Is This Not Publishing?

A good article in the NYTimes today about Barnes & Noble. First, a few interesting facts:

  • B&N and Amazon apparently control 87% of the e-book market between them. Two-thirds of that is Amazon’s, but considering the relative size of the two companies, B&N’s not doing badly.
  • There’s another new Nook device due this spring, despite the fact that their latest refresh just happened in October. That’s a quick cycle for products of this nature.
  • They claim they’re on the verge of expanding outside the USA, which I consider good news all around.

But in my opinion, the most telling aspect of the article is the central thesis that B&N is seen by publishers as their last, best hope. Not for taking advantage of the exciting opportunities in e-books, but for holding onto their legacy dead-tree business, and all the legacy cruft that’s attached to those business models.

From my point of view – mostly on the outside, as a reader, but also as a bit of an author – it seems clear as day that the old publishing model has outlived its usefulness. This is why Amazon scares the crap out of the old guard; they’re changing how publishing works, and succeeding at it. And they’re hoping against hope that B&N, as the last bricks and mortar bookstore chain standing, can salvage the old model – never mind the Nook.

The best part is how they frame the debate in the article: that Amazon et al will be the death of publishing. But “publishing” is a larger concept that isn’t actually threatened. Undoubtedly it’s undergoing a transformation, but writers (of whatever stripe) will still publish. And for long-form works (as opposed to short-form, whose “publishing” has already been transformed by the web), there will still be a place for those who facilitate it. It just won’t involve the same structures that Random House is using now.

The echoes of SOPA/PIPA seem unmistakable: the entrenched legacy businesses know that they’re dinosaurs, but they’d rather deny that reality than evolve.

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Free App of the Day Observations

Early in the life of Amazon’s Appstore, their Free App of the Day (or, as Amazon calls it, FAD) program got a bunch of bad press from developers. Some criticisms included:

  • The “freebie” nature of the promotion brought in a lot of users who weren’t actually that interested in the app, but who nonetheless felt compelled to leave negative reviews, bringing down the rating.
  • The massive influx of new users – hundreds of thousands in a day – could easily crash back end services, exacerbating the previous issue.
  • A general dislike of Amazon giving paid apps away for free, “just like pirates do.”

Overall, I got a sense that many devs felt there was no real upside to the program, but the potential for a substantial downside. A consequent opinion was that this program benefited Amazon at the expense of indie devs.

Having just gone through FAD with an app of my own, I have to say that I don’t agree. Being FAD made for a very intense day, with serious ups and downs, but overall I’m glad I accepted their offer. Not least because sales on the Appstore have picked up significantly in its wake.
For future reference, I have the following observations about helping FAD to work in your favor.

1. Your app needs to have mass-market appeal, and be immediately accessible to the average person. A large number of your downloads will be to people who are only getting it because it’s free, not because the app particularly appeals to them. If it’s a niche app, they won’t appreciate it. If it takes time to appreciate, they won’t wait that long. And in either case, they’re likely to turn on you in the comments.
Corollary: I have little doubt that many apps just aren’t suitable for FAD.

2. Make sure that the app is as stable and bug-free as you can possibly make it before giving Amazon the go-ahead. The user numbers will be large enough that even small edge cases will get thoroughly exercised. And again, you’ll hear about any problems in the comments, alongside 1-star ratings.
I had the bad fortune to have a bug surface that literally only existed on 8 Jan 2012, the day of my FAD spot. On the plus side, it was subtle enough that not many users actually noticed.
2a. Make doubly sure that the app works well on the Kindle Fire. I don’t have statistics (I realized too late that my analytics weren’t working), but I have little doubt that Fire users make up a large percentage of the FAD downloads. If you haven’t bought a Fire yet for testing, maybe now’s the time. If you don’t feel you can justify that, find someone you can borrow one from for a few days. But in any case, test your app double-extra-thoroughly on this device.
[As usual, the emulator won’t cut it. The other major issue I had reported that day was a Fire firmware bug that affected my app, and which I hadn’t noticed in my testing. Moral: test EVERY piece of your app on real Fire hardware.]
2b. Goes without saying, but make sure any back-end services you use are up to the load. If you don’t think they will be, don’t do it.

3. Don’t plan on doing anything else on your Free App day. If you’re building apps on the side, take the day off from your day job. You’re going to get a bunch of emails, and if you respond to them right away, the users will appreciate it – and reward you in the comments. And that’s the other thing you should be doing that day: monitoring your comments. Leave responses where appropriate (but be nice), and my advice is to up-vote the positive comments and down-vote the negative ones. Don’t be afraid to flag the really obnoxious ones as inappropriate; it does seem to have some effect.

If you can’t devote the day to babysitting your downloads, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t accept the FAD offer, but just be aware that you won’t be getting maximum benefit from it.

4. Enjoy the ride! For most of us, these opportunities come along pretty infrequently, so soak it up while it lasts.