Paying for Books that don’t Exist (yet)

Kickstarter.com has taken up the concept of crowdfunding with significant success. The premise is simple: an individual defines a project that needs funding, defines rewards for different levels of contribution, and sets a funding goal. If pledges meet the funding goal, the money is collected from pledgers and distributed to the project creator, who uses the funding to make the project. If the project does not reach the funding goal by the deadline, no money is transferred. Most projects aim for between $2,000 and $10,000.

Kickstarter approaches have their issues, but they raise an interesting point – people are prepared to fund a book before it is produced. Or to put it another way and one which covers a wider spectrum of emerging book economics – people are willing to pay for books that don’t yet exist.

A while ago I worked with a Dutch organisation by the name of greenhost.nl. They are a small hosting provider based in Amsterdam with a staff list of about 8. The boss wanted to bring their team to Berlin to make a book about basic internet security so they hired me to facilitate a Book Sprint. We invited some locals to help and organised a venue for four days. In total, about 6 people were in attendance (including myself as facilitator) and we started one Thursday and finished the following Sunday – one day earlier than expected. The book is a great guide to the topic and quite comprehensive – 45,000 words or so written in 4 days with lots of nice illustrations.

The following morning the book went to the printers and then was presented  in print form two days later at the International Press Freedom Day in Amsterdam.

The presentation at International Press Freedom Day was complemented by a PR campaign driven by Greenhost. The attention worked very well as the online version of the book received thousands of visits on the manual within a few hours (slowing our server down considerably at one point) and there was also a lot of very nice international and national (Dutch) press attention. This worked very well for Greenhost as this is the kind of promotional coverage that is otherwise very hard to generate. That makes sponsoring of Book Sprints a very good marketing opportunity for organisations.

Many of the organisations I work with approach Book Sprints with similar ideas in mind. They think about what kind of book their organisation would want to bring into the world, then design a PR strategy around the book. The book is often given away free in electronic form to their target market, maximising the reach and goodwill created.

Of course, this approach does not come without its issues. Organisations that pay to have something produced generally do not like it if the product disagrees with them. Worse is the mindset that this possibility can produce in the producers. Anticipating and avoiding disagreement is in effect a kind of self-policing that can stifle creativity, especially when you are working collaboratively. However, this can be mitigated by hiring a good facilitator.

Lastly, The Long Tale. The long tail was popularised in the age of the net by Chris Anderson. It’s the familiar strategy of selling a large number of books to small niche markets, the idea being that a lot of sales of niche items adds up to a good profit, or as he put it in the title, Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

However, there is another possible ‘long tale’ market here – instead of seeing a total inventory as having a ‘long tail,’ each book in itself can be customised for resale over a number of smaller markets – one book distributed over several markets, each with its very own version of the book. We have experimented with this a little in FLOSS Manuals – customising the same book for specific markets. Remixing books can be considered to be exactly this strategy but on a very small scale. Many workshop leaders use the remix feature of FLOSS Manuals to generate workbooks with content taken from several existing books. We have also encouraged consultants to take books from FLOSS Manuals, clone them, and customise the book to speak directly to their potential and existing customers. It is a powerful pre- and post- sales device. The long tale here has a market of 1 – the client. This is the very end of the long tale but the return can be lucrative for the consultant that secures a sale or return sale because of their valued-added services powered by customised documentation.

I believe there is a business here – either creating or customising content as a service or providing the tools for people to customise their own content. In either case, we are seeing a broad willingness for organisations and individuals to pay to get the content they want before it is available ‘off-the-shelf’.

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