Innovation

How Different Are Books Digitally?

Martyn Daniels has a good piece over on his Brave New World Blog about why books differ digitally from other forms of content. The nub of his case is (if he’ll forgive me quoting such a chunk – I’d encourage you to go read it):

Whatever the route taken the stupid thing would be to continue to merely pour the same content into a digital container. This logic is flawed as it not only creates competition where competition is not needed and can be counter-productive, but it fails to understand the technology, the cultural changes that are happening and the opportunities that are available for the two that matter – the author and the reader.

via Brave New World: HELLO! Books Are Digitally Different.

I hear this a lot from folks, that ebooks are a misunderstanding of the innovative capacity of digital creation and distribution. I may even have written something that touches on that territory in the past (cf: this piece*). I think this viewpoint misses two crucial issues.

First, that readers and writers have found these crippled tools to be “good enough“. And they think them so “good enough” that they account for 30% of the market. That’s a pretty compelling argument for viewing ebooks as the right technology at the right time.

The second is whether anyone is looking for such innovations. The question those seeking to make more exciting and innovative products from books have to answer is straightforward; will those new products entice ebook readers away from ebooks, entice print readers from print books when ebooks didn’t do so, or entice new readers to read where ebooks and print books didn’t?

I think it’s possible but unlikely that ebook readers will be interested, improbable and unlikely that print readers will have their heads turned, and simply unknowable if non-readers will suddenly turn to reading in  clever and innovative new guises. It is far more likely that content from beyond the book world will succeed in eroding the attention time devoted to books (of all forms) in established markets than books** will, in any form, colonise the attention time currently devoted to other content forms (I wrote about the impact of this in the Irish trade in The Irish Times last weekend).

To counter that trend, we will need to find new ways to market ebooks and digital reading to existing print readers in the coming years and that may involve new forms, as Martyn suggests, but one wonders just how much can be done to change reading before it becomes not reading, but something else and whether given the “good enough” nature of ebooks for so many, we need to do so.

When viewed through this lense, ebooks are the heavy infantry at the front lines of the battle to protect and grow the overall attention time devoted to reading, not a mistake or a failure of imagination.

Eoin

 

 

*In my defence, I’d argue that the line was one intended to spur publishers to action, and is, in any case, four years old an eternity in ebook terms!

**Spotted today, by way of Benedict Evans, this rather interesting piece of news about how mobiles are changing reading in the developing world an area where many of the factors I commented on above will be less relevant and where there is a good chance that reading can actually gain serious traction in digital form, even in the face of competition from other forms, though ultimately as incomes there rise I would expect other forms to gain back attention time.

Moving Up The Value Chain: How Digital Publishing Disrupts

A good while ago now (nearly 2 and half years I think) I wrote a piece called Whither Publishing In The Twenty Teens? It looked at the changes in publishing which I argued were being driven by digital publishing over the internet.

I made a prediction in that post:

3) Quality and curation will deliver rewards (so firing editors may be self-defeating) in the long-term, if you survive the shakeout. Given the proliferation of poorly written/created content, acknowledged quality will be a valuable feature as will good filtering capabilities (as we can already see).

The point here was that value could be created through curation of content, whether that meant building a dedicated niche in one topic or aggregating content from one specific area or doing that across many topics at once, but ensuring depth and value in each.

At the time I was interested in how traditional publishers might adapt their print curation to online and digital curation, something several have done well and others have not. I saw both an opportunity and a challenge to traditional publishers in the new curation.

I stand by the thrust of it, but I think I failed to make clearly enough a subtle point about that prediction. That is, that as blogs and websites gained credibility and status, they could quite easily move up the value chain towards the same kinds of products traditional media/publishers currently produce. If they show that THEIR curation is at least as effective and valuable as that of the traditional publishers is, then they can benefit from that prediction as much as anyone. It’s the classic example of a disruptive player moving up the value chain and it is happening before our eyes. What’s more, because they were coming from a smaller cost base, they can likely do it more competitively than traditional book publishers.

In many ways, it is the problem newspaper and magazine publishers have been facing for a long time, writing itself all over the face of book publishing. It’s a slightly different type of problem from the issue of self publishers growing in confidence and ability  (equipped as they are now with more tools to aid the creation, distribution and sale of their books). We are talking here about content producers designed around the web, using the web as a platform and building their content offering off a low-cost base and often offering most of that service for free to web surfers.

Demand Media has just announced the launch of two series of ebooks one on wine varietals and the other on pets. I recall how Demand was viewed when it first came to prominence, a content farm, and in some ways it has never shaken off that description, but with this move it shows that its low-cost model can deliver content that has pricing power and provides value.

Here’s how Jeremy Reed discussed their new effort:

As the digital landscape continues to change and new concepts are introduced, we’ve stayed focused on the still important idea of connecting people with knowledge through various media. The shift to smartphones and tablets has opened opportunities for new content formats, and the lines that once separated how people consume content — on television, in print, via online or through mobile devices — have all but disappeared.

The eBooks we’re releasing today exemplify this change. For people interested in learning about the vast world of wine or the intricacies of pet ownership, our collection of eBooks offers a modern alternative to what’s offered online or on shelves today.

Demand Media has taken almost the reverse approach of traditional publishers, but the more traditional approach (in the sense that the content being commissioned is specially created for books rather than created for multiple purposes, one of which may, at a future point, be books) also gets attention today with the funding announcement for Open Air Publishing:

Open Air believes it can disrupt traditional publishing faster. The New York-based startup has published four books. Priced between $5 and $10, all of them have at least broken even, and all of them have taken just three to four months to produce.

Now, with $800,000 in seed backing from SV Angel, 500 Startups, Charles River Ventures, Social+Capital Partnership, David Tisch, Advancit Capital, and others, he’s set to release a total of nine ebooks by the end of the year.

There is a huge amount of room for different models in the market and there will be customers for both the higher end products produced by Open Air and the cheaper ebooks created by Demand. However, in terms of scale and, I would wager, profitability, I think Demand has the game in hand. Certainly, I’d be betting any investment on them rather than on Open Air. After all their bottom up creation model means that a rigorous selection and filtering model combined with some judicious article creation around perceived gaps can result in far quicker production and, most crucially, the creation of ebooks without incurring extra cost (because the content is presumably being reused in other ways).

The Demand Media model for non-fiction publishing looks a lot like moving up the value chain from lower order prospects. In the same way the moves by the likes of GigaOm to start selling ebooks as a standalone product show two things, firstly that their reputation has created value in their brand and people trust it (their curation and editing and credibility) and also that what started as a threat to magazine publishers and newspapers is now a threat to technology and general book publishers.

GigaOm’s move shows the versatility of that publisher’s content too. Their offering now encompasses free content (ad-supported of course so not FREE free), premium subscriber content (their Pro offering) and what might be described as their mid-range content, their new ebook range. This comes close to the Publishing Continuum I first heard Dominique Raccah talk about and certainly does so from a surprising direction at least for traditional publishers. Whereas publishers might have seen GigaOm journalists as potential authors on their lists at some point in the future, it seems clear that GigaOm journalist are at least as likely to be published by their own home imprints.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the internet IS creating direct competition for new non-fiction books exactly as has been predicted that it would. Another short paragraph I wrote two years ago seems relevant if sadly telling now:

The challenge for most publishers is first to realize there IS a challenge and that responding to it is less about social media, ebooks and fancy apps (though they all have a role) and more about rethinking the way you conceive content and how and where you deploy that content to engage and build an audience.

If the world of publishing doesn’t seem to be moving very rapidly, that’s only because you are looking in the wrong direction.

From a very, very, rainy Dublin!
Eoin

Go Read This | Scholastic, Ruckus Media Form New Digital/Print Imprint

This is a very interesting way to tackle the challenges ahead. It effectively takes the advice of Clayton M. Christensen and creates a new organisation outside the realm of the legacy company. Hope it works:

Children’s digital developer Ruckus Media is joining with Scholastic to create the Scholastic Ruckus imprint, a joint venture that will publish a wide range of children’s and teen content across all platforms, from interactive content and transmedia projects to e-books, enhanced e-books and print. The first titles from the Scholastic Ruckus imprint will be released in 2012.

Cofounded a year ago by former Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing president Rick Richter and Ruckus Media COO Jim Young, Ruckus Media has developed a list of interactive storybook apps and will publish about 40 digital titles this year. In a phone interview, Richter said that under the new imprint, Scholastic will oversee the marketing and distribution of print editions of Ruckus Media’s digital titles through Scholastic’s network of school book clubs and book fairs, libraries and through trade book retailers. Scholastic will also manage the worldwide distribution and publishing rights for both print and digital content coming from the imprint.

via Scholastic, Ruckus Media Form New Digital/Print Imprint.

Go Read This | Brains and brawn | theBookseller.com

The Bookseller has a very nice feature on Estate Publishing on the back of the news about HarperCollins acquiring the worldwide rights to Agahta Christie’s work. Best thing in the magazine this week if you ask me (with the possible exception of an editorial by James Bridle).

He says dealing with the estates requires patience and tenacity: it took seven years of discussions with the Tolkien estate before it agreed for HC to release e-books. His first meeting with the Tolkien estate in 1995 involved him having seven publishing ideas in a row shot down. It was, he says, “the most humiliating morning”.

“You sometimes sit and think ‘have I gone native? Am I asking sufficiently challenging questions?'” he says. “You need to make sure you are not assuming too much. I’m fairly confident I’ve got the right perspective. You keeping chipping away.”

via Brains and brawn | theBookseller.com.

Estate publishing, like Classics and (although no-one else seems to think it) mid-list publishing can and should be territory for experimentation, innovation and great publishing.

Penguin’s Classics for instance have shown recently what just the application of some great design and clever curation can do for a list that isn’t even owned exclusively by one publisher.

The Rise and Fall of the Scottish Cotton Industry 1778-1914

I read a great book review for The Rise and Fall of the Scottish Cotton Industry 1778-1914: ‘the Secret Spring’ by Anthony Cooke over at Reviews In History:

While it is undoubtedly the case that the Scottish cotton industry had shrunk dramatically by 1914, there was, in fact, quite a lot left, highly specialised though it was. Notable among surviving firms were the great Paisley thread manufacturing firms, which as Cooke points out, had become multi-national, much as had the major jute enterprises in Dundee which also managed to survive in an increasingly globalised sector. New Lanark was extensively modernised as late as the 1950s, remaining a significant employer locally, and managed to keep going until 1968. The Stanley complex, built around the original mill, survived even longer, outliving many of the major Lancashire firms. It is thus incongruous that the enterprises that survived longest were the very ones that had pioneered the factory system while later enterprises succumbed long beforehand.

It sounds rather excellent and I may well go ahead an buy it but that £60 price tag is a little rich.
Eoin

Ryu Murakami to Release Novel Directly Through Apple iPad – Japan Real Time – WSJ

Author’s Will Drive Change as I’ve said before, especially those with an existing following or those with nothing to lose. How publishers can respond to this is worth thinking about and I suspect that means create ebook exclusive deals with authors that agree the lions share going to authors in exchange for exclusive hardback or paperback rights.

Let the nightmare begin. Novelist Ryu Murakami plans to release his latest novel exclusively for digital bookworms through Apple Inc.’s iPad ahead of the print version. Mr. Murakami, the acclaimed author of over 15 novels including “Coin Locker Babies” and “In the Miso Soup”, replaced the publishers with a software company to help develop the e-book titled “A Singing Whale,” or “Utau Kujira” in Japanese. The digital package will include video content and set to music composed by Academy Award winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, according to the Japanese business daily Nikkei. The newspaper reports the e-book will cost 1,500 yen ($17) and will be ready to download pending Apple’s approval. Apple Japan and Mr. Murakami did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

via Ryu Murakami to Release Novel Directly Through Apple iPad – Japan Real Time – WSJ.

Go Read This:Brave New World – Chasing Cheap Labour in a Digital World

Well worth reading this today from Martyn Daniels and an interesting counter point to the previously tweeted video from O’Reilly Radar. To me, this is why capitalism works, because as economies grow and develop they push standard of living higher and increase income across the board, especially as countries play to their competitive advantages. Fascinating to see it impact hugh-tech companies so rapidly.

The most interesting point is that counties such as China and India no longer want the low end assembly and service work. “China doesn’t want to be the workshop of the world anymore,” says Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at Georgetown University. India is already maturing as a workforce and aspirations and wages are growing fast. The question is will the West pay more or simply flow to the next cheap source of labour?

via Brave New World: Chasing Cheap Labour in a Digital World.