connection in consumers' minds between the length of a book and its value: A thin book is simply worth less money than a thick one.

The manufacturing costs of books--printing and binding--are affected much less by the number of pages in a book with a given page size than they are by how many copies are printed and bound at a time. A 300-page book costs more than a 100-page book, but nowhere near three times as much. If consumers are predisposed to pay more for a bigger book, that makes the bigger book more profitable than a smaller one. The result is that publishers set word- and page-count targets for their authors that are intended to create bigger, higher-priced and more profitable books. In turn, the books are often padded out with unnecessary information--case histories, sidebars, interviews, etc., that may be interesting but that don't really contribute to the core value of the book. In other words, filler is added to increase the page count.

eBooks have changed how consumers perceive books, in that they no longer judge books by their cover (or, in this case, their size), and instead pay more attention to other factors: The author, subject and reviews. This has enabled eSingles to become viable. Seth Godin's The Domino Project, for example, publishes short non-fiction eBooks that are either primarily motivational or that focus on a single topic. Italy's 40Kbooks is bringing the same approach to fiction. Magazines and newspapers are publishing eSingles that either feature compilations of previously-published articles or new works; The U.K.'s The Guardian newspaper, for example, recently published an eSingle explaining how it broke the News International phone hacking story.

eSingles are generally less expensive than full-length eBooks--for example, they're typically priced between $1.99 and $7.99 at Amazon. Their short length means that they can be written, edited, designed and released much more quickly than full-length titles. That means that they can be more current than full-length titles from the "Big 6" trade publishers, which often take a year or more to get from submission of the manuscript into the hands of consumers as a printed book. Also, both writers and publishers can spread their risks across far more titles; a writer could potentially write and publish as many as four eSingles a year, vs. one full-length title.

Another factor in favor of eSingles, especially for self-publishing authors, is the aggressive royalty that they can get. Amazon, for example, will pay as much as a 70% royalty on each eBook sold, depending on the price and whether or not it gets exclusivity. Given that the Big 6 typically pay only 12% to 15% of the wholesale price to authors, self-publishing authors can make significantly more per copy, even at a much lower sales price.

Here's an example:

$19.99 eBook sold on agency terms (30% to reseller) = $13.99 wholesale price
15% author's royalty (before exclusions and deductions) = $2.10 per copy

$6.99 eSingle sold exclusively through Amazon with 70% royalty = $4.89 per copy

In this example, the author/self-publisher will have to pay all the costs of copyediting and design, but will still end up making substantially more money. That's why I believe that authors will gravitate to eSingles, non-conventional book publishers will embrace them, and "old line" publishers will be forced to respond.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Here's why the movie industry needs new revenues

AllThingsD reports that Rich Greenfield of BTIG has quantified the straits that the movie industry has found itself in. For more than a decade, DVD sales made up an ever-increasing majority of the industry's revenues. 2008's Great Recession flipped the DVD market from growth into decline, and the increasing popularity of Netflix and Redbox moved the home video market, which had transitioned from rental to purchase, back toward majority rental.

BTIG's numbers show how far the pendulum has swung. In the first half of 2010, U.S. sales of DVDs were just over $4 billion. Including Blu-Ray and electronic media, total home video sales were $4.998 billion. In the first half of this year, U.S. DVD sales were just over $3 billion--down almost 24% in one year. Blu-Ray sales, which were once seen as the great hope of the movie industry, were $810 million, up from $773 million a year earlier. The total for all physical media was less than the total for DVD alone last year. Electronic media sales increased year-over-year, but only from $260 million in 2010 to $270 million in 2011. Rental and Video-on-Demand revenues, on the other hand, increased from $3.782 billion in 2010 to $4.195 billion in 2011. The total rental market is now bigger than home video sales, and most of the rental revenues go to companies like Redbox and Netflix, not the movie studios.

This is why the movie studios are desperately trying every tactic they can think of to increase revenues, from $60 Video-on-Demand movies to UltraViolet digital copies of movies for online streaming. It's why Sony no longer wants to pay for 3D glasses, and why both movie studios and theaters are pushing 3D movies so hard. DVD sales were the lifeblood of the industry, financing ever more expensive movies and bigger promotional campaigns. With DVD revenues shrinking, studios are having to make difficult decisions, such as Paramount's recent decisions to consolidate its home video division with two other groups and to close its New York distribution office. At some point, studios are going to have to cut back movie budgets and possibly even cut the number of films they release each year.

The DVD "cash cow" is running out of milk, and there's nothing new on the horizon to replace it.
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Intel surrenders in the set-top box war

NewTeeVee reports that Intel has shut down its its Digital Home Group, which was working on chips including Atom-based CE media processors for Internet-based set-top boxes, including Google TV and the Boxee Box. The Digital Home Group team has been reassigned to tablet development. Some work will continue on devices for cable and IPTV set-top boxes, such as the processor that Pace is using in the Xfinity set-top box that it developed for Comcast.

Intel was a partner in Google TV's development, and Intel's involvement was partially responsible for the failure of the first-generation product. The reason was that only Intel processors could be used in Google TV devices, and the cost of Intel's Atom processor made the price of products such as the Logitech Revue uncompetitive. The Revue was launched at $299, then dropped to $250 and now sells for $99. The price of Intel's processors wasn't the only problem, of course; poorly-designed software, inscrutable remote controls and a lack of support from content providers didn't help.

Now, processors based on ARM look like they have the upper hand in future Internet set-top box development. ARM-based processors are less expensive than Intel's Atom, and potential set-top box makers such as Samsung already manufacture them. Apple's A-series of processors is based on ARM. Now, it appears that both Google TV and Boxee will go with ARM for their next-generation products.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

A $60 Video-on-Demand Movie? It's Comcastic!

Fierce Cable reports that Comcast, and its Universal Studios subsidiary, will test releasing a movie to Video-on-Demand (VOD) just three weeks after it opens in theaters. The movie is "Tower Heist", starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, which opens November 4th, and Comcast will run the test in Atlanta and Portland, OR. And the price? $59.95, for which you get to watch the movie once.

(Update--October 13, 2011: Home Media Magazine reports that Universal and Comcast have cancelled their plans to release "Tower Heist" on VOD after two theater chains, Cinemark and National Amusements, said that they wouldn't show the movie if the companies went through with their plans.)

DirecTV already has a program in place with multiple movie studios to show VOD movies 60 days after they open in theaters for $29.95. Comcast's argument is that large families can save money by watching the movie at home instead of buying movie tickets, food and drink. My counterargument is that a family that's looking to save money will wait a few more weeks and get the movie from Redbox for $1, and a family that has to see the movie as soon as it comes out vs. paying $60 to see it at home will go to the theater.

The movie studios are getting more and more desperate to replace the income they're losing from the decline in DVD revenues, and Comcast is trying to fight off Netflix and Amazon by offering movies and television shows sooner than the over-the-top video providers can. However, the value proposition for a $60 VOD movie that's already been in theaters for three weeks is extremely hard to make.
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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Is Apple moving to an incremental product release strategy?

Yesterday's announcement of the iPhone 4S disappointed a lot of people, not just because of Tim Cook's low-key presentation. Many observers were expecting an all-new iPhone 5 with a larger display and a case design similar to the iPad 2. Instead, they got an iPhone 4 with a faster processor and better camera. As a practical matter, the functional difference between what was generally expected in the "iPhone 5" and what Apple actually delivered in the iPhone 4S isn't great. Apple is also going to sell a ton of iPhone 4S phones, regardless of what the pundits think.

The question is whether the iPhone 4S is an interim product designed to buy time in order to get a true 4G LTE model ready, or whether it represents an overall slowdown in product revisions by Apple. On the desktop, the iMac design hasn't changed much in years; the big changes have been internal, with minor cosmetic external revisions. The Mac Pro's external design has barely changed since it was introduced in 2006. There's an excellent chance that the next iPad will combine the iPad 2's physical design with a faster processor, higher-resolution display, and perhaps, a better camera.

Does it mean that Apple will slow down its product development cycles? Will Apple start releasing entirely new iPhones and iPads every 24 to 36 months? Longer product lives would certainly give Apple an opportunity to amortize tooling costs over far more units. It would also give Apple more time to develop completely new designs. After all, Apple will still be selling the iPhone 3GS when it ships the 4S, more than two years after it was first introduced. The 3GS is still a viable entry-level smartphone.

So, don't be surprised if the next iPad looks very much like the iPad 2, and if future iPad and iPhone exterior designs are changed less often. Apple may see no reason to issue an entirely new model every year, until competitors catch up.

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