Marketing Help for the Self-Publishing E-Author: Enter “Kbuuk”

While many authors are trying their luck at e-publishing, either completely on their own or with the help of a Web-based publishing service, fewer of these intrepid souls may be skilled in what it means to market their work. Indeed, the same dilemma faces consultants and independent contractors, who must 1) do the work they are paid for and 2) market and promote their consulting business. What is more, successful marketing requires special knowledge of the target audience to gain traction and garner attention. My favorite example of this comes not from the trenches of capitalism but from Broadway. The celebrated musical The Music Man begins with a group of sales people on a train, chanting their market tips in time with the clicking rails. Keeping perfect time, one of the sales guys calls out, “But ya gotta know the territory!” more than once.

The territory of self-publishing authors is a tough one to learn. Even now, several years into the era of the e-book, it often seems like the best marketing coup an author can hope for is to be discovered by a mainline publisher and to pick up a contract. Several popular authors have made their fame and fortune from just this sort of process.

Enter “Kbuuk?”

Authors, take note: entrepreneurs have you in their marketing gun-sights.  On April 9, 2013 The San Francisco Chronicle profile a new Houston-based startup called Kbuuk (don’t ask…OK. “K” is for cloud and “buuk” is for…well, Fritz Lanham at the Chronicle figured it out from there; see SFC, April 9, 2013, p. D1).

Kbuuk can convert a Word manuscript into a e-book, and host it on its own distinctive web site within the Amazon Cloud ecosystem, in Amazon itself, and on Kobo’s and Barnes and Noble’s platforms. This reduces costs (and gives Kbuuk a 20 percent margin). Kbuuk creates marketing “value” by crafting a Web presence that will grab the attention of readers.

Sounds great! But–in addition to “knowing the territory” you must have a quality product to bring in the sheaves of fame and fortune. No shortcuts there.

New Terrain: “The Lowest Publishable Denominator”

In addition to discussing the merits of a comprehensive marketing plan Lanham points out that there is something new about how pricing works in the self-publishing e-book market. He quotes Ed Nawotka, editor in chief of Publishing Perspectives, on the new dynamics of pricing. Apparently, “less is more:  authors are pricing lower for smaller bits of information.  New and good idea, yes?  Except academics will quickly recognize the tried-and-true vehicle of the “lowest publishable denominator,” i.e., stretching out your research into as many articles as possible. But then, many famous authors have also shown their skill in the LPD derby (Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones, anyone?)

Anyway, it works like this. If you, the reader are being charged $1.99, your expectations are lower, and you might be more willing to buy something. Amazon’s Kindle store (as well as The New York Times) give ample proof of this new e-sub-market. Famous authors are now publishing novellas, short stories and excerpts at very low prices. This low-cost come-on, in my opinion, may be deepening the e-book market by giving readers affordable options, using the hook-power of name recognition.

For those without name recognition in place, the marketing work must continue. Perhaps startups like Kbuuk will make that work a bit easier for aspiring authors.

Barbara Quint: These are “Opportunity Times”

Information Today, Inc.’s newly minted Online Searcher magazine appears to combining the best of both its predecessors, ONLINE and Searcher.  (Full Disclosure: I have written for ONLINE over the years and hope to continue to do so.).  Part of me felt some concern about this merger when it was “coming soon,” for a simple reason:  both of the predecessors had a number of columnists and commentators I genuinely believe we cannot do without. We need voices.  Fortunately, they are still sounding out, loud and clear.

I could go on at length about the March/April issue, which has many good articles (disclosure: none by me!). But I really want to focus on senior editor Barbara Quint’s (“bq”)column, appropriately titled “Gimme! Gimme!”  Here are a few thoughts and ideas of my own in response.

Reinventing in Place, not “Aging in Place”

bq devotes her column space to the counter-intuitive but powerful belief that the more change, the more chaos, the more new technology we confront, the better the odds are for breakthroughs. In other words, “hard times” can become “opportunity times.”  This really resonates with me. I’ve been lucky to be associated with UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment for a long time (let’s just say, decades). The conventional wisdom would make me out to be a long-term hanger-on, obsessing on OPACs and circulation statistics and other thrilling issues of yesteryear: but no. Working in one location has not felt like “aging in place:” it feel more like “innovate or die.” And I’m not the only one: I do not see any “dead wood” in this joint.

I might have moved around to experience other workplaces and challenges, but heck, I didn’t need to. In the past 18 years, my core assignment and professional activities have been completely revolutionized and reinvented at least five times.

Ghosts of Librarianship Past

First there were those were those good ol’ “online” days, dominated by mediated searches on Lexis-Nexis and charging a hefty premium for mediated research. Next came the ubiquitous email and “digital conversations era, managed by the library, along with Gopher and the notion that networked information had, perhaps, just a bit of potential.

Boom, it’s the Web next, and I volunteered to be the Webmaster for this place (go ahead, ask me anything about 1990s Web best practices!). Nowadays I supervise two programmers and act as the digital publisher for IRLE.

More recently, the “online classroom” and MOOCs (massively open online courses) have created an urgency to make sure that research skills that were once taught in the library get taught online, in class, everywhere. And then there’s social media. Guess what: my staff are the folks who have taught a lot of the staff and graduate students how to use it.

A Band of Paradigm-Busting Sisters and Brothers

This is a not brag-list at all. I can think of at least 20 people who have taken similar risks, and reaped greater rewards in vastly different circumstances, so much so that I am humbled by what they have achieved.

It’s the unrelenting process of digital convergence that has switched out “aging” and pasted in “reinvention.” The digital era has had a way of making librarianship a cutting-edge field. And the caliber of new entrants into the field—who arrive with their social media and “disruptive” thought patterns fully honed—guarantee that we are not going to be a dull bunch in the coming years.

“Horrors! Open Access!”  Or, Does Opportunity Strike Again?

The “Gimme…” column that bq writes is a typical, bq-trademarked piece that challenges her readers to think up some good ideas and run with them. She lists many, but my favorite is the “specter” of open access. She cites OA as a key example of how a potentially “scary” concept is in fact an opportunity-from-thin-air. To quote:

“Open access needs editoring, stratification, categorization, ranking and anything else that can enable users to use it in a curriculum of learning.”

–That is, look at all the cool things we can contribute, instead of viewing open access as a threat to established revenue streams, a risk to the peer review process, and a force that will put publishers out of work.

I’m right with her on this one. I am surrounded by a distinguished cohort of faculty and students who are only now beginning to think about open access seriously. But mention “Gold OA” or “Green OA” and eyes begin glaze over. Opportunity time strikes again: just make your exegesis colorful and distinctive, and you shall win the hearts and minds of your audience. Tell a story that makes sense, and people pay attention. Indeed, my director will often ask me, “Do I need to be concerned about this?” when some new digital or data curation initiative is announced. Acting as the “interpreter” of new technology for very busy, very smart folks is not a bad place to be in an organization devoted to cross-disciplinary research.

The point is that the questions that open access raises, and the challenges it presents to the key players in the “information lifecycle” are in fact evidence that we have a very serious role to play in defining what education, universities, and online learning will look like in ten years. We are not on the sidelines; indeed, we know more about scholars and their habits and most other stakeholders. So bq’s ideas about what we could contribute seem very obvious, very relevant, and perhaps as evident to other folks as they are to us. There’s a reason for that: we were trained in library school to understand the dynamics of “pattern recognition.”

Let’s All Do A Little “Pattern Recognition”

In the struggle to reframe “tough times” as “opportunity times” we already possess the necessary tools: the ability to discern patterns in society and technology, and the tenacity to push forward based on what we perceive. At the consortial level, there would never have a SPARC or a Mellon Foundation-funded initiative to study digital libraries, if we had kept thinking “inside the box” of what information services are supposed to be. Ditto working with Google to launch a more far-seeing digital initiative, and thus giving birth to HathiTrust. Their commercial dream has a second life as our scholarly oasis, and everybody wins (including the attorneys).

At the institutional level, our boldest administrators allow their newly-hired net-gen librarians to get a little crazy and try new things, like—wow—online course reserves! And at the individual level, each of us has developed the mettle to face down non-library administrators who look quizzically at you and say, “What exactly do you do?”

So I do see some patterns at work. The first: technological change has disrupted everybody, and those who thrive are the ones who can separate useful, transferable tasks from existing modes of organization. The second: even though there are thousands of really smart people running around places like UC Berkeley or other great universities, far fewer people are gifted with the skill of framing what we are experiencing in coherent “stories,” and then telling those stories. Do that, and you are halfway to your own personal brave new world.

Third: “Pay attention, show up, speak the truth, and let go of the consequences.”

I know: that can to quite difficult do in academic committee meeting, but do it we must. Thankfully, it’s less difficult when we mix it up with a gang of like-minded digital citizens, who care about what our digital future will look like.

Competition in the Health Care Professions: A Distant Mirror?

I’ve written at length about sociologist Andrew Abbott’s 1988 book, The System of Professions (Chicago, 1998), and his very astute analysis about how the information professions—all of them, ranging from librarians to MBA consultants—compete with each other, obstruct competing groups when they reach for more power, and so on. He describes what professionals do as offering a “treatment,” which requires special training and knowledge, and the exercise of independent judgment. When a particular group wants to gain the upper hand, moving into an emerging market, for example, they practice “treatment substitution.” Essentially they are saying “I know a lot too, and my strategy is a better one.”

Since we all work together in the information professions, the actual dynamics of treatment substitution can be obscured by good vibrations, collaborative spirit and so on—or at least, we can hope so. However, oftentimes the easiest way to perceive the current of competition in our own field of expertise is to look to other fields and see what is happening there.  With respect to treatment substitution, there is no better example than the medical professions, and Andrew Abbott devoted many pages of his book to the medical fields along with the information professions.

Well, unsurprisingly, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is stirring up controversy and also creating opportunity. When opportunities abound, professional competition can heat up fast. And next comes treatment substitution!

Nurse Practitioners: Exercising New Muscle

On March 24, 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the current struggle of nurse practitioners to exercise more independent judgment in health care delivery. NPs already can diagnose acute and chronic illness, are trained in pharmacology and health care ethics, and they have become essential partners in care. They are regulated at the state level, and so what they can actually do varies by region. Chronicle Reporter Shannon Pettypiece describes the overall status of their struggle, which increasingly is playing out in the courts.

Physicians have always seen themselves as the “captain of the ship,” and they and their associations vigorously guard their primacy in the practice of medicine. Yet at the same time, there is a shortage of 13,000 doctors right now, and this shortage is forecast to grow to 130,000 in the coming years. Nurse practitioners argue that they could fill a crucial gap, if they are afforded the privileges needed to diagnose and treat patients. This is particularly true in rural regions.

Closer to Home: Opportunity from Atomization

In the information professions, there has been splintering of major concepts and established roles–you could even say atomization of “skill sets,” as the digital era unfolds. MIS managers, consultants, CIOs, information specialists and librarians all compete to offer the best information “treatments,” but new technology and ideas about social interaction are rewriting the rules. Treatments on offer include digital curation, digital publishing, preservation, digital conversations, reference consultations, and more. As digital convergence pushes us all closer together, we face more moments when we must choose to collaborate or compete.

In the journals marketplace, the emergence of SPARC and new strategies to promote open access scholarship are swiftly changing our expectations and assumptions about the future of information management and delivery. At the same time, technical skills can be learned readily by just about any enterprising person with a dream. These enterprising people can create apps and other tools that become “must-have” functionalities on our smartphones.

In other words:  competition, and treatment substitution, are alive and well in the information professions. We even have litigation over publishing markets and journal pricing, although our version seems a lot less personal than physicians’ assertion that they simply “know more” than nurses.

“A Finch Sang in Berkeley Square….”

I don’t think we have a single issue that defines current competition among the various information handling professions; rather we have a great many, and they are diverse. But for the moment, with the release of the “Finch Report” in the United Kingdom and its mandate to build “Gold Open Access” models to make research available to all, I’d say open access is a illuminating issue that defines what competition looks like. At what point does a publisher need the library, or for that matter, at what point does the library actually “become” the publisher? Or further: at what point do authors become the “agents of change” in an all-new style of writers’ guild, given that technology makes this possible, right now?

These and many other questions will not be answered soon, although the nature of competition may reveal some of the strategies that many of us will surely test. Meanwhile, while we continue to work together, we continue to hone our skill at monitoring the digital environment we work in, and the new opportunities that arise to extend our reach.