Go read This | The Finite Library by Willem Van Lancker

Colour me intrigued. Van Lancker is one of a trio involved in new ebook venture Oyster (good description and round up of the issues the start up will face by Martyn Daniels here). I found the section posted below in a rather interesting essay on Van Lancker’s blog. It suggests that ebooks are but the tip of Oyster’s iceberg of ambition and that while the public facing pitch is one that speaks of Spotify, the goal is actually something more refined controlled than that:

We are at an exciting impasse for the accessibility of content (e.g., images, writing), but simultaneously are confronted with a litany of services focused on incomplete collection and organization. This abundance of sources, media types, and proprietary systems has led to a fragmented and often frustrating environment. Few services promise the comprehensiveness of being your definitive library. Netflix, while likely replacing many viewers DVD libraries, offers no tools for curation and no sense of collection apart from a to-watch list queue.

via The Finite Library | Willem Van Lancker.

Amazon Steals Everyone’s Thunder Again (But Quietly)

Fascinatingly clever (if predictable in many ways) move from Amazon to extend the reach of its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) to the UK, Germany and France. By doing so it demonstrates very clearly that it is Amazon who is really driving the pace of development in ebook adoption and ebook retail. What’s more, it is making clear that its rivals are struggling to match its services to authors and readers within their own ecosystems. As the focus of ebook growth moves rapidly beyond the USA (has moved already in truth), Amazon is making the case for giving it exclusivity even more compelling.

Amazon.com, Inc. today announced that the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library is coming to the UK, Germany and France later this month, bringing Kindle owners with a Prime membership over 200,000 books to borrow for free as frequently as a book a month, with no due dates. Independent authors and publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing KDP who enroll their books in KDP Select can be included in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library in the UK, Germany and France, as well as the US. With the new lending libraries launching this month, the KDP Select fund has been increased by $100,000 to $700,000 in October, with a larger increase anticipated in November. Authors will earn money every time their book is borrowed from any of the lending libraries – in September, authors earned $2.29 per borrow, which is more than many KDP books earn per sale.

via Amazon Media Room: Press Releases.

What amazes me the most about this move is just how dangerous it is for the ebook retailing rivals who have yet to open their doors to self-published content. In reality only Kobo has a fully functional platform for self publishing authors beyond the USA (Apple does too, but only to the extent that those who have a nice Mac can access their iBookstore, but not everyone has a Mac).

Nook’s platform is US only, though the talk is that this will change soon, the longer B&N & Microsoft exclude non-US citizens from the service, the longer Amazon has to lock in exclusive content for three months at a time. It’s not that the content individually is necessarily compelling, but given the wide field of talent in question, some is sure to be winning material, even if much of it isn’t great. The trick is, of course, that Amazon is armed with the tools to sort, grade and sift through this mass of titles and to promote, suggest and even work with the best (or just the most saleable, let’s not forget that the goal is money-making not literature spreading).

I’ve talked before about how important authors are to the success of an epublishing platform and ecosystem. Sometimes I think the retailers agree with me on this, other times I think they only pay lip service to the idea. Perhaps that’s a lingering snobbery regarding self publishing authors (which is foolish, idiotic and wrong-headed in an age when some of the biggest writers are rapidly moving towards self publishing, are already self publishing or have emerged from the self publishing space). Perhaps it is a desire to avoid dealing with so many small accounts and the headaches of customer service and platform development that entails. Who knows, but the longer these ecosystems remain closed shops to direct author engagement the larger a lead they allow Amazon to build up on them.

Every author Amazon signs up for KOLL is three months of exclusive sales for Amazon, three months lost revenue for their rivals. More importantly it is three months of sales data and analysis for Amazon that no-one else will have. That’s especially important when a title is loaded into KDP & KOLL for the first time, before getting a look in elsewhere. What will happen when one of those sign ups turns out to be the next EL James? What will happen is that Amazon will sign that author up directly, before the KOLL period ends and the game, for that author, is up for the other platforms.

It is not just dangerous to rival retailers though. If Amazon succeeds in convincing enough authors that KDP & KOLL are the way forward and along with them, exclusivity, companies like Smashwords and other aggregators of self published content will be put in the position of having to justify their offering. As long as a vibrant market for content persists of course (and despite this move, we do have a vibrant market for content) everyone has room to move and grow.

So yes, this move is illuminating, it suggests that Amazon is still the pace setter and is capable of moving faster and more aggressively than anyone else (still, after five years). Kobo has started something of a price war for self published authors though, by offering a higher royalty to authors who use their self publishing platform. If this keeps self publishing writers committed to an non-exclusive policy then it will have been a wise move. I’m sure it is a smart response from a smart company, even if it is one that admits to a certain weakness in terms of the capability of their platform, but then competition doesn’t (and indeed shouldn’t) always mean matching your rivals move, but finding clever and novel ways to best them where your strengths lie.

What that in mind, Kobo and other Amazon rivals would do well to pay attention to Baldur Bjarnason‘s piece on FutureBook about how Ebook publishing platforms are a joke, pay attention that is and offer some of the services he mentions to self publishers asap.

Go Read This | The Quarto Group Chairman’s Statement

There are so many reasons to read the chairman’s* statement in The Quarto Group’s latest update. For starters it is well written and as a result, is a pleasure to read. It is also full of gems like this one:

Contrary to popular mythology, most people in the developing world are not time-deprived. Indeed, there is much greater scope now to fill one’s non-working time (and, perhaps even one’s working time!) with elective personal activities, ranging from engaging in the chit-chat of social media, exercising, playing sport, indulging in hobbies and pastimes, cooking classes, book clubs, playing videogames, watching television, and so on. The list of activities is endless.

I don’t think you’d read that anywhere else. What’s more it offers something valuable, perspective. Perspective on the industry and what it means to be a certain type of publisher in this digital age.

Orbach sums this up in a succinct pair of paragraphs that dive deep into the implications of digital for Quarto AND for publishing as a whole:

E-books are probably not growing the overall audience much except for a brief honeymoon with a new device and, so long as outlets for printed books remain significant, the costly infrastructure of many existing publishers may have to remain largely in place. The evidence is becoming overwhelming that, in popular, narrative areas of fiction and non-fiction not an area of focus for Quarto, e-books are eating into sales of printed books. This may not challenge the economics of book publishing fundamentally for bestselling titles but, as bookshops diminish, and the exposure of less popular titles declines as a result, the committed book reader will be ill served by the outcome. And, if that were not enough to adjust to, attention is now turning to all the wonderful things that can be done with content on an e-reader such as the iPad, the Kindle Fire, the Nook, and other brands.

While Quarto is feeling the ripple effects of this evolutionary change, the impact to date has been slight. To satisfy the curiosity of analysts and commentators, we have noted  above that our digital revenues climbed five-fold in a year. But they still only represent a little over one percent of group revenues. Quartos book output is substantially non-fiction titles that are useful and, often, necessary for readers pursuing a craft, a hobby, home improvement, self-improvement, and so on. This is not a large part of the current e-book market, and efforts to build both apps and e-books around the kind of content we create have not been well rewarded. This is not surprising, as they have not taken advantage of the benefits that the new tablet computers and e-readers now offer. At the moment, and seeking to take advantage of better and less cumbersome software authoring tools, more efforts are being made to create enhanced e-books. No doubt, some will turn out to be very fine, but it remains unclear whether there is a profitable commercial model lurking in all of the experimentation.

It’s not just the level-headed analysis of whether ebooks are growing the market (anywhere other than the margins or in markets were they may be activating demand that simply could not be met with print books I suspect they are not) but also in the sober attitude towards other digital products. I might personally feel the attitude is a little TOO sober and not possessed of enough vision, but that’s hardly the point. Mostly I enjoy how the two paragraphs illustrate that different parts of our industry are moving at different paces, something we forget at our peril.

Go read the whole thing, it’s rewarding, engaging and interesting throughout.

via THE QUARTO GROUP | LATEST RESULTS.

*That’s Laurence Orbach

The Future Of Publishing In Microcosm | The Increasing Internationalization Of Irish Publishing

Yesterday I was a little unfair to Easons for the pronouncements of the company’s spokesperson and the tone of the article on its ebook strategy which suggested the company was about to embark on a  mission to build a rival platform to B&N and Amazon, something that would surely have been a valiant, if doomed, effort.

When I thought about it for the rest of the day though it got me thinking about just how much ebooks are changing the profile of book publishing and bookselling and how quickly that is happening. For instance I am almost certain of two things about the Irish ebook market:

1) That foreign based platforms and retailers account for the majority of sales (Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Sony etc)

2) That like in the print world UK publishers (and their local imprints) publish the majority of ebooks bought in Ireland both in terms of units and revenue

I’m also close to certain about a third item, but without evidence I cannot prove it, here it goes anyway:

3) That US-based publishers sell more units (and I don’t doubt generate more revenue) from ebooks in Ireland than domestic Irish publishers do and are perhaps second only to the UK publishers (and their Irish imprints)

The first and the last points there are pretty radical statements. The first represents a huge change to the Irish experience of the book industry. Right now in print terms, most books bought by Irish consumers are sold to them by Irish retailers, Easons the principle one but others like Dubray, The Book Centres, Kenny’s, O’Mahony’s, Hughes & Hughes and many many others. That is despite the growth of physical sales through Amazon and the internationally owned (except for Dunnes Stores) supermarket chains. The wholesale and distribution businesses are also heavily Irish owned (with some British presence, increasingly on the Library supply side of things).

The Difference Digital Makes

But the situation is dramatically different on the ebook side of the house. Easons is the only ebook retailer of note in the Irish context (others should shout out if I’ve unfairly missed them out). On the ebook distribution side, EpubDirect are the only (and admittedly impressive) crew actually making a go of that business and even they don’t make up for the fact that the majority of ebooks sold in Ireland will have been distributed through other channels.

You can argue the toss over why this is the case but several factors loom large:

1) Irish publishers have been slow to digitize their content (though they are getting there now)

2) Irish retailers have been slow to embrace the web (except for a few notable exceptions) and slower to embrace eCommerce (again a  few notable exceptions aside) and, finally, even slower again to embrace ebook retailing

3) The costs of developing ebook platforms, ebook retailing sites and ebook distribution systems are high, the Irish market is small, while it might have been possible to forecast the potential to gain customers outside of the island, it is a difficult result to actually achieve (which makes EpubDirect’s success all the more impressive) which mitigates against anyone investing in them

In terms of sales, while UK publishers and their Irish based imprints have come to dominate the book trade, significant numbers of books published by Irish houses continue to sell in print form and account for anything between 15-25% of the trade. With ebooks however, sales from publishers whose books would not traditionally have been made available in Irish territory is increasingly likely. For instance a US published book that does well but might not get a print deal outside of the US has as much (if not more) opportunity to sell in Ireland as any other ebook, the key is whether it is high in bestseller/popular lists or promoted by the retailer for some reason

The only ebook store that really seems to cater specifically for the Irish ebook market is Apple’s iTunes so when Irish publishers do start to make content available they have to fight against ALL the published content there is, not just all the domestically published content and all the UK published content as they do in the print world. Further the people making decisions about ebook merchandising are rarely based in Ireland as once they were (or indeed still are in the print world) and therefore open to some discussion or indeed charm (not inconsiderable amounts of which the Irish are possessed).  You see the problem.

The Outside Context Problem

The Irish publishing industry is fast running into what might be described as some fashion of an ‘Outside Context Problem‘ wherein the new arrivals on the scene are vastly superior in terms of abilities, vastly superior in terms of resources and possessed of superior technology. While some of the participants in the market might grasp the nature of the problem and respond as effectively as they can, the truth is that the disparity in attributes makes success unlikely and the new threat is very much an existential one.

Which sounds very dramatic but think of it this way. The Irish consumer market for trade books is around €150 million a year and 15 million units all in. Suppose only 30% shifts digital over time or €45 million and 4.5 million units. That would leave only €105 million up for grabs for Irish retailers in print form and 10.5 million units. The impact on stores, book publishers and other market participants would be pretty dramatic. There would be closures and job losses and the industry would be considerably weaker. And that’s just the impact on the retail side of the trade. The impact on the publishing side of the trade is unknowable, but there is little doubt that it would be significant and would probably be negative for the domestic publishers (see my earlier paragraph on why). The UK publishers will probably cede sales to US-based publishers, especially if US publishers seek to enforce global ebook rights deals on authors.

We are probably headed in the direction of 30% digital pretty quickly. If we even approach the kind of conversion to digital sales that seems to be happening in the US or even the UK, we can expect that 30% figure to be a reality by 2015. By then the Irish industry will have changed radically and will become almost unstoppably more international not just in terms of the books that sell her, but also in terms of those who sell them. US publishers will probably be the second biggest publishers of ebooks bought by Irish readers (if not the first having overtaken the UK).

There’s interesting evidence of this too from the other side of the fence. The AAP reported that ‘total eBook net sales revenue [for US publisher] for 2011 was $21.5 million, a gain of 332.6% over 2010; this represents 3.4 million eBook units sold in 2011, up 303.3%.’

Frustratingly the APP did not share details for Ireland (those were contained in the full report but not as a single territory, rather as part of a larger group of English language territories) so we don’t know how well those publishers are doing here. Still, we can assume that they did well relative to the size of the market.

What’s more, Ireland and the story of change in the publishing industry really acts as a microcosm for the rest of the English language publishing industry (indeed it acts as a microcosm for any small market which shares a language with a much larger market be it French or German or Spanish or Chinese).

In some ways the whole industry is encountering the ‘Outside Context Problem’ I mentioned earlier as software and technology firms move into a traditionally physical business, but for larger companies, responding can be easier because of their scale and their resources make for a wider context as it were. It’s the small markets where the combination of these larger players and the changes in technology make for such a difficult problem.

Beautiful day here in Dublin!
Eoin

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Interestingly (or maybe just interesting for me) I wrote some time ago about the impact of divergent rates of digital growth on small markets, and in many ways this post is all about that impact. The increasing internationalization of the Irish publishing industry is driven by the very issue I highlighted: Divergent Growth Rates In Digital.

Ebooks Are Boring? So What?

Nick Atkinson has an interesting post over on FutureBook this morning. In it he asks three questions he feels people aren’t asking about ebooks. The ones he hits on are:

EBooks  aren’t actually that exciting, so why are people buying them?

Why am I rubbish at selling books online?

Where the heck is my audience? They used to shop at Borders.

he’s got a refreshing perspective on some of those:

So why are we struggling so much to make a digital book look and feel like a book? I remember the overwhelming sense of disappointment, anti-climax and resignation that I felt when I first looked at an eBook, way back when, on the Iliad – a device thankfully confined to myth and legend (it had a STYLUS for god’s sake). Even now, working with a conversion supplier I’m proud to partner with, who does a good job of stretching the ePub and Kindle formats, whenever we get our eBooks back, we still often gaze misty-eyed at the print edition and wonder where the design went and that’s just on text-based product. If you are honest, you’ve felt the same way. We’ve had moments where we’ve tried to shoehorn full-colour books into reflowable epubs to see what would happen, got the files back and laughed out loud at ourselves for even bothering.

via 3 important questions about digital that nobody is asking. | FutureBook.

Not that he’ll be put out, but I disagree with the first half of his post pretty strongly in that I actually like ebooks as they are, simple text files. I don’t want enhancements.

There’s a peculiar, and seemingly pervasive, fear among publishers that the written word just isn’t compelling enough for their readers (one well addressed by James Bridle here) in the digital age. It’s something I just don’t understand. Afterall text is fine in print, why not in digital form?

The rest of it though, I’m mostly on board with and it speaks to the quick presentation on Niches & Communities I gave to publishers during the Pecha Kucha session at TOC Frankfurt in 2009.

Not, I stress, that I think ebooks are the end of all things book related as I myself wrote for Publishing Perspective some time ago:

THE critical concern should be developing an expertise in how to sell content in many different forms and at many different prices to different audiences. Publishers should be platform agnostic, selling wherever readers are willing to buy and not focusing if it is an e-book, an app, online access, segments, chapters, quotes, mash-ups, readings, conferences, or anything else (a point made Friday on Publishing Perspectives by Clive Rich).

Rather than expend their energy focusing on one format that may be fleeting, publishers need to focus on two long-term objectives: audience development and content curation. Neither of these are specific to digital activities, meaning that they will only serve to bolster the print side of the business as well, whether it declines rapidly or gradually.

Still, a good post that will no doubt generate discussion!
Eoin