15 August 2011

A short essay about what I know about ebooks

One of my daily work routines is to review the RSS feeds, Google alerts, industry emails and newsletters for news about ebooks.  I've done this for years and can't believe some of the articles about ebooks that are now appearing all over the world.  Somedays I laugh because many of them have been covered in this blog over the past couple of years, let alone all the established bloggers and writers around the world who are much better at this than me!

Actually if you look at all the articles I've collected or distributed over the eight years we've been working with ebooks some of the information does not change. The stories are essentially the same.  An industry update here and there.  A new ebook vendor.  Different technology.  But often it's the same old commentary. Only the date has changed.

And don't start me on the prediction the book is dead.  It's not dead.  It's just the consumer has a choice of format these days.  And publishers, booksellers, library suppliers are all adapting to the digital world.  I'm over the naysayers.  Preach somewhere else because I'm not listening. 

Anyway, I thought today I'd do a thought dump about what I've learned about ebooks.  Feel free to comment and tell me what I've missed or what you think I've got horribly wrong.

  1. Ebooks are convenient and immediate.  The click of a button and you have something to read.  Great for Award Winners, highly publicised books, events and current affairs.  Let's not forget the savvy consumer of today who wants something to read and they want it now!  And as we've all realised by now, an ereader is great for holidays, no lugging heavy books.  Load up the device before you go away.  Depending on how you purchase your books, you can buy more ebooks if you run out.  We took the laptop to Venice last year when we lived there for a month and even though we know the bookshops, their English selection is extremely limited (and I've read all the books set in Venice already!). Having access to ebooks was great, convenient and easy.  A real no-brainer when you're travelling. The downside?  Well for one, this is not iTunes.  Every click is committing time to read the book.  And two, credit cards can easily get a good workout if you're on a roll.  Automatic debit can be a killer!   And lastly, just how many of your downloads are you now going to read.  Think about that when you're clicking away because we're tracking your purchasing choices whether you like it or not. 
  2. Simultaneous release anyone? Timing of releases has improved over the years with more publishers doing simultaneous release.  Some still use "windows" and while I can understand this some days, on others it is simply a case of not giving the consumer, the reader, the user what they want.  "e" is another format.  There will still be hardback (perhaps in greatly reduced numbers), paperback, large print, audio, multimedia, apps etc.  "e" is another format and over the years publishers will get to know how their content is being used by consumers and make better commercial decisions based on the market, historical data and access to information
  3. Publication dates are not to be trusted.  As more publishers digitise their backlist, they put their products into the marketplace with a new publication date.  New in "e" is not the same as a new release.  Publishers need to spell out this in the descriptions because consumers are being cheated.  My blog post from April 2010 discusses this dilemma. 
  4. Pricing is a mess.  Publishers you let Amazon determine the $9.99 price point and in many ways it's a killer.  But it's also worked in the US market.  Look at the downloads at that price versus other formats.  What does it tell you about your readers and what they are willing to pay?  Publishers play with pricing but do the maths and make the appropriate decisions for your content, for your author and the sales channels.   As a reader, I've realised my threshold is less than $20.00 so those Australian publishers that are charging the same price for the "e" as the "p" aren't getting my ebook sale.  There are so many arguments for pricing - higher, lower, distribution costs, production costs, royalties, margins - and I can listen to these for my "day job" but as a reader, I make very clear distinction about a) what I like to read in "e" and b) what I'm prepared to pay for it.
  5. What you read it on can be irrelevant.  You don't need a specific e-reading device.  Got a laptop?  Got a mobile?  Technologies are converging.  Devices perform multiple functions.  Loyal to your iPad, great.  But if you want to use a specific device and have acquired your Kindle, good for you (the brand name is still the most recognisable to your average consumer).  Sony? Kobo? Whatever floats your boat.  Cloud technology is here and now.  Use whatever works best for you.  Just do your research and remember not all ebooks can be transported from one device to another. 
  6. Technology can still be problematic: for me, it's using an old e-reader!  Battery life has improved since the Sony PRS700 and there are multiple devices available today that have a much longer run.  But I will still list forgetting to charge a reader as a downfall.  Having your battery die in the middle of a good read because you have no opportunity to recharge it is simply awful.  There is nothing worse than a device shutting down on you and you have no replacement reading.  Think long-haul flight.  That's where it's done most damage to me over the years!  And don't start me on the turning off the e-reader for take-off and landing.  I'm not a good flyer so I like to distract myself.  Reading has always been a way to do it, particularly with landing.  More and more articles about ebooks reference this, but it's not new.  We are reading using technology and our aircraft crew will always ask us to shut it down.  And while there are some Kindle and Apple devotees who use plastic covers on their devices while taking a bath, I'm not with you sorry.  I don't want to take my e-reader in the bath.  I don't want to accidentally drop it - whether in water or on a hard surface.  It just does not work for me in this situation no matter what you say. 
  7. Rights: one of the biggest issues with ebooks, the reluctance by publishers to give up territorial rights for their ebooks.  I can see ebooks going "world rights" and placed with all the vendors.  Why not revenue share with your print distributors in each territory to recognise the work they do promoting the author, the content and more.  Distributors and publishing partners have a key role with "e".  This should be recognised and not have them shut out.  Before you know it, there won't be a Frankfurt rights fair.  No one will want to engage if there isn't something in it for them. 
  8. Formats and layouts are still problematic: Format extensions are confusing for those readers who don't know any better.  Readers want to read an ebook but don't know what they are looking for when they move away from one of the more established ebook vendors they've been using and go direct.  The download process can be confusing for them.  I had a friend trying to purchase some books from a US publisher's site and had no idea whether or not her iPad could read any of the device formats listed. And as for layouts, well I still have ebooks with "dodgy" layouts.  This was covered very well in an Open Letter to publishers on the Teleread site a few months ago. While I've adapted to reading that way over the past few years, it still annoys the hell out of me.  I don't want text to drop away or a handful of words justified across the page unreasonably.  Some of the hypens are poorly done and some text goes a little funny at times.  Don't get me wrong.  It's improved over the years. But it still needs work.
  9. Get the metadata right: Publishers can't get their print metadata right so how on earth do we expect them to get the ebook metadata perfect?  (Of course they will argue this with me but booksellers and bibliographic agencies around the world will back me up on this one) In a world where we need to search and discover our content, we need to have the correct path laid by publishers so we can find it in a click or two.  And as for one e-ISBN across multiple platforms.  One word - nightmare.  If you want to sell ebooks across vendors and you've used the ISBN as your primary identifier in your database, you need to find another solution.  And it will cost you.  Booksellers and online sites - get ready.  It's not pretty.
  10. Profiling & Selection of ebook releases: I'm signed up a few ebook vendors and they send regular newsletters about what's new in "e".  I don't want simply what's new in "e".  I want to see my favourite authors, my favourite subjects.  I don't want to see a new ebook about Donald Rumsfield or travel guides to places I don't have on my wish list.  Ebook vendors need to profile my interests.  They can see what I download.  Now make some recommendations based on that.  Ah, you've got my attention at last.
  11. Ebooks are established in academic libraries.  Search and discover content through your academic library.  Electronic journals lead the way, ebooks followed.  Information is at your fingertips.  Patron driven demand is exciting.  Scholarly and reference works are best served in a digital world.  Updates can be better managed electronically.  Access, availability, wonderful for research.  It all makes sense.
  12. Etextbooks?   I'm not yet convinced.  Enhanced ebooks for students, now that excites me.  Just check out a Wiley textbook demo on Blio if you need convincing.  Questions, answers, rich media content.  It's all there for the taking.  Publishers need to hop on board.  It will be an exciting ride for the students of tomorrow.
  13. Consumer choice is important.  As I mentioned above, there are some things I like to read in "e" and there's others I enjoy in "p". I can loan the "p".  I can show off the "p".  The "p" has cover-art, often beautiful at times.  My friends know what I'm reading when I'm reading the "p".  I will use bookmarks and I will turn pages.  And I will enjoy doing that.   I will always be loyal to the "p".  In fact, after a few years reading ebooks, it's my preference now.  But I also get books cheaper through my workplace - sometimes half the price.  If I wasn't paying staff rates for my books, I wonder whether I'd have a different point of view.  I'm guessing I would but that would be on price, not on format.  I want my historical fiction, autobiographies, biographies and history books in print.  I want them on my bookshelf.  I want to turn the pages and look at the images.  I want to share.  But I will try new authors in "e" and occasionally, very occasionally, I will treat myself to both formats. 
  14. Consider the booksellers - both online and bricks & mortar.  These guys have been with you for years and many of your authors would not be where they are today without booksellers promoting their products, having events in-store, and more. There is so much I could write on this point alone.  Pros and cons.  Politics and issues. Consumer buyer behaviour.  Pricing, supply, industry matters and more. For now, I will simply say consider the bookseller.
  15. Consider the libraries, the librarians, the library suppliers.  I could get really rough on this one.  As you know, I work for the leading library supplier in the Australasian marketplace.  We've heard it all before from our publishers and ebook vendors.  Librarians want to play in the digital sphere.  They are playing.  Many have been doing ebooks for a long time.  But publishers don't like having something available free through a library at the best of times.  Ask Harper Collins about ebooks, libraries and boycotts due to changes in ebook policies and access.  There are ways to work through these issues and it seems single use is the way most publishers are comfortable with.  But tell the reader they can't borrow an ebook because it's already on loan.  It's digital for crying out loud.  There are models that can deal with this.  Ask EBL.  Just don't shut out this part of the market.  They are important, they have one hell of a role with reader recommendations, access and information.  
  16. And consider the role of the publisher.  As a publisher, you will know what I'm saying.  There's a lot of articles about this already.  What do you bring to the table in a digital world?  Authors and agents can deal directly with ebook vendors.  They can choose to sell the books direct.  They can set the price.  They can do the work. And they can make more margin. It's a reality check for all of us.  Publishers need to be looking at their strengths and weaknesses too.  
     When it comes to the digital world, there are still hurdles to face, difficulties to encounter, issues than may remain unresolvable, but we've got one hell of a publishing industry.  Whether you are an ebook reader, an author, a publisher, a library, or a reseller, we need to keep engaging, working together and finding a model that's right for us.  Those in the industry have a role to play and there may be some that don't want to be involved in the "e" world.  We keep saying they have to in order to survive in the digital age, but is that right?  It's what we want to believe...

    At the end of the day, people have different experiences of reading, loaning and sharing books.  There are Luddites and there are those that are already committed to e-reading.  Does one format have to win over the other?  Consumer choice is important, pricing and availability is important.  And whatever you do, publishers need to get their product information and metadata sorted.  In an online world, anything sloppy and incorrect will cost you.

    The above points are a combination of the professional and the consumer ebook world.  I can extend on some points, some are a political minefield, and I've probably missed others.  But it's the Ramble for today.  And I'm exhausted!