Why must ebooks be so complicated? Sharing Joe Wikert’s hopes&wishes for 2016

Instead of making predictions about publishing in 2016, Joe Wikert, the wise man, opts for formulating what he wishes to happen. And so in a very hands on way. I (almost) fully share his hopes!

Aside from the obvious („less DRM„), the well intended (making it easier for publishers to directly interact with their readers, and consumers (which gets so much easier, once DRM is skipped), and the fancy („new sustainable unlimited ebook subscriptions“ – here I am more doubtful, yet acknowledge Joe’s background with O’Reilly’s pioneering „Safari“ service), I am all enthusiastic for his last wish: „Better notes and annotations, outside the book„.

If you read for work, for education or simply for fun, chances are high that you have our little scheme of annotating (and sharing) what you read. Some use those bright marker pens, which others despise, and instead use a tiny pencil to underline, or comment. Personally, I discreetly underline, with a pencil, then annotate, or simply make a reference at the blank pages that can be found at the end of almost any book. So even many years later, I can find what had preoccupied my mind when reading a work.

Not so with ebooks. With digital reading being still in its very early days (yes!), chances are high that, since my initial reading of a book, I have moved on to a new reading gadget and software – so that my notes are all gone.

Is anyone surprised why college or university students rather opt for paper? Disregarding that they consume any other content digitally, and in usages that are integrated with their social networks and friends?

Given that oddity, is anyone still wondering why ebooks currently have  such a hard time to reach audiences beyond those early adopters, and the strongest readers of (fast) fiction?

How many of us have, in the meantime, opted for, and integrated into their information and exchange routines something like Evernote (or any other platform to organize thoughts, todo lists, shopping lists, references to music and movies one would want to consume. Yet this is not available for digital books.

Saving and sharing has become so seamless for almost anything – including reading, done on the web (with Instapaper, or GetPocket). Though not for reading a book.

Hence my simple question, together with Joe Wikert: Why must ebooks be so complicated? I just don’t know.

Not one prediction about ebooks has been correct so far. Why? A summer rant.

Let’s face the simple truth: Not one prediction about ebooks (as far as I know) has been correct so far:

No, ebooks will NOT go away any time soon. But no, again, they will not replace printed books, not even mass paperbacks, within a decade or so.

Thus far, ebooks have strongly impacted only on some markets: English language (US, UK), and genre fiction (big fiction bestsellers, fantasy, romance, young adult) – and ebooks helped propel self-publishing.

Interestingly, in the various – and very diverse – Non-English markets of Europe, ebooks have stalled early on, in a very different pattern from US or UK. But strangely, they behaved remarkably similar for those niches of genre fiction and blockbuster novels (and found plenty of people downloading those in English, and not, say, in Slovenian or Dutch translations).

Publishers, particularly in Europe, have had their hand in all this, by keeping prices high, and by believing in the gospel of iron cast copyright protection technology (DRM).

Now several of the big companies start learning lesson 01: They abandon hard DRM, and replace it by water marking – to get „rid of a road block“ (phrases buchreport, reporting on Holtzbrinck giving up hard DRM for Germany, following suit after Bonnier had decided likewise in June, and a growing number of others before that). In Italy or Scandinavia, hard DRM has had no strong showing from the beginning almost.

My personal list of ebook headaches

Every time I purchase a (non Kindle/Amazon) ebook (because I dislike those walled gardens), I firmly struggle, and hate, the lack of usability on ANY of the major ebook platforms I tend to use. Here are some real life examples:

  • Kobo has (for me) a terrible search engine, as it makes some kind of a difference for me with an Austrian account (as opposed, it seems, to what they have for a German user – argh!!!). Behind that riddle seems to sit a mix of territorial rights and bad meta data – which doesn’t help me a lot, I must say;
  • Ebook.de has a search engine and shop environment which together seem to visualize every step of development and changing partnerships that the platform has had to serve in the past several years – and even getting a title into a bookmark list, instead of the buy basket takes a little adventure in figuring out how, and why, a function changes names along the process;
  • Direct purchases at notably British publishers‘ websites often confront the mysterious red lines of territorial rights;
  • Buying a French book teaches you a thorough lesson about how France wants to be different – it works in the end, but you better bring some time, and all your wits and persistence.

I assume you do NOT want me to go on and on and on.

Perhaps I am not the only one who got frustrated. Many a reader may have had enough – and a number has moved over to more easy-to-use piracy offerings. Not necessarily because they want „to steal the book„. But because … well, I do not want to entering guessing either.

Here is my main concern: We simply do not know.

We learn about a drop in ebook sales of 2.5% in the US (AAP StatShot, quoted in Publishers Weekly). But what does this mean? Again a few exemplary thoughts:

We know how unevenly ebook sales are across genres, but also publishers. From Europe, I know that ebooks seem to privilege massively the biggest houses, plus a few more publishers who really drive digital.

In Germany, a few independent houses (Luebbe, Aufbau) report that their ebook revenue share is over 15%. Even in ebook agnostic France, a few romance and erotica specialists claim strong digital sales, and we know that a few blockbuster memoirs found their way well onto readers‘ screens, albeit through illegal downloads.

For Germany, or France, we still do not have any meaningful break out numbers, by genre, or monthly developments, but only broad overall figures for, supposedly, all of „trade“ or consumer publishing, which are basically meaningless. We do not even know, for the industry, the part that year end holiday sales play, for digital sales. And the same applies to any other EU market aside from the UK.

Which also means that we have no idea whatsoever of the real impact of piracy on (p&e) book sales. We simply don’t know. (Just as a thought experiment: Are illegal sales curbing down mostly niche titles, available on highly proficient illegal platforms, and are particularly harmful to diversity of titles published by those specialist copyright holders? Or  are the mostly a nuisance to blockbuster fiction and their ‚Big Houses‚ publishers? Or is the leakage paramount? We don’t know.)

What I could see in fact, through our research, is a pretty staggering increase in page visits at major piracy sites across European markets, and both their usability as well as the mounting emphasis from these sites (they pretend, seriously, to foster ‚reading culture‘) which are obviously well echoed by readers. Not by nerds or hackers, but by the most serious, ambitious page devouring folks!)

We have documented some of this in the Global eBook report 2015, and plan for some updates, notably on pricing and on piracy, for autumn 2015.

But here are already a few anticipating thoughts:

Ebooks are NOT a marginal bug in the book publishing system, as a market share (in Europe) of overall 2, 3 or 4% of all consumer sales might indicate. Ebooks interfere with the entire system, as they impact on a number of very sensitive points, by exercising significant leverage.

Most prominently, they work most directly with all kinds of particularly dedicated consumers who specialize heavily on one niche, who read much more than average, etc.

Second, ebooks set a precedent for many more readers, by bringing the ‚book‚ (that previously ‚special‚ thing) on par with all other media content, which literally trains readers at comparing their pricing as well as the convenience of access, and – very important for the cultural classes – their ‚symbolic status‚, with other formats, other content and media, on which they spend time and money.

Third, when the new ‚user experience‚ with books compares poorly with other stuff, the next exit might be a piracy site.

I made an effort of not mentioning the Amazon factor so far in that lengthy story. But here it enters the stage, unavoidably. The ‚A-impact‚ is perhaps not primarily what Amazon is blamed for, its tax-optimizing habits, or its tough negotiations with publishers over margins. Amazon’s main threat comes probably from their offer of being „the other – who claims to re-invent the future of books and reading, and of all other digital media content anyway. Which is also arguably Amazon’s softest spot: Imagine from how many sides and angles new challengers can – and will! – come in. Amazon’s future is all but secured.

For the old world publishers, who today struggle with the first wave of change, this comes with little relief. But it sure carries a simple lesson:

Ebooks are complicated. They look small, even marginal in many places. But we see how a huge, old dyke at once gets many little leaks, and readers‘ attention held back for long by that dyke, is curiously exploring all the other leads around.

Publishers, if they want to survive, and fix their dyke, will better learn the tricks of ebooks quickly. Not for today’s minimal revenue share, or flattening growth curve. But to remain their readers‘ best choice tomorrow, again.

How high ebook prices challenge ebook growth. The New York Times confronts PWC’s overoptimistic predictions with our pricing analysis

In its new „Global entertainment and media outlook 2014 – 2018„, PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC) predicts ebook growth patterns not only for the US (expeciting digital to outgrow print by 2017), but also for a number of European markets. Strangely, France, of all countries, is expected to produce a significant upward curve in ebook sales, similar to Spain, while Germany would lag behind even Italy. Some observers simply likened such predictions to the proverbial tea leaf reading.

The New York Times opted for a more in depth approach to the matter, and compared the PWC Outlook to our analysis of ebook pricing strategies across a half dozen major European ebook markets in the last update to the Global eBook report – and I felt pretty confident, looking at the juxtaposition, that our data analysis is probably a better measure for assessing the growth dynamics, or the limitations of such, in the evolution of key ebook markets. But check out the chart yourself, and make up your mind.


Random House Germany drops DRM for books – by mistake. A crack in the Adobe wall?

A week ago, German ebook buyers noticed in total surprise that ebooks from Random House – Germany’s by far largest publishing group – could be purchased without hard DRM. This was an ever more astounding discovery, as the group had not given any prior notice to such a change of minds.

So far, hard DRM had been hardwired in the DNA of big German publishing groups, notably Holtzbrinck (with S. Fischer or Rowohlt), Bonnier (Ullstein, Piper, Carlsen), or Random House (aka Bertelsmann), as to the trade association Börsenverein as well.

Well, it was only a glitch. Or, as Libreka explained, the German trade association’s own distribution platform, which served the RH titles: Some technical switch at RH had been misinterpreted by Libreka’s system – and that was that.

Was it only a glitch?

In fact, several mid-sized German publishers already have abandoned hard DRM, such as prestigeous Hanser, or more recently Hoffman & Campe. However, I am not sure if any consumers have noticed their move towards convenience thus far.

Dismissing hard DRM altogether would be „the smartest thing to do for publishers“, argued the (e-)reading blog Lesen.net.

One week later, nothing has happened though.

This is perhaps the biggest PR opportunity that German publishers have missed for years, for gaining headway in both of their fiercest, and most relevant battles:

– For winning over the minds and hearts of consumers (aka readers), as a bold move would have been to say: We trust you, as our most loyal partners, and prefer to offer you convenience, at our risk; because in the ever shrinking print trade book market, ebooks are the growth segment, hence the future element for the entire book business;

– In competing the prevalence of Amazon in the German market, both in print and ebook retail, by emphasizing DRM free offers as a convenience to their customers, and thereby regaining control over that key issue of who defines the market environment: The traditional local players, or (from such a ‚turf wars‘ perspective), that challenger of Amazon, who had come in from afar (as the local players would want to portray the company from Seattle, whose base in Munich however was their first venture internationally, back in 1998).

In a few weeks, the Frankfurt Book Fair will open, as a perfect venue and PR opportunity for publishers to reaching out beyond the so far mostly walled-off perspectives on eBooks and innovation, by embracing their readers.

What, one week ago, perhaps really had been just an odd glitch, could then evolve into a crack in the wall of hard and consumer-unfriendly DRM for ebooks – a timely crack indeed, occuring exactly 25 years post the opening in the Berlin Wall, which had brought the cold war to an end.

From a reader’s, or consumer’s perspective, but perhaps also from a publisher’s point of view, it might indeed be simply the „smartest“ (Lesen.net), and technically, the simplest thing to do, in order to leverage what ebooks can add to that good old trade of books.

Jeff Almighty: Kindle Unlimited is about leveraging access to Amazon’s mega catalogue, and control of the entire value chain.

Kindle Unlimited is not just another subscription offer, but yet another key component in Amazons 2 central strategic lines of action: First of all, to organize access to the world’s largest catalogue for reading (and making $$$ as a collateral benefit – which will never bring significant income for anyone else but the by far strongest player(s) around). And second, this helps very much in the ambition of controling the entire value chain (or more radically: to replace all the other competitors, by one walled empire, defined by Amazon).

In this context, Kindle Unlimited can be huge, because it confronts traditional publishers with nothing less than an altogether new, and radically different, business modell then what used to be the bread and butter for 2 centuries: To sell and buy books one copy at a time. Including all those existing author contracts that, again, compensate the creators with a cut on that old model.

For Amazon, as the aggregator and community hub, it is relatively easy to make that radical switch. For the publishers, and everybody else, this will cause a huge headache. It will ever more benefit only the very few peak bestselling authors (and perhaps the largest publishing giants), and further dilute income, and sustainability for all of the rest.

The momentum of Amazon’s catalogue building, and now the launch for Kindle Unimited reminds me of its behind the scene frenzy before the introduction of the Kindle, back in 2007. Yes, back then, the Bg Six were largely on board, which is not the case now. But re-consider the hardball game with Hachette, or the gossip about talks with Simon & Schuster, in the light of Kindle Unlimted. These confrontations come in handy now, before the backdrop of yet another Amazon controled sales channel, and a huge handle in tightening up the Amazon consumer community – and to show everybody the sign on the wall, which reads: Be careful, and think what it would mean to NOT have your titles prominently featured by us.

Jeff Almighty has a strong run these times. It will require a lot of ingenuity, and cold blood, for everybode else to come up with a good answer to him.

This is what I argue in an essay (in German) about the possibile impact of Kindle Unlimited’s launch, published by Die Welt today. Podcast (in deutsch, von Deutschlandradio) hier.

Understanding the reader requires not just a direct marketing plan, but listening to the consumers. Thoughts from the buchreport360 seminar.

The website of HarperCollins, one of the Big Five English language publishers, welcomes visitors – with a shop. A feature that could be just normal is currently big news among observers of international book markets. Why so?

While the call that publishers need to communicate directly with consumers has been repeated time and again, little has been done to make such a direct exchange a practical reality, in fact.

Of course, most publishers, big and small, have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and a growing number of authors want to have their dedicated web presence supported by their publishers. But, many book professionals concede, not very many books find their way into the hands of readers in ways that can really be linked to such (expensive) digital initiatives.

One of the reasons for this shortcoming is that many such efforts are built like a preacher’s pulpit, focusing only on how to get the word out about an author, or a book. The other half of the exercise is missing though: A built in listening post, that allows the publisher, the marketing and communication team, and the author to listen to what the readers have to say.

At a one day seminar last week, branded buchreport360, this was all differnt. Most of the conversation had focused on how to make that return channel a key to the entire exercise. And clearly, selling books direct to consumers – and thereby learning what works, what doesn’t, and how so, exactly – engages the publisher in a much stronger way, and triggers a learning curve that no feedback from booksellers can replace. (And of course, this back link is not created as a re-placement for the booksellers and their wisdom, not at all).

The trick of listening – and not just preaching, or promoting – may be seen as banal. But it entirely re-frames the issue of  both direct-to consumer marketing, and of understanding consumer data by the same move.

This simple, yet powerful insight is what I brought home from  buchreport360 last week, where I had the pleasure to help preparing and moderating some of the sessions,  with, among others, Charlie Redmaine, CEO UK of HarperCollins (and formerly CEO of Pottermore) , Laura Bijelic, head of the reader platform Bookmarks at Random House UK and Dutch book and culture nerd Eppo van Nispen.

One could also add: Opening your shop is not just about selling books. It is as much about inviting your readers to talk to you, and to have someone in your publishing house who is prepared to lend an ear. Simple. But effective indeed.

Questionnaire for the Global eBook report update spring 2014: Share your insights, now.

The Global eBook report is updated every half year, to map and analyze the evolution of international ebook markets.

As data are still difficult to find, and ever harder to consolidate, we have built an online questionnaire, for asking industry insiders – publishers, distributors, authors, agents, experts, academics – to share their assessment and their insights, as one key ingredient to the report.

The results from this international survey is critical for the quality of our study.

We therefore ask for your help by both sharing your insights by completing your personal questionnaire , and by forwarding the questionnaires to your colleagues, to widen the contributing community.

Please submit questionnaires before March 7, 2014.

Many thanks for your kind help!

PS: And check out our new feature, the eBook Yellow Pages. Make sure that your company is listed, or even consider buying a personalized advertisement. All details at www.global-ebook.com .

Reading is changing, for sure. In the networks, obviously. But what does this mean?

I’m not sure if I embrace all the casualness in this piece on „networked reading“ in The Guardian. But the short article certainly formulates several very important questions with regard to reading.

Reading habits are probably the next frontier in what is changing in the ecosystem of the book (and readers, and authors);

This change will be driven by readers networking their reading experience – plus thoughts, notes, references – through the (social) networks in which they are active;

Today’s biggest behemoths with their highly walled, closed gardens – Amazon, Apple, perhaps also Facebook – may lose ground here quickly; except if they just spend a few zillions to acquire all those new universes; but that would be both sad, and not really plausible;

The process will surely be disruptive for that late 19th century reading concept that overemphasizes the lone, solitary and individual book lover who gets lost in the text, without bothering to share the discoveries even with their closest friends; instead the other pactice of reading, as a magnificent generator of communication, will grow far beyond of what we know today.

But control – social control and mind control – will be a highly critical issue indeed.

In a global perspective, ebooks are much bigger, really, and more complicated, than what we had thought in our wildest dreams. Look at Google!

Have you followed – and realized – that Google will now make available some 5 million titles as ebooks – and only half of them are in English!

This will make Google rather sooner than later, the by far leading aggregator of digital books.

Read more in my first blog entry at the Tools of Change / O’Reilly blog here.



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