03 November 2010

The uproar over ebook prices

Much has been said about ebook pricing, particularly in recent times as Amazon is forced to move to agency pricing.  And haven't their customers revolted!  Not surprisingly - we've all been getting books at ridiculous prices.  Why would we buy hardcovers or paperbacks when they are several times the price of the ebook.  Fine, if you are like me and you want the printed work as the PREMIUM product, something to share, something to keep, something to treasure - and not a digital file!  But the US 9.99 price point did create demand.  Amazing demand.  Even at 11.99, 12.99, 14.99 the price points are still good.  Where is the balance? 

I must say ebook pricing is getting ridiculous.  The US Sony Store has Tony Blair's My Journey still available for US 9.99.  What is absolutely ridiculous however is local pricing.  Local site Readwithoutpaper.com has the book for $35.58 - that's what the local distributor has set the price at.  AU $35.58.  On the Random House Australia website the Hardback is $59.95.  The ebook is also $59.95.  Sorry guys, you know I love you but where do you think I ordered the book from?  (Yes I know, I usually order from work at staff rates but when it comes to ebooks it's a different kettle of fish).

To make matters even more confusing, ebook vendors aren't familiar with how bibliographic data works.  For all of us in the booktrade, we've had to sigh, heave, yell, scream, moan and groan over what the metadata looks like.  We've worked through 100s editions and versions of the Harry Potters and Dan Browns of this world.  It is confusing.  It's awful.  And now you're yet another victim of it.  On today's Sony newsletter I saw a book entitled Cleopatra.  For those of you that know me, I have several grand loves.  Tudor History, War of the Roses, lives of famous poets and painters, and Ancient History - particularly Egyptian.  The first thing I do is link on the title and what happens when I get into the Sony Reader Store - two different prices for the same bloody ebook. It's an EBOOK people - it's not a hardcover or a paperback.  There should be one price UNLESS the book specifically mentions an enhanced edition.  And on old Sony readers, an enhanced edition doesn't do anything.  It's an electronic reader only. 

This is just going to get worse folks.  It's bad enough having "e" and "p" prices all over the place, locally and internationally.  More mature ebook markets like the US doing crazy things, the UK market having a play, and then us not wanting to cannibilise print in any way.  it's going to happen.  The consumer will decide how they want to read.  We've seen it in the library market for years.  Library budgets for print massively cut back so they can purchase more ebooks, online databases and journals.  We've HAD to work with ebook vendors to survive.  And it does come with a cost.  Economically you operate with different margins - or not at all.

When will publishers start looking at price points, look at the readers, look at the business models, and find something that helps SELL the work - regardless of format.  Give the reader what they want - at a price suitable for the product offered.  Or lose the sale.

In industry alerts today there was an upcry when Amazon started listing the publishers ebook prices in the UK.  "Increase in piracy" "people will go elsewhere" "ban the agency publishers".  The peasants are revolting folks.  But publishers, you've only got yourselves to blame.  You got out the content to the market, played with the big boys, let them build up the demand (and where demand had never gone before!) at a price point soo unbelievable it became mainstream, then said sorry and clawed it all back. 

Personally I think the price points are way too high locally - but that goes for the printed product too.  I've been in this industry a long time and I've seen the picture from all sides.  But price it better and sell more.  Be prepared to play, be prepared to give up margin, but don't lose the sale.  Don't become irrelevant.  Adapt or die.

Oh, and try not to piss off the customer.  In the digital world, they have more power than you know.

09 October 2010

In the year of the ebook, what counts and what doesn't....?

I'm writing this blog from the Frankfurt Book Fair.  If you are keeping up-to-date with the press coverage from Frankfurt, it's the "year of the ebook", it's all about the digital marketplace, ebook here, ebook there, ebook everywhere.  Yet for those of us who speak fluent "e" it's quite amusing.  We've spoken ebooks for years.  But it seems ebook sales in libraries don't count.  Ebooks through publisher databases and web portals don't count.  Most of my meetings with academic publishers now report on "p" vs "e" sales and the figures are quite interesting, depending on the depth of the "e" range offered to library ebook vendors, how long they've been active players in the ebook market, pricing of the books and simultaneous release.  Some STM publishers are sitting above 60% "e" sales, however the majority probably sits around 30% and growing at double - or triple - digit figures.  To hear it's the year of the ebook is funny for those of us in library supply.  Because we don't count.

On the library front, the major ebook players are well established - EBL, ebrary, Netlibrary, myilibrary.  How do they feel when they hear about the year of the ebook? Some of them have played in this ebook domain for over a decade.  Their sales are not insignificant.  But they don't count.  They've worked on content acquisition with academic, professional and scholarly publishers for many years.  It must be nice after being in the marketplace for over a decade, in some instances, to hear you are now in the spotlight.  But it's not them that are in the spotlight.  No, No, No.

You see it's all about the trade.  It's about booksellers and how they fit into the equation.  Not the giants - like Amazon (with the Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (with the Nook).  It's about getting fiction and non-fiction titles to the general consumer through other players.  Google Editions will be huge with retailers.  Kobo is growing their marketshare here with the Red Group.  Blio has launched in the US and will come to ANZ next year. Independent booksellers - large and small - can play in the ebook arena as long as they have a website.

But again, we're forgetting there are other players providing back-end service to booksellers - OverDrive, Ebooks Corporation, Gardners in the UK.  The latter advised they have over 100 publishers and 100,000 ebooks in their offer to retailers. They've worked at their strategies for years.  Nice to know their time has come!  I'm sure they count.  Because they supply to the wider book trade.

But let's extend the ramble.  There is one really hot topic in all the noise regarding ebooks.  And it's also to do with counting.  However in this case, it may be counting the loss.  TERRITORIAL RIGHTS FOR EBOOKS.... 

It came up in many of my meetings with publishers with regards to book distribution - not library ebook vendors.  If you are distributing the print product, particularly in the academic and scholarly arena, you have seen library supplier sales change.  Library suppliers work with ebook vendors who provide services that work with a library management system.  Many sales are the "one-sies and two-sies" across an entire range.  Overall it makes an impact to your business.  But library supply, at say 10% of sales, is small.  It's TRADE distribution that's going to hurt. 

Publishers being wowed by ebook vendor arrangements for booksellers - particularly Kobo, Blio and Google Editions - are not always thinking about their agent or distributor on the ground in Australasia.  They are not thinking about cannibilisation of print.  They aren't thinking about inventory, publicity, sales and marketing.  All important roles of the agent.  They aren't always thinking about communications to their sales agents and distributors about the possible effects.  They are going directly to the retailer via the ebook wholesaler - bypassing the normal and traditional book supply chain.

I've discussed it before on this blog, but in the year of the ebook (in the trade, that is, not libraries!), how are we going to carve up the ebook pie.  There isn't enough to go around.  The role of the sales agent/distributor is going to change.  And substantially change. Wholesale terms cannot be applied to both the distributor AND the ebook wholesaler (the Blio's, Kobos etc).  The ebook wholesalers have their terms.  For a distributor, a revenue or commission stream is all that one can really hope for.  How is the publisher going to account for that, what will the percentage look like, and will it be enough to sustain the supply chain we've known and loved all these years (yes, that was sarcasm in case you missed it). 

Publishers are trying to hold onto world ebook rights because carving up the digital world is not what many want to do.  Distributor roles are changing and substantially.  Publishers need to keep in mind they have a sales and marketing partner in the ANZ region who performs a core role with placement of product, raising profiles of authors, publicity, service etc.  There are costs associated with these services.  Offer the books on the ebook platforms that bypass that arrangement and don't communicate that to your agent.  Priceless.  Yes, that will make it the year of the ebook for sure.  With consumer demand growing for ebooks and print sales constantly under threat, how many distributors will walk away from the print altogether?  Publishers need to think about their established business relationships and partnerships in this territory - and find some way to blend it all together in a way that grows the business and recognises the important role a distributor plays.  Because look at the fine print of your contracts - to sign up with all these players selling directly to the retailer is no doubt a contractual breach.  Publishers overseas need to take a good hard look at the ebook supply chain, work out how they are going to play with the ebook vendor to retailers, what the role of the sales agent/book distributor is in all of that, and how to carve up that pie.  There's a new business model out there.  What it looks like I don't know.  But I do know: we all need to make it work and it has to count for something.

22 September 2010

A fascinating ebook recipe: lessons for the industry as a whole

Every day I trawl the websites and feeds for ebook information and updates.  I've been doing this for a couple of years now so it's pretty much part of my daily process.  Even though Kindle, iPad, Blio, Kobo weren't the subject (goodness the iPad wasn't even released!),  the concept of digitising content, the role of digital aggregators, the possible cannibilisation of print, the future of the book etc etc etc were all there.  Much of the message has remained the same however information flow has intensified.  It's everywhere!  The book is dead.  The book is not dead.  Ebook this.  Ebook that.  This ebook vendor is doing this.  This publisher is doing that.  War.  Peace.  Mediation.  Control.  Loss of control.  Concern.  Interest.  Development.  Future.  You turn your head one way, then you are tossed upside down the next day, and left shaking your head the next.  Everything can change so quickly.  It can be hard to keep up (yes even me!)

Sales stats are coming through, new players are in the market, sales patterns are changing.  Everyone is now at least talking "e".  It's no longer just a game they play in libraries.  It's something the general reader is part of and that means everyone in the book chain has their role to play.  We're all learning, we are educating each other.  But what about those with blinkers on?

I laughed myself stupid when I read this post on the FutureBook site today - because as much as I absorb everything "e", there's so much in this post that is true.  Gareth Cuddy has nailed it in many ways.  For all the progress, the training, the sharing of information, the digitisation that has been going around us, there's still a black hole.

I loved the way he approached the article: "Recipe taken from the Publishing Almanac 2010; Take a handful of wistful nostalgia and mix with a pinch of regret. Work in a fistful of stubbornness - being careful not to look at the actual mixture. Sprinkle uncertainty and doubt on top. Place in financial constraints and pop it in the oven pre-heated to miltonian temperatures. Close your eyes, wait an indefinite amount of time and hope for the best. When ready, the strategy cake should have a firm but uncertain texture accompanied by that new book smell."

Straight away, I could picture the publisher.  I work with many of them day in, day out.  As I read the article, I had multiple flashbacks to meetings with the "die-hards".  Those with blinkers on..

We can't stop this industry from changing.  We live in a digital age.  Students of today are nothing like the students of yesterday.  Reading patterns have changed.  The web changed our life and our expectations.  Consumer demand drives organisations yet many publishers still ignore their customers.  At their peril.

I'm with Gareth: Open up to change and your authors and readers will embrace it. It is the changes you make now both in practice and philosophy that will determine the future of the industry we all love.

Time to act now people.  Give the consumer, the reader, the customer what they want.   It doesn't have to be all about the ebook but over time we'll see those sales patterns changing and the traditional business model for a publisher - bookseller, library supplier, wholesaler - moving with it.  We all have a role to play in the supply chain.  We need to be smart about it.  And we need to change the recipe.  Now.

15 September 2010

Pricing ebooks in the Australian market: what's going on?

As you know, I spend a lot of time talking "e" - trends, devices, digital content, retail, library and wholesale models - but what I'm really having problems with in the local market is PRICING.  Professional seminars often encourage publishers to set the ebook price as the same as the cheapest print edition.  So if the first edition is the trade paperback at $32.95, the ebook is the same.  When the mass market paperback comes out at say $18.95, lo and behold the ebook price comes down too.  Some publishers have said they are bucking this trend and all ebooks will be cheaper - at least 10%.  I even hear reports that the ebook will dearer.  And others that say the $9.99 price point cracked it so that's what they are looking at. 

I remember when we first launched Etitle in 2002 and an academic publisher wanted to get involved but they wanted to set premium prices for the texts they placed.  Their model was the price of the book plus $40.00.  The next publisher was the price of their book plus 10% minus our trading terms.  The next publisher came in at different trading terms altogether.  Nothing was easy.  And that was THEN!  It hasn't improved because each publisher has a different philosophy and a different mindset about the ebook market.  Educational publishers look at it one way, reference and professional publishers another.  If a publisher primarily released works for library consumption, it was easier to manage the transition (she says with hindsight).  They had to provide both formats and give the libraries what they wanted or no sale. 

Now I have no problem with an academic or reference book being the same price as the print.  There is a lot of development work and the content has educational value.   They are also higher priced items and they usually have a three year minimum lifespan. I have issues when publishers price their site licenses out of the market and then wonder why sales drop but that's a discussion for another day...

I fully support publishers charging more for enhanced e-books.  If the product has more bells and whistles than a standard ebook (and by default the printed book), then the publisher has produced a superior product.  Why should they not recover the costs of multimedia elements - videos, quizzes, links to webs etc.? That sounds perfectly reasonable to me both professionally and privately.  Publishers will need to get their pricing right between a normal ebook and an enhanced one, although I'm getting ahead of myself.  A lot of Australian publishers are still working on a "normal" ebook.  I'll do a Ramble on enhanced books in the future..

Back to pricing.  If we take higher priced scholarly, reference and academic works out of the equation, we are left with trade titles.  As a consumer what has encouraged me to buy more books (as you know from my last post that doesn't always translate into "read more books"!) is the price point.  A price point of US$9.99 to $12.99 for a trade title is a trigger point. If the book sounds interesting and it's a genre I like, there's usually not a lot of time between reading the blurb and pressing the "buy now" or "download now" button.  This works really well for authors I don't know.  It also works for authors who set their work in a place and time I love e.g. Florence in the 16th Century but I may find the author a little dull (Sarah Dunant comes to mind).  At that ebook price point (anywhere under A$15.00) I'll still buy their works and read them, but I don't want to keep the book.  It's a read now and throw away item (not that you necessarily do that on an e-reader but you take my point)  I believe my price point threshold is A$15.00.  Price it under that, make it easy to buy, and voila,  it's a sale the publisher wouldn't have had before and one they wouldn't have had in print at the $32.99+ price point. 

And as for award-winning, highly regarded books - like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief - I will pay up to AUD $20.00 to read the ebook.  However this is where the trend changes.  In my case the publisher benefited TWICE - they got the "e" first and then the "p".  Why?  Because I wanted to read the other anytime and not have to worry about battery life or where my e-reader was at that precise moment in time.  It's on the shelf.  I grab it. I may want to share it.  Recommend it.  Read it again (it's an extraordinary book).  Somewhere down the line additional sales result - they've got the "e", "p" and hopefully sales from friends who realise what an incredible work it is.

We are already confused with setting the "retail" price of the book.  Wholesaler discounts are another kettle of fish altogether.  I had a discussion only recently with a publisher who couldn't fathom giving anything more than 40% to a wholesaler of ebooks.  Last time I checked, said publisher was offering upwards of 47.5% discount to the chains and grappling with massive returns.  (Alas my Ramble is not on the broader book trade here in Australia otherwise this would really open another can of worms!). 

Your e-book sale is firm sale.  Is it not?  I haven't yet heard of someone wanting to return an e-book.  And yes, our supply chain for ebooks is a long way from being organised and stable.  When it comes to selling ebooks to consumers or via a wholesaler like Kobo or Baker & Taylor for their fabulous Blio product *, there are a lot of costs in the supply chain that need to be factored in.  Technology is not cheap, security is a major issue.  At the Digital Symposium one publisher leaned over to me and said "did you hear what I just heard?  No one is making any money out of ebooks. We're all investing though."

Yes, but sell your content at the right price.  Encourage purchases don't divert them elsewhere.  Get your ebook rights.  Get the supply chain happening and work with those people who know what they are doing.  You can't afford not to. 

Then again, after reading PubDate Critical recently we may all have second thoughts about this digital revolution?  Or that publisher at the Digital Symposium was right.  We're not making money out of it.  Everyone in the trade is going through this.  We've seen the shift to "e" in library supply.  And how do we make it work?  We are incredibly focused on our customer.  At the end of the day, without them we don't exist.

Peter said it beautifully: The central tenet is to be aggressively and remorselessly customer-centric. That is hard for any business, for any industry, but it is the only way to break through into the future.

Just remember there are customers at every step of the supply chain.  And get your pricing right.

* I should add I work for a B&T company and I love the Blio product :)

23 August 2010

The ebook experience: one woman’s perspective

How should one interpret ebook sales figures? We're always hearing about growth, growth and growth. Devices are here, there and everywhere. No device? No problem! Here's the software for you, freely available. Go forth and prosper. Yes, we’ve known for years that anyone who has Adobe Reader can read an "ebook". There's also Adobe Digital Editions and in a galaxy not too far away there's Blio. Within ebook library portals you've got the reader that works best for that ebook vendor. Yada Yada. Basically there’s an ebook vendor, reader, system in every corner.

But let us take all of the technology out of the equation. And the library model too. You want to read an ebook. Good for you! You've worked out where you are going to source your titles from, how you're going to read them (yes, I’m speaking about devices not eyes for those of you being smarty pants), but did you ever think about how your buying behaviour was being analysed? Hmmm, ebook sales are growing but are we really surprised?

This blog documents my ebook experience from day one. Not the library portal, industry work I do everyday in my job, but personal reading experiences. Ah yes, I fondly remember loading Adobe Digital Editions and working out ways to download the Sony platform (tricky when it is programmed not to recognise Australia). But we worked it out. The Sony e-reader was sent from the US, other e-readers came my way to assess them for both professional and personal use. It seems like a lifetime ago but it’s only 15 months ago.

This whole blog was about me trying to understand the consumer experience of ebooks. Of course it developed over the time to ebooks in general and my professional experience, but let’s take ourselves back to the beginning of the blog when bestseller lists for ebooks spoke only of Stephenie Meyer. All I knew about her was bestseller, teenage fiction. Should be an easy read, I thought. So Twilight it was. Ah, my first ebook purchase. I remember it fondly. I read on a computer within a few days. It was cheap. It was easy. Click. Download. Read. Next book. Same thing. E-reader arrived. Two more books, click, click, tick, tick. Now, all opinions on my reading tastes aside, I was amazed at how easy it was to read the ebooks. I read both on the laptop and on a device.

I read several ebooks in quick succession. I was eager. I wanted more. I was like a newborn vampire. I needed to feed! So I found myself downloading from every possible site. I used publisher sites, library sites, Gutenberg, Sony. If I saw the words free e-book, I signed up. If I saw e-book bundles or $1.00 books, click click, purchase. I couldn’t help myself.

GOODNESS when I think of what I've done, I just shake my head. Did I ever think about how those purchases would track in figures? No, I just wanted lots of books on my device to read whenever I wanted! So I got to the point of having dozens of physical books in the "to read" pile and dozens more of e-books on the list. Over time I’ve deleted books from the platforms and the Sony e-reader itself but thought I’d take a close look at what’s currently in my Sony portal. Ah yes, my purchases. What have I acquired, predominantly at the US$9.99 or slightly higher price? More importantly what have I actually read?

It didn’t take long to tally up the figures. I read 50% of what I purchased.  Was I surprised? No, not really. I now realise the books I’m buying in ebook format are those I don’t wish to keep. They are to read and discard. The books I love I still purchase in print. I can read them in anywhere I go. There aren’t restrictions like the weather, water, aircraft nuances. I can share them with friends. Granted they are much heavier, but the authors or genres I know I’ll love, I read in print. The ones I'm a little more uncertain about, I purchase in “e”.  The other interesting point, books I love in print, I also acquired in “e”, usually free.  The classics like Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice.  That way I can take them with me everywhere.

But what have I actually read? Unfortunately only half of it.  It was too easy to acquire but unfortunately not to read.  Will I continue to purchase ebooks?  Darn right I will!  I'm just going to be more careful with the "buy now" button and watch those free ebook offers more closely... 

29 July 2010

The Andrew Wylie Debate

I've been reading all the news articles about the Andrew Wylie deal with Amazon and thought I'd throw my two cents into the ring. Firstly, for those of you who aren't up to speed, agent Andrew Wylie has bypassed the traditional supply chain (in this case publishers) and signed over digital rights for some 20 books to a two year EXCLUSIVE deal with Amazon. Authors wrapped up in the arrangement include Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and John Updike. I understand they are backlist titles but would be happy to be corrected on this.

Random House is furious and other publishers have released statements. According to The Guardian, Random declared Wylie a "direct competitor" and ruled out "entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved". The Guardian article is pretty good so here's the link.

Am I surprised? As an observer of the publishing industry: Not at all. Ebook royalty rates have been debated left right and centre. The agency model attributed to Apple is also a hot topic. Everyone's looking at the ebook pie and trying to carve it up. In the digital world, publishers don't have the control they used to. The barriers to entry have come down. With "e" and Print on Demand, the landscape has changed, and publishers have been examining their role and what they bring to the table so closely they must be getting eyestrain.

Of course his Wylie arrangement is all about the dollars. By going with the industry leader (Amazon's Kindle) as the ebook device and vendor of choice (not mine I might add) they believe a direct arrangement with Amazon - bypassing the publisher of the printed work (who has assumed ebook rights)- is going to yield a much better return for the authors.

Am I surprised? As a consumer: bloody oath! Why should I be locked out of purchasing the titles concerned because I don't own a friggin' Kindle!?

When publishers speak about ebooks they speak about non-exclusive arrangements and getting the content into all devices, platforms and work into the ebook supply chain. You give the consumer the choice and the power to choose what works for them. That's the handshake arrangement. The honour system. Who is Andrew Wylie to say I can't have access to these ebooks unless I purchase a Kindle? And Amazon is probably grinning from ear to ear, but I'm not impressed at all. Shame Amazon. You think it's a leadership position but you've just lost my vote. You have championed the consumer in the e and p world. And I don't mind if you get them earlier and have some competitive edge, but I'm disgusted you've done the deal.

I guess it's lucky for all I don't like these authors. Then again, the beauty of ebooks is that I pick books I haven't read previously, give the author or the genre a go. A quick, cost effective read that may turn into a life-long love. Who knows? I guess with Rushdie, Upton et al, it's not going to happen now for their backlist titles. I'm not going to buy a Kindle just to read them electronically. And I can't see me looking out for the print now. Your names will trigger a reaction in future. And it's not a nice one.

The Andrew Wylie/Amazon deal is just another example to highlight everything we thought about the publishing and bookselling supply chain is wrong. This digital world is not straightforward. It's turning everything on it's head. How it will all end up? Who knows. Am I surprised? No. We've seen it coming. Normally I'd say pick yourself up and dust yourself off, get back on that horse. But in this digital, greedy world. I'm not sure what direction we are heading.

13 July 2010

A learning curve for many publishers

How times have changed. I've been having ebook discussions with publishers now for well over seven years. Granted, they are discussions based around the library platform and working with our library customers. Not always a publisher’s favourite type of customer particularly with their requirements. There’s always access issues, pricing models, and various sticking points in any ebook agreement with libraries. What a library wants and what a publisher is willing to offer nearly always varies - and varies dramatically in some instances. As a leading trade publisher said to me, I'm currently selling 30 copies of this book to this library consortium. You think I'm prepared to sell one for the same price but have 30 people access it all at the same time? I don't think so.

But taking libraries out of the equation, ebook discussions with publishers are now very very different to seven years ago. They are listening more. They are engaging more. However if you listen really closely, the verbs they use often sound the same. You get used to listening for the "doing words". When discussing ebooks – whether for direct to consumer, retail or library models – I am still hearing the words like "daunting", "challenging" and phrases like "experimenting with ebooks" or "experimenting with a variety of business models". There’s nothing definite about ebooks. Everyone is looking at this in a slightly different way. The one thing they have in common – is that they are now looking at them. And taking them seriously.

In many ways, Amazon paved the way. Took over the US ebook market and then released The Kindle to the rest of world. There was a surge of interest when the Kindle came to Australia. But I’m putting it down to Apple and the consumer response to the iPad that pushed publishers further. After years and years, ebooks were at the top of their “to do” list. Finally! Everyone’s thinking of them, everyone’s talking about them. The world has gone “e” mad. We’ve got Kindles, Apples, Sonys, Kobo, Blio, Google Books. And no doubt more on the horizon.

We finally have Digital Directors on board with many trade and academic publishers locally. If not, there’s an ebook project manager. When you talk about ebook production, you have people on board who know what you are talking about. If you start talking about DADs, publishers here are aware of their options. There’s only a few names that crop up but I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I am that when you mention DADs to a publisher, they now know what the hell you are talking about (Digital Asset Distributor).

The publishing environment is learning. We're moving on – still slowly when you’ve been talking “e” as long as I have. But it’s moving, and I’m grateful. And while content has been predominantly backlist, many publishers are working on simultaneous release. Ebooks are becoming part of the production process. Publishers have concentrated on digitising their core content. It's been a learning curve for many publishers. File format has been a subject of interest and everyone is learning as they go along. Publishers are thinking about hardcover, trade paperback, paper and e. They are getting content management systems in place, contract negotiations are moving along, ebook vendors are part of the supply chain, and publishers are looking at the digital world in a different light.

But there are still concerns. Imported titles are top of the list. Where do they stand in the “e” world and how are local publishers being compensated for sales generated in the ANZ market. There are more discussions to be had and much to learn along the way.

30 June 2010

Exactly how is this supposed to work?

In an ever-increasing e-world, what is the role of publisher, distributor, sales agent - when everyone wants a piece of the sale. When you talk to publishers, the industry advice is don't buy the print book without guaranteeing the ebook rights. But Australia's supply chain for ebooks still has a long way to go. We've of course got the ebook vendors - EBL, Ebrary etc - with established distribution models for libraries. And in the case of EBL, Ebooks Corporation provides a wide range of services to publishers as well as fulfilment to individuals wishing to purchase titles. You've got readwithoutpaper.com which is powered by OverDrive, Kobo is making inroads with their exclusive deal to The Red Group, and we've got Blio coming in the months ahead from Baker & Taylor.

At the end of the day, however, the publisher still has to work with multiple vendors to get the digital content out there. So what happens with existing distribution agreements? Traditionally they wouldn't have included any ebook component. It's a physical book, going in and out of a warehouse. Widgets in. Widgets out. But if a press uses a distributor here for their traditional book, and then by-passes them by providing content to the Kobo's, the Blio's, the OverDrive's of this world, what role does the distributor have? Are contracts being updated to get a piece of the ebook pie. Afterall, in many circumstances the distributor or sales agent has done the pre-publication work, the reps have sold into the bricks and mortar stores, there's been marketing, advertising, promotions, publicity. All for the physical book. At the distributor's cost. So if the sale comes through readwithoutpaper, how is the commission or sales percentage being paid to the distributor?

It's a very different scenario if you are a first tier publisher, a local subsidiary, to being a second and third tier distributor. In the case of the latter, your contact in the traditional book supply chain is with the Sales Director, the Operations staff, Service people, marketing people, editorial. Authors. Everyone who's job it is to get the information to you and then the printed book in a timely manner.

But when the publisher or originating source has a Digital Director who's job is to put content in and out of platforms, they don't always have the full picture. They are tasked with the job of ensuring the content goes to as many sources as the company designates are appropriate. I'm assuming they are focusing on just the big guys and it's still a relatively small group. But what's going to happen when it explodes? Will there always be a dozen or so players in the market that has the ebook supply chain sewn up or will every man and his dog get into the act.

At least with book distribution, the supply chain is not very complicated. When you start putting more and more into the ebook mix, the distributor (who has the exclusive rights to all materials published) is not always at the front of their mind. Remember I'm thinking about the second and third tiers here.

What is the model that is working for people? Do the traditional book distributors eventually become just a sales & marketing office for the publishers they represent? Surely when you are speaking "e" that's not going to keep people in business. Everyone wants a cut, and it's the ebook vendors that get the larger slice. If local operators were solely working off a percentage of a percentage, surely that's not a sustainable model. I guess we don't know what percentage will go from p to e - and how soon that will be. And I'm talking the general reader here, not the student. The student expects "e". The library is "e-preferred". And what will happen when the patron driven model in libraries really takes off? What effect will that have on publishers and ebook sales? I'm all for getting collections right and managing budgets, but publishers will want more.

But back to the ebook mix. The existing print distributors want a slice. Ebook Vendors want a bigger slice. Publishers want their mix. And let's not forget the author who created the work. Exactly how profitable do we expect this supply chain to be? A new business model is emerging.

I welcome comments here on the blog as to how this is all working in reality.

22 June 2010

Where are all these e-readers?

OK I'm signed up to dozens and dozens of online newsletters, websites, and read more magazines and industry announcements than I can keep track off. If you believe everything you read, the future is e, the printed book is dead. If it's not dead, it's for special purposes, a gift, a keepsake, a premium product. Don't get me wrong, I quite like the idea of the book being a premium product. I also like that train of thought that says "want a printed book? go to the library!" of course with libraries also offering ebooks, it gives the reader the choice of format. Some publishers have already spoken to me about e being another format not a competing product i.e. you have the hardcover, the paperback, the e. It's so readers can have whatever they want to read in the format they want it in. Now I've subscribed to that theory for years - give the reader what they want. But where are all these e-readers?

Apparently there's zillions in the world now. OK I exaggerate but here I am in New York and for days I've been scouting around for people reading on devices. I've seen the printed book but no Nook (except advertised outside a Barnes & Noble store), no iPad (except in the Apple and tech stores), no Kindle (except for advertising on a subway and even that was for "e-reading accessories"). I've been in airports, on planes, on the subway and in this city of how many million people, not one person has been reading on an e-device. I strolled around parks, university areas (NYU), in and out of cafes, restaurants. Not one e-reading device have I seen. Am I blind? This is starting to get disturbing unless everyone just reads from them at home. Have seen plenty of books but nothing electronic yet.

I have another week in the US and that will include the American Library Association's conference and exhibition in Washington DC. Hopefully I will see a few e-readers around. I thought by now I'd have least seen the iPads around town. But zilch, nothing, na-da.

I'm on the hunt for those e-readers people. At least those that take them out in public. Will keep you in the loop as to what I uncover.

Signing off from the city that has a population of some 19,541,453 (thanks Google) but no e-reader yet seen.

28 May 2010

Is there any other news today?

It's been several weeks since I put up something new on this blog. Back then I was rambling about new ebooks not really being new, but new in e. Today there is no ramble. In fact, there's really no other news today. Other than the one story. Yes folks, it's all about Apple. The iPad finally went on sale here in Australia. At one point today the top 5 stories on the SMH website were all iPad related. Facebook friends are putting news of their iPad purchase in their status for all to see and comment. Industry colleagues have rung today to see if I had one and what did I think. And one of our sales representatives popped into my office and asked "big day today, where is it?". Lo and behold I will disappoint you all. I haven't got one. Mind you, I haven't got one on order either. I'm still reading on the plain old Sony e-reader. How dull it looks now in comparison. Look what else is out there. Colour, magic, Apple. It's a new world. So what's wrong with me? Does this mean I'm an alien? Afterall I'm still reading p-books. Yes, you remember. Books. Printed books. After a year of reading ebooks I've decided I actually prefer to read the physical book. Yes it's heavier, but the batteries don't die out, I can read it in direct sunlight, I can read it for the full time on a domestic flight, and of course I can read it in the bath without fear I'm going to drop it and waste hundreds (if not thousands!) of electronic purchases stored on the device. (OK, they are backed up, but let's not go there today). But then I haven't got an iPad. Would my world change dramatically if I had one? Or would it eventually be treated as yet another device. Another gadget. I don't know. But I do know one thing. Congratulations are in order to Apple for making the iPad a subject on most people's tongues. Regardless of age, just about everyone knows about the brand and their new product. Congrats to Apple for creating such extraordinary demand for their devices. The publicity, the promotion, the marketing, the commentary. Apple didn't really have to put a lot of materials out there. And I had to laugh when my email came through today that had the simple heading of "iPad is here". They really didn't need to do much more than that. So today was iPad day here in Australia. I expect it to dominate conversations for the foreseeable future. And I will think about my alien status and the changed world of today...

16 April 2010

A new e-book isn’t always new

As a library supplier, we have faced this issue since we started selling ebooks years ago. Libraries wanted to know about all new ebooks. But many publishers are digitising the backlist first then releasing as “new” in e-format. It has tricked many of us particularly when the pub date is a current one but the original book was published in 1989. There are a small percentage of publishers that publish e and p simultaneously. They know their market and the preference for libraries to purchase in the format of their choosing. But when we work off publication dates and publisher metadata, when it comes to e - what exactly is a new title?

It’s something that I’ve discussed professionally (a “new release” in ebook format is separate to new in e) but privately I experienced it for the first time recently. I usually scan ebook sites for “new” titles. On the Sony site I sort by date and then pick something that will suit my ebook reading nature. By that I mean, something I can read, hopefully enjoy, satisfied I will only want a digital file (not a “keeper” or an author that I would like to collect their physical works on our wonderful floor to ceiling book case at home) and something that I’m unlikely to want to share with friends – afterall you can’t lend the ebook to someone!

Separate to the explanations to customers over the years as a consumer I must say I felt absolutely ripped off when the new book I purchased on the Sony ebook portal A Favorite of the Queen: The Story of Lord Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I published on 1st March 2010 was most definitely NOT published this year in it’s physical form. The book was originally published under the title Gay Lord Robert (not surprising they changed that title as the word “gay” took on a different meaning over the years!) and the imprint page on the ebook clearly showed the book was published in 1971. That explains the poor editing and uninspiring writing!

Where did it say in any of the metadata, “originally published in X”, “reissued in ebook format”, “introducing this work to today’s e-reading generation”. Something that gave me an indication the book was old. And not one or two years old, but 40 friggin years. Forgive me for never having read Jean Plaidy before but surely publishers and ebook vendors need to take some responsibility here. Perhaps there should be two dates available to ereaders – originally published in and released in ebook format in …

I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am. Reissues are not new releases, new in e is not a new title. At least when trade houses release ebooks three months later (for those that believe that is a suitable time frame – I’m most definitely not one of them) the book is still in our minds. It is still the same year. None of this 40 year time span.

Of course my preference would be simultaneous. If I want to collect, share and treasure I will buy the print over e. But for other books I want to read the ebook.

Publishers, ebook vendors, everyone who is interested in the digital world, please note as as a consumer I'M NOT HAPPY – publisher metadata and the blurb itself should have given something away. A trigger point as such. For the record this is what is listed:

Torn between her heart's passion and duty to her kingdom, a young queen makes a dark choice...

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was the most powerful man in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Handsome and clever, he drew the interest of many women--but it was Elizabeth herself that loved him best of all. Their relationship could have culminated in marriage but for the existence of Amy Robsart, Robert's tragic young wife, who stood between them and refused to be swept away to satisfy a monarch's desire for a man that was not rightfully her own. But when Amy suddenly dies, under circumstances that many deem to be mysterious at best, the Queen and her lover are placed under a dark cloud of suspicion, and Elizabeth is forced to make a choice that will define her legacy.

The metadata shows:

• Published by: Three Rivers Press
• Publish Date: March 01, 2010
• Print ISBN: 0307346234
• Filesize: 2.60 MB

And the author info (on a separate tab)

JEAN PLAIDY is the pen name of the prolific English author Eleanor Hibbert, also known as Victoria Holt. More than 14 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide. Visit www.CrownHistorical.com to learn about the other Jean Plaidy titles available from Three Rivers Press.

When it comes to Tudor history I’m loyal to Alison Weir, Alison Plowden, Antonia Fraser, Margaret George, Philippa Gregory and if pressed I might just throw David Starkey into the mix. I shouldn't have tried something new. Sorry old. New only in a format. Anyway, I clicked away because I thought it was new, the publisher got the sale. But live and learn folks, live and learn....

14 April 2010

The ebook reading experience, Apple, Kindle et al

I must say I'm enjoying reading all the reviews of the iPad since its U.S. debut on April 3rd. One of the reviews I liked the most was from the LA Times where they spoke about differences between the Kindle (being the market leader) and the Apple ipad (the choice of the next generation) in terms of the book reading experience.

While it might not be on the top of the lists for some people, personally I was really glad to hear about the traditional page designation, that you could view two pages across the screen (if it was your preference), and that Apple has a grasp on what it's like to turn a page. The process of selecting a book, reading it and turning to the next page is part of the established reading experience. At least those of us of a certain age! As those of you who have followed this blog since the early days - particularly my friends and industry colleagues on Facebook (where I have it linked) - you may remember I wasn't a fan of the delay between pages on e-readers, the screen going black or the words fading out and then replaced by new ones. You were conscious you were reading something electronic, something that was processing data, something different…

E-readers also display the number of pages left – which of course vary depending on what font size you were reading with in the first place! The Sony PRS 700 displays the data as your current page number of the total page count. Amazon's Kindle does a percentage bar. To the reviewer in the LA Times, this was “data” but I don’t necessarily agree. You want to know how you are going whether it’s number of pages or percentage read.

Yes it can sometimes be discouraging when reading books like “Pillars of the Earth” – some 1,000 pages in its printed form and much more in its electronic! Luckily I was caught up in Ken Follett’s story otherwise I would have groaned at the thought of another 1,000 pages to go. However I must admit there has been the odd book where I’ve noted what page I’m up to, the number of pages in the ebook, and thought “how am I going to make it!?”. Then again that’s no different to the physical book. But I’m more prone to flip the pages of the printed book and glance across the text to see if I want to continue with it. I’m not particularly good at doing that on the e-reader because I have such concerns about losing my page. I’ve done it countless times. While it remembers where you end off each time – starting up exactly on that page when you switch the device back on - when you start going backwards and forwards through the text it starts to get really annoying if you didn't note where you started. I’ve had to search for text to find my original location - otherwise it could be hundreds of page turns to get back to where I was.

Anyway, I’m rambling.Back to the subject at hand.

Another item that is consistently mentioned with e-readers is the glare. Apparently one of the strengths of the Kindle is its non reflective screen. I don't have a Kindle (never liked the look of it myself) and I don't like the "clunkiness" of some e-readers like the ECO/Hanlin. The touch screen of my Sony is fine (was relatively unique at the time of purchase) but the glare from lights is dreadful.

In comparison to the multi-functional iPad, regardless of glare, touch-screen, weight etc all e-readers on the market have now paled in comparison. They are the beta model. They look boring, dull, and grey. I looked at the e-reader yesterday and the shine had gone. It looked like something that was going to end up in the rubbish heap.

Interesting to read Mike Shatzkin's comments on the iPad, particularly the weight of the device and the whole process of search & discoverability within the various ebook portals. iBook has a long way to go with content and with their data management. Finding what you want to read is half the battle and I can perfectly understand where Laura Dawson comes from every time she mentions metadata. Ebook vendors neeed to understand the reading experience and what a reader is looking for. Help us find what we like! I beg you. In the meantime, Mike doesn't believe the iPad won't put all other e-readers out of business. He believes it will help grow the market but "the makers of lighter and cheaper e-ink devices don’t have to leave the field just yet." Will be interesting to see how it all pans out for those readers of ebooks, their chosen device and the reading experience they prefer.

01 April 2010

The impact of the agency model

Much has been said about Apple's agency model and the impact on ebook pricing. Look at what happened with the Macmillan/Amazon clash a few weeks ago. Macmillan wanted to change it's trading terms with it's largest customer and move towards the so called "agency model" for ebooks. The feud between supplier and customer received an amazing amount of publicity in general, trade and business media. I read much for and against each party in the altercation. Both sides had their supporters. There were Amazon loyalists (and by God they are a loyal bunch!) And there was the publishing and bookselling community who was glad to see someone taking back some of the power they shouldn't have given away to their largest customer in the first place. Granted, ebooks wouldn't be where they are today without Amazon firing up the Kindle. And I shouldn't really think of them as a customer. They play so many roles that my head spins with what Amazon controls - afterall, they are the supply chain leader, printer, publisher, ebook influencer, visionary. I could ramble on but today's blog is actually sharing the letter that Sony e-reader customers received today:

Dear Reader Store Customer,

The publishing industry is turning a page and so are we.

Beginning April 1st some major publishers will be instituting a change in the pricing of eBooks, which puts decisions on eBook pricing firmly in their hands. As a result, prices of bestsellers and new releases from these publishers will be changing on the Reader Store, and during the transition time, some titles may be unavailable. Although most of these eBooks will be priced from about $12.99 to 14.99, there will not be a broad pricing change across the Reader Store. In fact, new releases and bestsellers from other publishers will still be priced at $9.99.

Starting a new chapter can be a good thing. With this change, you may see more of your favorite books available in eBook format at the same time they’re released in print. Book lovers like you are driving a revolution in digital reading and the Reader Store is committed to providing you access to the widest selection of digital reading content. Since its inception in September 2006, Sony’s Reader Store has introduced a wide offering of new releases, bestselling eBook titles and newspapers. Today it features access to more than one million titles and links to borrow eBooks from local libraries nationwide.

Must say, loved the reference to "turning a page"!!!

Will be interesting to see if there is a backlash. I don't think there will be one although the $9.99 price point has been a brilliant introduction to ebooks. Now we're reading them, I doubt a few more dollars will make any difference whatsoever. Your thoughts?

17 March 2010

Where do you think Apple will go with the iPad?

Is it just me or is most of what is being discussed in the digital media world with regards to ebooks purely centred around the iPad? Is there any other device in recent times that has attracted such attention, focus, debate or interest?

Today I read on ChangeWave all the stats from a survey of over 3,000 consumers that shows a huge wave of demand for the iPad. I'm sure we didn't need a survey to know that - I've mentioned the quote from last year's Frankfurt Book Fair's Supply Chain Meeting again and again on this blog ("it will be Apple, it will be cool, and everyone will want one").

It's not surprising to read Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble will all take a hit when Apple launches. That's because they went for a device that was predominantly an e-reader with wi-fi (or without for some of the Sony's on the market). The bells and whistles options haven't been great - music for some, notes for others, nothing that really stands out. Which is what Apple has done. They've created something more. Apple has the convergence of technology we've been waiting for. Of course there will be many lookielikies in the coming months. Everyone will want a piece of the ebook pie.

According to the survey, the belief is the iPad will capture an astonishing 40% of the e-reader market in the first 90 days after its launch. The survey further showed demand will continue to strengthen (it will be cool remember!) and once iBook is launched it will further enhance the offering, however from what I can gather Apple will be using the publishers epub files. That means if you receive epub files from your ebook vendor (or directly from the publisher) you don't need to buy from the iBook store. So in my mind iBook has to offer something more. The full multimedia offering.

The other concern relates to cost - if you can buy your $9.99 epub ebooks from Sony (who matched Amazon's pricing strategy for their lead titles), why would you buy from iBook at a higher price? The Apple agency model has been commented on by industry leaders and insiders for some time. With a 30% cut (assuming the information is correct), Apple might not be able to compete on price unless of course they go the loss-leader route like everyone else.

I'm not privy to digital rights or pricing information but I imagine the last thing Apple will want is readers buying books from other ebook vendors and reading them on the iPad. It defeats the purpose of the iBook.

Then again, I buy all of my digital music from iTunes because it's there and it's at the right price point - I don't need the whole album, I choose the songs I want, and I try out ones I don't really know but has been recommended to me based on a purchase or the Genius app. I listen to music all the time and wish the iPod I got for my birthday a few years back had a lot more memory (it only holds 1600 songs and I have thousands more that aren't coming across to the device). Music and reading are very different pursuits and take up different amounts of time. I go via iTunes because it's what I've done from the start. I didn't know any better and I've been a loyal customer from the beginning. Of course everyone wondered why I was buying music solely from iTunes ("buying" is the verb I'd like to emphasise here. One colleague wondered if I was the only person they knew that actually paid for music but that's a different discussion altogether!). So I linked into iTunes, I love the iPod, and I continue to search the site for new experiences. But with an iPad I already know the ebook vendors, I've purchased from several of them, I know their offering. Would I be loyal to iBook from the beginning if they don't match on price? We have the US$9.99 mentality. It will be interesting to see where Apple goes with their pricing and their digital rights strategies.

And of course Australian publishers won't want to go down that path at all. Their pricing policies have strongly centred around the cheapest print edition. But the consumer expectations for ebooks does centre around price. What will Apple do in this marketplace to meet consumer expectations set by their competitors? And how will publishers respond?

On another matter altogether, I loved reading today on Teleread about Apple iPad accessories and a wishlist. Apparently Jeff Bezos of Amazon reads his Kindle in the bath by sealing the device inside a special Ziplock bag. I've mentioned previously that I love reading in the bath but I'm not going to read an electronic device near water (I have enough problems getting the printed version wet!). If there was an accessory that I knew was safe and secure, would I try it? Will be interesting to see whether Apple comes up with something that can be used around water or food. Some sort of protective device sounds great. Then again, would I still use it in the bath? Hmmm, that's a question that I don't know the answer for.

15 March 2010

Struggling with ebook reading

Battery life on the Sony PRS-700 – particularly when the back light is used – has been flagged as being problematic on this blog before. Together with not being able to read in the bath or reading long enough on domestic flights, it’s one of the Top 3 reasons why NOT to read an ebook. It really is one of the downsides of this whole e-reading experience.

When I think about the downsides there’s more: not being able to promote the book you are reading to strangers (I’m always fascinated with what people are reading and always check out the covers!), you can’t loan an ebook to someone the way you can a physical book (unless you loan the device with it!), and the gift book market really doesn’t offer anything to an e-book reader (here’s a beautiful photographic book on Paris that I’d love to give you to show off on your coffee table, oops, sorry, it’s in electronic form only! Still want it?). You can’t handle the content the same way and it can be pretty bland in black and white. Of course that’s going to change with the plethora of e-reading devices and tablets hitting the market, particularly the iPad, but for now your main e-readers are not offering colour and so you usually use the device to read fiction and suitable non-fiction (like biographies etc).

Of course there is another downside that ebook readers will ‘get’ straight away! I’ve mentioned it before but it’s really problematic purchasing books online – not the process, it’s the ease of which we push the “buy now” button! It’s like being let loose in a candy shop. We are conditioned these days to search and discover what we’d like to buy using the web. A little typing and a few clicks here and there. Shopping experiences vary. The content that we are offered to assist with our purchasing decision varies greatly. We can find what we want from an online vendor - if we don't it’s a couple of clicks of the mouse elsewhere. You are at a competitor in an instant.

We aren’t carrying anything heavy. We don’t have a shopping bag filled with physical books. The file is electronic. It doesn't weigh anything. It’s easy. And we click that button again and again when we find books we want to read. And then when we find them. God help us. Particularly if the magic US$9.99 price is offered. It’s only $11 Australian dollars to read this and that. Better buy now. Good price. Cheaper than physical book. Click click click and the device starts to fill.

When you work for a library supplier you pretty much see most books come through the front door. Trolleys in our Operations area are laden with books – trade books, academic, reference, commercial products and non-commercial (independent publishers, organisations and self-published authors). They move in and out of our building, day in and day out. Masses of books. You see the physical item and you think oh Wolf Hall, that’s one hell of a tome. Will take me a month to read. If you are like me, you purchase it anyway. (Yet again, that involves going into our site and clicking on the order now button – simple, effective, and what’s more the purchase comes straight out of the pay-packet….DEADLY!).

You start to collect unread books. Last count there were 30 books sitting on shelves on my floor to ceiling bookshelf at home (which is magnificent to look at by the way!). However on the e-reader (not so good to look at!) there’s something like 46 books waiting for me to read them. They aren’t in colour. They are just files.

Granted a good number of those were freely available classics from Gutenberg, but they are ones I want to read….one day. I’m starting to collect more and more books and as I’ve mentioned before it’s not like being on iTunes and downloading a song. A song is a few minutes of enjoyment. A book can be days, weeks, months. I’m beginning to struggle with time management and balancing my reading list with the time I actually have to read.

And still I can’t stop myself. My e-book newsletters and new product alerts continue to come through on a regular basis. New books in e-book format, old books now available electronically. A few clicks and that book can be on my device.

I’ve sent a help message through to Mastercard previously via this blog. But as more and more publishers get their digital strategies moving, it will only get worse.

Somebody…..help….me…..soon. I'm....DROWNING!!!!!!!

11 March 2010

Is there anything sadder when you want to read?

One of the problems I'm continually facing with ebook reading activities concerns battery life. When you want to read, there's nothing worse than having a Low Battery! message come up on your device. It's actually quite a design flaw on the Sony PRS-700, particularly if you need to use the backlight. The screen has poor reflection due to the touch screen and lighting element so there are times you need to turn on the lighting to read the content without strain. As soon as you do, the battery reduces quickly. Too quickly! Unlike laptops that indicate how much time you have left, or cars that tell you how many kilometres (or miles for those reading elsewhere!) you have left before you need to refill, the Sony e-reader just shows a battery bar. When the battery bar goes to the last quarter there is no warning, no time message, that instructs you to recharge. You have no idea how much time you have left. You can guess, particularly if you aren't using the light, but when you use the light your number is pretty much up. Sorry folks, I appreciate you can't read particularly well with this lighting, here's a light that helps but did I mention it will prevent you from reading? No? Sorry.

As you know from prior posts, reading on planes isn't as fun with an electronic device, particularly as you have to turn it off for take off and landing. These are the times I WANT to read but I can't. I have to be content with reading the airline's magazine - which usually takes me all of 5 minutes! We're still on the runway and I'm craving something to read. Having the Low Battery message is a KILLER! Yesterday I had 90 minutes at the airport to fill before my flight. I thought I'd have a drink, something to eat, and then get back into the book I started to read on my flight up. There I was in the lounge, and the message appeared. I have no charger, I'm not even on the plane, and I'm prevented from reading!

The device was fully charged when I left Sydney on Monday morning. The total flight time was 90 minutes but of course you have to deduct about 40 minutes that you can't use the e-reader. I read on the flight - when we'd reached cruising altitude and were allowed to switch on electronic devices - and that was it. I should have had PLENTY of charge to get through the book, and perhaps another one. But no, I had to use the light prior to the return flight, and my reading plans were destroyed.

No matter what the marketing says - yes you'll get through 5000 page turns before you need to recharge, yes you'll have at least 24 hours without having to charge, yes yes yes - the reality is very different and disappointing when you use the backlight on the Sony PRS-700.

05 March 2010

Trying to get a piece of the ebook pie

OK. I've worked in this publishing industry for some 20 years now and the past seven years in library supply, I've worked with thousands if not tens of thousands of publishers and suppliers. We have to have a business relationship with every possible vendor as our library customers expect it. We are here to service our customer's needs and meet all their collection development requirements. From new title alerts to promotional material to books on profile to shelf ready services, we have to provide the full mix. The full kit and caboodle as you can imagine.

As the country's leading supplier to academic and public libraries, we are used to working with publishers and suppliers of all different philosophies, business models, customer service principles, business etiquette, professionalism, organisational efficiency. You name it, we know the ins and outs of our purchasing partners. We know what makes them tick. What they do well, what they don't.

Then along comes ebook vendors. A different model. We've worked out the library workflows and watch the dollars transfer from print to e (as you would know if you saw my presentation at the Digital Symposium recently - see last post for full text of my talk). But library ebooks are one channel. Ebook vendors targeting the direct user - either with (or without) a bookselling partner - seem to be coming out the woodwork. Every day there's a new one "getting into" ebooks. Is it my imagination because are they all starting to look and feel the same?! We have Kobo in one corner (great talk at the Symposium BTW Michael!). We've got Blio in another but of course they're not interested in getting content from Ingram Digital because of fierce competition and will go direct where possible to publishers for ebook content. We've got the mighty Amazon, Sony, and of course Google. There's Overdrive who power various booksellers sites as well as the Australian readwithoutpaper.com There's ebooks.com Now O'Reilly is getting in on the act! And so on and so forth.

Ebook vendors launch with all their marketing spin and "bells and whistles". But put them all together, stir them up a bit, and what do they really offer that's different for the end user? With all the larger players, the interface looks pretty similar, the ordering process is usually a few easy clicks, the content isn't remarkable - if it's in ebook format, it's usually there. How do you stand out? If you are an ebook vendor what attracts your customers to you above everyone else?

If you're Amazon, you got in early and got marketshare. You've got millions of loyal customers. Fiercely loyal. You've got the data, the purchasing history, and the clout. And if you're Apple? You've got something everyone has on their wishlist - the iPad. But how are you going to distinguish yourself with ebooks? How are you going to think and act like a bookseller, like a publisher? Amazon's being doing it for years. Apart from already having millions of customers ready and waiting, what are you going to offer that is different to everyone else?

For example, when I think about ebooks, marketing and distribution, I know what I want from my ebook supplier. As an individual who reads ebooks, I can tell you I want a superior browsing service, I want to be able to find titles of interest quickly, clicks to relevant genres, my favourite authors, click click click. I want to see an image, a good description, recommendations, information about the author, and possibly a preview. Has the book won awards? Does the ebook vendor really know books? Can they get the metadata and the target marketing down to a fine art. They have the technology and the customer demand for the e-reading experience. They won't last if they don't get the customer experience right. But when everything starts looking and feeling the same, will we ever get to know them inside out and back to front? I don't think so.... the game has moved on.

19 February 2010

My Presentation at the Digital Symposium

Ebooks and libraries: two subjects that are often discussed separately but when taken together produce such a wide range of reactions from publishers. In many ways, publisher responses to ebooks for libraries actually help define the publisher, their business model, the way they approach their content, and the role they play in the full supply chain. It is easy to identify those that are dynamic and those that are traditional or tied to the “mother ship” overseas as is often the case. Those who are willing to engage with the full spectrum of customers - in our case, libraries - and those that won’t. Those who are preparing for the digital future and those we feel will be left behind.

As many of you know, James Bennett has been supplying public and academic libraries for over 40 years. With digitisation, we’ve seen one of the most challenging periods of our history. If we rewind the clock back only seven years, it was a time when library suppliers were selling dozens of multi volume reference sets to our customer base - encyclopedias with price tags in the thousands. Multi volume reference sales were priority products with targeted marketing campaigns and good margins. Fast forward to today and print reference sales have been cut dramatically as libraries opt for online versions, a site license, perhaps a direct relationship with the content provider, and in some cases no purchase at all because patrons choose to use freely available web content. Trading terms are very different. The goal posts have moved.

Of course it made sense for the reference market to shift to online as the product could be kept up-to-date, thereby making it more valuable to the library patron. Some libraries still order a print version but we’ve seen a massive shift to online reference. One of the leading players in the reference market kindly advised us prior to this Symposium that in Australia a staggering 75% of their sales are now from their online products. The sales channel has evolved.

This discussion is not about digital reference. I use the example merely to highlight what’s happened in the last few years. For library suppliers, it was digital reference that prepared us for the ebook world. It was a sign of things to come…

James Bennett entered the digital world in 2003 with our own ebook platform – Etitle. Allen & Unwin was the major publishing partner and a handful of other publishers supported the product in its early days. Targeting university libraries – a small market in terms of numbers but large in annual dollar spend – we offered only Australian scholarly and academic titles. Back then, publishers were concerned about their existing contracts and ebook rights, they cited lack of resources and time to review, there were issues with conversion costs, return on investment in such a small market, when to issue the ebook, pricing models, file security and of course the cannibalisation of the printed work.

These issues haven’t changed. The marketplace did. Etitle became superseded as bigger players entered the academic library market. Being solely Australian, Etitle could not compete with the larger players who had the breadth of product libraries wanted – US, UK, European published materials as well as Australian content where it was available. Ebook vendors with hundreds of thousands of ebooks on offer – as opposed to our hundreds. In the past five years, the major ebook players have become well and truly established in the academic library supply chain. EBL – Ebooks Library from Ebooks Corporation based in Perth, Netlibrary, Ebrary, Myilibrary from Ingram, Dawsons in the UK and Blackwell Book Services came up with their own products. Publishers too created their own platforms, investing money in digitisation even when their ebooks were already in the portals of the ebook vendors, but it was about controlling the content and having direct access to the end user.

We supported ebook platforms where available however this was complicated with the single e-ISBN issue that we now needed to address. Yes, silly us! We used the ISBN as the primary identifier in our database! Despite recommendations from the international ISBN agency, not all publishers created a separate ISBN for their ebook vendors and this created more than a headache or two for us as an onseller of these products across multiple platforms. We entered a whole new bibliographic world, one that was slightly more complicated when we started selling both publisher portals and via ebook vendors. Which platform did the customer have? Where was the order to go? With so many technical workflows and with limited time today, we’ll save the e-ISBN issue for another day, another soapbox.

The academic publishers in the room would know that James Bennett has been an agent for EBL for several years now. A few years ago EBL sat comfortably in our Top 30 suppliers, then the Top 20, the Top 10. Astounding growth figures – from 2008 to 2009 270% growth in dollar value, 578% in units. This year ebook sales continue to track between 100-200% growth on previous periods. They have become a major supplier to our business and to our libraries.

If we go back a few years, ebook sales were a little hit and miss. We’d get a six figure sale one month and then nothing for months. Academic libraries were moving more slowly than we originally anticipated to “e” – often using special budgets - and we were all navigating the ebook waters together.

As we worked our way through bibliographic data issues we also had to come to grips with different margins and different workflows. Receiving and invoicing processes had to be totally reworked for ebooks, afterall you aren’t physically handling anything! New title workflows, promoting through our kit service for example, the role of the sales representative, all had to be reviewed. And of course, over time, ebook sales started coming out of the library monograph budget. Sales patterns were changing.

Ebooks are now part of our daily workflows for our customer base. These days, academic libraries are very experienced with ebooks and ebook selection. They understand digital reference and ebook requirements for their patrons. Some like Charles Sturt University prefer to order “e” over the “dead tree”. Many are talking about simultaneous release and ordering “e” only. YBP Library Services now offers ebooks on their approval plans and believe around 10% of publishers are actively pushing simultaneous release. The delay in providing both formats is being noticed by key libraries and library vendors. Libraries ask us to put pressure on publishers to bring both to market at the same time particularly with overseas based university presses. Once they know about the “p”, students, academics and researchers are searching the library catalogue for the “e”. Their expectation is that it will be available. But publishers delay – and hope to get two bites of the cherry. This is not going to last. The larger libraries will continue moving to “e” in line with demands of their patrons. It’s their level of expectation that is pushing us all forward and publishers will have to address it sooner rather than later.

In addition to reading ebooks via the nominated ebook platform, academic libraries are also looking at the handheld devices. QUT for example is looking at trialling ebook readers this year. The library currently offers 60,000 ebooks across most subject areas. An additional 10,000 titles will be made available to patrons in 2010. While their policy has been formed around ebooks being available on their network they are now looking at the next stage of development and take a leadership position with students and staff.

As the academic library market matures with regard to ebooks, the public libraries start experimenting. In many instances they have been slower to adapt, with the exception of larger libraries – Gold Coast, Brisbane, Yarra Plenty, Sutherland. Those that service a wider demographic and have the book budget available for print, ebook and audio.

As Australian publishers stalled on making ebooks available to libraries, players like OverDrive in the US have done quite the job sewing up the larger library accounts here thank you very much. When we speak to OverDrive’s customers, they advise us the audio downloads are currently the most popular of the products offered. Nevertheless we know OverDrive is now engaging Australian publishers in discussions about content and paying more attention to rights. They got into the market first and like the other ebook vendors have an extensive range to offer their client base. We are seeing the pattern repeated in the public library sphere, albeit some six or seven years later than the academic.

Ebook interest – mainly due to the content that has been available and the slow take-up of e-readers – has been small but that will change as more content is made available and the level of reader interest picks up. And of course the launch of the iPad changes the landscape yet again. At the supply chain meeting at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year one of the most senior representatives said the ebook world will change with the entry of another player and in his words “It will be Apple, it will be cool, and everyone will want one”.

Nevertheless where libraries are concerned, e-reading devices are not essential. For those who don’t know how it works now, a reader taps into the library’s website, searches through the catalogue, selects the relevant title and checks out their ebook. Using the freely available Adobe Digital Editions Reader, the content is downloaded within seconds to the patron’s computer. They can then transfer it to an e-reader, if they have one, or can read on screen. Say the book you wanted to read was The Slap. When the book is downloaded, your computer and your e-reading device clearly shows the time remaining for the loan. At the end of the period, the book expires and is no longer accessible either on the computer or on the device. It’s accessible, convenient, easy, quick and what’s more, to the library patron it’s free. For libraries, it’s already the digital reality.

While the user doesn’t pay, it’s worth mentioning the EBL model (as referenced with this example) is not a free for all. Each copy of a title comes with a restricted number of access days per year. If a title is extremely popular with students, the library’s access runs out and that library needs to purchase an additional copy of the ebook. Translating that same arrangement to the public library market, a large public library such as Yarra Plenty in Melbourne or Sutherland in Sydney would need to purchase multiple copies of an ebook version of a Matthew Riley title, just as those same libraries now purchase multiple copies of print editions.

Access models vary. Some ebook portals don’t let you “borrow” the title if it’s already out i.e. a single user model. Others allow multiple concurrent access depending on loan periods purchased by the library or the original pricing. Some ebook portals allow short-term loans, rentals even. There are many considerations from printing, downloading to computers and devices, the whole DRM spectrum that ebook vendors must take into account based on the publisher’s requirements. One of the popular offerings from EBL is the demand driven model i.e. automatic or mediated purchase based purely on patron demand. We know only too well that what libraries often want and what publishers are prepared to give will naturally vary. But when hasn’t it? There is a lot of work in developing a successful ebook model that pleases all but it can be done.

Another plus for ebooks is that patrons no longer have to wait for the physical book to be returned to the library, no more holds. A popular author can be accessible to readers without these delays. But it’s more than timing, it’s about providing library readers with the content they require. It’s about servicing additional markets. A library in Queensland told me a few months ago they are responsible for some islands off the coast and on one of those islands is a disabled man. He finds it very inconvenient to come ashore as he is in a wheelchair. He has asked the library about ebooks and is currently reading them from a variety of sources. An avid reader and supporter of his library, he wants them to provide him with an ebook service. Some public libraries also mentioned keeping their readers longer. Young adults, particularly females, give up on the library in their teens and don’t come back until they are parents with their own children. Libraries want to keep these people reading and if reading ebooks on computers, hand-held devices, mobiles are the way to do it, then that’s what they want us to consider. Libraries, like their suppliers, are looking at their role in the wider book supply chain and the services they can offer their community.

Ebooks get a lot of column space as we all know. Meetings we have with publishers are totally devoted to ebooks at times. But they are still not mainstream in public libraries. We’ve done a lot of research and we can see why this is. Expectations differ across the board. Some libraries want to engage, others don’t want to consider ebooks, devoted to the printed word as they are. For many there are budget restraints.

With regard to content there is no common ground – well apart from all wanting Twilight! If it wasn’t Stephenie Meyer, it was whatever the book of the moment was. Last year libraries wanted The Slap. A lot is author driven. Tim Winton was a popular request. When you start breaking it down further, there isn’t a lot of common ground. Movie adaptations and classics were popular but libraries were divided when it came to popular science, computing, cooking, foreign language, childrens, reference so on and so forth.

Some public libraries were very uncertain about the role of ebooks, some are preparing for ebooks, some are buying e-readers with little understanding about acquiring content, some don’t want to think about it. And then there are those that do – they want to provide patrons with ebook content and as the leading library supplier in this country, we are who they come to for answers and solutions. Whether it’s “p” or “e”, libraries generally work with only a few chosen vendors. It is the library supplier who must be able to provide the library with what they require for their collection development needs. It’s about consolidation and supply chain efficiencies, regardless of format. We offer them more than supplying a product. We must provide the service, the workflow, the access to content, and competitive and efficient distribution for “p” and “e”. Not every library can afford the outlay for EBL or OverDrive. So library suppliers need to look at how content can be sourced and priced for libraries factoring all of the publishers issues in terms of availability, accessibility, security, and sales models – to name but a few. These are challenging and interesting times for all of us.

Libraries are generally early adopters and we’ve seen this in the academic market. The public market will catch up in the years ahead. Publishers should remember libraries are one of the most important ebook markets at present to consider as part of their ebook strategy. The role of the library supplier or vendor in that market is another piece of the puzzle. Talk to us about libraries – we know our customers, we’re visiting them constantly. And please please please if you haven’t already, get your digital strategies underway. Content is king. It’s what libraries and their readers want. Your competitors will take advantage of the growing ebook market in the trade, direct, and library markets. Are you prepared to be left behind?

28 January 2010

So Apple FINALLY released it!

Yes folks, Apple has FINALLY launched their tablet device. And what a launch. Did anyone NOT hear about it I ask you? Talk about hype! And when the moment arrived, the device wasn't called the iTablet or iSlate as rumoured. Instead they opted for the iPad.

The marketing of the iPad is now in full swing. Just hop onto the Apple (US) website for demos. (The Australian site didn't even have the product listed when I checked earlier...)

It seems we've been waiting for this for some time. A thin tablet that appears to have it all - web, email, photos, video - with the touch of a finger. 10 hour battery life, wireless etc. Tick Tick Tick. And then there's the apps. 140,000 of them. It will even run the apps you've already downloaded to your iPhone or iPod touch. I must admit the price surprised me - I did think it was going to be much more expensive - so I'm glad they've kept it reasonable.

With the launch of the iPad, Apple entered the digital publishing world in a big way and announced the iBook portal. It wasn't a surprise they created their own. We have iTunes for music so naturally iBook was next.

We know the ebook market has taken off in the U.S. and to a certain degree in the U.K. Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs said Amazon had done a great job with the Kindle and ebook focus but “We’re going to stand on their shoulders and go a bit further,” he said.

Five of the world’s leading publisher including Penguin and HarperCollins have already signed up to supply content. I suspect they will all follow. They'd be crazy not to! I keep hearing the comment from the Frankfurt Supply Chain meeting last October: "It will be Apple, it will be cool, and everyone will want it".

Anyway, I've yet to hear from Australian publishers what they think about the launch of the iPad and what it means locally for ebooks. Another sale going offshore I suspect? I'm not privy to rights discussions on this one but from what I gather most of the management of ebooks has been done at Head Offices overseas and the local offices get "compensated" accordingly.

I will catch up with many publishers in the coming weeks for general business meetings. Ebooks are always on the agenda even though many local publishers don't control their ebook offer. I also expect there will be some lively discussions at the APA's Digital Symposium. I've been asked to speak at the Melbourne one -- for all of 10 minutes! -- on ebooks for libraries so it should be a very interesting day!! :-)

13 January 2010

Bring on the Blio

So Baker & Taylor has the next big thing in ebooks according to some industry experts. Blio was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas and what's special about this e-reading platform is its "true-to-print display". The software is free and will be out in February to most internet-enabled devices. At this stage we don't know about rights restrictions or territorial issues. When Sony updated their portal recently you had to state your country and there were only a couple of choices... as we know, Australia did not rate a mention as technically it's not on offer here. But I digress...

Blio is a software platform designed for computers, laptops, tablets, and mobiles. It displays books as PDFs in exactly the same layout and design as they appear in print. Because color is preserved, the software may be an especially good choice for illustrated books. This will be nice! Other features include:

* Open your book in 3D “book view” for realistic page turning
* “Text-only” mode for optimal display on small screens
* Display dual pages, or tile multiple pages
* Enlarge text without distortion
* Enjoy a full color, high-resolution display

Blio is a partnership with Baker & Taylor (yes, for those of you who know where I work, that's our new owners folks!). I'll start working my way through the B&T ebook world and see what I can find out. I'm particularly interested to see about library licensing but from the looks of the blio website it's not a library model...at this stage. I still have the words of the CEO of one of the world's largest trade houses ringing in my ear that he is anti-libraries having ebook access to any of his titles but last time I checked, he had them listed with Overdrive which has been already integrated into major libraries here including Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sutherland, Yarra Plenty etc. But yes, I digress yet again.

The Blio platform will have some 50,000 titles available when the product is launched. B&T has suggested they will contribute some 180,000 titles in due course.

Will be interesting to see where the Blio takes us....!!!