Review – The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circle book coverI mostly enjoyed reading Dave Eggers’ current novel, The Circle, in the same way I mostly enjoyed William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition
when it came out a decade ago.

Both novels follow numerous science-fiction conventions, but neither can be described as purely in the sci-fi genre, as neither are (or, in Pattern Recognition‘s case, was) set in another time frame or place, nor do they involve conceptual technology or some form of device, power  or capability that won’t be available until some imaginary future.

While not necessarily “in the present,” both novels are clearly “contemporary.” Indeed, in my observation and opinion, today’s “first worlder” under the age of 25 is far closer to being in the social-media dominated culture described in The Circle, than not. (And, for that matter, the novel Pattern Recognition probably already needs annotations to explain references to tech constructs that would have today’s reader wondering, “Why didn’t they just use YouTube”? (not recognizing it was written before YouTube existed).

Reading The Circle will especially make longtime social media junkies feel a bit guilty and goofy, at times. We (I’ll confess) see so much promise in those things about our lives that can be be tracked and shared for the common good, that we tend to dismiss privacy concerns as being overstated…and for those who question our willingness to share the Kool Aid, we reserve the ultimate insult: ‘they just don’t get it.”

For that reason, it’s especially amusing to me that reviewers describe The Circle as “dystopian,” since so much of the book is merely an extension of current technology and two or three steps ahead of where most people who call themselves “social media gurus” think utopia exists. If The Circle is dystopian, welcome to their United States of Dystopia.

As a book, Eggers’ novel shows off his compelling (page-turning) story telling skills and creativity and branding savvy and understanding of marketing and deep insight into what the promise of social media can provide — and knowledge of the extraordinary benefits to society and individuals of transparency and the community-building tool enabled by the technology of the web.

Of course, as with any good techno-thrilling novel, the obvious benefits of such technology always provide the counter-balanced underbelly of the benefit–where you’ll find the story worth telling.

Did I praise the novel–I guess it’s time to say something that proves I’m not just a fan-boy, so: At the same time, Eggers’ book can seem overly derivative and, at times, over-wrought with Ayn Rand-esque preachiness and redundant “let’s make sure you get the point” dialogue. 1984 also comes to mind. Heck, even the 1984 Apple commercial comes to mind.

I was reading (and listening) to the book last week when, in the news, the FDA ordered 23AndMe to stop selling their $99 DNA testing product with claims previously rejected by the agency. The “we know better than the government” response of many netizens felt frighteningly straight out of Eggers’ book.

A couple of days later, while reading a headline that “Eight Democratic Senators Want Tech Companies To Serve As Healthcare.gov Alternative,” it started making me think that if a reader is interested in the book, The Circle, they better hurry before it becomes science non-fiction.

If you’ve stuck with this review to this point, you should read the book. I like it, but to be too gushy about it would probably indicate that I didn’t quite get the point if I’m using my blog to write Eggers book a love letter.

If you’ve ever used the word “social media metric” in your professional life, you should read this book in order to understand why you should ratchet back the buzzwords and cult membership in the churches of Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al.

This is neither a business book or a book about technology. It’s a social media book. But don’t expect it to be a “pro” social media book. Because it’s not.

Bottomline: If you’ve ever wondered what the Hunger Games written by Dave Eggers would be like, read this novel.

Anticipate what customers will think, before they think it

We learned this morning that Ray Bradbury, one of the most prolific and influential writers (I didn’t use the term “science fiction” purposefully) of the past century, passed away yesterday at the age of 91. It is now about 1 p.m. CDT and news about his death appears on the front of most of the major news sites I’ve visited in the past five minutes.

As someone who helps clients sell things on the internet, I was curious to see how quickly online booksellers have responded to the news of Bradbury’s death. While I’d prefer not to label anyone’s death, a “merchandizing opportunity,” I think it is only natural that a bookseller would anticipate a spike in interest in Bradbury today in the same way the music of an artist might spike in interest after their death. It’s not advertising or merchandizing if it’s something that will help a customer learn about something they want to learn about.

So, at approximately 12:45 p.m., CDT, I surfed a few retail booksellers websites and captured a screen grab. Here are the front pages of those sites at the time I visited them:

Amazon.com: A message on the front of the Books page with links to his author page.

Audible.com – An “In Memoriam”

BN.com – Nothing

Powells.com – Nothing

I could continue, but every site I visited at 12:45 p.m. CDT — including all of the independent bookstores that I admire, had nothing. Apple’s iBook store had nothing.

I’m sure every bookseller online and off will have something posted soon. But there’s a reason, more than pricing and service that Amazon (and its subsidiary, Audible.com) dominate the online book retailing market.

In commoditized markets, anticipating what customers want before they know they want it, is one of few ways left of adding value to your relationship with a customer.

Rethinking the role of cover when the book is digital

Craig Mod has written an insightful essay on the role of “book cover” when applied to ebooks. [Read it here.]

Think about it: The cover serves a critical marketing purpose for physical books. However, online, ebook covers are typically displayed in thumbnail size. Moreover, the type of text-based information you find on a physical book cover is surrounding that ebook cover thumbnail.

So if you don’t need text on the cover, what should the cover become? What role should it play?

Craig Mod quote:

The classic notion of a cover made digital is more like a book’s .favicon rather than a gateway into the text. It’s at best a small piece within a larger design system, and at worst, never seen.

[Link via: Domino Project]

How to make sure I drop everything and blog about your new book

As one of the 12 readers of this blog, your attention is so coveted by marketers and authors, rarely a day goes by without me receiving some type of pitch to write for you a blog post about something the pitcher apparently thinks that I “cover” and about which they know you are interested.

It’s quite apparent to me, however, that such pitchers are not among this blog’s 12 readers, as not even I know exactly what I cover.

Nevertheless, for the first time in the decade-long history of this blog, I just received the absolute perfect pitch.

First, it made it past my physical-mail gate-keeper who has 15 years experience of knowing I don’t read printed stuff that comes to me via the mail unless it adheres to a complex algorithm she and I have developed during her tenure. (Yes, certain print magazines adhere to the algorithm.)

Second, it came from one of the actual 12 readers if this blog.

Third, it has a chapter (or, more technically, a “conversation starter”) in it about a topic I’ll have to admit is one that, yes, indeed, I cover: Me.

So, despite just hearing about it for the first time, and, I’ll admit, I haven’t actually read it (except, of course, the couple of pages that start on page 81), let me say that John Bethune’s New-Media Survival Guide: A Handbook for Journalists and Other Print-Era Refugees is awesome and a must read for all journalists and other print-era refugees.

But seriously.

In addition to being one of the 12 readers of this blog, John is a veteran business-to-business journalist and editor whose blog and Twitter account are on my daily short list. They are informative and popular for those of us who believe the flow of news, information and knowledge should never be limited to one format.

And he throws a helluva curve ball.

Thanks, John.

Should readers of ebooks be taxed to subsidize stores that sell printed books?

Okay here’s an easy question to answer:

Should readers of ebooks be charged a fee that would go into a fund to subsidize bookstores that sell print books?

I hope that it’s obvious to you the answer is “hell no.”

But when I read the discussion that took place over the weekend at Paidcontent.org between Mathew Ingram and Laura Owen that is described as a “smack-down,” I scratch my head and wonder if anyone can make something more than an emotional and nostalgic argument to defend a practice (the likely illegal price-fixing scheme called “agency pricing“) that is just such a “subsidy” model.

I’d like to smack down a couple of things a lot of people seem to take for-granted about this issue —  both which are non-sense. First, that a price of $9.99 for an ebook on Amazon is without question a “loss leader” or predatory pricing. And second, that somehow, we should accept without question that Amazon is responsible for the demise of the independent bookstore and, therefore, if something could be done that would make Amazon play by some rules that would keep them from having a competitive advantage over independent bookstores, then we’d return to the the good old days.

But let’s put aside the emotional and nostalgic issues for a moment. Let’s agree on this: We all love bookstores. We all love physical books. We love cats, dogs and home-cooked meals, also.

Now. Let’s get to some facts:

First off, let’s take care of the myth that $9.99 is a predatory price for an ebook. Or that it is a loss-leader. Let me point back to a post I blogged two years ago that used data developed by Peter Olson, who was Chairman and CEO of Random House for ten years, and Bharat Anand, a chaired professor at Harvard Business School. They (did I mention Peter Olson was CEO of Random House for ten years?) crunched the numbers on ebook pricing in June of 2009 in this article and determined that ebooks could, as a stand-alone business, be priced far below Amazon’s current $9.99 pricing  (they mentioned the amount $4) and still provide the same revenue per/book to author and publisher and retailer as they have on paper books.* (Revenue losers: printers, manufacturers, transportation companies, wholesalers, storage providers.) Moreover, Olson and Anand point out that the pricing of ebooks, as a stand-alone business, can provide for a wide variety of dynamic pricing based on time-based or other economic incentives that could actually far surpass the revenue available via the current book distribution model (something akin to a consignment shop). Since their research, such advancements as Kindle Singles and event-related “instant” books have fulfilled Olson and Anand’s prediction of variable pricing strategies.

Second, let’s address the assumption that Amazon is the reason independent bookstores are hurting.

Am I the only person around here who watched the movie, You’ve Got Mail?

The movie came out in 1998. 1998! Remember the plot? If you don’t, why are you even reading this post? Back then it was Barnes & Noble and the big book publishers who were the villains of this story.

In fact, during the era of You’ve Got Mail, the independent booksellers trade association, American Booksellers,  spent $18 million suing those publishers over what the independent booksellers claimed were pricing advantages the publishers provided the big box book retailers. Back then, the predatory pricing was at Barnes & Noble. Back then, Tom Hanks was the bad guy. The suit lasted three years and ended in a settlement wherein both parties declared victory and went home — or to the movie theater to watch You’ve Got Mail.

(Just think what they could have done had the ABA not spent $18 million suing the publishers in the late 1990s and had used that money to figure out how to sell books online against the little startup, Amazon? Or better, what if they’d invested that $18 million in Amazon stock? Today, they’d have over $65 million. And if they’d waited to invest that $18 million in Amazon until its stock crashed during the dot.com bust, say, September of 2001, the American Booksellers would today have over $5 billion.)

One last fact: Even after the price-fixing issue called “agency pricing” is settled and over, nothing prevents publishers from charging Apple and Amazon and any other ebook channel that comes online between now and forever, whatever price they want for an ebook. The only thing a settlement with the Justice Department will do will prevent the publishers from dictating an ebooks retail price.

Those are facts, here are some opinions of mine:

An ebook and a print book are not the same product. There are things you can do with an ebook, you can’t do with a print book.  There are things you can do with a printed book, you can’t do with an ebook. If it were not for Amazon, I wouldn’t know this, because the major publishers have been trying to prevent ebooks from succeeding for a couple of decades. Amazon finally broke the cartel. For this we should be thanking them. Thanks, Amazon. (Now break their ridiculous pricing of audio books, since you own Audible.com)

The notion that the pricing of print books should be tied, or even compared to, the price of an ebook is ridiculous. If the author gets the same net revenue and the publisher and retailer receive the same net revenue (as Olson and Anand’s numbers show), then it seems clear that the motivation of publishers is, as the subject line of this post suggests, motivated by something other than economics.

I love printed books and independent bookstores. But the way to save them is not by setting artificially high prices on ebooks.

*My post was in response to a NY Times article on the pricing of ebooks that was based entirely on math provided by individuals who, unlike Olson, still work inside a publishing house.