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.

Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get notified about new reports, blogposts and events