Monday, January 28, 2013

eBook Publishing Part 1: The Black Libary

I have often shared my frustrations with the ebook marketplace. Many of them deal with the lack of innovation with the ebook format and the distribution of ebooks. Ebooks are simply shoehorned into traditional publishing models in order to protect the current model or to avoid investing into future models. I think publishers have a golden opportunity to capitalize on this moment of transition, and I am frustrated that they either squandering the opportunity or, in some cases, actively opposing it. In Part 1 of this opinion piece, I want to discuss The Black Library as an example of a publisher who understands the ebook market. In Part 2, I will discuss where I think the ebook market should be heading.

Ebooks provide number of key advantages that I believe are largely ignored. However, there are a few publishers who embrace them and none more so than The Black Library. While I do not think The Black Library is perfect, they are quickly innovating their business model and are moving in the right direction. I think they succeed in a few key areas: leveraging technology, monetizing their IP, and marketing.

The Black Library has clearly embraced technology and the internet. The clearest evidence is their shift to direct sales and the way they own the customer relationship. Not only do they engender loyalty, but they also gain access to customer data. Right now, Amazon and others are notoriously tight-fisted about this data to ensure that their customers are loyal to Amazon first and the publishers a distant second. The Black Library’s access to customer data, buying habits, credit card information, etc. is an invaluable tool for developing new marketing strategies. It also allows quicker access to performance data and helps them to adjust their strategies accordingly.

Technology has allowed the Black Library to become more flexible and experimental with their product offerings. Instead of being limited to standard novels, The Black Library now offers short stories, monthly magazines, audio dramas, and exclusive time-limited, print-on-demand titles. In addition, by shifting to a digital first outlook, their offerings can be quickly repackaged. Short stories that appear in their monthly Hammer and Bolter offering can be re-sold individually or bundled into a coherent collection at a later date.

Perhaps the most aggressive move to embrace technology is by The Black Library’s parent company, Games Workshop. Games Workshop now offers their core rulebooks in the iBook 3 format, creating an extremely convenient interactive and auto-updating product. They also regularly post rule clarifications and updates to their core rulebooks. Normally this would become cumbersome to the customer over time. By embracing technology, Games Workshop has created a better product and a satisfied customer base.

Technology has also provided The Black Library the means to more effectively monetize their intellectual property. After all, everyone wants to get paid for their work. The greatest sin of publishing are the hard price points of hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and mass market paperbacks. I feel that this leaves entirely too much money on the table, and it doesn’t even address the entire available market. Some fans are willing to spend much more money on their products (e.g. collector’s and limited editions) while some fans only have enough money to purchase products at an entry-level point.

The Black Library’s approach has been to create a wide spectrum of goods at multiple price points. At the low end, there are $2-$4 short stories and the monthly subscription to Hammer and Bolter that allows readers to sample new authors and new settings. It also gives collectors another place to spend their money. At the high end, there are The Black Library’s exclusive collector’s editions which sell for $50 or more. In between, there are novellas, ebooks and audio dramas. Even here, prices vary with products such as enhanced ebooks which may contain exclusive artwork or premium formating.

Extending this publishing model even further, The Black Library monetizes non-traditional offerings. For example, they offer fans a way to purchase the excellent cover art commissioned by The Black Library. Instead of giving it away as promotional material or not offering it for sale, The Black Library sells oversized poster formats in digital and physical forms. Another example of their non-traditional offerings are the scripts for their audio dramas. Rather than simply sell an audio product, The Black Library cleans up the scripts and sells them as premium hard cover collectibles.

The Black Library is also brilliant in their use of exclusive content. Most of their catalog is offered on their website several months in advance of other retail partners. These products are sold at full list price. Mixed in are niche products that might not be received well at retail but become exclusive offerings on The Black Library’s website.

All these examples simply highlight how The Black Library works to expand their market and give their biggest fans more ways to spend money by reusing and repackaging the content it has already produced. It creates additional revenue streams and higher profit margins while satisfying their best customers and attracting new ones.

The Black Library is also very savvy in their marketing. In particular, I feel they have avoided the biggest mistake publishers make-- creating a community portal. While the work produced by and Suvudu is first class, it also directly competes with the publishers’ biggest fans. Now, fan-created sites such as Dragonmount and have to vie with the publishers for traffic. While the relationship between these sites and the publisher may be cordial, their visitors’ time isn’t infinite and the competition can negatively affect ad revenue.

Instead, The Black Library has made their website dedicated selling product rather than hosting a community. This enables The Black Library to focus more on their books, rather than creating editorial content or community features that might not translate into sales. The Black Library engages and encourages their fandom by promoting reviews and coverage that are already being produced by fans.

The Black Library has also been innovative in creating ways to entice customers to return to their website. One means of doing this is the top-notch newsletters they produce. Not content to send simple text-based missives, they instead sends a newsletter that is well-formatted, informative, and full of great artwork. The Black Library is also careful not to flood your mailbox by carefully coordinating their marketing campaigns. The campaigns are varied, but they have a few staples such as ebook Mondays when they release new short stories. More complex campaigns are carried out during the holidays. For example, during the Advent Calendar event, a new short story is released every day leading up to Christmas. All of these events help drive traffic to their site.

The Black Library is also successful with their targeted campaigns in preparation for big releases (e.g. a new Horus Heresy novel). But their best work is reserved for their exclusive collector’s editions. During the build up to a release date, The Black Library will preview new artwork, interviews, and video trailers. While none of this is particularly shocking or revolutionary, the overall quality of their marketing is so impressive that it is effective at generating interest.

The surprising aspect of this marketing is that it continues after the sale of the book. With the time-limited collectibles, there can be up to eight weeks between the order date and delivery date. The Black Library wisely finds a way to engage the customer in this window of time by sending out status updates on the production process, wallpapers, story excerpts, etc. All of these updates not only keep the customer excited while they wait for the arrival of their order, but they also keep the customer returning to the site and generating traffic.

The Black Library’s marketing success isn’t limited to great newsletters, smart marketing, or promoting web traffic either. They are great at branding their product lines. While there is a clear distinction between Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000, these two categories are still rather broad. The Black Library wisely breaks them down even further-- particularly with Warhammer 40,000K. In this universe, they have grouped titles under series titles such as The Horus Heresy, Space Marines Battles, and Lords of the Space Marines. Within each of these categories, The Black Library maintains a specific tone and subject matter. In this way, they provides a neat structure to their catalog, allowing their customers to more easily find what they want.

Wrapping everything up in a tidy bow is The Black Library’s website. It is easy to navigate, great to look at, and updated frequently. The Black Library doesn’t have much of an option in this regard; by engaging in direct sales with the customer, their website has to be top notch. Frustration would mean lost sales. It seems like common sense that locating a product and buying it should be a seamless process, but at many publishers’ websites, this simply isn’t so. The Black Library nails it.

The Black Library isn’t perfect but they are clearly working hard at it. They are leveraging technology to engage their audience with a variety of efficiently produced products. They find creative ways to monetize all aspects of their intellectual property, allowing them to be more creative and adventurous in their catalog. Finally, they engage in high-quality marketing by drawing their customers in and keeping them. The Black Library trusts their customers, providing DRM-free ebooks and a pragmatic, easy-to-read usage license.

Overall, The Black Library has been most successful at increasing the value of their product. While publishers routinely bemoan the devaluing of books due to self-publishing and ebooks, The Black Library has managed to not only hold the line, but to actually advance. They give nothing away. I think there is something that other publishers can learn from The Black Library and their methods. I am very excited to see how they continue to evolve in the coming years. In the meantime, I will continue to buy their books -- direct.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss what I envision as the future of selling ebooks.

Image Source: The Black Library

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell is the first book in the Widdershins Adventure series published by Pyr. Covenant is presented in an interesting dual narrative with an irreverent tone that softens the darker elements of the story. Marmell’s character, Adrienne Satti (a.k.a. Widdershins), is an interesting and fun character with a love of snark and sarcasm. Marmell’s emphasis on humor occasionally threatens to derail the story but rarely crosses the line.

Covenant is the origin story of the novel’s protagonist, Adrienne Satti-- a young woman whose early life is very much a roller coaster. By the time of the story’s introduction, she has lost her parents, survived as a street urchin, adopted by a noble, framed for murder, and become a thief. When she becomes a thief, Adrienne adopts the name Widdershins to leave her past behind, or so she thinks. The murder is the central mystery of the story and her primary agency.

The narrative itself is composed of two linear storylines. The primary thread is set in the present, and the secondary thread starts in the past. The primary thread begins with the gruesome murder of a secret religious cult’s followers; Adrienne Satti is a member and the only survivor. The secondary thread begins with the death of Adrienne’s parents. It is interesting that Marmell chooses to begin both threads with murder because both tragedies cause Adrienne to be reborn from the destruction of her old life. This narrative element also foreshadows the novel’s end.

Marmell executes Covenant’s the novel’s structure with great success. The parallel nature of the story helps break up the narrative. By alternating between threads, Marmell creates a nice ebb and flow to the story and keeps the pacing brisk. It also provides a means to develop Widdershins’ character quickly. Widdershins is an assumed identity meant to hide her past and her life as Adrienne Satti. It also hides her from the reader. The second thread, set in Widdershins’ past, reveals the girl hiding behind the mask of Widdershins. In this way, Marmell is able to neatly reveal the whole character to the reader.

The most interesting aspect of the narrative is how it places the slaughter of the cult at the center of the story. Widdershins’ tried to flee and hide from these events, but her past will not stay hidden and catches up to her. In the present, Widdershins is drawn into a conspiracy-- one that she discovers is somehow linked to the opening massacre. During the flashback sequences, the links between the two are slowly revealed. By the novel's end, she solves the present day mystery and also comes to understand why her cult was murdered. In this way, Adrienne as a character is made whole again. Structurally, the novel resembles an Ouroboros.

Widdershins is a fun character, which is a good thing since the narrative revolves around her. Her life has been one of constant upheaval, and she has had to largely rely on her own skill and cunning. It also means she has been alone. As a result, Widdershins is a brilliant thief who has poor interpersonal skills and uses sarcasm to keep people at arm’s length. Widdershins is a wonderful and complex character who is easy to cheer.

Providing balance to Widdershins character is the god Olgun, who was the focus of her cult’s worship. When his followers were slaughtered, Olgun hid inside Widdershins. So, while Widdershins may be bereft of human companionship, she has a god hiding in her head. Olgun helps protect Widdershins and lends her a hand during her thieving activities. The most important function of Olgun is to be Widdershins’ friend and conversation partner.

The pairing of Widdershins and Olgun is important because it allows the narrative to have dialogue when it otherwise would not. When Widdershins is alone, she can maintain a running conversation with Olgun. This allows Marmell to explore the environment, crack jokes, and advance the narrative without a lot of awkward inner monologue from Widdershins. The humor would have been very difficult to pull off without making Widdershins appear as an unhinged sociopath constantly cracking jokes to herself.

The humor in Covenant is a two-edged sword and an area where Marmell occasionally stumbles. It functions best when it is irreverent and droll, helping to soften the dark imagery and topics. Covenant’s humor is at its weakest when it veers too sharply toward slapstick or the author’s voice intrudes too much with the sarcastic observations. When this happens, it threatens to trivialize the narrative and break the reader’s sense of immersion. The humor is generally spot on and is one of Covenant’s defining qualities, but the sarcasm may make it off-putting to some readers.

Widdershins was a wonderfully developed character, but some of the secondary characters were lacking. Most of this can be attributed to word count and a worldview where Widdershins dominates the story. As a result, the supporting cast was underdeveloped. Thief Henri Roubet and guardsman Julien Bouniard particularly suffered from underdevelopment. They were interesting and had potential but struggled to break away from basic stereotypes. I look forward to seeing how they develop throughout the series. Yet the character that frustrated me the most was Widdershins’ friend, Genevieve. Ultimately, she felt like little more than a plot device to help wrap up the novel’s ending.

The greatest weakness of Covenant was the beginning. Covenant is an origin story, and a lot of time was spent establishing the setting and characters. As a result, it was not until the middle part of the novel that the story starts to take off. That is not to say the first half is slow or boring; it just doesn't have an apparent direction. Things are happening but there doesn't seem to be a reason. Some readers may find this frustrating. By the second half of the novel, the narrative gained significant momentum and became especially gripping. I hope that this momentum continues into the subsequent Widdershins Adventure novels.

There is a lot to like about Thief’s Covenant. It is a great story that that is well told with a solid sense of humor. Widdershins is a wonderful character with a well- balanced blend of capability and vulnerability. The setting and supporting characters, while a bit flat, have great potential as the series progresses. If you don’t mind the humor and have the patience for the slow start, Thief’s Covenant is a great read that I can easily recommend to all fans of fantasy.

Memorable Quotes:
"'Oh, what?' 'Figs.' 'That's my girl.' The door clicked shut."
"Julien's frown grew even deeper, a feat of true muscle contortion that threatened to flip his entire face upside down on the front of his head."
"The sound of tiny splinters being gouged from the wood snuck through the chamber and went to go lurk in the corner, where it occasionally bounced back at them as an echo."
"'That doesn't remotely alter the fact that I think you're mad as a syphilitic hatter.'"
"'I intend to drug you, and force you to be my guide.'"
Pyr: Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell
Image Source: Pyr
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 978-1-61614-547-7

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2012

I read thirty two novels in the fantasy and science fiction genres in 2012. It is not a huge pool to select from and not all of the novels were published in 2012, hence the "read in" and not "released in." That said, I did read a few novels that I feel stand out from the rest.

Top 3:

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence was my clear favorite for 2012. There was a lot of like about this book but eventually all discussion leads back to the polarizing central character, Jorg. Simply put, he makes or breaks the book for most readers. If you like Mark Lawrence’s vision for Jorg, then the rest of the book will fall into place, providing a gripping and entertaining read. Read my review here: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards is the most unexpected entry on this list. His book came out of left field as I was neither familiar with Salyards nor his publisher Night Shade Books. To find such an unexpected gem is a real treat. Salyards presents a ribald tale of military fantasy with great dialog and smart characterization. Read my review here: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan is a throwback to classic adventure fantasy; a vanishing genre often relegated to self published works. Sullivan’s novel follows the adventures of the odd couple duo, Royce and Hadrian, as they are drawn into a conspiracy of massive proportions. The plot is full of twists and turns. The dialog is engaging. Royce and Hadrian are memorable and fun. Read my review here: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan.
Honorable Mention:

Fulgrim by Graham McNeill is an honorable mention as it is the best entry I have read thus far in the Horus Heresy series. McNeill presents the clearest and most compelling narrative yet on the fall of a Space Marine Legion. While Horus’ fall was largely driven by ego, Fulgrim was based on his insecurities which presented a much more personal story. Read my review here: Fulgrim by Graham McNeill.

Penguin: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Image Source: Harper Collins
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0441020324

Night Shade Books: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards
Image Source: Night Shade Books
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597804073

Hachette: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9780316200714

The Black Library: Fulgrim by Graham McNeill
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self purchased mass market paperback
ISBN-13: 9781849703383

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 in Review

The year 2012 was a big year for my blog. I posted more consistently and saw a lot more traffic as a result. I was excited to pass 250,000 page views, and I narrowly missed hitting 300,000.

Yet there are other reasons why it was a big year for my blog. Early in 2012, I was in a funk, and I was not exactly sure what I wanted to do with my blog. It had been a bit of a hobby since 2008, but it lacked direction. I stopped posting for awhile so I could decide what to do.

After some time, I realized that I wanted to keep blogging but to narrow my focus. Part of my problem was that I was trying to do too many different things. Over the course of the year, I made a number of strategic changes to the blog.

First, I decided I wanted to focus solely on long-“ish” form articles. Specifically I wanted to write 1,000 word reviews and opinions. I felt that re-blogging had become a distraction and was cluttering my blog. Worse, re-blogging buried the most valuable content I produce: reviews. To facilitate this new focus, I deleted all of the short-form articles. I decided that Twitter and Google+ posts were better suited for any shorter form content.

Second, I wanted my blog to be more professional. I identified a few key areas of my blog to improve. I decided to remove all ads, “associate” links, properly source images and review copies. I also decided to provide credible links and develop a consistent style.

Over the course of approximately six months I have accomplished these goals. I went through each post and removed all ads and Amazon Associate links. This was the first task I approached, as I wanted to remove any potential conflict of interest. I also wanted to remove any desire to produce “link bait” traffic for monetary gain.

I thought it would be important to properly source images and review copies. As a result, I went through every post and added a link to the original image source. If I could not locate the original source, I removed the image and replaced it with one I could source. As much as possible, I have tried to use the art supplied by publishers via their websites. I have also identified in each of my reviews the source of my review copies. The majority are self-purchased, but I do have a few ARCs I have received from various sources.

If you follow my Twitter or Google+ accounts, you will be aware I have been critical of publishers. In order to bring my blog in line with my criticisms, I felt that I needed to provide credible links for each of my reviews. To meet this goal, I removed all links to Amazon. Instead, I have provided links to the appropriate product listing on the US publishers’ websites. I feel this satisfies two goals: it drives traffic to the publisher, and provides my readers multiple options for acquiring a copy of the book. In both cases, I receive no monetary compensation.

Lastly, I wanted to develop a more consistent style. To do this, I wrote out a “business” plan for my blog. I detailed out my tag structure, image editing style, where I post my reviews, my review format, and a few other details. Each time I post, I check against this plan and verify I am meeting it.

I am happy with the end result. I think my blog is better now that I have met my goals. It is more professional in appearance and, hopefully, useful to my readers.

Image Source: WordTipping