Another, better way to reach e-book readers

While pondering the e-book landscape, it’s best not to jump to any conclusions about how things will unfold. So far we’ve all been handed a few pieces of technology that are ungainly, untested, and extremely powerful. If you think you know how they will ultimately fit together, you are probably mistaken. There are some really smart and creative folks out there who are highly motivated to find clever ways to use what they’ve been handed, and they’re not done thinking things through.

Here’s an example, an idea buried (!) in a dialog between Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch on the state of e-book publishing.

Joe: Barry Eisler has been working with his web designer on a PayPal store that automatically delivers ebooks to anyone who wants to buy through his website. Which got me thinking.

If I gave Barry two of my titles to sell on his website, we could split the money 30/70 on any he sold. Then I could sell two titles of Barry’s on my website.

If I did this with a hundred authors, making sales from their books on my site, making sales from my books on their sites, I’m doing something analogous to cloud computing. I’m selling my books via a network rather than a specific location.

Blake: I’m also talking to a company right now who wants to do this very thing. They sought me out, because they saw a huge opportunity here to turn author websites into storefronts with the maximum amount of profit going to the writer. Their demo is mind-blowing and so smart. A reader can register their device on an author’s website, and with a 1-click, have an ebook delivered straight to the device, the convenience factor has suddenly made shopping at a writer’s website no different than shopping at Amazon or BN.com. And don’t you think readers want to spend their money where the maximum amount goes to the writer?

Joe: Earlier, I talked about the ereader itself being a storefront. But web sites are also a storefront. They’re the purest type of storefront as well, because they are a direct link between reader and writer. No publishers taking money. No retailers taking money (other than a small PayPal fee.)

Writers need to have their own PayPal stores. And it’s a smart idea to say, "If you like my books, here are some others you might enjoy," and then offer other authors’ books, as well.

If you were selective, choosing only books in your genre with similar appeal, you’d be helping readers wade through all the ebooks out there by giving them specific recommendations.

One of the key pieces of the puzzle has proven to be one-click purchasing of ebooks. Folks are most likely to buy a book at the point of discovery, and each additional step needed to complete a purchase makes the purchase less likely. This is why writers should be thrilled to give Amazon 30% of the transaction when a reader discovers a book on their website. But it’s reasonable to be less thrilled about giving up that 30% when the reader discovered you through your own website—and then had to be redirected to another site, making the sale less likely. My guess is the cost of putting one-click ordering on your site will be much less than 30%.

I also love the idea of selling other writer’s books on your website. Everybody wins—your readers are exposed to writers you recommend, the other writers get some highly targeted exposure, and you are rewarded for sharing some of the attention you’ve earned.

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Shorter versions of books

In his book Conscientious Objections, a collection of essays, Neil Postman asked a challenging question that was astonishing coming from a writer—and then proceeded to answer his own challenge.

Why are books so long? Do the weighty thoughts of authors require it, or is it the economics of the publishing industry? Suppose there was a severe paper shortage, so that all books were restricted to a maximum length of fifty pages; would it not be possible for authors (at least of non-fiction) to say what they had to say in that space? Perhaps not for all of them. But most of them could, at least after some practice. The possibilities of such a situation are pleasant to contemplate—the cost of books would go down, the number of books we could read would go up. The improvement in the general quality of writing would be significant.

The following two essays represent my attempt to say, in the most economical way, what I had to say in the two books I wrote prior to this one. If you have read those books, these short essays may be ignored. If you have not, you should be able to get my points in the twenty minutes or so it will take to read each of the essays. [Emphasis added]

More astonishing still is that the two books he summarizes are already among the most economical I’ve read, with Amusing Ourselves to Death clocking in at 175 pages and The Disappearance of Childhood at 150 pages. And these books contain some of the most important thoughts I’ve ever read.

But important thoughts in unread books are buried treasures, and with so many books to be read these days it’s likely those treasures will never be unearthed by their natural audience. If you’re lucky a friend will urge you to read one, and out of a mixture of trust and courtesy you’ll stick with it long enough to have your interest engaged. Otherwise you could search endlessly for exactly what that book contains and never encounter it.

Postman’s answer to his own challenge is a possible way out of the dilemma. If the core of a book could be presented in an essay that took twenty minutes to read and digest, maybe five minutes to skim, maybe one minute to capture your interest—then readers could graze more widely, and the grass would be much more nourishing as well.

While I was thinking about this, the penny dropped: what if writers would accompany their books with a summary essay that was well written, substantial, comprehensive—and free? A grazing reader might easily give you a minute of their time to take a look. Some might be intrigued enough to spend five minutes skimming the piece. Some of those might be enticed into reading and digesting it. At that point many readers might decide they’d read enough—but would also be satisfied with how your piece had rewarded their attention, might recommend it to others in their social network, might even look at other things you had written or put you on their list of writers to keep an eye on.

And some few of those who read the essay would be intrigued enough to want to read the entire book. Pay for it, even. These would be the natural audience for what you had written. And the only cost of reaching them (aside from the extra work a summary essay requires) is losing out on sales to people who aren’t part of your natural audience anyway.

I don’t really have time to write a book. But I might write one anyway, just to test this approach. This particular book would be aimed at people who want to become musical performers, telling stories about our own adventures to illustrate the lessons we’ve learned. The summary essay would be freely available, a very short standalone work with all the vital information contained in the book. The book itself would not cover new ground but the same ground in significantly more depth.

And although I’m not sure this particular book would support it, I think that anyone taking this approach should consider creating a second book of extras, e.g. sections that didn’t make it into the final book, related writings, any other goodies you can think of—akin to the extras one finds on a DVD these days.

So, the idea is: freely distribute a very short but complete work that summarizes your book. Sell the book itself, to people who know in advance that they want to read the book. And sell a separate book of extras to those readers who loved the book so much that they want to get their hands on more of the same.

The pursuit of expertise

More than ever I think the likelihood of making a living as a musician is vanishingly small. And I am at best agnostic about the idea that music (or any other art) is its own justification—money is far from the only reason to pursue skills in an art, but there still ought to be a reason for it, one that can help you decide whether the pursuit is worthwhile. So why do I think it is a fine thing when I see someone with a burning desire to become an excellent musician?

Bob Lefsetz talks a lot about one of Malcolm Gladwell’s claims, that it requires 10,000 hours of concentrated practice to develop expertise in an area. And then Lefsetz had dinner with Gladwell one night [emphasis added]:

And then dinner was finished.  And I had an internal debate.  Should I ask my one big question, the one that had been haunting me for months, whether you were [doomed] if you switched gears and entered a new territory, after devoting 10,000 hours to one?

I took the risk.

The change was stunning.  Suddenly, this wiry Canadian turned into "Malcolm Gladwell".  The gentleman you see on television, the confident storyteller.  Malcolm said you got credit, that the hours were transferable, because those who devoted this amount of time to a pursuit were self-selecting.

BINGO!

In other words, it’s hard, and lonely, to put in 10,000 hours.  You’ve seen the Olympic athletes on TV, they send a crew to shoot footage prior to the quadrennial games and the sportsman or woman is running down an abandoned highway in the middle of summer, shvitzing up enough sweat to fill a swimming pool.  If you want to be great, you have to not only work, but sacrifice. You can’t spend endless hours somnambulant in front of the TV screen, you can’t go out partying every night.  You’ve got to dedicate yourself to your pursuit.

It’s not the mastery itself that is critical, it is that someone has learned to master a skill.

It’s well known that it doesn’t matter much what computer language a programmer cuts his teeth on; a good programmer can be fluent in a new language in a week or less if necessary. In learning the first language the programmer (a good one, anyway) has learned much more than the language. The language itself is a small part of the mastery.

I’ve watched in amazement as Chris has picked up an unfamiliar stringed instrument (mandolin, tenor guitar) and within minutes stated picking out melodies and forming  chords. I’ve watched in amazement as he puts his guitar in an unfamiliar tuning and within minutes begin to play, and soon after that begin to find new sounds. Most of what I know how to do on an instrument is rote, not expertise at all. His knowledge of the guitar is really a knowledge of music, which he is able to translate onto any instrument at hand.

I agree with Gladwell in the bolded text above that experts are self-selecting. Putting in 10,000 hours is not a magic ticket to expertise, but every expert has the 10,000 hours in his background because only those with the potential to become experts are dedicated enough to put in the hours.

But I think experts are at least partially made, that the inclination to develop expertise needs to be carefully cultivated. Which is why I think it is important to encourage the pursuit of expertise in whatever area a child is most inclined, even if the resulting expertise may not be especially valuable in today’s world. The task itself is very hard, and might be abandoned when any number of obstacles are encountered. If you can find a subject where your child is eager to invest the 10,000 hours, and then guide them safely and wisely through the process over the many years it will take, you will have done a fine thing. The mastery itself may or may not be valuable. But the ability to become a master will be invaluable.

I Didn’t Know Them At All

I’ve wanted to write songs for awhile now, but didn’t really know where to start. One thing I did know was that I liked songs which used a real-life incident to point to a deeper truth, and when years ago I read about the incident described in the first verse of this song I filed it away in my mind. But despite occasional efforts I never got further than that.

Coming back from West Virginia with a song seems to have broken the ice for me, and when I turned back to this idea it became clearer what I wanted, and I had the ideas for the second and third verses. But the words weren’t coming to me easily.

Just Friday I was reminded of a song I’d always wanted to do, “I Saw a Man at the Close of Day,” and thought about using its melody. There wasn’t room in the melody for the words I had written—and that turned out to be the key. I pared down the verses to fit, and the result seemed right.

Chris and I tried it for the first time yesterday, and although it needs to be polished I think the result is already pretty good. We recorded this at the Coffeetree this afternoon.

The preacher and his wife walked down
To the station in the pouring rain
They stepped onto the tracks, stood and held each other tight
And turned to face the oncoming train

     I always thought I knew them well
     Never thought that they could fall
     But folks can hide what they want to hide
     I didn’t know them at all

My folks built a marriage oh so strong
Deeper love I’ve never known   
Then an old flame lured my mother away
Left my father all alone 

     I always thought I knew her well
     Never thought that she could fall
     But folks can hide what they want to hide
     I didn’t know her at all

I talked to my boy on the phone last night
First time in fifteen years
He told me he wished he’d never left
And I couldn’t hold back my tears

     I always thought I knew him well
     Never thought that he would call
     But folks can hide what they want to hide
     I didn’t know him at all

Kentucky Fudge Company jingle

After writing a jingle for the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, it didn’t seem right to neglect our other favorite venue, the Kentucky Fudge Company in Harrodsburg. Since they are located in a historic downtown drugstore and cultivate a nostalgic vibe, I tried to emphasize that. The melody is taken from “Homestead on the Farm,” an old song the Carter Family brought back.

Well I’m thinking of the old Fudge Company
I wonder if they still remember me
Jennifer and Tim would welcome me right in
Each time I came by for a bite to eat

We’d laugh and catch up on the latest news
I’d want some ice cream but could never choose
I never could be done till I’d sampled every one
Well I’m thinking of the old Fudge Company

If I wanted something sweet to take along
Or to have the Ridgewood Boys sing me a song
I’d make my way on down to the center of the town
Where life was good and nothing could go wrong

Harrodsburg is calling out to me
The good old days are waiting there, you see
Jennifer and Tim will welcome you right in
Let’s head down to the old Fudge Company

Songwriting

I’ve thought for years about writing songs. Not because I had a burning desire to do it, but there are good practical reasons for any musician to write his own material. They’re original, for one thing; even a lesser song has value just by being unique. And it can be easier to inhabit a song you wrote, helping you to sing it better.

I couldn’t imagine how to start, though. And the most common advice is “Just write something!” Which turns out to be excellent advice—if you can somehow follow it.

When Chris and I were at Early Country Music Week in WV, I took two singing classes, one from Barry Tashian and the other from Barry and his wife, Holly. Their history is well worth reading about. Both write songs, and at one point Barry talked about a song inspiration gone haywire. His great uncle immigrated from Turkey, part of the journey as a stowaway, became a very successful businessman in Chicago, and entitled his autobiography Stowaway to Heaven. Barry thought it would be a good hook for a gospel song, worked on the idea for awhile, then abandoned it when he realized that you can’t stow away to heaven—after all, where would you hide?

I thought it was a cool idea, though. And on the long drive home from West Virginia I put together most of a song based on the idea that you can’t stow away. Somehow the rhythm of the words I had suggested an old song to me (“Just Because”), which was the basis for my own melody but different enough that you wouldn’t confuse them.

Here’s a version we recorded last week at the Kentucky Coffeetree, along with the lyrics. (You’ll see that one line is still awkward and not settled—the lyric reads differently from what I sang.) One peculiarity is that the song is very wordy, whereas the songs I tend to admire are pretty spare. But that’s just how it turned out.

You Can’t Stow Away on the Gospel Ship

Every time that the doors of the church were open
You could find me sitting there inside
But I never walked the aisle or knelt down at the altar
I was only along for the ride
I would sing and shout with the brothers and sisters
But I never could bring myself to pray
And then the preacher said the words that set my spirit free
I still think of that glorious day

     He said, You can’t stow away on the gospel ship
     You’ve got to sign up for the ride
     Cause Jesus watches over that old ship of Zion
     And there ain’t no place to hide
     But the passage is free if you’ll only believe
     The Savior will welcome you inside
     You can’t stow away on the gospel ship
     You’ve got to sign up for the ride

He said, Some people think this building is the gospel ship
Just come inside and catch yourself a ride
But it’s the people not the building that are sailing up to heaven
As our Captain carries us o’er the tide
You’ve got to trust and obey, leave your burdens at the altar
Walk the aisle, give your life to the Lord
You’ll be walking up the gangplank of that old ship of Zion
Where the saints will welcome you aboard

Well, now here I’d been thinking that heaven wouldn’t take me
Till I’d made myself spotless and white
But finally I knew I could lay it all on Jesus
And He would make everything right
I walked up the aisle and knelt down at the altar
The brothers and sisters gathered round
And as I gave my heart to Jesus, we raised up a song
We set sail with a glorious sound