Saturday, March 30, 2013

eBook Publishing Part 2: Data, Discoverability, and Diversification

When you look at ebook publishing long enough you realize something curious; Amazon is consistently swimming against the current. When publishers and all other retailers zig, Amazon zags. It is reminiscent of Warren Buffet’s investment moves. In my opinion, Amazon is consistently making the correct moves while publishers and other retailers are making the wrong moves.

Amazon keeps their focus on three core points: data, discoverability, and diversification. All other competitors are routinely missing these points or are simply unable to execute on them. Amazon has done a number of things very well in the ebook space, and I believe that drives not only their market dominance but also sustains it. Publishers in particular need to steal from Amazon’s playbook and not continue their current course of propping up old distribution models, e.g. Pearson’s investment in Barnes and Nobles, or focus on top down editorial curation, e.g. Bookish.

The single most valuable asset publishers possess is their catalog. While I am sure many would argue that their editorial staff is their best asset, it is neither scalable nor unique. What is unique is the publishers huge trove of publishing rights and data found in their catalog. Publishers need to leverage this-- turn it into a platform as Amazon has done with their Kindle platform--and make it an open platform rather than a closed one. In doing so, I think publishers can address, if not solve, the problems of data, discoverability, and diversification.

How would an open platform with a solid API aid the publishers? First, it lets you attack the issue of diversification. At present, ebooks are consolidated down to less than handful of retailers. Amazon is 50-70% of the market with Barnes and Nobles, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play Books divvying up the rest. This shifts all of the power to the retailer. Much ink has been spilled in bemoaning the loss of independent bookstores. An open platform providing access to the treasure trove of catalog data would allow every app developer, social network, etc turn into an independent bookstore on an agency model via in-app purchasing. Much as Amazon provides their Amazon Associates platform to allow everyone to become a reseller, so too can publishers.

By doing so, you provide the entire book ecosystem a solid alternative to Amazon. Publishers can also dictate the terms. The crown jewel would be data sharing. Amazon and others are notoriously picking about sharing data back to publishers. By providing a platform to developers, publishers can also demand access to more data. Better yet, they would have access to highly-specialized data. By allowing open access to a platform API, publishers encourage the organic growth of niche applications and communities and from them highly-detailed data sets. Amazon is currently destroying all competition when it comes to data collection. Amazon Associate links turn every blog into a data collection source. Amazon’s website and purchase history is a massive source of data. Finally, Amazon’s purchase of multiple social networks, including Goodreads, is another source of high-quality data. No one else is even close to Amazon when it comes to data collection. By providing an open platform API, publishers will nurture new sources of high quality data.

What good does all this data do? Data is the key to driving discoverability. Retail is still king when it comes to discoverability. Online retailers have not yet cracked the code to replicating the success of shelves filled with high quality cover art and potent back cover sales copy. Amazon is getting close and is much further ahead than their competition. But, by providing an open platform, publishers can harness the power of the book community. This gives access to data that helps to better market books, but it also harnesses the creativity of countless entrepreneurs as they seek to make money from selling books. So even if publishers don’t crack the code, someone utilizing their platform will. It also fosters a bottom-up editorial system by encouraging niche communities around apps, blogs, etc. These niche communities are the front lines of genre development and critical to understanding where consumers’ tastes are heading.

In my previous article in this series, I highlighted how publishers could embrace ebooks as a new medium not limited by the rules of traditional publishing. In this article, I am attempting to highlight how publishers and retailers need to adapt their business models in the face of the tidal wave of distribution disruption that is the internet. This is the more pressing issue of the two. Amazon has shown that they are the only competitor at present with both the means, desire, and skill to be the market leader. Amazon’s competitors lack the desire (Apple and Google), skill (Barnes and Nobles) and/or means (Kobo) to be a serious competitor. Publishers’ can fight back by taking control of their catalog, fostering a new wave of online independent bookstores, and capitalizing on the flow of data. I think having a strong, diverse marketplace will ultimately be more beneficial to readers than a benevolent dominance from Amazon.

Image Source: AllThingsD

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is the first book in The Crescent Moon Kingdoms series published by DAW. A synopsis can be found here. Throne is a sword and sorcery tale centered on an unlikely hero-- a sextagenarian holy man in the twilight of his career as a ghul hunter-- Doctor Adoulla Makhslood. The good Doctor’s thoughts of retirement are rudely disrupted when a danger greater than anything he has ever faced threatens his beloved city of Dhamsawaat. Gathering his allies, Doctor Makhslood embarks on a quest to save his city and Kingdom that cradles it.

Throne may be a familiar tale, but Ahmed presents it in an unfamiliar way and with uncanny skill. Doctor Makhslood is a dynamic and endearing character, noble of heart and world weary under the burden of his calling. The Doctor is the engine that drives the narrative, and Ahmed brings him to life through a wonderful mix of dialogue and inner monologue. Yet, most important element of his character development is his interaction with the supporting cast.

Through the supporting cast, the Doctor is truly brought to life. Each of the characters complement the Doctor in some way. Raseed’s youth and naivety is a source of constant irritation to the experienced Doctor. Zamia’s nomadic roots contrasts sharply with Adoulla’s educated and urbane existence. Lastly, Dawood and Litaz’s marriage and companionship reveals a missing element of Doctor Makhslood otherwise full life; it reminds him of what he has sacrificed. Yet for all of their differences, the characters are bound by a desire to do God’s work. Out of this arrangement springs the novel’s wonderful dialogue.

The novel’s antagonists are also presented in a nuanced and complementary manner. Orshado is the primary villain, and he typifies his role beautifully. Orshado is a vile man in both mien and manner. Accentuating his aura of evil is the fact that he does not speak, instead leaving this to his supernatural minion Mouw Awa. Orshado is evil’s evil-- alien in motivation to the masses of humanity. Providing contrast to the simplicity of Orshado are the dueling characters of the Khalif and the Falcon Prince. The Khalif is amoral and selfish; his people suffer under his self-indulgent tyranny. Opposing him is the Falcon Prince. He is a man of the people who is filled with righteous fury-- willing to kill, murder and steal in the name of the greater good.

Ahmed’s world-building in Thone is equally fantastic. To simply call it Arabian would be dismissive and overly reductive. Ahmed has brought to bear a studied knowledge of peoples and cultures stretching from Cordoba to Mumbai. Drawing together these threads of inspiration, Ahmed has woven a tapestry whose milieu is both familiar and unique. The setting also integrates into the dialogue with atypical phraseology such as the useage of Auntie and Uncle. All in all, the world-building is well done and refreshing.

Lastly, you cannot ignore Ahmed’s skillful writing. Throne is impeccably crafted. You can feel the obsessive focus on the characters and the plot. There are few extraneous words and even fewer extraneous passages. The pacing is very uptempo and is never derailed by obnoxious info dumps or side stories. The novel isn’t simply all action either; Ahmed deftly layers questions of duty, honor, sacrifice, and faith within the narrative. Gluing everything together is the wonderful dialogue. Each character speaks with a unique voice-- which is a feat given the diverse cast.

There were a few things I disliked about Throne. My biggest complaint lies with the under-utilization of Zamia. I wish Ahmed would have given her more attention, especially after the attack by Mouw Awa. Instead, too much of her interaction seem to happen off scene. Whereas Raseed had his errand for the crimson quicksilver and his accompaniment of Litaz to Yaseer to add nuance to his character. Without a comparable narrative sequence, I feel that Zamia’s character remains underdeveloped. I am hoping this is fixed in the second novel in The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a brilliant debut novel and a great novel by any standard. Above all, Throne is incredibly well written. Saladin Ahmed presents a familiar tale but makes it his own with an unfamiliar setting and protagonist. In addition, Ahmed elevates the traditional sword and sorcery format by weaving in social observations, moral quandaries  and emotional costs to the story’s characters. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a great novel, and I highly recommend it.

Memorable Quotes:
"Instead of a blissful marriage, he had monstrosities on his mind and a pile of “should haves” pressing down upon his soul."
"No doubt the dervish was twisting himself in knots trying to square the circle of his pious oaths with a young man’s natural reactions, and only half aware he was doing so."
“'Patience, little moon, is a warrior’s virtue,' he would say. 'Your strength alone is not enough. You must have knowledge, too, little rose. And judgment. And, as I say, little emerald, patience.'”
"Matters of state were about hypocrisy as much as anything else."
"Then Doctor Adoulla Makhslood got down on his knees, touched his forehead to the ground, and wept before the woman he would wed."
Image Source: Penguin
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781101572405