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September 2009

6 posts from August 2009

Ebook Survey Results

Numbers Last week we sent a short survey out to customers who had previously bought an ebook from us at O'Reilly.  We gathered more than 2,000 responses in just a few days.  Our goal was to learn more about the buying habits and preferences of customers who are interested in econtent.

The survey featured several multiple-choice and open-ended questions.  I've only had a chance to review the multiple-choice responses, so I'll comment on them below and will follow-up with excerpts and summaries of the open-ended questions later in the week.

1. How often do you read ebooks?
The most popular answer, which about 50% of the respondents selected, was "several times a week."  30% said "daily" and 19% said "rarely".

2. Where are you on the ebook adoption cycle?
The top answer, chosen by a third of the respondents was, "I love ebooks and I'll never go back to print."  The second most popular answer was "I'll love them more when the devices for reading them get better" (24%).

3. Do you buy print and ebooks, or have you made the transition to electronic only?
75% said "print and ebooks", leaving only 25% for e-only.

4. Select the ebook features that matter most to you.
Respondents could make multiple selections on this, but the #1 feature was "portability" (80%) followed by "usability for search/linking" (71%) and "price" (60%).  So despite everyone's fixation on sub-$10 Kindle books and sub-$5 iPhone book apps, price isn't the #1 "feature" for this crowd.  Of course, what people say and how they act are often two different things (see "New Coke").

5. On what device(s) have you read O'Reilly ebooks?
Again, multiple answers could be selected here, but not surprisingly laptops (81%) and desktop computers (60%) were the top two choices.  And although the Kindle often gets a lot of attention as a dedicated econtent device, it's interesting to see that only 14% checked it off here whereas iPhone and iPod Touch were checked by 29% and 12%, respectively.  Ah, the benefits of an enormous installed base!  The Sony Reader was selected almost as often (11%) as the Kindle, btw.  (Note: We sell ebooks as bundles, so in one transaction a customer gets PDF, epub and mobi for the Kindle.)

6. If you chose "iPhone" for #5, how are you reading those ebooks?
Stanza leads the way here at 62% and the Kindle app is a distant #2 at only 16%.  (I'm kind of surprised that so many people own both devices.  I'll bet most are like me and bought the Kindle before the iPhone.  Now that I have the latter I don't use the former quite as much.)

7. Are you committed to the device and platform you're using now, or are you waiting for something better?
One third said they love their reader but the other two-thirds are hoping for something better (do you hear that, Mr. Jobs?).

8. Whenever possible, O'Reilly provides you with three DRM-free electronic formats of each ebook--.PDF, epub, and mobi. Which formats have you used?
Consistent with the earlier point about using the content mostly on a computer, PDF is by far the #1 choice here at 94%.  Again, multiple answers were allowed but epub and mobi are only used by 34% and 20% of respondents.  So although many of us like to focus on the newer devices and formats it's still an Adobe world...for now.

Some of the open-ended questions were "which format do you prefer and why?", "what other publishers are doing innovative work with ebooks?", "what can we do to improve your experience with O'Reilly ebooks","what features should the next generation of ebooks include?" and "based on your experience with O'Reilly ebooks, how do you feel about the price you paid?".

As you can see, those are some pretty meaty questions and most of the 2K+ respondents offered their thoughts, so it's going to take me awhile to read through all of them.  Stay tuned for summary follow-up posts on these...


Retail Channel Evolution (and a Plug for SXSW)

Bb0909cover The September issue of Book Business magazine arrived the other day and it features a terrific article by Michael Norris called Minding the Store that caught my eye.  I agree with about 95% of what Norris says.  Here are a few excerpts and my comments, including the piece I'm not so sure about:

If there's one thing publishers need to understand, it is that most book buyers are disengaged and only buy one to five books a year.  This means there is a massive number of adults out there who read intermittently and probably don't care about loyalty programs, author websites or three-for-the-price-of-two sales.

Boy, that last part really hurts, but it makes sense.  If there's no way to change this behavior with print books, perhaps we have to focus our efforts on how to address it with econtent. Can customers become more engaged if the content is richer and, dare I say it, shorter, as in "more to the point and less about puffing the book up for spine width"?

...under-performing superstores do close as well: Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Borders Group closed more than 500 locations in the past six years.  Meanwhile, Walmart and Target locations (as well as other non-bookstore entities) have been multiplying.  On a very basic level, these stores are a lot more convenient for the disengaged customer who only buys a book once in a while.

Terrific observations.  Are the B&N and Borders superstores becoming the new independents?  They're not going away, and neither did the independents (entirely), but it's interesting to watch the superstores being forced to evolve by mass outlets.

When a book from a popular author is sold everywhere, it behaves like a commodity when it really isn't.  If you go into a Walmart and ask an employee for "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen, you'll be lucky if that person points you to the camping aisle and mumbles something about having one from Coleman.

OK, this is that 5% of the article that I don't agree with.  I get Norris' point, sort of, but I don't buy into the notion that "channel-stuffing of blockbuster books is cheapening what should be the most expensive product," as he states a bit earlier in the column.  To use a different product analogy, this is why I sometimes buy auto parts (e.g., oil and filters) at Walmart and for other items I go to AutoZone, where I know I'll get the personal assistance I need.  I'm typically buying commodities in both places, btw.  For me it's all about convenience rather than commodities; I'm in Walmart several times a week, so as a supplier if I can get my products stocked there I'd gladly eat a few extra discount points for all the extra foot traffic!

P.S. -- I'm part of a Book Publishing panel that's been pitched for SXSW.  The fabulous Kat Meyer is also on the panel (along with several other terrific industry experts) and provides more of the details here.  Speaking for the entire panel, we'd greatly appreciate it if you'd cast your vote supporting our session here.


Speak Your Mind at the Next Tools of Change (TOC) Conference

Picture 3The next Tools of Change (TOC) Conference is scheduled for February 22-24 in New York.  That may seem like a long way off but now is the time to submit a speaking proposal because the call for participation is only open till September 1st.

I just submitted a proposal for a session I'd like to give called "Looking Beyond the $9.99 Ebook."  Here's the abstract:

The publishing industry is currently caught up in the $9.99 ebook model popularized by Amazon's Kindle. It's time to quit whining about "the cheapening of our IP" and start thinking about new models with added value and larger revenue opportunities.

There are a number of key points I want to make and I plan to add to that list in the coming months.  This is an area I'm extremely passionate about (as you've no doubt seen in earlier Publishing 2020 posts!).

How about you?  What are you passionate about?  Why not write up a summary and submit it for TOC consideration?


What if Amazon Got it Wrong?

Tablet When Jeff Bezos introduced the original Kindle almost 2 years ago he talked about how long-form reading was on the decline.  He also noted how the Kindle would reverse that trend because it will now be more convenient to take all your books with you and read them wherever you are.

Bezos used the phrase "info-snacking" and how the web encouraged all of us to read shorter bits of content, not long-form works.  His core assumption was that lots of people would love to read more books and that they just need a new delivery platform to quench their thirst.

What if Amazon's assumption was wrong?  What if short-form content that's all over the web is really the preferred format? It's still very enjoyable to read a Harry Potter book or something in the Twilight series, but what if most people looking for business advice or how-to info prefer to get in and get out as quickly as possible?  What if, outside of novels, the added value here is convenience and time-savings?

If the Kindle is the answer to long-form content could the Apple Mediapad/Tablet/iPad be the answer to short-form content?  Sure, you could read a book on an "iPad" if you want to, but what if the rumored device focused primarily on delivering an "insanely great" experience for short-form content instead?

While Amazon waits for eInk's full-color display technology Apple simply features a good old backlit one.  Again, not ideal for reading a hundred pages of a book in one sitting but perfect for magazines, blogs and other short-form content.

I've been a Kindle owner for well over a year now and I'm doing even more short-form reading than ever.  I'm also using workarounds and hacks to do some of that on the Kindle, so I'd welcome a device like the iPad that's better suited for it thanks to full color, wifi, a real browser (not an experimental one), etc.  How about you?


PopSci Genius Guide: Next Gen Magazine? Sort of.

Popsci I was all excited when I read this terrific article about Popular Science's venture into what they're calling "the next generation of digital magazines."  Then I checked out the product and was extremely disappointed.

Here are some of the article excerpts that got my attention:

And make no mistake -- this isn't your typical "interactive" digital magazine with an animation here or a video there.

PopSci has effectively demonstrated the ability to create a multilayered (emphasis mine), interactive experience for readers without overwhelming them.

Readers choose which aspects they want to activate and when.

Our goal was not to create a web site with the Genius Guide, and not to re-create Popular Science magazine with it...but to create a totally new product...that engages and enthralls the reader.

How much can I pay to get this outstanding product?  Sign me up!

OK, now take a look at the product the interview describes.  I found it to be ho-hum and pretty much what they say it's not (your typical interactive digital magazine with an animation here and a video there).  To be fair, I remember seeing a couple of animations but no videos.

I couldn't help think the PopSci Genius Guide was built by a team with a magazine mentality.  Why do they feel compelled to render the product using the virtual dimensions of a print magazine?  That results in so much wasted space, leaving my screen mostly blank when I'm flipping through it.  Why not think about the user experience and fully utilize the available surface area rather than limit yourself by forcing the product to look and feel like a print magazine on a computer screen?  Btw, if you follow this advice you wind up with something that looks more like a web page than a print magazine page, and that's OK!

Why does every "digital magazine" designer feel compelled to animate the page-turning process?!  Who cares?  That's not a critical element of the print magazine user experience that absolutely must be preserved in the digital product.

Also, while they're rethinking and better utilizing the available space on the computer screen, how about considering the small screen as well?  I'm talking specifically about the iPhone.  I looked and there's no Popular Science iPhone app.  Talk about a missed opportunity.

I recently signed up for a deeply discounted print subscription to Popular Science ($6 for 12 issues via Amazon) and I'm hooked.  If they offer me an iPhone app subscription at 99-cents/month I'll send them more money.  That's not much but it's a lot more than I'd be willing to pay for the current implementation of the PopSci Genius Guides.


You, The iPhone App

Iphoneapps Life seemed much simpler in the pre-Twitter days. You found a blogger you liked and you grabbed their RSS feed.  These days, if I want to follow someone I still do that but I also need to keep an eye on their tweets, their Facebook updates as well as a host of other specialty networks they might be part of.  To tell you the truth, the more social networking evolves the more distant I feel from the people I (try to) follow.

That's why I look forward to the day when we'll be able to say, stealing Apple's catchphrase, "yeah, there's an app for that."

I read a great quote by Albert Einstein recently that applies here:

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

The source for this idea was an ad I saw in the latest issue of Wired.  The ad is for an iPhone app I was previously unaware of...then again, thanks to the ongoing discoverability issue with the App Store, this isn't exactly surprising.  The ad's headline is "Our Killer App" and it promotes the All Things Digital app, featuring Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.  I immediately downloaded the free app and I love it.  I've always enjoyed reading Mossberg and now I have a single place where I can quickly and easily keep up with him; no more hunting through countless feeds.

So what does this have to do with publishing?  If you're an author looking to build your platform I'd argue you should consider creating an iPhone app that's all about you, your work, your observations, etc.  Why not give your readers a single tool they can use to keep up with everything you have to say, show and report?

Publishers should have their own iPhone apps as well.  We've released several books as iPhone apps at O'Reilly but we haven't created a single "O'Reilly iPhone App."  I think we should though and it ought to contain a number of different elements including new release summaries, excerpts, articles, industry information and more.  The base app could be free but there could be a paid subscription option as well that offers much more premium content.

What would a typical author's iPhone app look like?  It too could have multiple levels with the free version including the type of information currently shared via blogs, Twitter, etc.  The paid version might have more content and a chance for readers to speak directly to you from time to time, for example.  I'd pay for one of these from Thomas Friedman or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for example.  These are just a couple of authors I frequently read but they probably get swamped with reader emails.  Imagine a premium iPhone app by either one that gives you direct access to them, sort of like when they speak at a smaller corporate function.  How cool is that?  Every author can't command this sort of model but the big ones certainly could and the next tier could do the same but at a lower price point.

You know how all those industry pundits say that the publishing industry needs to learn from the music business and figure out how to monetize something other than the book (like they're doing with concerts, t-shirts, etc.)?  Maybe this app model is a step in that direction.

Let's not stop with authors and publishers though.  How about conferences?  Shouldn't there be an iPhone app for every conference and trade show?  I recently attended OSCON and I could see where an iPhone app for that show would help "keep the fire burning", as my O'Reilly colleague Allen Noren likes to say.  The same goes for pretty much every other conference out there.  Why limit the event to a once-a-year activity when an iPhone app could make it year-round and encourage even more participation (as well as drive more revenue)?

The iPhone app dev world is still in a gold rush mentality.  It's a seller's market as good developers are hard to find and even harder to negotiate with.  The apps I'm describing don't all have to be different though.  They could use the same common framework, levels of functionality and be easily skinned to meet individual branding and look-and-feel requirements.  It seems like a terrific opportunity for a smart iPhone app developer to step in and corner the market with something that's both powerful and flexible.

I can think of several individual, corporate and conference-based iPhone apps I'd immediately download, several of which I'd be willing to pay an annual subscription for.  How about you?

P.S. -- I recently read that Bill Simmons, aka "The Sports Guy", is retiring from his ESPN The Mag column.  I'd buy an iPhone app featuring Simmons.  The same goes for Steve Rushin.