eBooks: It’s about reading and access, not gadgets

At the Frankfurt Book fair, I was amazed that a pretty much technical panel debate could draw a crowd of some 100 people for almost an hour.

I had the pleasure to host the talk with UK consultant Mark Bide, Piero Atanasio of the Italian Association of Publishers, and Simon Juden of the British Publishers‘ Association about some pretty dry outlooks into the digital future. Everyone agreed on 2 things:

1. There is a lot of change ahead (not a surprise)

2. Things may be much less controversial than expected, because much of the hassle could be sorted out by technical innovations, instead of lawyers and litigation.

Today, various news wires bring the confirmation that the legal showdown between Google and the US publishers‘ and authors organizations has been avoided and replaced by an out of court settlement (here is the release of AAP), opening doors, libraries and screens for tons of digital books online, and certainly encouraging Google to push even stronger in its digitization strategy.

A few days ago, I read – as it had been expected since one year – that Random House has signed an agreement with Google book search for all their  English language books.

In the meantime, all the hype about gadgets seems to cool off quite a bit as no release date for Amazon’s Kindle in Europe has been given in Frankfurt. No relevant Kindle 2.0 announcement has been made. Sony Reader is not available in many places in time for Christmas.

So I feel pretty much confirmed in my expectation that digital change is ahead, yet it is about access and reading, and it is much less about little plastic boxes of any kind.

Student’s research on e-Books, on translation and on literature and migration

I am time and again amazed to see what – even undergraduate – students can achieve when they are allaowed (and a bit encouraged) to do research on sometimes tricky subjects.

So I am proud to point to 3 essays which each summarize a topic where otherwise little consistent information can be found (alas, you need to read German for getting the best out of it):

e-Books: If you want an overview of e-Books in a historic context, and a decent overview of the major current trends, go here.

Literature and migration: A key topic with regard too cultural diversity, and yet hardly researched, at least for German speaking countries – here.

Translation and the Austrian book market, a nice summary here.

And an overview of more student’s research here.

Buy a car (with a book), and other funny thoughts

This weeks edition of The Economist runs an insightful piece about the music industry’s experience of change over the past decade. I hadn’t thought of it either, but Apple’s iPod launch coincided exactly with the recession that had followed the Internet bubble burst and 9/11 less than a decade ago:

„Many observers thought the company had gone mad. Apple was launching an expensive new product (the first iPod cost $399) in the depths of the worst downturn the technology industry had ever seen. It was venturing outside its familiar market, for personal computers, into the fiercely competitive field of consumer electronics. And it was taking on Sony, the giant of the industry. The iPod’s name, sceptics declared, stood for ‚idiots price our devices‘.“

The Economist also notes how, after the crash (of music pricing and music revenues from CD sales) the record companies had started to understand how much more convenient a subscription model was against selling music by the album. Now the next step is to „hiding the cost of a music subscription inside something else.“ You buy a Nokia phone and get a year’s load of music for instance. Or you buy a car, and it sings for one year – or a car’s life time perhaps.

And just as iPods and downloadable music have strongly increased the relevance of live acts, especially for independent bands, so will e-Books do for literature and writers – says Irish writer and e-Book evangelist Julian Gough in an article of the Irish Times, because readings and literary festivals will become much bigger „as books dematerialise“.

Does the publishing industry follow the road of the music industry into digital trouble?

While German publishers, teaming up with their peers from the music business, ran full page ads in national daily newspapers calling for government help (!) against all those digital threats (see my piece in german in Perlentaucher), some colleagues in the UK give a pretty blunt warning against such shortsightedness:“Some would say that the publishing industry appears to be walking blindfold down the same path and in some cases with even the same players.“ This is not some digerati bonzo writing, but the bloggist of the British Booksellers‘ Association, Matyn Daniels.Well, we keep you posted, soon with a new overview of recent digital ventures of publishers across Europe and the US. Stay tuned.  

Ever more eBook projects in the US, France and Germany

News come in regularly about just another project aiming at exploring possibilities and perspectives of books on digital platforms.

At the Paris Salon du Livre, the French Minister for Culture and Communication, Christine Albanel, said that „we must stop only endure the digital revolution“, but instead look out courageously for the potential. „The book“, she continued, „is one oft the very last domains where we still can anticipate (what is going to happen) and give it meaning and exact rules“.

Well, even if this reflects a genuinely French belief in rules and control, the statement points to one strong fact: The current wave of experiments and initiatives is probably driven by exactly the fact that many companies – and even public institutions – have grasped that closing the eyes with a strong belief that ever stricter policing of enhanced copyright legislation will not make those digital ghost disappear.

Anyhow, at the Paris Salon, amidst a huge controversy around an Arab call for boycot due to Israels presence as the guest of honour, digital readers and related stories were the „stars of the show„.

Right after the Salon, the „Gallica 2“ book digitisation project is supposed to go live, with 60.000 digitised works at the National Library, and 2.000 more new titles from some 50 French publishers – who received some subsidies for their move, according to The Bookseller. (Link – with subscription required)

Also, the French encyclopedia Larousse promised to have its largest edition put online soon (here is a demo), and a new epaper reader called Bookeen was unveiled.

At the Germany Leipziger Buchmesse, Ronald Schild, the head of the German digitization project Libreka, announced e-commerce tools for booksellers and publishers,  allowing them to integrate an eBook shop on their websites, granting readers for instance access to a book for a limited period of time.

 A forum debate with various members of the book and publishing community had it that  „the book will remain, even without paper.“

But when Torsten Casimir, editor in chief of Boersenblatt, the German Publishers‘ and Booksellers‘ Association magazine, asked writer Michael Kumpfmueller about „user generated content“, the writer was sure that „writing fan fiction on things like Harry Potter will be over soon“. Well, well. A colleague of a nerdy Berlin group of online journalists and writers, Sascha Lobo of Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur, dryly replied: „This is what I call fatal arrogance.“

I admit I felt more enlightened by a piece in Shelf Awareness on „Digital Change: A College Survey Course„, with Mark Nelson explaining at CAMEX in San Antonio, Texas, that „digital change could come as quickly as the iPod became a staple of college students: in four years, iPod adoption by college freshman went from 0% to 85%.“

Nelson also reminded professional book people how readers, especially at learning institutions, „want lower prices. They don’t want to buy a whole book if the professor doesn’t want them to read it all. And they want shareable content that they can interact with.“ He cautioned, „If we don’t find a solution to these questions, someone else will.“ Nelson also pointed to several University projects that are worth exploring:

CourseSmart, an experiment launched by 6 major text publishers, Amazon is begining to sell textbooks over the Kindle and starts partnering with publishers, Ingram offers a growing inventory of content, CafeScribe is an affiliate program, and these are not the last examples of all that is going on out there – we will keep you posted.

Danish – and French and German – encyclopedias stop print editions

After the popular French encyclopedia „Quid“ and the very prestigious German „Brockhaus“ have decided to stop their paper editions in 2008, the same news was given by their Danish colleagues at Gyldendal.

„The Danish Encyclopaedia (Den Store Danske Encyklopædi), with 250,000 articles written by 4,000 Danish experts, sold 50,000 DVDs copies in the first four months after it launch priced at £70, which included online access for one year, compared with the £2,000 price of the print edition.
However one year on and Gyldendal has admitted that subscribers are failing to renew.“ (The Bookseller)

Harvard to go open access – with echos in Germany

When Harvard Librarian Robert Darnton announced in February 2008 that his prestigious institution is going ‚open access‘ with most of its scolarly publications, this has caused echos and scepticism in Germany where science publishers still either tend to fight open access altogether or consider it ’no threat anymore‘ to their business interests.

In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he is also asked if he considered books (as printed on paper) an ‚endangered species‘. He states that the book, as a variant of the ‚codex‘ is „just too good to be easily bypassed by a computer“. So his next book will be published in the old traditional format – but with an added digital version „which will be much bigger and more complex“.

EBooks, digital books, the future of books: An overview of current publishing experiments and strategy debates

Within only a few weeks, I came across all sorts of news refering to big publishing conglomerates and small indiependent houses who launch or announced  new approaches to putting books onto the internet. And at the same time, a new debate about eventual business models has started – anywhere between giving away all the stuff for free to charging for the download of a page or a chapter. This was not only triggered by the launch of new digital readers like Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader. It shows that there are a lot of people and companies out there thinking at and planning for perspectives of the book in a digital and connected world.

I certainly will comment on this in future posts, but in a first step, I thought that mapping those debates and announcements may be more useful and valuable. I have written a first overview, in German, in my column „Virtualienmarkt“ at the Berlin based Perlentaucher. But here you can look at the ‚tool box‘ with quotes and links to the main findings I covered, with only a minimum of comments

US Trade Wholesale Electronic Book Sales

Statistics: Here is a table with ebook sales in trade in the US. 

Examples of new ebook and digital book announcements and reports from recent weeks with quotes and links:   HarperCollins to put books online free (11.02.08 The Bookseller) HarperCollins Publishers US is to offer free electronic editions of some of its books on its website, including a novel by Paulo Coelho and a cookbook by the Food Network star Robert Irvine, reports the New York Times. (Coelho blog) The idea is to give readers the opportunity to sample the books online in the same way that prospective buyers can flip through books in a bookstore.It’s like taking the shrink wrap off a book,“ said Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. „The best way to sell books is to have the consumer be able to read some of that content.“  Top authors to go digital with ebooks (The Sunday Times) „Random House and Hachette, which together control just over 30% of the British book market, are to offer downloadable versions of titles by authors ranging from Delia Smith to Ian McEwan and Michael Parkinson. Every other major publisher is drawing up plans to follow suit, pitching the books at just below the price of a hardback. The publishers have made the move to ebooks to follow the launch of two rival devices due to come on sale in Britain over the next few months – Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. (…) In America, the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle have been on sale since last autumn and about 90,000 titles are now available on them. (…) Borders in Ann Arbor, Michigan, unveiled a digital “concept store”.Publishers  Lunch„Perhaps the most interesting launch is the one without a press release at all so far: Tor Books is accepting e-mail sign-ups for a program that promises „free digital books from bestselling and award-winning SF and fantasy authors…. Once you register, you’ll receive our newsletter and a link to download a digital book. And you’ll receive a link to another new book every week.“ The first week’s free book is Mistborn, by rising fantasy star Brandon Sanderson. Next week’s will be Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, 2006’s winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Over the next several weeks, other books still.“ Random to sell chapters online11.02.08 The Bookseller Random House US is to begin selling the individual chapters of a popular book to gauge reader demand for bite-size portions of digital texts, reports the Wall Street Journal.The publishing group’s experiment appears to be the first time a major consumer publisher has offered a title on a chapter-by-chapter basis. It will sell the six chapters and epilogue of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die for $2.99 each.The move comes, says the WJS, at a time when retailers and publishers are looking for clues into how readers want to access digital content.“Publishers Weekly„In the Random test, Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, published in hardcover in January 2007, is being made available in six chapters and an epilogue—the content bunches are priced individually at $2.99 each—at www.randomhouse.com/madetostick. Consumers who buy a chapter will receive an e-mail with a link for downloading the purchased file, which cannot be shared electronically. Avideh Bashirrad, deputy director of marketing for RHPG, said the company chose Stick because each chapter contains standalone lessons. Matt Shatz, Random’s v-p, digital, said the experiment is intended “to gauge the demand for short form electronic content.” Several publishers, mostly in the travel and computer fields, have offered chapters for sale, with mixed results.“ Publishers Weekly, 2/11/2008 Random House drops audio DRM 25.02.08 The Bookseller„Random House Audio — a division of Bertelsmann, one of the largest publishing conglomerates in the world — has announced that it will now allow its audiobooks to be sold without DRM by all of its online retailers. According to blog site BoingBoing Random House noted that they’ve been running a DRM-free audiobook program with eMusic for months, and that none of the pirate editions of their audiobooks online came from those DRM-free editions; rather, they’ve come from DRM’ed editions that were cracked, and from ripped CDs.“   Brockhaus stops printed edition and moves online instead„The German encyclopedia publisher Brockhaus said it would place its reference works on the Internet to offset falling revenues. Unlike popular reference work Wikipedia, it will be ad-sponsored and professionally edited.“Deutsche Welle   Brockhaus ceases publication of its paper edition„This news represents a watershed,“ was Manfred Schneider’s comment on the announcement by the traditional Brockhaus publishing house that it would be making its encyclopaedia available on-line from 15 April on a free, advertising-financed website rather than publishing a new paper edition of the thirty-one volume work. „A review of the history of Brockhaus forces contemporary book-lovers to draw the wistful conclusion that this move marks not only a change in publishing strategy but also the end of an era.Frankfurter Rundschau quoted in Courier International  In France, the popular encyclopedia „Quid“ stops printed edition„The 2008 edition of Quid, France’s favourite encyclopaedia, has been cancelled by its publisher for lack of interest. The annual sales of the 2,000-page tome, which reached more than 400,000 in the mid-1990s, collapsed to just over 100,000 last year. The book’s publisher, Robert Laffont, says the whole concept of the print encyclopedia can no longer compete with the free information available on the internet.“The Independent 19 Feb 2008 The new debate on how to prepare and serve a free lunchKevin Kelly: Better Than Free “When copies are super abundant, they become worthless. When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable. When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied. Well, what can’t be copied?”“The elusive, intangible connection that flows between appreciative fans and the artist is worth something. In Radiohead’s case it was about $5 per download.“ In: EdgeChris Andersen: Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business “It’s now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There’s never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.”In: Wired Chris Andersen on his Blog The Long Tail“I plan to make as many versions as possible of FREE, well,  free, starting with the MP3 audiobook and possibly including a sponsored physical book. Is this going to backfire, given that I’m already on the well-known side of the equation?Well, if all I wanted to do was sell books, it might (although I doubt it, given the usability benefits of the physical form of a serious book. After all, giving away a pdf version of his book on net policy and economics helped Yochai Benkler sell more hardcover books than he would have otherwise. 500+ pages is a lot to print out, to say nothing of reading on-screen).”In Andersen’s blog The Long TailOprah e-freebie now Amazon’s 3rd best p-seller „Can you boost p-book sales by giving away e-copies of the same titles for free? Oprah Winfrey’s book club last week allowed free downloads of the book in Kindle and PDF formats and perhaps others, for 33 hours. It drew more than a million downloadsDavid Rothman in his blog in Publishers Weekly  February 19, 2008  „Free is more complicated than you think“ by Scott Adams, Creator of Dilbert I spend about a third of my workday blogging. Thanks to the miracle of online advertising, that increases my income by 1%. I balance that by hoping no one asks me why I do it.  A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, God’s Debris, on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, The Religion War slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.“Scott Adams in a column in The Wall Street Journal 1 Nov 2007   Tim O’Reilly picked up on Adams‘ discovery of the ambivalence of freebies and did the math more in detail, with figures from his own book publishing business. He realized what fabulous numbers of page views and ad clicks would be required to come up with the revenues he had by selling printed books in traditional ways. As quoted by one listener to his presentation: „Assume (hypothetical but probably close to his real business) that he sells 200K books/month @ $20 = $4M/month = $48M/year. Average book is 446 pages, which is equivalent to 90M page views per month. At a $1 CPM (=Cost per thousand impressions), that’s $90K/month. At a $20 CPM, it’s $1.8M — roughly half the size of the book business.“Tim O’Reilly’s conclusion was that at first he had considered advertising to provide a solution for creating revenues out of online publishing („advertising works and we’re just not good at it“), before he flatly understood: „We need to stop thinking of advertising as a model.“  Tim O’Reilly: „Free is more complicated than you think“ New publishing models: Case studies and presentation from this year’s O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing onferenceProcedings  of the conference in 2008Ben Vershow, Institute of the Future of the Book: Books as ConversationIf the book is digital, however, and resides on a network, new possibilities begin to open up. The page margin can become a public space. Authors and readers can interact in close to real time. An entire classroom can operate inside a single text. Books can become conversations.   And let me remind you of sci/fi writer Cory Doctorow who was probably the first writer who understood how to use free online publishing of his writing  (and the usage of ‚creative commons‘ licences) to establish his publishing success through a web community of fans.

About cultural loss through technology – a few 1000 years ago

The revolving debate about what culture may lose as books migrate from a shelf onto a screen – or if digitizing books is a good thing, or just plain vil – I was amused to come across this story related by Plato in Phaedrus 275 A:

„When the god Thoth first offered the craft of writing to the king of Egypt, the king was not impressed: ‚it will set forgetfulness in the minds of learners for lack of practice in memory‘.“

This is only one example showing that as early as when writing took over from oral narratives, in the dawn of History, not everybody was happy and welcoming the new cultural technology.

A similar, critical statement about cultural change and innovation can be found in the Indian Mahabaratha:

„The sellers of the Vedas, the misreaders of the Vedas, the writers of the Vedas, all go on the path to hell.“

I found both quotes in this wonderful book: Nicholas Ostler. Empires of the word. A Language History of the World. Harper Perennial, London New York et al. 2005, p. 183.

Unwrap a book – digitally

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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