Today I Lift from the Book

Okay, so I'm not so bright. After posting the the previous item on Amazon's search feature, I went and used it more extensively.I didn't quite realize that it was presenting full book pages. The Author's Guild has sent out a note to its members, which includes me, warning that the system actually allows not just contextual results -- my first thought at seeing the search results -- but also entire pages. Many pages. In fact, with a little poking, you can retrieve basically entire books. For reference books -- cooking titles, computer books, travel books, etc. -- this could devastate sales. I mean, if you can read the five pages you need, why buy the book? Of course, this points out the flip side: many books, including most of the ones but not all of the ones I write, have marginal utility for the reader and maximum utility for the bookstore but only marginal return for the publisher and marginal return for the author. That is, the folks who make the most money with the least capital are the folks selling books. The other steps in the chain have more marginal returns, requiring higher volumes of sales to be viable. This isn't saying that booksellers are ripping us off or have it easy; rather, that their part of the value chain has the highest return on capital where capital is being expended. (Authors' ROI is harder to measure: are we trying to make a living, buy a house, earn a specific dollar wage? My return on capital is pretty vast, but that doesn't equate to making a great living from it.) One way I've tried to get out of this loop has been through discussions over the last few years about launching a publishing company that would have its primary focus on short, niche titles, sold electronically in small volumes at a low price. Adam and Tonya Engst, publishers of TidBITS, have launched such a venture: the Take Control series. I've known the Engsts for more than a decade, and have had many talks on this subject with Adam, with whom I've co-authored two editions of The Wireless Networking Starter Kit. The Take Control series has a few unique aspects: First, the Engsts run a weekly newsletter which has tens of thousands of subscribers. Second, Adam is one of the best-known Mac people, just below a couple of Apple employees, like Steve Jobs. Third, the Engsts are trustworthy and have assembled a bunch of writers who sell lots of books and have a lot of activities already that give them a chance to promote what they're doing. The first Take Control book was on installing and upgrading to Panther (Mac OS X 10.3). It cost $5. Nearly 2,000 have been sold in under 72 hours -- and that's not the end of the sales of this book by any means. There's no digital rights management on the PDF at all: we're relying on the price and the general utility to make piracy a pointless or at least irrelevant activity. I think we might have a model here.