Transcript: E-Books – You Can’t Write Just One

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Interview with Matthew Canvar, Vook

For podcast release May 7, 2012

KENNEALLY: The price of e-books is on many people’s minds, including the Federal Department of Justice. And at least as much as consumers care, authors and publishers care about getting a fair price for their works. But when you’re the author and the publisher at the same time, how do you know you’re getting a fair deal? Welcome to Beyond the Book, Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series, everyone. My name is Christopher Kenneally. And in New York today, joined by Matthew Cavnar, VP of Business Development for Vook. Matthew, welcome to the program.

CAVNAR: Thanks for having me, Chris.

KENNEALLY: It’s a pleasure to have you join us today, because the subject of e-book pricing, as I mentioned, is something that everybody’s worried about these days. Now Vook has a platform specifically for authors and their e-books, and you’ve got some thinking you’ve done around pricing. Can you tell us about that?

CAVNAR: Vook is a cloud-based e-publishing platform. We’re an end-to-end e-book creation, distribution, and sales reporting platform on the Web. So you can come, you can log in, you can build an e-book, you can distribute it to Amazon, BN, and iBooks, and then you can track your sales every day. What’s crucial about this for us is that daily sales reporting.

Our company’s been around three years, and we got started by creating hundreds of e-books in partnership with publishers, technology companies, and individual authors like Seth Godin, Deepak Chopra and others. And what we found was that e-books are a very hard game to figure out. They’re complicated both in creating the actual e-book, but then in getting your sales reporting information and figuring out how much you’re actually making is also complicated.

And so in the beginning we were getting spreadsheets from the distributors that we would get weekly, and we’d have to organize all the data ourselves and put it all together. We didn’t have a dashboard. Our company started as a Silicon Valley tech company. We were just so used to having Google Analytics for our businesses. We were so used to having daily data, our data coming in by the minute, and we were flabbergasted that we couldn’t get the same thing often in books.

So what we did was a couple things. We did two key things. First, we were hearing a lot about pricing of e-books and what makes sense, and where should I price this at, and how does pricing work. Well, we created 800 titles ourselves, in partnership, but also maybe a quarter of those we just did on our own by hiring writers. That gave us total price control in terms of a publishing partner. We could set the prices we saw fit, on our own initiative.

So we went into the marketplaces and we price tested. We used our own content in various different genres and we tested at, you know, $6.99 for three weeks. Then we tested at $4.99. We would continuously test, as controlled as possible, what price points made sense for what marketplaces. Yes, and perhaps it was a slightly crude venture. We were basically just changing the prices and then tracking that.

But this is the second thing we did. We built a dashboard. And we built a daily dashboard that allows us to get daily sales figures from Amazon, BN, and iBooks, and Kobo now as well. And we pull in those daily figures and we graph them, and so we can all see every day where our books are at, but we can also track the price point. So what we do is, we just started graphing the price point against sales in the marketplace. We were able to do that for a volume of titles, and we began to figure out the ideal sales point for different groups of titles.

KENNEALLY: So let’s go into that. What you’re talking about is a process that I’ve read a lot of anecdotes about, you know, authors have been doing this themselves. But here, you were working with, as you say, a whole catalog of titles across a range of genres and interests, I would imagine. So the learning that you were able to do was at an exponentially higher power than an individual author could.

CAVNAR: Yeah, and what we really learned was that a volume of titles makes such a difference. And I’m beginning to see that, for those of you out there who are self-published authors or for those of you out there who are small to independent publishers, I’m going to just tell you, what makes the most difference in Amazon, which is probably going to be your largest digital marketplace, your largest opportunity to find customers, what really works is not just doing one e-book.

You have to do multiple e-books, and there are a couple reasons for that. And this is what we learned doing a huge volume of titles. When we had a huge volume that were consistently branded, we could put them in the store, and if I’m looking at an Amazon product page right now, and you can go and look at one yourself in the Kindle Store, you’ll see the recommendation engine, which is right underneath the book title. That recommendation engine is really the one thing in Amazon’s very complicated and excellent algorithms that they use that you can control.

And how can you control that? Well, almost always, they recommend other books by the same authors or other books in the same series. So if you want the recommended titles to be similar to your own content, you need to have, one, a series, two, consistent branding, and three, probably chunks, episodic content.

KENNEALLY: Yeah. I mean, what you’re getting at here is the question on everyone’s mind, apart from price, which is discovery. And so here, you’re sort of prompting a kind of discovery that’s taking advantage of the way Amazon sets things up in the first place. It seems pretty smart.

CAVNAR: Yeah, and it’s basic. And again, this is no magic here, and I’m not claiming to do anything most people couldn’t figure out by just staring at an Amazon page. But I think it’s really important to restate it and restate it as you begin to understand, because people will do parts of it and not get the whole thing right. Consistent branding makes such a difference.

I’d recommend everyone check out a company called Byliner out of San Francisco. Now, Byliner didn’t really exist before a couple years ago, and they come around because they make it possible to read great stories, great long-form journalism easily. But they have also launched a Byliner Originals e-book publishing program. Go and look at them, because they have figured out how to do branding.

Each one of the covers of their books looks different, is related to the content, and has some beautiful art. But they consistently use a yellow background with the same font and the same little design elements so you always know you’re getting a Byliner book. And when you look that up in the storefronts, it stands out as an indicator of quality. And that’s the kind of thing that even an independent author who’s writing a series on whatever he might be writing on, vampires in space, you could still have a look and feel.

I was at a big organization the other day, and a guy just came out and said, well, it seems like the thing that matters the most is getting the cover right. And that’s really true, because in the digital marketplace there are two cover sizes, basically the same for iBooks, Amazon, and BN. Figure out that big cover that has the click to look inside on Amazon, and then that smaller thumbnail icon. Try to get something that looks distinct there, and you’re going to just do a lot better.

KENNEALLY: Well, Matt Cavnar at Vook, tell us about the lessons you’ve acquired, as far as the pricing goes. Are there some price points for certain genres or certain kinds of titles that you can share with us?

CAVNAR: Yeah, absolutely. And I’d recommend, our platform has a handbook, an instruction manual online at guide.vook.com, that’s G-U-I-D-E.vook.com. And we should charge for it, now that I think about it, because it’s so valuable. It has everything we’ve ever learned about building an e-book. Now, most of it’s optimized for our platform. But at the same time, there’s everything you need to know about how to build an e-book, but also we have a lot of free titles you can check out, and we have templates for pricing and different content types.

And again, it’s not brain-busting, but it’s still instructive. We consider single content, which is about 5,000-10,000 words, you probably want to price that between $1.99-$2.99. Something called mini e-books, which can be collections of essays, smaller collections, I would recommend, and I need to update our price on the Web site, $4.99 and $6.99 at the outside. But really, that $4.99-$5.99 price point. And then standard titles, you can definitely get up to $9.99. You can especially get up to $9.99 if you’re an independent author, or if you’re doing lots of images, audio or video enhancements.

This will be very instructive. We have a book by an author who used the Vook platform, it’s called Scam School. It’s by a guy named Brian Brushwood, who had a podcast about magic. And Scam School has sold $30,000 gross over the course of a month. And he had a loyal audience, he had thousands of people following his podcast. But really, he made a gorgeous video-enhanced e-book, and the videos are really there to add value and show you how to do magic tricks. And because of that, he, an independent author with no previous publishing history, was able to charge $9.99 in the stores.

KENNEALLY: Well that’s a heartening story, because I guess what most people are hearing is e-books are driving the price of any work down to as low as possible, if not to nothing. And there, you were telling us a story illustrative of somebody who can get $9.99 a copy. So I guess the point is that a little bit of investment in the content can reap a return.

CAVNAR: Yeah. I’m so thrilled by what Brian accomplished. And if you have any doubts, I’m showing Chris here the sales numbers, and between iBook Store and Amazon, that’s where he made most of his money. And he spent the extra time to get the videos in. I think if you’re a brand name author with an established brand and content, you can get $9.99 for a text e-book, no doubt, but it’s certainly a little bit more difficult. If you’re an author who has a real expertise and you add some additional flourishes to your e-book, those are all good reasons to raise the price.

KENNEALLY: You know, Matt, one of the things that Vook does beyond offering all of this sales information is provide control to the authors around metadata. Now, that may mean something to some of our audience, but I bet it doesn’t mean a lot to many people. So tell us why that’s important. Why is control over metadata important? And I’m going to make you tell us what metadata is.

CAVNAR: If you imagine a book, the metadata is all the associated information that goes with the book that isn’t the text content of the book itself. So if you’re reading a novel, it’s not War and Peace the story, it’s all the information around War and Peace. Who’s it by, what genre is it in, how would you catalog it in a book store, what’s its ISBN, what the title is, all of those pieces. What audience is it aimed at. If it has photographs, is there any metadata behind the photographs, and that means tags of information around the photographs.

And all of this stuff is crucial because it helps your books get found in a marketplace and properly catalogued in marketplaces as well. And if you go through a service like Bowker, they’re the people that issue ISBNs and they have a service, they will populate out your metadata into all these catalogs, digital catalogs in the world, and people searching will be able to find your book. Now, whether or not they can always buy your book or whether or not finding your book means they’re going to get access to it is another question, but they can at least find that your book exists more easily.

So a way of thinking of the metadata is the proof of your book’s existence in the world, and you can control that. In Vook, we’ve set up the metadata. We give you the metadata for Amazon, BN, and iBooks, and we have different fields, so instead of wondering, where do I fill that out, you fill it out in fields in our platform, and you can always come back in and change it, and then update your content.

KENNEALLY: And I want to tell people, Matt, I mean, we’re sitting here right now with your laptop, and you’re kind of flipping through all of this rather quickly. And from this distance, which is about a foot and a half, it looks like a pretty simple interface. I think a lot of authors, independent publishers even, worry that this is such an overwhelming task. First they have to write the book, then they have to go shoot some video, and then they have to start worrying about all of the pieces that go into making it available to the marketplace. But in an interface like that, it looks like you could handle it in a short while.

CAVNAR: Yeah, it’s very straightforward, and we’re really optimizing it for the markets, for digital publishing, and that’s going to make your job a little bit easier. And each time we add a new marketplace, such as Kobo, we have to add new fields of metadata that you fill out. So you keep track with us of making sure your metadata is ever updated and relevant to the stores.

KENNEALLY: So I guess to recap some of the lessons here, to make the most of a digital book, you want to get in what’s going to make it very attractive. That often includes enhanced elements. And then you want to be flexible around pricing.

CAVNAR: Yeah, you do want to be flexible around pricing. And we’re huge believers in text e-books. Our platform makes it easy to create really nicely styled text e-books that don’t have errors and that render properly on every device. It sounds simple, but it’s still just so painful to do that properly. So we’ve worked really hard to get that piece right. And the thing that I really tell authors more than anything is, first of all, you’ve got to get that great content together.

And then once you have your story written, you need to think a lot about all these other elements. Branding, series, how you’re going to show up in the storefronts, and what your product descriptions – this is a piece of metadata. Again, I’m using Amazon because it’s a great default. There’s something called product description in Amazon. You really want to get that right, because that’s what people read to decide if they’re going to buy your book or not. And we have tips on how to get that piece right, but that is crucial. So it’s basically bringing a little bit of your marketing know-how to getting your book ready to go out to sale.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’ve appreciated this sort of lesson in e-book sales and marketing from Matthew Cavnar. He’s VP of Business Development at Vook. We’ve been chatting with him in his offices in New York City. Matt, thanks so much for joining Beyond the Book.

CAVNAR: Thank you, sir.

KENNEALLY: We’re delighted to have you. 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 now images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at our Web site, copyright.com/beyondthebook. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.