Unwrap a book – digitally
February 11, 2008 by ruediger

Here you can find Paulo Coelho’s new megaseller “The Witch of Portobello” – for free. Oh, and yes, it is entirely legal. Courtesy of Harper Collins, Coelho’s US publisher.

Why they give away Coelho’s new book digitally? In order to sell it on paper, of course. And Harper decided, as of today, to start putting books up online for free more or less systematically. With Coelho, this will be one book per month, in a read only, no printing, no saving locally version, yet of course with a direct ‘buy this book’ link attached.

Harper Collins is, after all, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire of News Corp, and he has a reputation of both not doing anything without thinking of the money he can make, and of having a pretty good nose for when is the moment to jump on a band wagon of innovation. Remind you that he had acquired MySpace, and thereby heavily boosted all of web 2.0

In an interview with the¬†New York Times, ¬†Harper’s top lady Jane Friedman called this kick off of serious experimenting (I guess this is what it is, after all): “It’s like taking the shrink wrap off a book“.

This is an interesting concept, I think: Using digital to **open books**.  (I will discuss all the many implications of this in a special post here soon).

But as for today, take note of a number of co-inciding recent announcements, related or not: Simon & Schuster created the office of a Chief Digital Officer “for the full scope of the company’s activities in the digital realm.” Random House meanwhile will start to sell “chapters” of books online, starting with “six chapters and epilogue of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die for $2.99 each”, according to the Wall Street Journal, and quoted by The Bookseller.

While I’m not sure if the price tag of $2.99 for a chapter is a sticky idea – I remember an earlier announcement by RH (or was it Amazon) of a bit more than a year ago of a penny a page – and sorry, I did not check now what was the correct quote.

But the strong news is this: Publishers – and for sure, rather sooner than later, online booksellers even more so – start to take the web seriously (and, oh, right, Amazon just acquired Audible, to sell bookish content truely online, and not from their brick ‘ mortar warehouses).

Add to all of this the sheer number of books that are somehow available digitally online – in all of those restricted forms, as ‘snippets’ with Google, in digitalisation projects –¬†with many users craving to access them at once.

My point is: This is how the eBook market will take off for real, not through heavily rights managed closed boxes in the style of Amazon’s Kindle. Cost is not the main hurdle. It is that (a) why should I want to digitally buy a clumsy and bastard variant of a book reading device, and more importantly, (b) why would I allow anyone selling me that digital book to¬†intrude into my ways of using that book, so that I can’t give it to my buddy, or do with my copy whatever else I want.

So, when publishers stop sitting on their digital books and start to experiment, put up stuff for free, cooperate with their writers, and their writers’s communities, when booksellers get serious about downloads of audio (and therefore need to consider if they will use RDM, or learn from the music industry and prefer high usability), and start to consider of all of this in integrated strategies (with some Chief Digital Someone), they may liberate forces that are really relevant.

More on this soon.

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