Wasted SEO And Publishing Companies

Every time I talk to somebody about running a publishing business that gets the majority of its customers from this website, the discussion invariably comes around to SEO - Search Engine Optimization. I don't bring it there myself because I don't believe in SEO in the traditional sense. I do believe in making it as easy as possible for a search engine to index and "understand" my web pages, which is why I began implementing the new canonical link element today. Unfortunately, my website includes a mix of link types in the navigation, both absolute ( and relative (cornered.htm) due to my stubborn refusal to give up my HTML editor from 1995 which won't let me navigate a local version of the site on my own hard drive if I use absolute links. Hopefully, the new canonical link element will make sure the search engines fully credit all of the links to a page in their ranking algorithms.

But most of the money and effort that publishing companies spend on SEO is wasted for one simple reason - they don't publish any content that can benefit from best practices. At best, SEO can make it clear to the search engines what you or your SEO company wants the search engine to think the page is about. Of course, a lot of people with websites try lying to the search engines about the true content of their pages because they don't think they would get enough visitors otherwise. But search engine engineers are pretty smart, so trying to tell them lies isn't very useful, except for out on the long tail where there aren't any competing pages for a specific phrase. For example, if you bought the domain name and posted an essay titled "Why is Morris Rosenthal such a jerk?", no doubt you could get the #1 placement in the search engines for the phrase. But good luck earning a living with a site like that, or with a million more like it.

The reason most publishing companies don't publish any meaningful content is that they still don't understand the web. They basically see it as an extension of glossy magazine ads or as a replacement for the NYT Sunday Book Review, and they vacillate between hoping that the Google Books program will either save their bacon or just go away. The one thing they absolutely won't do is adopt any of their premium content to the web, arranging it in an logical architecture that puts the apples with the apples and the fruitcakes with the nuts, and treat it as a permanent part of their web presence. Without doing that, all the intelligent and even well meaning SEO in the world is wasted, because nobody searches for the CV of the company and nobody will link to the corporate responsibility statement.

In the world of search engines, the #1, #2 and #3 things a website needs to draw visitors are content, content and content. Visitors who arrive at a web page without any meaningful content will never link to that page. It doesn't matter if you buy their visit through advertising, steal their visit with dicey SEO tricks, or even if they stumble on it through your navigation after arriving at the front page your famous publishing company based on your brand. Without those organic links, freely given by individuals through discussion groups, blogs, and their own web pages, your web pages will never build search engine traffic beyond the long tail SEO phrase they were engineered to draw, which won't amount to a pair of beans.

There's something to be said for sticking with what you know, but publishers who aren't willing to learn a little about how search works on the web shouldn't even bother with a company website - it will just prove a distraction and a resource drain. For authors, you could do worse than reading the draft of my abandoned guide to building a platform for marketing books and researching the commercial possibilities of your work. If you want people to find your website, you have to provide content that they want to read. And if you're writing the kind of stuff that nobody wants to read, don't be surprised if nobody does.

Self Publishing Companies Judged by Paying Authors

I started (and gave up on) a project to rank self publishing companies by the author repeat rate. The idea is that authors who pay to publish multiple books through the same company must be happy with the results, or at least, those self publishing companies with the higher repeat author rates must be offering a better service than those with lower repeat rates. You can do this sort of research on Amazon, using the advanced search to bring up titles by a particular company offering paid publishing services, and then looking at the authors of their most recent 100 or so titles. If the author has published multiple books, they'll be listed under the author name, at which point you can check the publisher.

This may be the first time in my life that I gave up on a basic research project because it was simply too much work - and scrolling makes me dizzy. If I'd kept to the basic premise, I could have made it through the recent data for a few self publishing companies, but the project immediately began to expand beyond the immediate scope. For example, a number of authors paying to publish their first book end up publishing a trilogy, or even a half dozen books at the same time. In other words, they've been writing for years, possibly meeting rejection from the trades, and then having all of their works published at once when they find out they can afford it. Another interesting example is authors who jump from one self publishing company to another - who can resist tracking those trends? And then there's the phenomena of authors who have been published by commercial trade publishers shifting to paid publishing, as well as authors who originally paid to get published catching on with a trade publisher.

The amount of data you can generate from simple searches on Amazon is astounding, and a rudimentary survey of the authoring business on Amazon would make an excellent master's thesis for a student in a publishing program. Going really in depth and analyzing, say, the last thousand titles from each publisher for the major author services and trade publishers, should generate more than enough work and data for a PhD dissertation. Even my cursory peek indicated a repeat rate for authors in the double digit percentages, it could run from 10% to 30% or higher at different self publishing companies. It also helps explain the explosive growth in titles. It's not simply that lots of Americans are writing some books, it's that some Americans are writing lots of books. If anybody wants to take on this project, feel free to contact me, and maybe your university will let me sit on your committee:-)

By coincidence, I finished reading the works of Captain Maryatt (who also commented on publishers) this week and started on the novels of Edward Bulwer, more frequently known as Lytton (he inherited the title Lord Lytton). For some reason, the first number in the collection I found begins with one of his later novels, "The Caxtons", published in 1849. The following is quoted from that novel, a conversation between a father, son (Pisistratus) and uncle, where the uncle is setting up a publication society to publish books rejected by the publishers of the day, including the father's master work:

"Milton, sir, as everybody knows, sold 'Paradise Lost' for ten pounds, - ten pounds, sir! In short, instances of a like nature are too numerous to quote. But the booksellers, sir, they are leviathons; they roll in seas of gold; they subsist upon authors as vampires upon little children. But at last endurance has reached its limit; the fiat has gone forth; the tocsin of liberty has resounded: authors have burst their fetters. And we have just inaugurated the institution of 'THE GRAND ANTI-PUBLISHER CONFEDERATE AUTHORS SOCIETY,' by which, Pisistratus, by which, mark you, every author is to be his own publisher; that is, every author who joins the society. No more submission of immortal works to the mercenary calculators, to sordid tastes; no more hard bargains and broken hearts; no more crumbs of bread choking the great tragic poets of the streets; no more 'Paradise Lost' sold at ten pounds apiece! The author brings his work to a select committee appointed for the purpose,- men of delicacy, education, and refinement, authors themselves; they read it, the society publish; and after a modest deduction, which goes to the funds of the society, the treasurer hands over the profits to the author."

"So in fact, uncle, every author who can't find a publisher anywhere else will of course come to the society. The fraternity will be numerous."

"It will indeed."

"And the speculation - ruinous."

"Ruinous, why?"

"Because in all mercantile negotiations it is ruinous to invest capital in supplies which fail of demand. You undertake to publish books that booksellers will not publish: why? Because booksellers can't sell them. It's just probable that you'll not sell them any better than the booksellers. Ergo, the more your business, the larger your deficit; and the more numerous your society, the more disastrous your condition. Q.E.D."

"Pooh! The select committee will decide what books are to be published."

"Then where the deuce is the advantage to the authors? I would as lief submit my work to a publisher as I would to a select committee of authors. At all events, the publisher is not my rival, and I suspect he is the best judge, after all, of a book, - as an accoucheur ought be of a baby."

"Upon my word, nephew, you pay a bad compliment to your father's Great Work, which booksellers will have nothing to do with."

That was artfully said, and I was posed; when Mr. Caxton observed , with an apologetic smile,-

"The fact is, my dear Pisistratus, that I want my book published without diminishing the little fortune I keep for you some day. Uncle Jack starts a society so to publish it. Health and long life to Uncle Jack's society! One can't look a gift horse in the mouth."

If you find the dialog above shows promise, Wikipedia credits Lytton with coining such phrases as "the pen is mightier than the sword", "pursuit of the almighty dollar", and everybody's favorite, "It was a dark and stormy night."

Heavy Iron At Tools Of Change

The final day at Tools of Change made me wish that O'Reilly used some sort of dynamic scheduling, where attendees could vote for which sessions would fill which slots, and where my vote was the only one that counted. As it turned out, there were three presentations in each of the two morning slots that I wanted to attend. I also would have liked to shuffle around the afternoon presentations so I could have attended the ones that interested me and still caught the Amtrak at 3:30 PM.

The exhibit hall included the usual suspects in software and services, but the treat was seeing some publishing heavy metal at work. The first of these was On Demand Books Espresso 2.0 (video below), a self contained book making machine that handles up to 120 pages a minute, with a consumable cost of about a penny a page. The price for these puppies will be somewhere in the $75K and up range when they move out of Beta in a couple months, depends on the laser printer engine you go with. The magic of the Espresso machine is in the paper handling, binding and trimming, and the software that makes it all happen. On Demand Books has an agreement with Lightning Source that will allow publishers using Lightning to make their books available through any outlet with an Espresso, at the same terms those books are currently available into distribution. Whether or not the retailers or institutions who purchase Espresso machines will be in a hurry to print short discount books remains to be seen.

Another impressive chunk of iron is the Kirtas scanner (video below). Using two high resolution cameras and a robotic flipping arm with vacuum suction, the scanner does high resolution imaging of all sorts of physical books. The engineers put a lot of thought into this one, both in terms of getting a high quality scan and in terms of handling books gently. Their software can do OCR or prepare the books for POD, meaning that libraries could scan their out-of-copyright books, print them on an Espresso, and potentially earn a little money selling the copies to patrons who want their own copy.

The most interesting session for me was a CEO round table, moderated by Joe Wickert, including Eileen Gittens for Blurb, (sort of a book maker), Clint Greenleaf of Greenleaf Book Group (distribution), Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson (publisher), Bob Young of (author and self publisher services), and Tim O'Reilly. Out of hundreds of people, Bob Young and I were the only two people in the room wearing hats, so I took an instant liking to his point of view on everything. None of the panelists admitted to being hurt by the economy, Bob Young pointed out that lay-offs give more people time to actually write that book they never would have gotten to otherwise, and Clint Greenleaf claimed it's a great time to hire quality people. Michael Hyatt mentioned that Thomas Nelson had recently reduced from 20+ imprints to just one, as it makes no difference to customers who the imprint is, whatever the original logic behind their history may have been.

Discovery (ie, helping unknown authors find an audience) was a focal point for Eileen Gittens of Blurb, who also spoke about their strategic partnerships with Flickr. The discussion then moved to author platforms, which of course, everybody declared critical. The discussion focused on what the upsteam entities could do to help enable (and perhaps capture) their authors platform building activities, but nobody really spoke in specifics. Bob Young sounded very sincere about wanting to help those authors of theirs whose books were works of genius (he admits that not all are:-), and invited anybody in attendance who really understands building a platform for marketing books to contact him. Since it's a subject I've been preaching about for eight or nine years, and since he agreed to do an e-mail interview, I'll offer him free advice until he cries "No Mas".

In a session titled "Challenging Notions of Free" with Brian O'Lerary of Magellan Media, Mac Slocum of O'Reilly and Chelsea Vaughn of Random House, a statistical analysis of the impact of free ebooks on new print releases was presented. Unfortunately, the data was very, very limited, so the statistical correlation (which was near zero) doesn't mean much. The thought was the free ebook distribution might goose sales of the print books, but with the exception of one O'Reilly title which was a special case, they just didn't see any evidence that was happening. In terms of losing control of ebooks published without DRM, Mac Slocum pointed out that on average, it took a good four months before pirate sites picked up on many ebooks, at which point, who cares. For a frontlist publisher that gets most of their sales in year one (and most of their sell-in during the initial push from press), that may be true. For a publisher like myself who has seen sales for every one of my titles rise for at least three years after publication, four months and out is a problem.

I also attended a session by John Broughton who authored an O'Reilly book about editing Wikipedia which was recently released to the Wikipedia community, meaning that it can now be edited. John had some interesting insights as to what does and doesn't get heavily edited on Wikipedia, he didn't expect anybody to add new chapters to his book, for example, though part of the reason is that he has a high degree of confidence that he covered all the bases. Several question were then raised about whether or not changes done by Wikipedia editors would be included if there were a second edition from O'Reilly, whether and how those contributors would be paid, etc. I lost interest and left around this point as the discussion seemed to be sliding towards the "everything should be free and you should make a living selling T-shirts to people who love you" direction. I might have lasted it out but I was coming off a five minute discussion with another presenter from that camp who used the expression "copyright has been impressed on us." Since her discussion style was to question everything, ie, "Do you really know you are making money from royalties?", I gave up without figuring out whether she seriously believed her business model could work for more than a couple frontrunners.

The general theme of early adopters drinking all the punch came up multiple times in discussions over the conference. Many of the presenters were early adopters of this or that cause in the Blogosphere or Twitterverse, which they've been able to parlay into livings as speakers or consultants. The problem is that only a tiny number of authors or technologists can make a living that way, there just aren't enough eyeballs and checkbooks to pay the second tier. It never occurred to me to try to make a living based on my own frontrunner creds, like turning down three trade offers for my first complete book back in 1996 and publishing it online, which soon led to a better offer that I couldn't refuse. I can't imagine a life spent on the lecture circuit talking about a brief shining moment and selling T-shirts. Oddly, of all the techniques I hear discussed for building author platforms, the one I adopted when I first posted a book draft online in 1995 still makes the most sense to me. Experiment with your content the easiest way possible, but do it on your own dime on your own site or you're just working for somebody else.

Overall, while I was impressed with the intelligence and insight shown by the publishers who presented, but I think there's a bit of denial going on about Google and Amazon. Some publishers seem to be staking their futures on strategies that will bring them into direct conflict with the business models of Amazon or Google. My feeling is that nobody will out-Amazon Amazon or out-Google Google. They are both too firmly entrenched, too far out in front of the pack, and too good at what they do. If some publishers can see over the horizon to what comes after Amazon or Google and are working on those projects, they have as good a chance as anybody, but for the time being, the challenge is working with Amazon and Google, and not investing heavily in a new online bookstore or a site search tool nobody will use.

What Scares Publishers Today

Today was the long session day at Tools of Change, with all day tracks in E-books, Print on Demand, XML and Social Networking/Community building. I believe the idea is to present a fairly comprehensive picture of what steps a publisher who is new to one of these technologies needs to take to get moving. I sat in a bit of the ebook and community building sessions, maybe a half hour each, and I accomplished my goal of not asking disruptive questions.

Listening to the questions posed by others, it's clear that many trade employees are still fixated on the technology (and it many cases, that may be their job function) while other are questioning the big picture - ie, can we make a living doing this sort of stuff. I'd written recently about the inability of large trades to scale down to a leaner Internet/ebook heavy model in order to survive, and about those publishers who trip over technology or spend big dollars for little results. The advertising aimed at publishers in magazines shows they are still buying expensive Content Management Systems (CMS) and vertical integration with XML. A new workflow solution may make sense if you're dumping your old system anyway, but it won't buy you an online presence. There's just no way to automate experience and intent, and taxonomies belong in libraries, not websites. Readers may notice I don't even bother tagging this blog. That's because I figure Google does a better job figuring out what I'm trying to say than I do.

It's hard to get a vibe from a crowd, unless they're burning cars and waving signs, but I got the feeling that the economic climate has publishers very worried, accelerating a loss of control that began with the rise of the B&N and Borders chains and has morphed into a world of Amazon and Google. Publishers once occupied a unique and enviable position in the information and entertainment world, at the center of a tightly knit group of retailers, distributors and trade organizations. Today, if Amazon and Google aren't yet calling the shots, they are at least making it clear that the trade publishers don't either. One fashionable reaction to all of this is declaring that the customer is the only one who should be calling any shots, but the examples of this working for a publisher are at best anecdotal, and at worst, thought-leader fantasies. As some guy in some movie should have yelled, "Show me the tax return".

Speaking of intent, I came to listen but I spent most of my time talking outside the sessions. While this means that a whole new crop of people who have never seen my videos can be sick of my voice, a big thank you to Lynn Scanclon who did recognize my voice from a video and came over to say "Hi" rather than punching me in the mouth. I try not to wash my dirty soul in public, but I'm beginning to suspect that I'd rather listen to myself talk than listen to presentations. Must be all the $^%# blogging taking effect! In any case, I hope to catch the train back in for Wednesday and attend some of the small sessions, so if any of you see me there, remember the no punching thing.

Tools Of Change For The Antisocial Blogger

I'm hoping to make it into Manhattan next week for the Tools of Change conference. The idea behind attending any conference (unless you have a corporate job and see it as a free vacation) is to learn something new. O'Reilly has always done a tremendous job spotting new technologies and trends well before they hit the mainstream (or miss the mark), and if I do attend, I'll try to post about something I've learned each day rather than pointing out what I don't agree with.

The sticking point for me at the professional conferences I've attended over the years is the speaker selection. In general terms, I find the speakers who are hands-on managers or the principals in their publishing businesses well worth the listen. Unfortunately, the many of the speakers at conferences tend to be consultants and opinion makers (read "social bloggers") who are strongly vested in maintaining their point of view. Consultants often force fit the world to match their credentials, and social bloggers generally calcify their positions to satisfy their readers and maintain their position in the blogosphere vis-a-vis other social bloggers.

I've never posted a blog roll, I don't subscribe to any blogs, and there are only two blogs that I check on anything like a regular basis, Tools of Change and Matt Cutts. That make me an antisocial blogger, and since the blogosphere is known to reflect life with 99.94% accuracy, I'll may as well admit that I'm no social butterfly. But I still think it's important to go out and listen to other people's views when I can, and I usually learn something despite myself.

It's not that I'm proud of making mistakes, like the one I corrected in the video above, but I've gotten better at figuring out when I've made a mistake without having to go to the wall over it. The great thing about a conference isn't that you may hear one brilliant person that will change your point of view, that's for children of all ages seeking a guru, it's that you can listen to and meet dozens of professionals in your field who all have a little piece of the puzzle to contribute. After you're back home, you can put all those pieces of the puzzle together and pretend that you came up with this great new idea working in a vacuum. Without having yet attended, I can declare that the true tools of change at the Tools of Change conference will be the people, not the technology.

And in a few cases, I may even be tempted to say about of a presenter, "What a tool."