Last year I reported often about companies like Trafford Publishing and Ingram's Lightning Print. They use computers to publish books one or two at a time, allowing authors a full profit on their work (if they market it themselves), without having to carry a lot of inventory. Sure, I reasoned, this is a xerographic process, not offset printing, but after a few thousand dollars up-front for typesetting, a cover, and initial production, anyone can become a publisher.
Now I have a soft spot in my heart for editors. Good editors are hard to find. And many good book editors today are out of a job. If self-publishing works for authors, could it not also work for editors? Well, after finishing my own minor sci-fi opus, "The Time Mirror," I offered it to Jim Pettigrew, a long-time friend, writer and editor. When he came to town recently, for the wedding party of a friend, he sat me down on a hotel bed and spun a chilling tale.
Major publishers will no longer look at anything that's not practically a guaranteed best seller, he said. So publishers are shortening their lists. They're squeezing out authors - especially fiction authors. They're also squeezing out editors, who no longer have time to edit. Even experienced writers and editors who sell steadily and do good work are being dropped with Germanic efficiency, and while the writers do get deals with regional publishers, new authors (and fine editors) can't get a hearing at all.
Instant printers alone won't solve the problem, Jim continued, because good writing is always a full-time job. To produce good work, writers need editors, advocates and the time (time is money) to pursue their dreams. Amazon and Barnes & Noble.Com aren't doing much to change this. They're bookstores, making their money on volume. How, Jim asked, can the Internet solve this problem, which has turned American literature into a drone of TV sitcom spin-offs and celebrity hagiographies?
Never one to shirk from a brainstorming challenge, I instantly replied "reading clubs." Agents need to get together with editors, around specific topics, and use the Web to bring together readers interested in those areas. They'd encourage submissions, and the best of the edited copy would then be sold (and discussed) through the new imprints' Web sites.
How do you attract readers in the first place? By sharing readings (and discussions) of existing books as Amazon or Barnes & Noble "associates." Sure, the associate income is chump change, but it quickly gets the discussion going, and that's what you want. The discussion would be digested, as a shared, sponsored e-pub. Maybe one submission in 100 would get edited, and offered (even serialized) on the site, with a discussion group attached. Work with the insta-printers on initial sales (directly through the site), and when volumes permit, do a deal for an offset print run (then let the Amazons carry it). Authors should do better on a per-book basis using this model than they ever will with a major house, which means they should be able to help grow the business (we'll cross that bridge when we get to it).
There are some reading clubs out there already. GeoCities offers s sci-fi reading club. The BookBrowser site also maintains reading lists. (The site has drawn about a half-million visits over the last 13 months.) What's missing, I think, are the point of view of an editor, looking to produce good books, and that of an agent wishing to break new authors. The people behind Bookbrowser are readers - they might like links to editors' sites. Bookbrowser itself tracks these resources and I spent time last week following those links. But in the words of Bono, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."
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The most Clueless assumption in the rise of Internet stocks was that ADSL and cable modems would bail out everyone's business plan.
The fact is, as @Home is learning , it's very hard to make that promise a reality. Part of the problem is that cable modems share a hose, and just as your water pressure disappears if everyone in the building flushes at once, the effectiveness of a cable modem dissipates as its use goes up in a neighborhood. AT&T is also finding that it can't be called a long distance phone company to eliminate regulation, then hold TCI's monopoly and steal a competitive market like Internet service, all at the same time. Moves by Portland and other cities to demand "equal access" to TCI's cable for rival ISPs will greatly slow-down the investments needed to make cable modem service a reality.
Then there's ADSL. Installing this is still a home-by-home proposition. Hear my story. BellSouth told me this week they'll be at my door next week, after telling me a few weeks ago my home couldn't take the service because of "load coils" on the line. Those coils were said to be necessary to boost my phone signal the 100 feet between my home and the nearby BellSouth switch. My guess is ADSL problems are far more pervasive in the Bells' networks than the Bells even admit to themselves.
We haven't even approached the problem of what happens within the network (where growth is already straining capacity) when all these 1.5 Mbps pipes come on-stream. Oh, yes, the money will be spent and the problems will be fixed. But the costs will be high, and the time will be long. Don't ever forget that.
Problems for Altavista
The smartest thing Compaq did with AltaVista was to get rid of it, through the spin-off announced last week. Let's count some of the problems.
First, while Altavista's search algorithms were novel a few years ago, Inktomi's are now obviously better, and Infoseek's scheme combining a decision tree with edited search results is even better. For proof look no further than AltaVista's moves to add AskJeeves and Centraal technology to its engine.
Second, Shopping.Com is no bargain. It is a second-tier sales site, fighting for some traction in a crowded market that includes Beyond.Com, ValueAmerica.Com, Insight.Com, and on-and-on-and-on.com. (Not to mention Compaq itself and Dell.Com.) The favoritism that must be shown its own mall limits the amount of advertising AltaVista can expect from any Web store (Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos all do their online shopping through links), so unless presence on a search engine can guarantee sales (a dubious proposition) you've got big trouble here.
The big problem, however, is more basic, and it's what George Bush called "the vision thing." Who is in charge here, and where are they going? That's a question AltaVista has never been able to answer, and this whole spin-off, as a result, smells like nothing so much as so much "me too." When the crunch comes, me too goes down faster than an extra crewman on an early "Star Trek" away team. Compaq is smart to get rid of this puppy before it's bitten on the bum.
The Week's Most Important Story
You probably missed it, but the most important story of last week will be, when all is said and done, Sun's announcement of its Jini technology.
It's not so much that Jini works - neither does Java. It doesn't even solve the problem of linking hand-helds and other non-PC devices to the Internet - Novell still has a better (and necessary) directory service. No, like Java itself, Jini offers a direction, and the hint of a solution. Java didn't really become viable until IBM committed its full effort to make it real. My guess is Novell will (if Sun is smart) perform the same magic on Jini.
The result will be to permit any consumer product to have basic Internet connectivity built-in, making the "home area network" a reality for millions over the next five years. The idea is to make real a little piece of the premise found in (of all things) "The Jetsons." The coffee and toast should be ready when you wake up, the show you want to watch cued-up when you want to watch it, and the house itself should play "Home Alone" on any burglary attempt, not just let the police know when the burglars have succeeded.
The Real Vonnegut Commencement
A few years ago, one of the most popular rumors on the Internet involved Kurt Vonnegut and some bizarre comments he supposedly made at an MIT commencement.
That rumor was false, so there's no need to repeat it here. But Vonnegut did make a commencement speech last year, at the school where I got my old school tie - Rice University . What he said was worth repeating to you. So let me quote some of his words, as offered in the latest issue of the alumni magazine "Sallyport." "Communities are all that is substantial about what we create or defend or maintain in this world. All the rest is hoopla." To which I must add, Amen.
Clued-in is Stephen Carolin's Echelon Newsletter Exchange , which makes it as easy to list an e-mail newsletter as it is to find one. Through careful research and simple pages, Mr. Carolin is building himself a valuable database that could, in time, become an important resource.
Clueless is Intel , for "big brother inside," a feature it called "Processor Serial Number Control." Yes, placing an identifier and random number generator inside chips can be used for encryption, proof of identity in e-commerce, and for proving copyright. But users demand to remain anonymous. The eventual price of this mistake (never mind it has since been turned off as a "default" ) will make the famed "Pentium bug" of 1994 look like crawling through a stop sign in an empty subdivision.