Transcript: Books Join The Sharing Economy

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Interview with Neil Maillet

For podcast release Monday, September 28, 2015

KENNEALLY: The era of the sharing economy is upon us. From Uber to Airbnb and Snapgoods to TaskRabbit, web-based companies can now match service providers to their customers easily and directly. For the taxi and hotel industries, the results are unprecedented and unforeseen business disruptions. For the clients, the range of choices brings a heartening level of competition to the marketplace that means lower prices and greater satisfaction.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book.

In book publishing, the closest to a sharing economy model is what some call an access economy. The operating principle is that idle value is wasted, so to put books to work, publishers and authors are turning to making them free of charge.

And I’ll pick that up from the previous sentence. Three, two, one.

The operating principle is that idle value is wasted. So to put books to work, publishers and authors are turning to making them free of charge. The results are clear, but not in the way you’d expect, says Neal Maillet, Editorial Director at Berrett-Koehler based in Oakland, California.

Giving away books not only draws attention to an author and a title, but also the freebies drive sales. Oscar Wilde, it turns out, was right. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Neal Maillet joins me now. Welcome to Beyond the Book Neal.

MAILLET: Christopher, thank for having me here.

KENNEALLY: We’re delighted to speak with you here at the headquarters of Copyright Clearance Center. Neal Maillet has enjoyed a 30-year career in book publishing, working at companies as diverse as Bantam Bertelsmann, John Wiley & Sons, and Jossey-Bass Publishing. He is currently editorial director at Berrett-Kohler. He was previously publisher of Timber Press, a subsidiary of Workman.

Neal received his BA in English Literature from Columbia University, and subsequently proved his dedication to book publishing when he took a 50% pay cut from waiting tables in Greenwich Village to accept his first job as an editorial assistant.

He grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts, one mile from the headquarters of CCC. So it really is a pleasure to have you here in person. You’re joining us from San Francisco – I should say Oakland, your home base, your business base. And you are a business book editor, so what we’re talking about here is really a business question.

The notion of sharing books, driving sales, is something that still, in 2015, many people in publishing – authors and editors – struggle with. And you want to share some of the things that you’ve learned in seeing authors engage their reading public in that kind of way.

So talk about it, just as a matter or principle, of classical economics. Giving something away freely just increases supply and drives demands down. Sorry, drives prices down.


KENNEALLY: So what’s happening in this new access economy model?

MAILLET: Yeah, so I guess I’m influenced by two kinds of cultures, if you will. I’ve worked in both East Coast publishing, New York City, and West Coast publishing. And there’s definitely some differences in opinions, I think, in that sense of giving content away for free. I have found that West Coast publishers may be a little more open to the idea. Maybe they’re influenced by Silicon Valley and some of the Internet companies that have no problem giving things away, the freemium sort models.

But I am also influenced as a business publisher in seeing how the world has changed, how we do have an access economy. And I got that word, actually, from Harvard Business Review. Business professors on the East Coast as well are looking into how are these companies turning a profit when they give so much away for free?

And I’m not suggesting that book publishers need to give everything away for free. I mean that wouldn’t work for anybody. But there is a less of a firewall than I think a lot of us were taught who grew up in publishing maybe in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s when you really were trying to lock down content. Content is king. You better control your content, you better make sure that everybody pays their way in, or you’re going to lose your shirt.

And I really have found that there’s a balance. There really is a happy medium where access is more important than having complete control of your content. And we found ourselves in our publishing company where we’ve gained value, where our books have sold more as we’ve given them away.

And I remember when Google reps used to come around to us, maybe more in the ‘90s, when they were opening up the search. Of course, then led to lawsuits. This was even before the lawsuit days, and they were trying to convince people, let people see a little bit of your book in their search results, and you’ll actually sell more books. And they had a lot of data that supported that.

And I remember people struggled with that. They fought it, they – of course, they fought them in court to that extent. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have sought to protect their intellectual property at some level. But I think the principle is still true that as you get more eyeballs on your book, your content, your ideas – that just leads to other links, to other purchases.

And we were talking before the broadcast about this interesting case of Neil Gaiman. Very strong-selling author, he’s got followers around the world. And he was just really worked up at one point in his life with pirated – and I get emails as an editor from my authors like every day. I found this – my book is on this site.

And we send takedown notices, and we don’t want to violate an author’s wishes by any means. But Neil finally just gave up at one point, because he found out that where was pirated most, his sales were on the increase most.

And it does suggest that there is this connection between access, free access, and the ultimate transaction of the customer who wants to buy your content. They’re now loyal to you. They’re going to follow you. And if you give them opportunities to buy or pay, at some point you will get that.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, you can pick this apart just a little bit, Neal. And one way of looking at it is that making books available free, either online or in a physical copy – and we’ll talk about the important distinctions there – is in effect enabling discovery, which is so difficult today because of the numbers of books that are available, and the way that books now compete with all other media.

MAILLET: Yeah, and I’ll give you an example. In fact, I wrote down a bunch of examples at BK – BK being short for Berrett-Koehler – where we ended up giving away essentially the entire book online, or in some – not necessarily as a free PDF that anybody can copy and send around, but on a website, for example.

Like we do a lot of books that are kind of in progressive politics, so we will serialize the book at a website called, for example, or another website called Alternet – where these are people who are fanatical about our content, about our authors. And even though the book might appear – so from the example of, we gave away chapter by chapter this entire book called Rebooting the American Dream by an author named Thom Hartmann. And then they ended up selling 1,000 books on that website.

So even when people had access, they still wanted to buy. They still wanted to thank Thom for the content. They wanted it on their bookshelf. They wanted to share it with their friends. So there was almost like a one-to-one relationship between that book being serialized for free, and then the very same people turning around and buying the book and getting a physical copy.

So I think that that’s, to me, evidence enough that there really is a good relationship there.

KENNEALLY: Right. And in particular, the kinds of books that you do at Berrett-Koehler are really about ideas, about engaging conversations – politically often, but other types of conversations that are important to our social environment. Right? And so, contributing to the conversation in a way without really expecting a sale first, it seems to be in keeping with your mission as it were, as a publisher.

MAILLET: Sure. And we always have to be the – there has to be some thought process that goes into it. We don’t just do it without some thinking about where will the sale eventually come in, or how do we see – the author deserves to be paid a royalty and receive a return.

But I think sometimes – I’ve been trained as an editor in East Coast, I guess, I a little bit. I don’t mean to be mean to the East Coast. I’m back here. I’m just 20 miles north of Boston, so among my people.

But we were trained to really keep a hawk’s eye on any unlicensed use. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep an eye out for that, but maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world to happen to you.

And one thing I thought about that has gone away in the world of book publishing that was fantastic – there was that whole thing of first serial and second serial when I first got into publishing. I mean if you got a first serial – and I’m not saying that serials don’t still exist –

KENNEALLY: And I just want for the audience who may not be familiar with those terms, first serial rights and second serial rights – very briefly explain.

MAILLET: Yeah, so first serial was that you were going to get a pre-publication peak at a book. And it might go into Harper’s, or –

KENNEALLY: Time magazine.

MAILLET: Exactly. And this was a big coup for the magazine to share something ahead of time. And serial sales are still out there. A second serial would be after the book had come out – you were going to excerpt something in your magazine.

KENNEALLY: And really help to sort of open the market, open the door to the market for the particular book or the author.

MAILLET: Yeah, and serial sales are still here. It’s just that at one time that was the Internet, if you will, of ideas for –

And I talked to Robert Gottlieb who was the editor at Knopf. He edited a book called Up the Organization in the ‘70s, and they did a first serial in Harper’s. And so I’m saying that wasn’t exactly free content, but it was close as you could get at the time. And he said there were people knocking on the door at Knopf’s headquarters the day after it came out in Harper’s, wanting a copy of the book. And that book ended up selling more like three to four million copies. But it’s instructive that that first taste was essentially free to the audience.

So the closest thing I think we have now to that experience is giving away free content, free chapters, free blog posts – spreading the word, if you will.

KENNEALLY: Right, and is there a difference, an important one, between making available a digital copy and making a physical copy available? People still, we hear, are interested in the physical book. Their sales have become – have revived recently. Is giving away a free book also of benefit to the author and publisher?

MAILLET: Yeah, we. Well, we’re interesting. At our company, we will give every author 150 free books.

KENNEALLY: Physical books, print books.

MAILLET: Physical books. The standard in most publishing contracts is more like 10, and that’s fine. We have found that if we give the author a lot of free copies – and let’s be honest, for a book publisher, we’re printing three, four, five, six thousand copies. At that point, 150 copies, the cost of goods for that really isn’t that prohibitive.

But if the author’s going to send copies to the people they quoted, to people they interviewed, to companies they worked for, to editors who might interview them – incentivize that author to send out thank you notes, there’s still a lot of value in that physical book. And the same principle applies. So we do find it very useful to send out – and we do advance reader copies.

Interestingly enough, in that pre-publication look at the book, we’ve found that the physical issue still gets more attention than if I send you a PDF by email. There’s just nothing – in that pre-publication phase, there’s not a lot that’s special about that. A handwritten note with a physical book is still going to get more attention.

KENNEALLY: I was just going to say, opening an email – well, that’s not very exciting. But opening a package that’s come to you with a note or something like that, it just really is a very different experience.

And it strikes me that there are some lessons here that have been learned by other authors. And Danny Iny, whom you have written about, makes one particularly important point. The more people that have books in their hands to read, they are more likely to put reviews on Amazon that are positive reviews.

MAILLET: Yeah, I tear out my hair with some of my authors a week or two after the book is out, and there’s no Amazon reviews yet. And obviously, over time we’ll get those reviews. People will buy the book and be nice enough to go on there, but it certainly can’t hurt to kind of chase down your friends and contacts and really urge them, maybe even make – incentivize them, say, hey, if you’re willing to go on – there’s a line. Don’t tell them to write a good review. They really need to speak their minds. But if you give people a free download or something like that if they post an Amazon review, that’s worth your while. We need to have those reviews to really get traffic.

But what Danny has done is really gone the extra mile. He says he’ll give away 15 books for every one that he sells, but that’s all with a view to getting people on to write reviews and say how great his books are, how helpful they’ve been. And these are going to be honest reactions, and people are going to really act on that more than some canned marketing copy that you can sit there and write. And the fact that we’re talking about him, in my mind is proof that his principle does work.

And I’ll just send him a little blurb. He’s at I don’t know him. I’ve never worked with him. But I loved his website. I’ve found his ideas fascinating, and I’ve used them myself. So.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, we are chatting today with Neal Maillet who is the editorial director of Berrett-Koehler, and it’s about the value of free.

And final point, Neal, would be that while free has a value, at least in driving sales and raising attention and profiles for authors, there’s also some evidence out there that people want to pay. What do we know about that?

MAILLET: Yeah. There’s a fantastic author, and this is a book that has been – I’ll refer to a book, and this isn’t a Berrett-Koehler book, so no self-interest here whatsoever. It had a big influence on our marketing staff. They’ve all read it. It’s called Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, and the author’s name is Cory Doctorow, spelled the same way as E.L. Doctorow.

KENNEALLY: We know Cory here on the show. We’ve had him on the show.

MAILLET: Excellent. Well, very passionate and articulate proponent of this idea that people want to pay, and there is this direct connection to opening up your content to this access economy and really having that leap of faith, if you will, that if you do the right thing, if you give away your ideas, you will get rewards in return. People will show up and want to support you. If they find your material helpful, if they get something from it, they’re going to want to reward you for that. It’s just human nature. We’ve all been taught that way – a good turn deserves another.

And my favorite metaphor that he uses is don’t think like a mammal. Think like a dandelion. We say this – I say this to our digital editor, Charlotte, all the time. She says, you’re thinking like a mammal. A mammal has one offspring and cares for that, puts all their resources in that one offspring, keeps it safe, keeps it in the den, doesn’t share it until it’s pretty much all ready to survive in the world on its own.

A dandelion just spreads willy-nilly. And why do you see a big field of dandelions? It’s because it’s in that mindset of spreading out as wide as you can, get the word out, and that’s the metaphor that he uses.

And I believe it. I do believe that if you believe that if you think like a dandelion, if you’re not afraid of sharing, and not worrying too much about how you get paid later, eventually there is karma in publishing, and you will be rewarded. And the more that we, I think, convince authors to be comfortable with that, the better they’ll be.

KENNEALLY: I think that’s the important point, Neal, is that it’s a question comfort level. Not everyone is going to want to do as much as some of the authors you’re talking about, but just sort of taking this on, experimenting, learning from the activity, is only going to be worthwhile, whatever they do for their next book or project.

MAILLET: Absolutely. I think we become comfortable with this as with each experiment has paid off. I don’t think we’ve seen any example where we’ve felt we really ruined the copyright value of a book as we’ve experimented in some of these areas. And there is a limit. And there’s an area where we’re not comfortable kind of giving the book away.

But saying that, we’ve found that it’s better to err on the side of the access economy, if you will, and not letting things be idle. We give away a book every week for free in our newsletter that goes out. It’s called the BK Communique. And one reason why we’ve kept the subscriptions high is you can get a free book every week, but in most cases it’s a book that might need a little boost that hasn’t been kind of at the front page for a while. And now, suddenly, we see a bunch of sales coming in.

For me, that’s the fascinating thing that we’ve had where we’ve had books that are briefly for free or 99 cents, we see a boost of the full-paid purchases the week after, because people are now talking about it. They’ve forwarded a copy to somebody, and the next thing you know, the orders are coming in. So we’ve felt pretty comfortable with that tradeoff.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’ve appreciated chatting with you today Neal about the value of free.

Neal Maillet is Editorial Director of Berrett-Koehler based in Oakland, California. Thanks for joining us on Beyond the Book.

MAILLET: Oh, it’s been a pleasure.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs – as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow us on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast on iTunes, or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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