The eBook pricing debate attracts fuzzy math

As the saying goes, if you can’t baffle them with brilliance, then befuddle them with math. Actually, that’s not the way the saying goes, but in this case, the math being “composited” (or should that be, “composted”) and the way the saying goes are the same things.

Motoko Rich, in a Monday New York Times article about the pricing of ebooks, admits that “Publishers differ on how they account for various costs” but doesn’t let that stop her from coming up with a “composite” yet “necessarily simplified” cost-model that she says was based on “interviews with executives at several publishers.” So, right off, she admits that her formula is based on information provided by the exact people who seem to believe it’s in the best interests of their business to perpetuate the perception that in book publishing, up is down.

Motoko’s composite formula might be a bit more valid if it included information and insight from others who don’t have, as we say where I’m from, a dog in that hunt.

She should, for instance, follow this link to an article on the same topic that has a formula that didn’t require “composite” and simplified cost-modeling based on information from anonymous “executives.”

That’s because it’s an analysis by Peter Olson, the former CEO of Random House and now senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and Bharat N. Anand, the Henry R. Byers professor of business administration at HBS. I’d put them up against anonymous executives any day.

You can read the analysis for yourself, but, to necessarily simplify it, I’ll quote them: “This analysis suggests that e-books could, as a stand-alone business, be priced far below Amazon’s current $9.99 pricing and dramatically lower than (paper) books.”

My point — and their’s — is that the publishers’ arguments that ebooks “cost more than people think” is ridiculous.

But don’t get me wrong: I believe publishers should be free to charge a retailer whatever they want. And the retailer should have the right to charge the reader whatever they want — even if they lose money on the deal.

I am not in the “ebooks should be $9.99 or nothing” camp. If publishers want to charge the same price as hardback books, I’m all for them doing so. If they want to charge by the chapter, that’s fine too. If they want to charge by the sentence as Stephen King writes them in real-time, that’s totally dandy. I won’t pay it, but I’d defend their right to charge the wholesaler or retailer any price they want.

But please, don’t insult me by trying to convince me that the reason you are charging whatever you are charging is because you think I’ll believe that distributing bits costs the same as distributing atoms.

How Google’s algorithm rules everything

Steven Levy has a fascinating look at Google’s algorithm in Wired magazine. For those of us who are hopelessly wonkish about all-things-Google, there is little new in the facts presented — it’s not a “how-to” article about search engine optimization techniques, okay.

However, Levy does a fantastic job — a “magazine writing” kind of job — of telling the human “story” behind the algorithm.*

Favorite quote:

“But for the most part, the improvement process is a relentless slog, grinding through bad results to determine what isn’t working.”

The article underscores one thing I tell clients (and potential clients) all the time: If your SEO efforts are focused on out-thinking or tricking Google, make sure your SEO consultant has engineers who are smarter than Google’s engineers. (Which, of course, they don’t.)

My point: Quality content provided in a way that meets the reader/user’s need is what Google rewards. Mastering the tools of SEO is like “grammar.” You have to master “the rules” before you can write great prose. But great prose is what readers want. (Note: I’m using the word “prose” metaphorically there — as, unfortunately, great prose is typically not what they want.)

Great content with no understanding of Google’s algorithm is like a tree falling in the woods with only squirrels around to hear the crash.

(I have no idea what that last sentence means, but I have a feeling that Google will know it’s not about squirrels.)

*If algorithms are a topic that interests you, I recommend my friend Steven Baker’s book, The Numerati.

I witnessed a miracle 30 years ago today

[Note: Eight years ago today, on February 22, 2002 (yes, I was blogging back then), I wrote about one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The very first hockey game I ever saw in person was the most famous (in the U.S., at least) hockey game ever played, the Miracle on Ice. Today, exactly 30 years later, I still can’t believe I witnessed it. But I can remember not being able to talk until the next day. Since today is the 30th anniversary of that event — and since maybe only 12 people read my blog 8 years ago, I thought I’d repost it. (I’ve added an addendum at the bottom.)]

gold

(First posted on February 22, 2002) I remember where Ann and I were exactly 22 years ago today, February 22, 1980. It’s one of the most memorable days of my life. But then, most Americans remember that day: the Miracle on Ice day when the seventh-seeded 1980 U.S. Hockey Team (Team USA) met the mighty top seed legends from the USSR in that forever famous semifinals-round match. When they learned who won (or, if they were really patient and waited to see the tape-delayed broadcast of it), almost every American alive then can tell you where they were at that exact moment. In 1999, ESPN.com users voted it the greatest game of the century.

I know Ann and I will remember where we were. I know we’ll never forget. We were two of the 7,000 fans screaming in delirium inside the Lake Placid Olympic Arena. Ann and I were lucky to be there, to say the least. Her mother had always wanted to go to an Olympic Games. And since her Dad did not share that dream and has a legendary aversion to flying, Ann, her siblings and I got to accompany Harriet to her first-ever games. (But not her last, as she’s in Salt Lake City today and has been to many, if not most, of the winter and summer games since 1980. In other words, she has a heck of a pin collection.)

We were part of a package tour group that met up in New York City on Wednesday, the 20th, in front of a hotel in the east 50s.

There, we joined a bus full of fellow-fans, including, as we learned later, several relatives of Linda Fratianne, the American figure skater who won the silver medal 22 years ago last night. A bus took us to our motel 100 or so miles from Lake Placid.

In 1980, the Olympics were big, but not BIG by today’s standards. It was the 1988 Los Angeles summer games in which Peter Uberoff created the modern corporate-sponsored mega-event. Lake Placid was a one-stop-light village much smaller than even Park City, Utah. I’m sure there was commercialism everywhere, but the only corporate presence I can recall is a guy handing out free cans of Copenhagen smokeless tobacco. I passed on the offer.

On Thursday morning, we took a two-hour bus ride to the mountain where the men’s slalom was being run. The course was near the top of the mountain, and unfortunately, the line waiting for the ski lift up to the course was backed up a half mile or so. So Ann and I joined others in a hike up the mountain. Now this was before I had taken up skiing and had I known what I know now about ski apparel and such, I would have avoided the next hour and a half of unforgettable pain and agony. Without going into detail, let me just say, if you’re from Tennessee and just wearing bluejeans and hunting boots, don’t go hiking up a mountain in three feet of snow.

We made it to the top of the mountain in time to see Phil Mahre win a silver medal. At least we were told that speck sking down the course a few hundred yards away was Mahre. Ann and I were more thrilled with the small heated building we found in which we could regain some feeling in our hands and feet. I don’t recall how we got back down the mountain, but I’m sure it involved some more frost bite.

While the details of the rest of the day are still foggy, I believe they included seeing the medal ceremony in which Eric Heiden was awarded his fifth gold medal and later that evening, having a comfortably warm seat at the women’s figure skating finals. Since by then, we were close chums with the Fratiannes, we were disappointed when she didn’t make it to the top podium (obviously a victim of an eastern block judging conspiracy). I believe we attended a ski-jump event on the morning of the 22nd, but by then we were focused, like all Americans, on the hockey game that afternoon. I recall there were rumors that ABC had tried to get the IOC to change the hockey game for the later, night slot so that it could be shown in the U.S. during prime time. There would have been a riot in the streets of Lake Placid had that happened, as the tickets were not for a specific game but for a specific time-slot. In other words, our tickets were for the late afternoon semifinals game on Friday. It was sheer luck of the draw that our tickets turned out to be tickets to THE game.

Like everyone that year, Ann and I had grown more and more wrapped up in the games during its first week-and-a-half. And eventhough I did not understand off-sides or icing, I still got caught up in the Team USA mania. The often explained context of the Olympic Games that year can’t be overstated: We Americans were gripped with self-doubt and fear. We were in the midst of an oil-shortage and recession, ballooning inflation and interest rates, the Iranian hostage crisis and the invasion of Afganistan by the USSR.

Jimmy Carter was not helping things as he had declared that he would not leave Washington while the hostages were being held, a move that seemed naive at the time and even more ridiculous today. He seemed like a wimp and it made Americans fear we were all turning into wimps.

But then Team USA appeared. The new chant “USA, USA” started up that first week of the games. The guys who were later to be named Sports Illustrated sportsmen of the year were all unknown college kids at first, but then we started to learn who they were. Jim Craig, the goalie, and his relationship with his father, became overnight mythology. Mike Eruzione, the team captain, became as recognized as Michael Jackson. Coach Herb Brooks’ quote, “”Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone,” became one of the best known statements ever made.

While we were all excited as we made our way into the arena, I recall vividly that I was not at all hopeful that Team USA would win. I thought, however, that it was just exciting to think that they may win a medal and that I was going to get to watch them play the legendary Soviet team. Our seats were in the upper level of the arena, which was still nearly rink-side compared to today’s nose-bleed seats. Remember, the Lake Placid arena only holds about 7,000 spectators. As I recall, they did not have enclosed press boxes or any type of suites which meant that ABC’s hockey commentator Al Michaels (who also got famous those two weeks) was perched on a temporary stand built over some seats about 15 yards from where we were sitting. I could look over and see him screaming.

Ann and I screamed our heads off as Team USA stayed close to the Soviets, never taking the lead, but never being out of reach. Then, with ten minutes left in the third period, Mike Eruzione scored a goal to put us ahead 4-3. Ten minutes. Ten of the longest minutes of my life. Ten minutes in super slow motion. Screaming and jumping and screaming, I still felt it could not be possible for the U.S. to win. Surely, those communist supermen would find a way to score in the final moments.

But they didn’t.

The fans all sat there in shock. Screaming, but in shock. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to leave the arena, but soon the celebration poured out onto the main street of Lake Placid. I couldn’t talk for 24 hours.

The victory did not insure the gold medal for the USA. A 4-2 victory on Sunday against Finland nailed that. We were watching that game on a television a few blocks away when Jim McKay announced that anyone who was in Lake Placid could come to the arena for the awards ceremony. We took him up on his offer and went back to the arena where we screamed our heads off once more.

Later: There’s a great item on SportsIllustrated.com by Joe Posnanski (thanks to Bob Kinard for the link) called 10 interesting facts you may not know about the Miracle on Ice, that includes some tidbits about the game. One thing I completely agree with him (and said so in the piece above): No one in the place thought Team USA was going to win until about ten minutes left in the game. That’s when the place went crazy — and didn’t stop. But frankly, that’s why it’s called a miracle.”]

Hire us, we can help you kick their ass

election2008.jpg

I feel the need for bluntness.

Over the past several months, I’ve been in many conversations with potential clients about ways in which the content marketing company called Hammock can help find, create and syndicate content that will improve their lead generation efforts, improve their customer service, support their organic search and (without me actually saying it, turn their pretty yet boring websites into something people might find helpful and worth bookmarking).

As many of these marketers are in a particular market I’m extremely familiar with, they bring up the name of a giant brand they all seem to believe dominates the category online.

I’ve tried to be diplomatic in explaining why they are over-reacting to the “strategy” of this particular brand, but the fear and concern is so pervasive that I’m beginning to believe the brand’s strategy is actually very successful — not in reaching customers, but in striking fear in the competition who seem frozen in their ability to respond. It’s like, “We can’t do what they’re doing, so why try?”

So I’ve stopped being diplomatic and general in my description of the brand’s strategy. I’ve gotten rather specific in explaining why and where this giant brand is vulnerable. But still, other marketers in the category seem to believe customers are actually swayed by the giant brand’s approach.

So here’s what I want to say: Hire us and we can help you kick their ass.

But I feel certain something about that approach tends to scare off potential clients.

I wonder why.

(Answer to the obvious question: Why don’t I try to work for the dominant brand? Kicking their ass would be so much more fun.)

Later: I really mean it: “Hire us.” Here’s my email address: rexhammock@gmail.com. Operators are standing by.

On another content channel, you can find news about content

Custom Content Council logo

On Hammorati, the Hammock Inc. Blog, there’s a post about the Custom Publishing Council changing its name to the Custom Content Council. As one of the people who help form the organization 11 years ago, I concur with the decision. Despite my personal problems with the word “content,” I’ve given up on fighting the fight against a term that clients are seeking to procure from me. If you want content, I’ve got as much as you need — and it’s not the plain stuff — it’s the highest quality. Award winning, even.

So Hammock Inc. is happy to be one of the founders of the leading “content marketing” association in the galaxy.

(Speaking of which: Here’s a pitch. If you’re a marketer in need of content to help you meet a specific business objective, my colleagues will amaze you with their ability to source, create, syndicate and measure the effectiveness of everything from tweets to, well, whatever content and content channel someone will dream up tomorrow.) Email me: rexhammock@gmail.com. )

Later: Background on my rant against the word “content”: I explained why I didn’t like the term in 2008, but even then could see the content being written on the wall. Changing our name from Hammock Publishing to Hammock Inc. was also a realization that while I think we are writers and creators, when it comes to business, if the customer wants to call it content — they need to know they can find it here. And to make it official, thanks to my friend Joe Pulizzi of Junta42, I can even say this blog is ranked as the 11th best content marketing blog in the whole content marketing blogosphere. (Which doesn’t win me a place on the podium, but I’m happy with the personal best.)