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PODs, Micropayments & Adverts

Lulu.com, BitPass and AdSense discussed by Edward Picot

A year or more ago, a writer by the name of Carl Neville announced in the trAce writing centre forum, to which I am a subscriber, that he had just completed a novel called White Diaspora. Following a link in his message, I visited the White Diaspora website, which struck me as well-designed and impressively high-tech: cool white-on-black graphics and a spooky, synthesised sound-loop. The novel itself isn't the kind of writing which really appeals to me - over-devoted to life on the edge, with too many characters obsessing, getting drunk and chainsmoking - but all the same the prose is taut and efficient and there are moments of genuine descriptive power.

Because of my interest in nonlinear fiction I was struck by the way in which extracts from the novel were presented - little clips of prose floating in a circle above a clock-face, each acting as a link to a longer outtake - and by what the website had to say about the book's structural experimentalism: "White Diaspora is innovative structurally... The two halves of [the book] are interleaved. Turning page one we encounter, not page 2 as we might have supposed, but the final page of the novel, upside down..." The whole site seemed to combine this experimental approach with selfconfident professionalism, and there was an efficient-looking order-form which almost tempted me to make a purchase there and then.

In February 2004 Carl made another announcement in the trAce forum. He was now self-publishing, he announced, via a site called Lulu.com. (You can read Carl's account of why he decided to go with Lulu.com here.) I'd never heard of them, but because Carl seemed to know what he was doing when it came to marketing his work, I took the trouble to check them out.

Lulu Enterprises surfaced in 2002 as the brainchild of Bob Young, co-founder of the open source software company Red Hat, who was "driven by an interest in alternative business models for the distribution of intellectual property", as the website explains. According to Stephen Fraser, the company's Communications Director, Lulu.com is "a technology company, not a publisher", and interested in other forms of "intellectual property" besides literature. All the same, the main emphasis is on books. "Authors have responded overwhelmingly to being given the ability to publish print-on-demand books," explains Fraser. As of the end of May 2004, Lulu had more than 20,000 author accounts, and was offering more than 9,500 books for sale, with around 300 new titles appearing every week.

From the author's point of view, the main advantage of publishing via Lulu.com is that there's nothing to pay up front. The company only earns money if the author makes a sale, at which point a 20% commission is charged. Print on demand (POD) technology allows Lulu.com to cover its publishing costs on an item-by-item basis. Authors get their work made available in print for nothing, they get complete control of the publishing process - which is another way of saying that Lulu doesn't concern itself with editing, cover design, marketing, distribution and so forth - and they also get their own bit of webspace on the Lulu.com site.

Of course, Stephen Fraser's comment that "Authors have responded overwhelmingly to being given the ability to publish print-on-demand books" is not the same as saying that the reading public has responded overwhelmingly to the opportunity of buying previously unpublished authors. But it doesn't follow that Lulu.com should be dismissed as a vanity press. As Bob Young argues on the site, "When the Internet came along, established media companies were horrified that anyone could publish a web site. They thought that the amount of bad content would make the information available on the Internet worthless. But that has turned out not to be true. The Internet is full of useful content. People have developed tools to sort out what they want from what they don't. Lulu.com opens up book publishing in the same way."

On the music section of the site, as Stephen Fraser notes, tangible goods have been supplanted by virtual ones: "When CD delivery and download delivery are offered side-by-side, there is no real reason to get CD delivery. Most people can burn their own CDs anyway. As a result, we got rid of CD delivery." As yet, books have not begun to follow the same pattern, but "While people remain more likely to buy print versions than electronic versions, in the case of our highest selling books it is clear that customers will buy both. We sell more books than ebooks, but we do sell ebooks."

One advantage of ebooks over paper books, of course, is free delivery. As a result of my visit to Lulu.com I eventually bought White Diaspora. The cover price was $9.14, but the cost to me was $41.16, and the difference was in the cost of delivery. As long as both writers and readers retain their devotion to the print-and-paper format, the expense of shifting a parcel from one continent to another, or even from one town to another, will remain an important consideration.

Somehow, though, a novel on a computer screen seems much less readable than the same novel in book form. In order to challenge the supremacy of print, an e-text needs to offer something extra: sound-effects, animation, nonlinear structure or interactive elements. It needs to make the transition, in other words, from literature to hyperliterature. Once this transition has been made, creators can start thinking about their works as virtual products, which can either be offered for download or simply made available online. The question is, will anybody pay for them?

With production and delivery costs eliminated, it becomes theoretically possible for creators to offer their work at a much lower cost; and consumers who would balk at paying a couple of dollars to see someone's self-published animated poems might be prepared to risk it for a few cents. The problem is how to get the few cents from the consumers. Micropayment systems have been tried a number of times on the Web and have always come to grief. Within the last twelve months, however, a new micropayment system called BitPass has appeared, and it seems to be outperforming its predecessors.

BitPass was started in December 2002, went live in July 2003 and became generally available in December 2003. The first vendor to use it was the alternative comic book artist Scott McCloud, who began self-publishing his latest work The Right Number online and used BitPass to charge viewers 25c per chapter. McCloud first advocated online self-publication and micropayments as the way forward for alternative comic book artists in his book Reinventing Comics, published in 2000. Not only does he now use BitPass to market his own work, he is also a member of the BitPass Advisory Board. Quite a few other comic book artists have followed his example and are using BitPass too; but within the last six months BitPass has also established a fairly wide mix of other products - music, digital images and online radio, for example - and according to Kurt Huang, the former CEO, "In the near future we're going to be involved with some big names, which everyone will recognise."

Why is BitPass doing better than earlier micropayment systems? Kurt puts it down to a combination of factors. Too much stuff on the Web used to be free, he says - whereas now, subscription charges are more common. Also, it used to be necessary to download a plug-in before you could use a micropayments system, but this isn't required any more. Download times have been greatly reduced for most people because of broadband, which means that customers are less worried about the extra delay caused by making a payment before they can get to a web-page. But BitPass has also placed great emphasis, compared to its predecessors, on keeping the purchasing experience to as few clicks as possible, so as to minimise customer inconvenience.

Asked to compare BitPass to Lulu as a marketing tool for self-published writers, Huang responds that he doesn't have any quarrel with Lulu's objectives, but "Lulu is a place to which you upload your stuff, whereas BitPass is a facility which you install on your own site." One drawback is the lack of a shopping-cart, which means that if customers wanted to buy more than one thing from a given site, they would have to make each purchase separately. But although Huang acknowledges that BitPass may have to look into this area in the future, he argues that "shopping carts always involve multiple clicks", and that in any case "the online shopping cart is a metaphor for the purchase of physical goods", whereas BitPass (as the etymology of the name suggests) is about "admission into a place or experience".

All of this may seem uncontentious, but there has been a surprising amount of controversy about micropayments in the last couple of years. Partly this is down to the fact that Scott McCloud has espoused them so volubly, and they have therefore become associated with all his other controversial views about the comic book industry. For a sample of this controversy, see Clay Shirky's articles "The Case Against Micropayments" and "Fame Versus Fortune", plus Scott McCloud's response, "Misunderstanding Micropayments". Another view worth taking is on Matthew Haughey's "Whole Lotta Nothing" weblog, where in October 2003 he published an item entitled "Blogging for Dollars", including a subsection headed "Micropayments suck. No, really."

People are lazy... When you're reading stuff online and you're hit with signup forms, registration forms, or worse of all, payment forms, most people close their browser or go somewhere else... If I was randomly hitting Bitpass 'pay me to see the next page' screens in my web wanderings, I wouldn't be wandering for very long. I'd be leaving.
What he recommends, as an alternative means of raising money, is that informative sites such as his own should carry unobtrusive advertising, in particular Google's AdSense system.

As Web advertising goes, AdSense has a number of advantages over more traditional, newspaper-style "box" ads. Firstly, the ads are text-based, without any images or animations, and site-owners can format them to fit with their own "house style". Secondly, Google will only place ads on web-pages to which they are relevant - so a literary site will end up with adverts about literature, a software site will end up with ads about software, and so on. Thirdly, payments are based on the number of times an advert is clicked. This means that sites with a high volume of traffic will generate more revenue, but it also means that site-owners can start to carry advertising, and earn a trickle of money, before they are well-established - whereas with traditional marketing, sites would have to reach a considerable level of popularity before anyone would consider placing an ad.

According to Haughey, systems like BitPass are bound to decrease the amount of traffic flowing through a site, because some people will be deterred by the prospect of having to make a payment, no matter how small; whereas AdSense doesn't put visitors to any additional inconvenience, and only shows them information which is relevant to their browsing-habits.

This may or may not be so, but people tend to represent the debate between online facilities such as Lulu, BitPass and AdSense in terms of mutual exclusivity, as if it were necessary to choose one system at the expense of the others. In reality, there must be plenty of writers on the Web who have old print-and-paper style novels or collections of poetry which might benefit from being published via Lulu, as well as multimedia works which would probably do better using a micropayment system such as BitPass. And those same writers may often have blogs, or separate websites carrying information rather than creative work, where advertising such as AdSense would not be out of place.

Should writers on the Web, particularly experimental writers working in areas like hyperliterature, be bothered about making money from their work at all? My answer to this would be yes. Any writer benefits from recognition, and one of the nicest forms of recognition comes from people who are prepared to pay for your work. Furthermore new media writing, by its nature, is more expensive than traditional writing, both in terms of the equipment required (a computer as against a pen and paper), and, more importantly, in terms of the amount of time and effort involved. This means that it is very hard for writers working in this field to achieve their full potential on an unpaid, part-time, hobbyist basis. They need to work at it full time, and in order to do this they need to earn money from it. If they can't earn money by themselves, they will be driven to chasing after academic jobs and grants. There's nothing wrong with academic jobs and grants as such, but in order for an artform to thrive it must build a relationship with a public - however small that public may be - and this cannot be done purely by means of universities and arts foundations. It can be done by publishing and building up audiences on the Web. Lulu.com, BitPass and AdSense all represent possible ways of making that relationship pay.

© Edward Picot, June 2004

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