Paying for Journalism Online

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgIt’s been some time now since the fall of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Sully himself has moved back to a mainstream publication (this time the New York Magazine), and the world has moved on.

Andrew had an interesting idea. Continuing his blog as he had done on places like the Atlantic before, but on his own, allowing people to see a certain number of full-posts through a (leaky) paywall, but giving people full access for a single low yearly fee.

Alas, even Andrew Sullivan, with his huge blog following, couldn’t quite keep it going. For his own health, as much as anything else, he finally called it a day.

Does that mean his experiment failed? Does it mean that paying for online journalism just won’t work? I hope that’s not what people take out of his venture.

First of all, I’m just not sure people will pay to read a blog, that was mostly an aggregate of content from other sites. There might – and only might – be a viable platform for paying to read content, where there’s that direct link between the author and the reader.

The only truly viable platform that exclusively works like that right now is the humble book. Be it a “dead tree” version or an ebook. People, it seems, are still more than willing to pay to consume that written content.

You can say that people are still paying for newspapers and magazines too. Yes they are (though circulations are falling), but think about it, the cost of selling those publications almost never pays for the content. They all have adverts running in them. Today here in the UK, free papers like The Metro are actually (in an income/expenditure sense) among the most successful models right now. They make a lot of money, and don’t charge their consumers for that content.

However, that simple model isn’t working in the online world. Rewind a number of years back. Newspapers started getting websites. Journalists, keen to have their work  be seen by as many people as possible, convinced their bemused editors to let them post all their articles online. That content was available for free. But the value of the advertising (especially considering how clever those media-rich ads could be) was never really understood by the sales teams and editorial teams. Very quickly Google dominated that game, allowing advertisers pay pennies for ads whose equivalent in print would cost many pounds. Google was happy with this because they are working to scale. They can get tens of millions of customers and be quite happy. A modestly popular site that gets, say, 50,000 visitors a week will make a fraction of the revenue from advertising that a weekly magazine with a circulation of 50,000 would make from its ads.

So those appear to be the two main models that people concentrate on. However, I think there’s another model we dismiss at our peril.

Journalists (particularly older ones, like, say, Andrew Sullivan), really dislike “native ads”, sometimes called “sponsored content” or “advertorials”. These are articles usually made by the in-house editorial team, but used to promote a message by an advertiser. Some associate it with Buzzfeed (which does very well, btw), and the like. I don’t see why the concept, with a different tone, couldn’t work in other forms. I’m personally totally okay with that content, as are many of my fellow millennials.

I spoke to a load of people my age (and younger) about this. The response was fascinating. We often seem to be okay with advertorials, as long as they’re called “sponsor content” and is clearly labelled as such. We’re just as likely to read it (if it sounds interesting) as we are the rest of the content. We don’t like being deceived into thinking that an article is purely editorial rather than “sponsored content”, but apart from that, I think we’re okay with it. It’s just more content in the mix.

Unlike the Googlefication of banner ads, etc., sponsored content needs to be high-quality. It needs to be readable. For the consumer, it shouldn’t be in-your-face and offensive (like awful intrusive ads that block the content unless you find the ‘X’ to close it for example). And for the advertiser, it appears to actually have much higher conversion rates than an ad.

It’s scalable, but can’t be automated. A computer can’t automatically write a beautiful, artistic, engaging, clever article for a client. That takes good journalists and copywriters. Therefore, it can’t be made for a few cents. You need to spend real money, and get it out there.

I think that this kind of content can help pay for the other stuff, the content that’s unshackled from the burden of commercial pressures, while making it free to the consumer. It might be online journalism’s best hope for growth.

So I remain optimistic for the future of written journalism and content creation, and I see sponsor content – be it on blogs, news sites, Medium, etc. – as being one of the most interesting and practical ways of getting us there.

Imagine your favourite sites, clean, ad-free, fully-acessable and gratis, with sponsored content among the rest of the work. But paid for and sustainable.

So what do you think? Can sponsored content (done in the right way), be the digital shot-in-the-arm this business needs?

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The Rise, Fall and Eventual Rise Again of eBooks

ebookIt was only about five years ago that the world – and me – decided that print books were going the way of vinyl records. In the mid 2000s, the technology that make e-ink screens possible was finally viable for mass production.

Soon after, Amazon released the Kindle, and ebooks went mainstream. Between 2008 and 2011, ebook sales rose 1,260 percent in the US alone. Game over. Independent bookshops, chains and printers stood in fear, waiting for the final death call.

But it never came. It was a close-run thing. Sales were skyrocketing, and in the US, the collapse of bookstore Borders (which filed for bankruptcy in 2011) seemed to signal the very end.

Then the numbers went the other way. Since then, paper-based books have slowly moved back into the mainstream. By this year – 2015 – people like me said ebooks would overtake sales of print. But it didn’t happen. There was something of a plot twist to this story, that I never saw coming. Book stores – including those independent chains – are stronger and more vibrant today than any time before 2010. The American Booksellers Association says they’ve got 1,712 members stores today, compared to 1,660 in 2010. Today, ebooks occupy about 20 percent of the market. That’s about the same market share in 2012. What happened?

I’ve heard a lot of publishers (and authors who have bought this line too) say it’s simply because readers prefer “real” books. And so digital is at 20 percent, and will stay at 20 percent. The market has spoken. I don’t quite buy this. I think there were two reasons why ebooks sales have slumped: one short(er)-term reason to do with a temporary technology disruption from another market, and a longer-term reason to do with corporatism on behalf of the big traditional book-publishing industry.

Let’s look at the first of those. The first mainstream ebook reader in the US, the Amazon Kindle, cost hundreds of dollars when it was first released in the American market. But it sold well. As is pretty much always the case with technology, the prices quickly went down and the features improved. But it’s just an e-ink screen right? So the improvements were incremental. The real push is to lower the cost. Today in the UK, the basic Kindle, (which is much better than the first generation model ever was), will set you back just £59. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a heck of a drop compared to the first model released in 2008. Most ebooks were usually cheaper than their hardback versions, and paperback editions too. Makes sense really. I mean, there’s not a lot of cost involved in the mass-distrubtion of a file that’s typically only a couple of megabytes big, compared to the printing and distribution of a paper-based product. Amazon made big gains with its cheap $9.99 price guarantee for bestsellers (which, because publishers didn’t have the big costs associated with mass printing and distribution, meant that they also actually made more money from the sales of the cheaper ebook versions).

Then a bit of marketplace disruption occurred. In 2010, Steve Jobs revealed Apple’s iPad. “The Kindle’s been great,” he told the enthralled audience at the keynote speech, revealing the tablet to the world for the first time, “but now we’re gonna take it further.” Stephen Fry upon recording his first impressions of the iPad, couldn’t help but write “…poor Kindle.” Tablets had been around for decades, but the iPad was the first tablet computer that captured the imagination of the mainstream. It was a big success, and dozens of rival manufactures brought out their own tablets (including Amazon, with their Kindle Fire range).

Suddenly, in 2010, millions of customers faced a choice. Buy a Kindle (or other e-reader) for, say, $250, or an iPad for $399. Yeah, the iPad is more expensive, but it can do a lot more an a e-reader, which is after all, a uni-tasking device. And the iPad can read books too. Jobs gave a demo of iBooks, and even Amazon produced a Kindle app, so you could read your purchases on the device. Most people, at the time, weren’t going to buy both devices given the prices, so they bought one. And that was the iPad they bought. Or, other, often cheaper Android/Microsoft-based rivals.

But there’s a problem. Reading a book on a bright computer screen – like an iPad – is not the same as reading it on an e-ink screen. The e-ink screen looks like, well, a page. Just printed text on paper. A regular screen is like staring at your laptop. After a while, holding a bigger, heavier, glaring screen to read a text-based book (like a novel or biography) just put people off. So they stopped buying ebooks, and, rather than buying an ebook reader, moved back to paper-based medium. Once bitten, twice shy.

I think this is a short-term issue. But, judging by how slowly the book industry moves, short-term might be 15-25 years. Based on current pricing, I think that the business model of the Kindle could end up being that Amazon will release it for free (“get a free e-ink Kindle for every 5 ebooks you buy!”). So people can have loads of them, all over the house. If you drop one or leave it on the bus, no matter. You can get another for next-to-nothing, and remote-wipe the one you’ve lost/damaged. This ‘free’ ubiquitous attitude will slowly bring people back to ebooks. The rise of people – some of which are very talented – self-publishing on the Kindle Digital Platform, through Barnes & Noble’s platform, Google, or iBooks through iTunes Producer, can also play a part as we see more and more cheap and readily available work. Think about it, the beauty of this, is even if you’re a first-time self-published author, the fact that you’re able to sell as many books (with no upfront risk or cost) as John Grisham is a really exciting and revolutionary thing. Getting it noticed by the public, especially with lots of people releasing utter garbage remains a challenge.

The second problem I see is a trickier one, that could stop things moving forward for a century or more. This is corporatism on the part of the major book publishers. Once the ebook reader arrived, they could see that with nimble, smart, savvy new writers (think E.L. James et al), soon, publishing a book just by yourself could become the “done” thing, even for well-established writers. If Stephen King publishes a book as a hardcover for $19.99, he could see $3 of it. If he were to publish it himself (paying for an editor, cover designer, etc. himself), he could sell it for, say $5, and still make the same $3 off every sale, regardless of how many copies sell, with no risk of doing an overly-ambitious print-run. And at that price, he’d shift many more books.

The big book publishers saw this as a scary future, one to be avoided if possible. Amazon’s $9.99 Kindle bestsellers deal in the US is over, and the publishers are in charge again now. And they’re charging much more for their ebooks than they were a few years ago, (making them less competitive and attractive to readers) while also doing all they can to lower the price of print-book production through innovations and economies of scale. Hachette boosted their Indiana warehouse by 218,000 square feet last year. Penguin Random House have coughed up $100 million to expand and update its wearhorse operations, with 365,000 square feet added in 2014 to its (already huge) warehouse in Crawfordsville Indiana, doubling its size. The boys and girls at Simon & Schuster are set to do the same to their distribution facility in New Jersey: it’s going to be 200,000 square feet larger.

Why the big investment? Because they can put a stranglehold on this business. At the moment, if people mostly buy print books, then big publishers will remain in charge as the gatekeepers, getting their percentage for every copy sold. Because of these expansions and distribution improvements, it’s now often cheaper to buy a paperback version of a book than the ebook version.

I hope this doesn’t last, but I’m not optimistic. I really like publishers, especially the one’s I’ve mentioned above. But I don’t like what they’re doing here. I envisaged a future for big publishers as representing new talent (and established talent), using their incredible editorial, marketing and promotional skills to be champions of quality. Just because “anyone” can self-publish wouldn’t mean they should. There would be a big market – a demand – for publishers who burrow and forage, looking for the best talent out there, and bringing it to our attention. Yes, the margins could be lower for publishers on a per-book basis, but not having to guess what sort of a print-run etc. they have to do would mean the risk is lower too. And they could invest more time not in building ever-bigger factories, but in nurturing more and more talent.

They’d be so important in this brave future. But I fear (and hope I’m wrong) that they could keep things the way they are for the next century and more, before the number of talented self-published writers tilt the playing-field.

 

But don’t forget, you can buy all of my books – both in print and digitally – here! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the chance to cheapen this article with a plug!)

50 Shades of Snobbishness

50 Shades of Grey book cover

It’s funny isn’t it? A glance at the average persons Facebook or Twitter feed over the last month, and it seems clear that everyone hates the movie adaptation of E.L. James’ bondage fantasy flick “Fifty Shades of Grey“.

Everyone that is, apart from the millions of moviegoers who have parted with over $150 million and counting of their own money in the US alone since its release.

The box-office gross figures on the Internet Movie Database are right below the current top-ranking review of the film, a one-star review that is simply titled “Oh this film was just DREADFUL!”

How do we square the contradictions here? We don’t need to, it’s actually a common attitude to popular art.

The one thing that’s more entertaining than enjoying a popular piece of art (be it a song, painting, movie or novel), is often to trash it. That’s very fashionable.

There are well-documented critical reviews of the “hack” Shakespeare or Dickens, and this criticism usually coincides with artists being at their peak, at their most popular.

Maybe some of these criticisms are valid, but it doesn’t really tell you much about the quality of the work, which was/is popular, and usually is very good.

So the “I’m oh-so fashionable” criticism descends into something more base: snobbishness. This is a trend that does on throughout popular culture, whether it’s the written work of E.L. James, the film adaption, or the work of Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling or any other successful writer.

It’s not hard to find old archives full of people explaining how the emergence of Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley was the beginning of the end for “good” or “proper” music. I think it’s wise to remember that they said the same of Frank Sinatra, or Miles Davies, or even Beethoven.

I’ll readily admit that E.L. James’ novels haven’t really appealed to me. But that’s just me, and, given the weight of enthusiasm and support (those sales numbers are very impressive), it’s clear that there’s a strong constituency that feels very differenly about her work. I admire their enthusiasm and respect their choices.

Because to dismiss her work basically because it’s become so popular, places critics onto the ash-heap of irrelevance.

Writing Apps

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Are you a writer?

What software do you use to write? It’s a question I’m asked a lot.

The truth – cliched and as obvious as it is – is that there’s not one single application that is the writer’s tool. Everyone writes differently, so everyone will find different tools work better for them.

Here’s some I use:

When I’m sitting by a computer, just trying to get some ideas down, I’m a big fan of OmmWriter. It’s a distraction-free writing tool that provides a sound-scape, inspiring backgrounds and encouraging clicking sounds as you type. There’s a few options, but it’s basically a text-editor and all the tools get out of the way when you start writing.

When I have a general idea of, say a novel I want to write, I use one of a number of iPad apps to “block out” the story. One I’m currently using quite a bit is Index Card, because of it’s integration with Scrivener (which I’ll talk more about in a moment). But Scrivener is supposedly releasing an iPad app in its own right that I’m looking forward to, so that might be my go-to app for planning a story in the future.

And that’s because when it comes to putting a novel or long-form written piece together, for my money, Scrivener is currently the best app I can find. I use the Mac version, so I can’t say anything about the Windows version (which I hear has fewer features) but it’s fast and nimble. Whether you are working on an empty new document, or one with thousands of documents, images, notes, and chapters making up a 250,000-word masterpiece, Scrivener remains incredibly responsive.

It’s cheap for what it is, and is feature-rich. But the real beauty of Scrivener is that you only need to learn the features you need, and you can discard the rest, or use them when you find a use for them. Not learning everything (and there is a lot to learn) doesn’t hamper your ability to get a lot out of this remarkable and well-thought-out app.

But that’s just me, your mileage my vary.

I say try everything out you can, and you’ll find a workflow that works. This “software experimentation” requires time and patience, but it’s worth investing that time as it could save you hours (or possibly months) of time later when you find yourself knee-deep in an epic project and only then realise you’d rather work in a different way. Get it right for you from the start, and you’ll avoid lots of headaches later. And I speak as someone who has made that mistake far too many times.

If you’re really inspired, a simple notepad and a text editor will do the trick. But using some of these tools allow the difficulty and mechanics of writing to get out of the way, leaving you with your ideas and the tale you want to tell.

Happy writing and good luck!

The Best Deterrant to Piracy

PiracyEarlier this year, the chief content officer of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, pointed out that in places where Neflix was available, BitTorrent traffic fell. This is an interesting correlation. Cheap, easily available access to content on most devices without restriction encourages people to happily pay for it without looking for illegal alternatives.

One of my sources in Silicon Valley has told me that there are more users of Final Cut Pro X, Apple’s latest incarnation of their professional video editing software, than every Final Cut Suite user they have ever had. Yet the percentage of pirated versions of that software is lower than ever. This is a piece of software that only costs $299 (compared to the old suite which was north of a grand) and basically allows you to run and install it on every Mac you own or are allowed to use, with no restrictions. Improvements and updates occur automatically using the Mac App Store, so you always have the latest and greatest version.

And that same source tells me that Adobe have seen estimated piracy levels fall (though all of this is admittedly hard to quantify) since launching the Adobe Creative Cloud: Full access to the latest versions of all their pro software (a good few grands worth) for about $50 a month.

There’s a pattern here. Lots of films, music, ebooks and software is expensive, and saturated in lots of restrictive DRM (Digital Rights Management, i.e. copy-protection software) that dictates how and where you can use your content. On the other hand, most pirated content online can be used – and re-purposed – in a variety of different ways with no restrictions. In short, it’s more open, and it’s (mostly) free.

But when content creators publish their content without heavy-handed DRM restrictions, and at a much more reasonable price, then a supply-side effect seems to take place, where more people purchase the content and fewer people pirate it. The content producers (and as a novelist, I include myself in that group) earn more money.

Rather than create more rules and more restrictions on how we can use content, I’m hopeful that a cheaper and more open future is the direction we continue to move in.

DRM on eBooks

wbookA great post on TechDirt about an ebook publisher that hasn’t seen any significant increase in piracy since they stopped using DRM (Digital Rights Management, or copy-protection) on their titles.

If anything, the number of copies purchased increased. I always thought this would happen if you sell your digital products that are more aligned to what the market wants – i.e. a very good price and with no restrictions on where you can make use of them – you will always be better off.

If you have heavy copyright restrictions on a song, TV show, movie or ebook, the pirated version is actually better than the legit version. And you’ve just created a kind of moral hazard – there is now an almost valid reason or motivation to remove that copy-protection and once you’ve done that, why not just add it to a file sharing site or torrent? Where as if you just have it available cheaply, and copyright-free, people just buy it, use it, and – generally at least – have less motivation to share it. Just buy it yourself dude, and use it however you’d like.

Now let’s be clear, I’m a hypocrite. All of my books are available on the Nook, Kindle iPad, etc. And all of them have DRM. But that’s seldom a decision that’s made by the author. That’s a publisher/distributor issue. And I’d love to have no DRM on my books. In fact, DRM-free pdf versions of most of my books are available and as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t increased piracy on my books one jot.

The NHS – Britain’s State Religion

I’ve only just stumbled upon “The Backbencher“, a UK-based libertarian-leaning online blog/magazine. How did it take me so long to find it?!

I think I’m going to find lots of remarkable, thoughtful and engaging content there – I highly recommend that you have a sift through and find some gems of your own.

For starters, here’s a great article on the NHS not being the “envy of the world” as so many of it’s obedient congregation call it. I couldn’t have summarised my views any better if I tried.

Hello Backbencher – very pleased to meet you!