The ghost-writer, the eBook, and “Shark Tank”

Mark Cuban on Shark Tank
Mark Cuban published his own ebook in 2012

I’m always watching for Kindle references on TV, especially talk about how ebooks might take the place of books. But the last place I ever expected to hear that was on the season premiere of “Shark Tank.”

If you haven’t seen the show, five rich investors listen to pitches from start-up business owners who are hoping to earn some venture capital (in exchange for a stake in their company). But Friday night, the business was simply a ghost writer — and he believed he could make millions by writing and publishing the biographies of businessmen. It sounded crazy, until he revealed that he’d already written something like 100 “vanity” books. And he was charging up to $35,000 for each book (which included a run of printed copies).

The books looked slick, and investor Daymond John asked an interesting question: why aren’t you marketing this service to ordinary people? (“Because ordinary people don’t have $35,000 to spend on a book!” screamed my girlfriend at the TV!) The writer gave an answer that was much more nuanced, but essentially making the same point — that not everyone has the quality for a book. I think he danced around the specifics, but as I remember it, he said that he didn’t feel he could produce a good book for just $10,000. And that he was telling his customers that instead of expecting profits from the sales of their book, they should use them as a marketing tool, to promote their other businesses.

The presenter had a good patter, and the investors all seemed to like him, but one by one, they’d started dropping out of the bidding. Soon there was just one left — the newest panelist, the unpredictable billionaire Mark Cuban (who owns the Dallas Maverick’s basketball team, as well as the Landmark Theatre movie chain). He seemed genuinely intrigued, but then he raised a devastating critique. You haven’t mentioned the way the book industry is changing — meaning specifically the Kindle, or ebooks, or the self-publishing revolution.

It was a poignant moment. Ghost writer Michael Levin had already proven his success in the world of printed books. (According to his web site, he’s ghost-written the biographies of sports commentator Pat Summerall and Dave Winfield, a former outfielder who’s now the vice president of the San Diego Padres.) And at one point, the panel pointed out that the writer was doing what nearly every other writer had dreamed of but failed to do: he was actually making a ton of money. But unfortunately for the ghost writer, Mark Cuban had just published his own ebook — which was called “How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It.” So he was going to be skeptical about investing in a company which produces nothing but books in print.

Now the ghost writer was called out on nationwide TV, in front of a panel of cynical investors. (“If this was 1995, I would’ve said yes,” explained Mark Cuban.) As his moment of glory turned to unanimous rejection, the ghost writer came up with one more clever — or desperate — last hurrah. I saw him as an unheralded giant — an invisible kingpin — in the dying world of printed books. And maybe he just didn’t want to admit that the world was really changing. Instead, he told the panel that ebooks would only increase the relevance of his business model. Since then printed books would become even more of a curiosity — a quaint and intriguing artifact that businesses would want even more!

And the last word seemed to belong to those same ordinary people who could never afford his ghost-writing services anyways.

“Dude was clueless as hell…” posted one viewer on Twitter. And another tweeted a condensed version of Cuban’s reason for declining the investment opportunity: “no future in a hard copy book, like a weightlifting snowman.” (Which means that no matter how impressive it is, it’ll still vanish before you know it!) And ultimately, soon even Mark Cuban himself had turned up on Twitter, confirming that that’s why he’d left behind the world of printed books.

“exactly why i publish my book as an ebook.”

Check out Mark Cuban’s Kindle ebook, “How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It!”

Ellen Degeneres’ Audience Gets Kindle Fire Tablets

Ellen Degeneres' 12 Days Giveaway is a Kindle Fire tablet

Ellen Degeneres surprised her studio audience Friday during her daytime talk show — by giving every one of them a new Kindle Fire tablet! In a daily segment called “12 Days of Giveaways,” she’s been treating her audience each day to a big bundle of Christmas presents. Friday’s bundle was worth over $2,000 , but she saved the Kindle Fire tablets for last! As her audience cheered with excitement, she smiled and said “Have a wonderful weekend…”

But I liked the way Ellen teased the audience first. She’d introduced an a capella singing group to perform the song “Silver Bells” — but after several false starts, they just couldn’t find the right key. Suddenly a real bell went off — the signal for Ellen’s gift giveway — and a giant dancing Christmas wreath appeared on the stage. The audience cheered as an Andy Williams song played in the background — “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” — as stagehands came out dressed in candy-cane pin strips and elfish-green skirts, and Ellen danced with the wreath.

In fact, the Kindle Fire almost got lost in the excitement, since Ellen handed out so many other gifts. She’d already told the audience that each of them would receive a $200 gift card for coffee brewers, tickets to a new Cirque du Soleil show, a GPS system, and a trip to a new resort spa that’s opening in Carlsbad, California. And then she told that audiece that, finally, they’d be getting a copy of her book. (“I might be biased, but if there’s one book you should read this holiday season, or year, or really ever, it should be my book…”) But of course, she still had one more gift…

“Now, how would you like access to over 18 million movies, TV shows, music, magazines, apps, games — and especially my book? Now you can have it all on this season’s hottest e-reader, the Kindle Fire, everybody!”
(The audience cheers)

I have to wonder if Ellen is secretly a fan of the Kindle, or if the bit give-away was Amazon’s idea? I know Oprah Winfrey was always a fan of the Kindle, and she’d made a point of giving them away to her audience. In one show, Oprah even tracked down the audience for a show she’d taped two and a half years earlier — because she felt like they’d been disappointed because she hadn’t given them enough gifts. Now that Oprah has retired, maybe Ellen’s just trying to continue that Kindle-giving tradition.

Ellen seems to have a good relationship with Amazon, since she wrote a “guest blog post” on Amazon’s Kindle blog back in October to promote her new book. Amazon later named it one of their “best books of 2011l,”
and even two months later, it’s still ranked #236 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling items in the Kindle Store. The title of Ellen’s book?

“Seriously… I’m Kidding!”