Mark Lefebvre, director of author relations for Kobo, one of the largest eBook readers and distributors, talks about the dramatic shift in reading, publishing, and bookselling with the advent of electronic books and eReaders like Kobo. It’s the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in reading.
Kevin: Welcome to the Creative Futurism podcast, bringing together the worlds of business, technology, and creativity. This is Kevin J. Anderson.
John: And this is John Best. You’ll look at the world and the future in a whole new way. Hello everyone, and welcome to this episode of Creative Futurism. My name is John Best. And we’re here to talk about cool stuff about the world, the future, business, weapons I guess in our past episodes. Pretty much anything’s game, right?
John: Creativity, the future, thus the name. And who do we got today? I know we’ve got something exciting going on here.
Kevin: Well most of you people I assume know how to read. And I’m a writer so I like people who read. But you never thought that the technology of reading a book was going to completely dramatically change the entire world that we live in. We’re always used to picking up a paperback and flipping the pages. But something in about 2007, when the first Kindle came out. And it sort of changed everything. And people started reading on electronic readers. And you might have heard of Kindles or iPads but they’re not the only game in town. And in fact, there are several. There’s a Barnes & Noble Nook and there is the Kobo. Which is by Rakuten, it’s a company mainly based in Canada. And the guest that we have today is the director of self-publishing and chief of author relations for Kobo. And in fact, I have a Kindle, I have an iPad. But the one that I actually read my books on is my Kobo. I just kind of like the interface and I enjoy it. Mark Leslie Lefebvre, whose been a friend of mine for quite a while. And he’s also a really interesting guy with a lot of up to date stuff. He helped develop the Kobo writing life self-publishing platform. And he’s an expert on e-book publishing, e-book industry in general as well as national publishing. He’s also the President of the Canadian Book Seller’s Association. And Mark, welcome to our podcast.
Mark: I’m delighted to be here Kevin. Thanks for having me.
Kevin: Yeah, you thought I was going to keep reading paragraphs of his bio.
John: I was expecting another half hour but it’s all good.
Kevin: We’ve got lots of stuff to talk about. I think our audience is sort of a general audience. People that have probably their own Kindle or Kobo, read e-books and things. But maybe from the outside they don’t quite understand the absolute Hurricane Katrina or watershed that’s happening in the publishing industry since e-books have appeared.
John: And by e-books you mean the e-book itself in terms of the actual book or do you mean the self-publishing format? Or both?
Kevin: Well that’s I think both of the projects. I can certainly talk about it but we’ve got Mark as a guest.
John: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to understand.
Kevin: Let’s turn Mark loose. Tell us about the changes in the industry. Because we authors who did all this thing felt like we had invested greatly in like Blockbuster video stores. And certainly it all vanished under us.
John: You mean like those guys at Borders? Because that didn’t go well for them either.
Mark: No, it didn’t go well. I mean so the funny thing about it, so when you think about digital reading and e-books it wasn’t really popular until maybe it was the Fall of 2006. The Sony PSR 500 came out that was the first really good e-book reader. The Kindle followed that the following year. And ironically, digital books or e-books were roughly forty years old by the time they really took off.
John: Wait, did you say forty years? You said forty? Four zero?
Mark: Four zero, yeah. Roughly yeah, because it was about 2010 that the e-book landscape really took off. You were seeing 300%-600% year over year growth in that industry. I remember. I mean I’ve been a bookseller for more than twenty-five years. I remember when Stephen King launched Riding the Bullet and it was an experiment in e-book selling. But there weren’t great writers on the market.
Kevin: These were on floppy discs, right?
Mark: Yeah, something like that. It was just basically emailed versions of stories. It wasn’t until obviously the portable reader, the Sony was the first one, the Kindle came out. The iPad was 2010 as well. So thinking about those portable devices and then obviously Kobo or initially the short covers in 2009. Then came Kobo in 2010 with all the free apps on your smart phone. It was around that time between 2007 and 2010 that a lot of scary things happened. You look at the history of publishing, there were a few significant major changes. Obviously Gutenberg who invented the movable-type for us. And that went from scrolls to the printed expensive hard cover volume. And then you had the release of the mass market paperback. You think about Pocketbooks and Penguin releasing mass market paperback. Which suddenly made books more to a larger audience than ever before. Particularly people who couldn’t afford hard covers. And then again it wasn’t until 2007 to 2010 that for one of the most dramatic changes in publishing, even more dramatic than mass market paperbacks, was this availability. Suddenly e-books became available. A lot of books to become available even if you didn’t have a bookstore in your small town wherever you happened to be. You could have access instantly and easily to an e-book. And so suddenly there was more opportunity to have access to more books then ever in the history of publishing. And that’s really when e-books started to really take off.
John: Yeah, my dad was a huge fan of Mr. Anderson here. I did look through his collection, he had tons of your books. Especially the Dune stuff, he was a big fan of that. He passed on in 2008. My dad would literally consume probably I would say two good size science fiction books a week. He was just that kind of reader. And these readers would have been great for him because he kept all his books but I don’t know that that was the important part to him. It was the stories and the imagination. And so I think he would have loved a device like this. I think he got to see a little of it, but he didn’t get to see what it turned into.
Kevin: What was really funny like you said Mark, forty years. And you remember from like the 60’s and 70’s that they were talking for decades about how video phones were going to be in every house. And they never came, and they never came, and they never came. And now finally with Skype we actually do video conferences whenever we want to. We can do that. I guess people weren’t thinking that when you call somebody on the phone you don’t want to see if they’re in their underwear or if they haven’t . . whatever. But for e-books it was sort of similar because my first novel was published in 1988. And I followed publishing and I was working as an author and they talked forever about e-books were going to be the next big thing. And they were going to take over. And I kept waiting and I kept waiting. And even when I would sign my book contracts they started to add things like we get the e-book rights. And we would go yeah yeah that’s like asking for the theme park rights. Like anybody wants anything like that. And I remember distinctly my Dune novel The Butlerian Jihad that I wrote with Brian Herbert, I’m blanking right at the moment what it is. I think it was 2006ish. It was right when this was taking off. The publisher called me up one day and well I mean the e-book representative, the publisher, was ecstatic because our book Dune: The Butlerian Jihad was the best-selling e-book in their entire company for three months running. And I went, ‘Wow that’s great, how many copies does that mean?’ And he paused and he said, ‘Total? 300 copies.’ And we’re like okay never mind, I wasn’t really worried about it. And a lot of authors were like me, we kind of regretted them because back then if I had struck e-book clause from the contracts, nobody would’ve argued. But now we sort of gave it all away because it did take off. And it took a lot of people by surprise.
John: Well technology often evolves in a few different ways, right? So, it’s revolution or evolution you see a lot of times. And I would say that most of the time it’s evolution. It’s very rarely evolution because you can always kind of find that the seeds of whatever it was in something else. And Apple’s the best at this, right? They’re the ones that go, oh everybody thinks oh the iPhone or the iPod. Yeah there were people with music players before that waited a while. And then they came out and said, ‘Okay here’s all the mistakes everybody made, let’s make an awesome one.’ And I think that’s what we saw here in the evolution of this technology was people had tried it. And what’s interesting to me is my wife to this day, she wants hard cover books. She does not like the readers. She’d rather have the actual book in her hand. As an author, are you still finding people that are like that? And the same thing for you Mark, are you finding people like that? Because most of the people I know want to have electronic books. But I imagine there’s some people who are . .
Kevin: I just answered this at a convention last week with somebody. I was on a panel about e-book publishing and stuff. And there was sort of an old guard fan in the audience, ‘That I just like real books and it’s not the real story. The book is the book it’s the paper book. And I don’t like these electronic things.’ And I kind of came up with the best answer for it, I said, ‘So do you like listening to music?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘So which is the real music, the one that’s on the album, the one that’s on the CD, the one that’s on the cassette, the one that’s on I don’t know an MP3?’ It’s the music. And the other part is just a delivery system. But I’ll point this back to you Mark, as the consumer goes, how has e-books fundamentally changed reading habits?
Mark: Well, what we’ve seen from Kobo because we can not only-we can actually see when people are reading, how long they’re reading for, the sections they’re reading from, how many pages turned, etcetera. And what we’re seeing in our most avid readers, they’re actually taking advantage of the fact that they can have a thousand books on them at all times. Think about that. They’re reading more during breaks at work. They’re reading more at lunch break. They’re reading more during commutes. They can pull out their phone, open it up on their app. And what a lot of people are doing is they’re doing their app reading while commuting or while in transit, while in the grocery store. And then if they have a device like a dedicated Kobo reading device then maybe that’s that bed time book. A lot of people on travel can pack them. Just to give you a high-level stat in terms of in the ten years between 2002 and 2012, and this is U.S. publishing stats, in 2012, e-book revenue in the U.S. was 0.05%. And in 2012, e-book revenue from all major U.S. publishers was 22.55%. A significant shift.
John: That’s revolution right there.
Mark: That’s a major one. And ironically, in the first quarter of 2012 the major publishers made more revenue from e-books than they did from hard cover. Which was a significant stat when you think about that. That’s a major change to a very slow-moving industry. An industry that’s not usually going to embrace the future.
John: So, one of the things I noticed that was a big difference maker for me was as I was moving towards it, I played with a few of them but I’m going to go out and get me a Kobo.
Kevin: Go get a Kobo, I recommend it.
John: I will get a Kobo, it’s done. Consider that done, probably on the way home today. One of the challenges I had was for technical books, I do a lot of coding that sort of thing. I needed to be able to highlight stuff and take notes. And it seemed like the system sort of evolved into that where I was able to do that. I wonder how many of those little barriers got broken through over that time that created that opportunity. And don’t let me forget this, I want to ask what you do with those statistics? Because I’m fascinated by what those mean and what trends they would look at. This is something I do for a living. I look into financial statistics, artificial intelligence, I use big data analytics. We’ll come back to that. What barriers do you think? Was there any one big one that blew open the door for everybody?
Mark: I think portability was probably one of them. But here’s the interesting thing about making notes. You can do it on a Kobo, you can do it on a Kindle as well. You can go into your Kobo for example, open up a book, you can highlight a passage. You can even leave a note. And you can decide if that note is something you can view. But you can also share it so that other people who download the book after you can have access to see that note.
Kevin: So like a reading group as you’re reading?
Mark: Yeah. So that’s something that will be and hasn’t yet been because of the way that academic publishing works. But imagine everyone studying a Shakespearean text or something and they’re all using the same reading platform for that class. Imagine everyone in the class being able to share their notes. And the professor being able to share their notes with each other. And now, academic publishing is even further behind a traditional regular trade publishing. Only because they’re doing everything they can to lock things down to prevent this digital landscape. They’re trying to drive people back to the print book. But there’s an opportunity there that we have yet to discover. And having been an academic bookseller trying to find ways to save students money, I see amazing opportunities still with that, with non-fiction technical reading. Again, you’re seeing it in some cases for high end books that are live books in the web that are being updated on the fly almost like like a Wikipedia, right? Whereas technologies change, news changes, it can be updated on the fly. We’re still at the tipping point if you think about it. Just how alive a text can actually be. Because we’re so used to putting that ink on paper and fixing it in place and you have to wait until the next print run. We’re barely taking advantage of the possibilities of what publishing can become.
Kevin: Well, and from a business standpoint I want you to talk about like things that are obvious to us but maybe not obvious to people out there. The major difference between an e-book and print a book is you don’t have to pay to print it. You don’t have to pay to ship it. You don’t have to pay to store it. You don’t have to pay to return it if it doesn’t sell. Publishing has a very narrow profit margin as it is. And if you remove all of the material costs it just changes the whole business landscape of publishing, distributing, and book selling.
Mark: Oh dramatically. And that’s where because I’m the director of self-publishing, that’s where you see an additional shift in that because previous to the digital explosion between 2007 and 2010 let’s say, if you wanted to self-publish you had to go and-you could use print on demand printing. But it was very difficult because you still had the problem of once you printed the book, you still had to ship it somewhere in the world and there were costs involved. Suddenly with e-books, all of that putting the book on a boat or a truck went away. It was delivered obviously through the web. And that barrier cost significantly changed publishing. Being that for the first time in history, writers could choose to circumvent the gatekeepers in New York publishing. You think of the people who would say, ‘You know, this is a good manuscript but we just published a novel just like that.’ Well that’s good, because the publisher has to bear all the costs and they have a limited amount of investments. They can only invest so many. But it may not be good for the reader who wants another book like that now. Not next year, now. And that’s a significant shift in the demand. The supply and demand. Suddenly… and Kevin I know you’re a very prolific writer so you would only do one book with one publisher per year. Which is why you’re with six publishers, because you write so much. But suddenly now that you’re in digital publishing, you’re not limited to a schedule that requires a Fire from Barnes & Noble sitting down with a publisher in New York and deciding what books they’re going to buy 6-7-8 months from now. You know you could produce books at a schedule that’s more in line with what the reader wants to read. They want to read the next book in that series now. They don’t want to wait twelve months for that.
Kevin: I remember the year that it came out, I forget what the second one was but Stephen King came out with a book called The Eyes of The Dragon, which is his second book of the year. And it was like horrors among the publishers, among the booksellers like only Stephen King could pull off publishing two books in one year and expect his readers to keep following him. And I know lots of writers now who their goal is a book a month. They want to bring out ten to twelve books a year. And if they’re doing a series the reader grabbed a series book, they finished it and they want the next one now. They don’t want to wait a year. They want it now.
John: Look at the model that James Patterson’s out together which is like this mentorship writing I guess that he’s doing. And I want to circle back to something you said that blew my mind a minute ago. You were talking about how we haven’t tapped this. And when you said that, that sort of like got my brain working. So you’re saying you’re like keeping track of how often they turn pages and stuff. So let’s say Kevin’s got this amazing novel and it’s in the Kobo. And you’re looking through it and you’re like, ‘Hey Kev, people are just like struggling through this section right here.’ Or you know in our business world if we have a form on the website, right? And people were dropping off in a certain place in the form we would look at that. We would say, ‘Okay like a loan. Why are we losing this business?’ So if someone’s on their way through a book and for whatever reason they’re always putting it down at chapter ten or something, and you see where I’m going with this?
Kevin: Probably need to add a sex scene in chapter ten.
John: Right, and that’s what I’m asking. Can we improve this book on the fly? Is that even a possibility? We think of them as static things. So Mark calls you and goes, ‘Hey Kevin, dude you’re killing me in chapter twelve. Nobody likes it.’ Or people love chapter twelve, let’s extend it.’
Mark: We are doing that. Well, we’re doing the feedback and sharing with publishers where people may be stopping if there’s any consistent patterns. We can see how long they sat, how many hours they read, what time of day they’re reading, where they’re stopping, we’ve even released-so Kobo has actually released reports. And one of my favorites because it really supports the high quality of content that’s coming through Kobo writing and self-publishing was the best-selling book from Kobo in the U.K. was a literary title by Donna Turat, a major award-winning novel, just well respected, everyone who was anyone had a copy on their shelves. But what we found was the read through rate on average on Kobo was less than 50%. Because it was a thick heavy literary title that people struggled with. Obviously, everyone was trying to read it but they weren’t getting through it. The most well-read I think was like 86% read through rate was a title by a self-published author from the U.K. And so, we share that kind of data.
The one thing preventing us from sharing that data in a very bulk manner with independent authors kind of relates to respecting the privacy of the readers. And I’ll give you a perfect example: Kevin J. Anderson sells tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands copies of his books because he’s an international best-selling author. So that’s not a problem if we share reading data because it’s a big enough base that we know where it is. Myself as an author, I may sell one book to my mom this month. And we share with the independent author community. So we basically share the zip code, postal code, etcetera where your book sold in the world because we sell in 190 countries. So if I see that I only sold one book last month and I call my mom up and my mom says, ‘Yeah, I bought your book. I read it, I really liked it.’ Then I see my reading stats and it says the book was never even opened, the one that was sold. That could cause family feuds. So that’s one of the reasons we’re not going to release the data.
But we are looking at strategic ways which if there’s enough volume to protect readers privacy, how can that aggregate data be used to share with a publisher or an author? Now interestingly enough, we are sharing that with the major publishers. I don’t think they’re actually using it because by the time the books out they’re already on to the next book. But an independent author or a self-published author it’s their baby, it’s their product. They are getting the feedback or statistic that says everybody seems to stop at chapter nine. They can go back and say, ‘Yeah, you know what? My editor suggested I cut this scene in chapter nine, I wonder if they were right. Because it seems to be the place where everyone stops.’ And again, we’re just at the beginning of being able to tap into that and make changes and say, ‘Wow, well maybe I’ll cut that scene. And maybe that will help people move through.’
John: Did you say that you record where people read it? In the sense of whether I’m at home, in the subway?
Mark: We’re making assumptions based on time zones and commuting times for the average reader.
John: Because the NSA is going to want to use your Kobo device because I think you’ve . . .
Mark: So, we used to have badges you would get during lunch break, or reading during a commute, or during the witching hour. That’s based on your local time zone. Now I will tell you something really awesome about the latest Kobo device which is the Kobo Aura One.
John: So that’s the one I have to get.
Mark: Yes, but it’s a very expensive reader. It is a premier reader for a few reasons. A: it’s water proof. So you can read it in the book, bath, beach, whatever. And it’s fine for up to three meters deep for an hour. So you’re good if you’re in a canoe…
John: I used to go in my pool and scuba dive because I loved the peace of it. So if I could get a book down there that would be even better.
Mark: Now, the other thing about it is I was talking about bedtime. It has a built in light that allows… again, I’m not a tech guy. I’m the writer/content acquisition guy. So it’s a basic light that affects your brain waves in a different way. So it’s sort of like a blue based light that doesn’t stimulate your brain waves. So if I set on my Kobo Aura One that my bed time is eleven, and I happen to be reading close to eleven or after eleven, it changes that light on the screen. It’s calming my brain waves down. Not keeping me awake. Like if I was looking at a computer screen prior to going to bed that will stimulate my brain waves and that’s harder for you to go to sleep. So what we like to say at Kobo is it should be the book that keeps you awake, not the medium that you’re reading it on.
John: After that you could crank up like some meditative music. But anyway, Kevin, you were going to make a point just a minute ago about my location of where you’re reading.
Kevin: Well, you made a comment about that NSA watch. You’re kind of raising my hackles Mark with somebody’s watching how many pages I’m reading. So, I’ve downloaded a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook and I keep reading the chapter on building a bomb on trains or something. Is NSA going to come? Well, let’s not use that example. Let’s use a more practical example. What if I’m reading porn?
Mark: You and billions of other people.
Kevin: Right, right. So if that’s… Kobo actually has… you’ve got some kind of standard where you don’t allow porn, right?
Mark: Well, we don’t allow illegal you know child pornography. We don’t allow certain taboo topics into our catalogue, yeah.
Kevin: Well, I guess my question is kind of boiling down to the, it sounds a little big brotherish if Kobo is getting data for how many pages I turn, which parts that I read. Has that been a concern for any of your customers? I mean does Kindle do that?
Mark: Of course they can. If we can do it, they can do it, iBook’s can do it, everyone can do it. It’s there because that’s how we support it. So for example, you read on your Kobo app on your phone. And when you finish reading on your Kobo app you get to the end of chapter three or whatever, and when you pick up your device it syncs up between the devices. Because it knows you finished chapter three. Again, it’s all part of that experience. It’s even part of book marks and leaving notes in the book, etcetera. It’s just the way the technology works now.
John: It’s totally in the app as well?
Mark: Yeah. We don’t share anything other than the aggregate data. It took the average user eight hours to read this book. This other book which is the exact same word length is six hours. That gives us a read rate so we can… and we do this because we… Overdrive is our sister company owned by Rakuten. And they power the libraries. Librarians are very interested in books that consumers read really really fast because the way a bookstore or a bookseller wants to sell more books, a library wants to engage the reader. So they’re very fascinated with those concepts.
John: I think Kevin where you stumbled is when you talked about the mom. Your mom not reading your book. The reason he said that was correlation, right? So he was able to correlate that because it was such a small amount. I assumed from the beginning that they were anonymizing this information.
Mark: Oh it has to be anonymized. We have to protect the reader.
Kevin: What I was remembering was that the cases that somebody went into the Barnes & Noble and bought certain books and then the government tried to subpoena which books they had bought and it wasn’t… so you were just talking about previous weapons development…
John: Yeah, he’s still in his weapons mode so . .
Kevin: Let me talk about some bad things from the authors point of view as far as the e-book revolution. And it mainly goes back to traditional publishers and the e-books because we always had in our contracts that if a book went out of print and the publisher stopped supporting it then we the author got the rights back. Then we could maybe sell it somewhere else or whatever. And in the transition time, I’m talking like the mid 90’s to the mid 2000’s, many of us have contracts that grants them the rights for as long as they keep the book in print. And then it allowed that if you just had an electronic book file up somewhere that book was considered “in print.” So that means that many publishers effectively own a book forever, even if they never sell another copy of it because they’ve got a file up somewhere. And a lot of authors kind of resented that for good reason. And there are certain things involved in distribution: the royalty statements, and the records that are coming out, that it’s just changed things so dramatically for me as an author point of view. And for publishers and booksellers. For instance, Kobo writing life, why don’t you tell us about how an author could just watch their sales day by day and location by location. So if they do a radio interview in Calgary, Canada they can see if their sales went up in Calgary, Canada. That’s never been available to us before.
Mark: No, I mean I get a royalty statement from one of my publishers once a year. In May I find out how many books I sold the previous year. Whereas I can log on to Kobo writing life and I can see a book that sold within the last couple hours and what country in the world it sold in. That’s revolutionary. The other thing from the writer’s perspective, because you know we talk about the difference, when my publisher sells one of my books I get 8% of that. So a $25 book, I’m getting $2. When I sell a book that’s $5.99 I keep 70% of that as that as the author. So I can sell five copies or four copies worth the same amount of money and make a significant amount more.
I think one of the other changes that sort of makes a difference, I was just talking to Robert J. Sawyer who’s a Canadian science fiction writer. Kevin I know you and Robert have been friends for a long time. You’ve known each other, you’ve grown up in publishing together. But Rob’s latest book through Penguin Random House, they only bought the North American rights. And so the book was only available as a print book and an e-book in Canada and the U.S. Rob used Kobo writing life to publish that book internationally. He was able to set instead of it being a $14 e-book, which was the publishers price, and again he kept small percentage of that, he was able to set the price at $5-$6. Make significantly more per unit sale. And because this book was available in 165 plus countries where he’s established a huge base over the years, he actually sold them internationally.
So again when you look at the comparison and the flexibility of how digital could allow publishers to navigate the world in a much more efficient way. Authors are very often taking advantage of that because it’s not based on print distribution, it’s based on a global scale.
John: You got me thinking when you were talking there. So in looking at the stuff you’ve done, I noticed you had this novel iDeath which was written out on a blog as a serialized format. And it kind of got me thinking about The Martian, right? So to me The Martian was sort of my first exposure to the self-publishing business. I discovered the book and really really enjoyed it. Then the movie came out. But as I looked into it I saw several. He was a lot like you guys. He worked at Sandy Laboratories. But what was interesting to me was that when he switched over to a traditional publisher after he just shot up the charts, that seems like the opposite of what Kevin was talking about. Was he just like so into he didn’t get it?
Mark: Well no, because Andy Weir, he started off the blog. It was actually Podium Publishing, which was an audio publisher which discovered him before Random House did. So again, small Canadian player that did that. But there’s economies of scale. So Andy Weir is suddenly like a James Patterson, suddenly like a J.K. Rowling. And because 70%-80% of book sales in North America are print as opposed to e-books and it probably got a huge advance, that was probably an okay deal. But if you’re not Andy Weir, if you’re not Stephen King, if you’re not J.K. Rowling, the economies of scale tip more in your favor because it’s not the large advance. It’s the actual ongoing royalties that you make more with. There’s still a 1% or a 2% rule in terms of that landscape. And it’s interesting to see. I honestly believe, and I’m seeing more and more, it’s kind of rare that it happens.
But just using my own experience, 90% of my own revenue from traditional publishing comes from my print book sales. And maybe 95% of my self-publishing revenue comes from e-book sales. So it’s why myself-we call it being a hybrid author. I know that there are books that I will publish through my publisher in Toronto, Ontario and they’ll get my books into all of the chapters. They’ll be getting them into some of the Barnes & Nobles. And they’ve even gotten my books into Costco and Walmart. I can’t do that as an independent author. I can’t do that with print distribution. So that’s one of the challenges. And that’s one of the reasons why authors will continue to work collaboratively with publishers. Then there may be books that are for a specific niche market that may not get that print distribution. But immediately they can have global distribution. Books available in 190 countries without shipping books on boats overseas etcetera.
Kevin: Well I’m the same way. I’m a hybrid, I still publish with my major publisher. But I’ve got books that are my own books. They’re my backlist books that a major publisher doesn’t want to reprint. But my fans still want to read so I do them myself. I had my series Dan Shamble, Zombie PI was with a major publisher here in the U.S. But I had only sold the U.S. rights to them so I released the international versions myself. Just like Rob Sawyer did. And now after four books the other publisher’s kind of lost interest and doesn’t want to do it. But my fans still want it, I still want to write it. So now I publish the rest of them myself. And I think the key to what you were saying and what John’s question was though is it depends on what kind of author you are. If you just want to write books and throw them at a publisher and let them do all the work well then don’t self-publish. Because you’re the one-man band. You’ve got to do everything, not just writing the book. You’ve got to edit and produce the e-books. You’ve got to do the social media, and you’ve got to promote it, and you’ve got to do your blogs, your mailing list, and use your various promotional items. And I think the term is freaken exhausting. Every day I look at this and I just go oh that’s another thing I’m not doing, and that’s another thing I’m not doing.
There’s a new software developed for the Apple for indie authors, it’s called Vellum. And I’m just like I need to know this. And I’ve spent a couple of days learning. And you know I don’t have time to learn new software. I don’t have time to do all this stuff. But I don’t have time to do a podcast either. I always want to focus on what you just said about the international to really hammer home. Because I’ve published 140 books and a lot of them are media tie in and Star Wars books which I don’t have the rights to. But my own books, it was for us American authors. Snd again, nobody’s going to sympathize with me complaining here. But American authors are published in America. But trying to sell the Bulgarian rights to your book, it just never happens. Or the Italian rights, or the French rights. I mean only a very small percentage of U.S. books get translated to overseas markets.
John: When you say translate you mean language translate?
Kevin: The language translated. But see that’s the thing, and Mark and I have talked about this. But the really cool thing is in so many markets around the world they read English. And the only way that they could get my first novel Resurrection Ink that I published, it wasn’t translated into any other languages. I’ve got a lot of fans all around the world who would like to read that book. But if I were in say India, the only way they could get that book was if they paid like a hundred dollars and got some specialty bookstore to get a hard copy mailed to Mumbai or something like that. But when I go on Kobo and I select worldwide distribution anybody with a smartphone in Pakistan can download my book for five bucks. Well you change the prices for different markets in India, Pakistan you make it fairly cheap. All of my library, which nobody in these other countries could ever read, is suddenly available provided they can read English.
John: But I’m going to take you back to what Mark said earlier. So let’s change your world, right? So we live in a world now just recently there was this cool experiment. So there’s a product called TensorFlow. It’s not really a product, it’s a platform by Google. Mark, are you aware of TensorFlow, do you know what that is?
Mark: No, I’m not actually.
John: So, TensorFlow is Google’s A.I. product. It’s an artificial intelligence product. So, have you ever used Google Translate?
John: So, Google Translate was interesting. For a long time Google Translate worked like this. Let’s say that you wanted to translate German to English, right? So that was no problem. That was a direct translation. Pretty much anything to English was a direct translation. But let’s say you wanted to go Korean to Japanese, okay that’s a little different. Well the engine in the background for a long time because it wasn’t an artificial intelligence or a machine learning engine, would translate to English first and then translate it to Japanese.
Kevin: What could possibly go wrong?
John: What could possibly go wrong? But so what they did was they built this artificial intelligence engine. They taught it Japanese, they taught it Korean, and they taught it English and the whole nine yards and they put it out there. And what interesting thing happened? The A.I. developed its own language for in-between all the other languages. On its own without being told. So where I’m going with this, and it was interesting because where it ended up is… so I just got back from an international speaking gig in Vienna. And I’m sure you’ve spoken internationally. Have you ever had it where the translators got it wrong? You ever tell a joke and watch it land for like half the audience but like watched the other half go wow. Some of them are looking at you like you just said something horrible about their mom. But what if through this artificial intelligence, we could cram this in the Kobo’s, and with a 98% accuracy, this thing could translate it to Italian on the fly. It could translate it to whatever version of-
Kevin: The universal translator of your e-reader.
John: Right. But that to me is technology that exists now. I mean, what’s keeping you from doing that Mark?
Mark: You know, I think because we’re done a lot in different languages and translations. The process isn’t just translating but you actually rewrite the book in that language. There are ways. There are terms of phrase that just don’t work if it were a pure translation. The A.I. would have to be very sophisticated. Sophisticated enough to be creative I think.
John: I get your point from a culture standpoint. That’s exactly what I was thinking. And what I’m telling you is it’s there. With the other things I know I’m doing on the other side of my world with A.I., I promise you it’s not that far off that we couldn’t say let’s experiment. I say we do it tonight. Which one do we want to translate? But I want to come back to one other question just real quick. I’m back on this serialized novella as a blog, right? And you’re writing something like that too on your website on Wordfire?
Kevin: Yeah, I had my new novel that I was writing. People could subscribe and I would upload the chapters every day.
John: Yeah, I’m subscribed. I subscribed back when I first met you. And so, how is that process? Like when I read about the Martian guy, the thing that was interesting to me was that he was putting these things out there and then all of a sudden dudes from the APL showed up. And they’re going, ‘Hey, that’s wrong. You’re crazy.’ And so he goes back and adjusts that chapter and they go, ‘This is good.’ And then he moves on. Is that kind of the new way of writing to some extent? Where you’re crowdsourcing this writing through these novellas in the blog and getting feedback from the comments?
Kevin: It’s good and it’s bad. Because if you are a consumer through the reader you might not want to watch the sausage being made. You might want to actually get the finished product and read it and enjoy it. But the freedom that it gives me as the author is if I’ve got a fan that calls up and just says, ‘You idiot, that lift on your airplane wing was wrong. You’ve got to change it to this.’ And I go, ‘Well okay I can change it.’ I could never change it before. But think about the poor book collectors that are trying to get their first editions. There’s no such thing as a first addition. Even my major publishers now, it used to be when your book went back for a second printing or a third printing. That was a big deal because the printing was like 10,000 copies. But now they’ve got technology so that if you go back for printing-we went back for printing 500 more copies. Which is good because warehousing costs are smaller. The print costs are smaller. It’s catering directly to the market rather than like overblowing and printing like 300,000 copies in hopes that you sell half of them. I mean that’s-it’s a good thing.
Mark: I mean. on the flip side Kevin. I do want to talk about-because when I did iDeath. When I wrote iDeath all I knew was a basic premise because I’m pantser. I knew some basic characters and I knew-
John:-What’s that called?
Mark: Flying by the seat of your pants, a pantser. I knew roughly how I wanted it to end. And over the course of nine months I wrote this story out with people following it along live. And I was able to modify and change the story based on the things that they liked and the things they didn’t like. So it was kind of like doing an improve where oh the audience is really reacting to this joke or this kind of joke. I’m going to do more of this kind of joke. And that really shifted the way that the book worked. Now that was-that in and of itself was an amazing experience. I even had them decide a particular character was going to end up, being a hero or a villain. Because I was writing it in a way that it could go either way. And they basically answered that for me. And then the last thing was I ended up actually selling that to a publisher afterwards. After going through this whole experience. It was in 2006 that I did this. So an amazing amazing experience that I absolutely adored. And I look forward to doing more because you’ve never been able to do that before. Except when you’re telling a live story in front of people and around a campfire.
John: So why can’t I do that in Kobo?
Mark: So Kobo is basically more like a traditional bookstore, right? You buy the book that is already complete. If you’re looking for an experience like that you do have blogs. Watpad.com.
John: But that’s a blog, right?
Mark: It allows you to subscribe or follow a book that’s being published chapter by chapter. Very much the way a podcast might be released.
John: But what if I want to read it on my cool Kobo on the plane?
Mark: Well I guess you can. We are experimenting with that. We have done that in the past. We have worked collaboratively with Random House Canada a couple years ago to release a Kelly Armstrong novel instead of the full book which was available at the very end. You could actually read it week by week. Again, that’s still emerging technology. There are indie authors who are doing we call them episodes. So every week they release a new episode that’s under 20,000 words. And over the course of the summer the full novel is completed. But again, that’s still using the technology as if it were a bookstore rather than an actual automatic subscription service like you get with your subscription to this podcast.
Kevin: We may actually have Ashley from Watpad on as a guest at some point because it’s an interesting and actually scary to me prospect. It’s like this giant library of people putting up their works in progress. Everybody reads them and then they exchange information and they get… I heard it. It’s like billions of pages read that they have on it. It’s pretty amazing. So there’s that kind of interactive workshop experience. I wanted to tell one kind of amusing example about the e-readers and how you can carry a bunch of stuff with them.
A few years ago my wife and I took a Mediterranean cruise. So we got on the plane in Denver and we flew to Rome. And I was going to be gone for a week so I had I think it was my first-generation Kindle that I had. And I thought this is great, I’m going to be gone a week. I’d put like five or six books I wanted to read on my Kindle. I put it on my computer case and I was going on a cruise ship, I was going to read a whole bunch. We landed in Rome and I opened up my computer case which had been up in an overhead bin. And I pulled out the Kindle and it had a giant crack on the screen. I couldn’t read anything. So I lose all of the books that I brought along because my Kindle had broken. And you know your paperback books don’t break.
John: Arguably, that overhead bin would be a lot more full.
Mark: Although Kevin, because the books are not just on the reader, they’re on the cloud. You probably could have opened the app on your phone.
Kevin: At the time there was no cloud.
John: So let me tell you what I did with my first Kindle. So the first Kindle came out and I was working at a large credit union in California. And we had a Board. And the Board was pretty distributed across the whole California area. So we had people as far as San Diego. And if you’ve been to California it doesn’t matter if you’re only ten miles away because it can still be a two hour ride. And we would have board meetings. And I thought, ‘It sure would be nice to stop killing all this paper and selling all these binders.’ And this thing had something called WhisperNet at the time. And I could send a PDF, it would make an email address. I could send a PDF to it and then the PDF would show up on the e-reader. And so I checked into it. We didn’t really have anything that I was worried about security wise. It was more just reports and information about being on the board. So we started using it for that. And you know they loved it. Because they liked being able to have it not being about having to carry all this paper back and forth to the board. And after a while the notes came out and they started doing what you were talking about which was sharing some notes back and forth. Is that a used case that you see a lot of now? Just people starting to take in these e-readers and use them for this group read kind of mentality?
Mark: Yeah, so two things. The latest Kobo device has a built-in overdrive app. So again, our mandate is read more. We want people to read more and we want to remove the barrier from reading. So when you’re on the device you can actually just check out a library on the device. Because again, we believe that if people read more than that makes the world better for publishers and authors. Because more reading gets more reading.
But the other thing is the people in the industry are actually using their iPads. And also using their Kobo’s and their Kindle’s to actually read a manuscript. So when Kevin submits a book to his agent or to a publisher, they may be reading that version on their device so that they don’t have to cart a truckload of manuscripts with them through the subway on their way to New York. They can actually read them on the subway on the way in.
Kevin: And book reviewers much prefer e-galley’s now instead of like printed paper review copies that they go-they get a hundred a day. They don’t want to have them all sitting there. Then what do they do with them? They have them all just files, they pick the one they want to read. One of the things I was remembering from when I was a kid that we had some of the local neighbor ladies were big romance readers. Like the Harlequin readers.
John: My grandmother, oh my goodness.
Kevin: And anybody who knows a real Harlequin reader knows they go through a grocery bag full of those books a week. And I remember this lady used to every week she would bring a grocery bag of the paperbacks that she had read that week and would donate them to the library. And what I think e-books has done is taken over that market. The people that read in massive quantities. They’re not collectors, they don’t have a library big enough to hold all this stuff. They just want to read and go on to the next one.
John: They’re just consuming the story.
Mark: Those are our favorite customers. Those are our best customers. We actually call them silver foxes based on the demographics of the people and just how much they read, an average of three books a day for example.
Kevin: But one of the flip sides to that though the e-book readers, the Kindles, the Kobo’s, everything, all of those sales-30% of books sold in America or whatever the percentage is, that has really affected our traditional market, paperback market. The ones that people would just go to the grocery store and just walk away with an arm load of books. They now-getting a paperback book, the sales of paperback books have pretty much dropped. It’s kind of like the middle class vanishing. The mass market class is vanishing. Because the people who would buy a paperback book are not like the ones that want to keep it in their library forever. They want to grab something to read and read it on the airplane. So why carry a physical brick around with you when you can just load it onto your e-book? So that has been an unintended consequence of e-books, but it’s not necessarily a bad one.
Mark: No, because what we did find when we did some studies here in Canada is we looked at ironically folks who read e-books read three times as many books as they used to when they read print. So that’s a good thing. But ironically, they bought it was like 10% more books than they used to when they were only buying print. 10% more print books than they used to when they were only reading print books. And the reason that happens is you may read a book in e-book format and you’ve enjoyed it so much that we either buy a copy to have because we get a chance to get it signed by the author.
Or, and this is common because 70% of the industry is still reading print, I read this great new Chambal book by Kevin J. Anderson and I want to give it to my friend. But my friend doesn’t read e-books so I go and buy a Mass Market paperback version and I give him that.
John: I just did that recently with a book.
Kevin: I’m even worse. I started reading on my e-reader and we have a big library in our house. I started reading on my e-reader and I’d finish a book and I’d go, ‘Well it doesn’t count unless I have the trophy to put on my shelf.’ So I would actually go out and finish reading the e-book because it was more convenient when I was traveling. And then I’d buy the physical book just to stick it on my shelf so I could put it next to my other Robin Hood books for whatever. So I stopped doing that.
John: I can remember doing the same thing with movies. If I rented a movie and I liked it a lot I’d go out and get it on Blu-ray. Knowing that every bit of data that I would ever get, every format I get will be obsolete within 2-3 years.
Kevin: We just had a garage sale at our house. So we got rid of tons of paperback books, and DVD’s, and CD’s, and Blu-rays, and everything. It’s just this is our world and it is changing dramatically. And part of me is still a little bit stunned. Because like I said my first book was published in 1988. My first New York Times bestseller was 1992 or 1993. I had 50 something bestsellers, 140 books published. And all of a sudden, the last five years my entire industry that’s been around since Gutenberg, and I’m scrambling and changing and learning. And we’re going to have Dean Wesley Smith on as a guest whose very active in e-publishing. He owns his own publishing company. And he’ll talk all about the huge changes and advantages for authors. But for me I know a lot of my peers who’ve just thrown in the towel and gone to get day jobs at Home Depot. And I’m not. I’m a survivor.
John: You seem to be surviving pretty well.
Kevin: But Mark has been one of my mentors even just showing me tons and tons of stuff.
And we’ll kind of wrap up with this Mark. It’s a huge community of us indie authors who are all in the same boat sharing information helping each other out. And you yourself have been a major crusader in untold numbers of writer’s conferences including our Superstars Writing Conference here that I run. But you’ve helped create a real community. And there are other podcasts and it’s like a tribe of people who want to share. And Mark I appreciate all that you’re doing. You want to tell us how we can find you?
John: Well, hold on. I’ve got a quick question. A really important. This is important because I’m worried. Alright Mark, so if you find one of these, what do you call them? Silver foxes? And they’re spending more then let’s say 12 hours a day reading according to your statistics. Do you call 911 or something? Because like at some point you know, that seems you’ve got a duty to humanity to do that sort of thing. Anyway I’m just kidding.
Mark: That’s funny. No we say, ‘Hey these are good people, they’re reading a lot.’
John: No, no, they’re keeled over. Do you add a defibrillator to their-
Kevin: Emails, emails. Then they’ll see that the pages have stopped turning.
Mark: No, I think the joy of this new publishing industry is just how not only are writers and readers are able to connect in really good ways, but the community of writers is so supportive and so wonderfully willing to share. And I am enthusiastic that that sharing and that collaboration is going to help us take writing and publishing opportunities to an entirely new amazing level.
Kevin: And Mark, how do we find out about Kobo and KWL?
Mark: So you can go to kobowritinglife.com where you can see our articles about the craft and business of writing. We have a podcast there. You can follow us @kobowritinglife in various platforms. And myself I’m @MarkLeslie on Twitter, etcetera.
John: It looks like you also have a website, Markleslie.ca?
Mark: That’s right.
Kevin: And Mark is one of our instructors this coming February at the Superstars Writing Seminar.
John: I noticed that. I saw that on the website.
Kevin: Because we can’t get rid of him. He keeps coming back.
Mark: Can’t get rid of me.
John: He’s like one of those novella blogs, every week he’s there.
Kevin: Anyways, thanks for your time Mark and for your insights. And that wraps up our next podcast of Creative Futurism.
John: Thanks everyone. You can find me, John Best at creativefuturism.com. That’s where our blog is, that’s where all these podcasts will be, that’s where all the show notes will be. And if you’ve got comments, if you hated this please go on there and say you hated it. If you loved it, that’s good too. Yeah, if you hated it I’ll give you the email for that. But come check us out and go buy a Kobo I guess is what I’m going to say.
Kevin: I recommend it, thanks everybody.
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