My e-book on investing now regularly gets more downloads than books by Warren Buffett, George Soros and Peter Lynch. Here are three things that I learned in the process of getting it there:
1) There are still gatekeepers in the publishing business, they are just no longer publishers.
Unlike authors only a decade ago, I didn't need to get permission from anyone in the publishing industry to sell by book -- I just did it. As wise people have said, publishing is now a button, not a job or industry.
Some have worried that the dis-intermediation of the traditional gatekeepers will remove a key quality filter and bombard the markets with low quality material. But in fact, there is a new mechanism that operates with remarkable efficiency in quickly weeding out projects that have little chance of commercial success. That mechanism is consumers' collective ADD, which seems to grow more pronounced with every new video posted to YouTube. With more "stuff" than ever before, there is more competition for the very finite and fleeting consumer attention span than ever before. What this means is that the proverbial gatekeeper is no longer an editor at a publishing company -- he's now an overly-caffeinated multi-tasker with sixteen browser tabs open, 73 emails to respond to, and a choice of one million kindle books to read.
2) Non-fiction books will get shorter.
My book is the equivalent of 50 short pages, arranged into 10 chapters of about five pages each. I believe that one byproduct of shorter attention spans is shorter books.
Most people who want to learn about a topic or argument do not have the patience to weed through the 400 page tomes that were required to rationalize the high fixed costs of printing hardcover books. In the future, non-fiction books will likely fall into two categories that serve very different needs. Category one will consist of electronic books that are priced at $3.99 or less, that get to the point in 50 pages or less, and that are read in their entirety by the majority of people who purchase them. These books will fulfill the need "How do I learn something about a new topic or theory in an enjoyable and efficient way." Category two consist of dead-tree books that are priced at $15 or more, that wind on for 300 pages or more, and that are read in their entirety only by a small minority of the people who purchase them. These books will fulfill the need "What can I put on my living room shelves that will make me look more stately to my in-laws." Print non-fiction will quickly fall into the antique category -- literally.
3) The customer acquisition funnel is being turned upside down.
I started writing books by giving my work away for free. Five months later, I am still selling the majority of it for only 99 cents a book. While this pricing strategy does not result in quick riches, it does get my name and message into the homes of a lot of readers -- which is leaps ahead of where I would have been otherwise.
The increasingly common strategy of giving products away for a nominal cost (or nothing at all) to enter a market reflects an important point about how the nature of "marketing" is evolving. It is likely that we are on the cusp of a new marketing wave brought on by shrinking consumer attention span and the low marginal cost of producing digital goods. The new marketing will treat the initial purchase -- which will often be at a free or heavily discounted price -- as a starting point rather than an ending point. The relevant metrics will be what percentage of customers turn into satisfied customers, what percentage of satisfied customers turn into repeat customers, and what percentage of repeat customers turn into brand advocates that will willingly promote a brand's goods for free by sharing it on social media sites, recommending it to friends, and writing positive reviews.
If the core metric of the old marketing was the cost of acquiring a customer, the defining measure of the new variety will be that the lifetime value of a customer, where part of a customer's lifetime value comes from the additional customers he or she creates through a combination of friend referrals, social shares, and good old-fashioned network effects.