Is the Ebook Revolution Over?: Driving Ebook Growth as Sales Plateau

You knew it wouldn’t last forever. You expected the double-digit growth rates would taper off but you never anticipated your ebook sales would flatten out so quickly.

Is the ebook revolution over?  Is this as good as it gets for ebooks? Or is there something you can do today to generate ebook revenue growth like you’ve seen in the past?

To help answer these questions I'm pleased to announce a free Olive Software webinar I'm hosting which will show how publishers can grow their top line and, at the same time, wrestle back control of their business.  

Here are just a few of the topics we plan to cover:

  • Why the market is flattening out
  • What will drive future growth
  • It’s not print or digital; it’s print and digital
  • How indirect can help drive direct sales
  • The tools and techniques you need to succeed
  • How Olive can be your growth partner

Please join us at 1:00PM ET on April 28 for this 30-minute session – click here to register now, as virtual seating is limited. 


What is “adaptive content”?

That’s a question a few people asked me via email after a webinar I co-presented last week. I briefly mentioned it on one of my webinar slides but I didn’t spend a lot of time digging into it. 

I talked about how the concept of layering enables publishers to turn their static e-products into dynamic, premium offerings. Layering is just the first step towards adaptive content. I’ll also admit that my definition of adaptive content is different from what you’ll read elsewhere.

A quick Google search shows a variety of articles and opinions on the definition and future of adaptive content. I’m not suggesting the perspectives found via those links are wrong; I just believe they’re not going far enough.

You’ll find plenty of people who talk about adaptive content in the context of distribution channels and devices. (The latter, btw, borders more on responsive design IMHO.) What you don’t see much of in the existing dialog on adaptive content is the actual user, the person reading the content.

So when I talk about adaptive design I’m envisioning it not from a channel or device POV. I’m thinking more about the user, their experience, tendencies and interests. That sounds creepy, I know, but it’s going to happen. Twenty years ago most people would have balked at the notion of an email app that presents you with ads based on subjects it deems relevant to the contents of your inbox. Today, however, Gmail does just that and reportedly has hundreds of millions of users.

At some point down the road digital content apps (including your web browser) will use similar capabilities to present that how-to ebook or e-zine in a manner that’s completely tailored to you. And you’ll never have to tell it a thing for it to spin up that custom experience. Our devices (and the apps loaded on them) will constantly track your behavior and use that information to dynamically present the next piece of content.

Let’s say you and I are building decks and we just bought the same digital how-to product with step-by-step instructions and videos. Your tablet knows you’re quite familiar with power tools and construction projects because it’s noted that you’ve contributed several knowledgeable (and highly-rated) answers on one of the popular DIY forums. Your tablet also knows that you regularly read the most popular DIY e-zines and that you tend to focus on articles covering lumber construction projects. 

I, on the other hand, hardly know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver and my tablet is well aware of my lack of knowledge on the deck-building topic. 

So the content and pace of the digital how-to product we both bought is presented in one manner on your tablet and in a completely different manner on mine. The source content is all the same and you can certainly drill down into more of the basics that I’m presented with, but the app assumes you’re beyond all that.

This changes everything, of course. Content must be written in a more granular manner and it must be richly tagged to ensure it’s presented properly in every use-case. Equally important is the need for the app/device to pay attention to how the content is then consumed by all these different users and make adjustments for future users. Maybe nine out of the first ten novices jump to a later topic that appears later in the product; the app should learn from this and rearrange the content sequence for the eleventh novice.

Yes, this type of model will require users to opt in and privacy advocates will completely freak out over the possible consequences of such a platform. The benefits will far outweigh the risks though, and I’m convinced this vision of adaptive content will become a reality down the road.


Recorded version of Olive SmartLayers webinar

If you missed yesterday's webinar, where we unveiled Olive's new SmartLayers technology, you'll want to watch the recorded version below. It was a great discussion about where digital content is today and where it's likely heading tomorrow. Check it out and let us know what you think of these first steps towards a model where content is eventually both layered and adaptive.


In the future, all content will be layered

Once upon a time the broadcast model was the only viable option for content distribution. The newspapers, magazines and books we read were the same regardless of our personal interests or where we lived.

The web and other digital models offer more personalization, of course. That’s why your Google News feed looks considerably different than mine, for example.

In the not-too-distant future I believe we’ll see a radically new level of personalization beyond the keywords and other techniques used today. That new model will feature layers of content, with each layer customized for a different user experience.

An example helps illustrate this vision…

Apple likes to update their Mac OS X operating system from time to time with plenty of new features. The best way to communicate what’s new in the next release depends on whether you’re educating a long-time Mac user or a complete novice. I’ve been on the Mac platform for several years now so I don’t need guidance on the basics. A newbie needs that information though, so how can Apple (or a third-party publisher) create content that addresses the diverse needs of expert and novice as well as everyone else in between?

One option is where the application presenting the content offers different views depending on the reader’s knowledge level. For example, there would be user level buttons where the reader can tell the ebook app how knowledgeable they are so that the content is customized for their level.

It’s important to note that the base of content remains the same for all users. But by providing a bit of information to the app, the user gets an experience that’s more in line with their needs. Layering the content enables publishers to offer multiple lenses through with the material can be viewed and each lens is optimized for a different type of user.

Content layering is something I’ve been writing about for several years now. That vision is starting to become a reality thanks to work being done at Olive Software where I serve as director of strategy and business development.

I invite you to get a glimpse of what I’m describing by attending a free webinar we’re hosting later this month. The event takes place at 1:00ET on September 30. Click here to register and reserve your spot.


A business model I’m sorry we’ll never see

We’re all intimately familiar with the cell phone business model. Buy the phone today at a reduced price that’s subsidized by what’s typically a two-year commitment with that carrier. Other options have emerged in the cell phone arena but this low-price-plus-lock-in model remains extremely popular.

There was a time when I thought we’d see the same model applied to e-readers and tablets. I wasn’t the only one speculating that eventually the Kindle’s price would go to zero for consumers willing to commit to purchasing some minimum level of content over a period of time. One example is this sort of offer: “Get a free Kindle when you agree to purchase at least 15 ebooks over the next two years.” The same model can work with any digital content, of course, not just ebooks. So newspapers, magazines and music could have been used to attract consumers.

That never happened and I’m not optimistic it ever will now. Why? Because Amazon doesn’t need this option to grow their business. Amazon is now so powerful it not only influences but also determines the business models for everyone in the ecosystem including publishers and other retailers.

A few years ago it would have made sense for another retailer to try and gain some momentum with a free device that’s subsidized by a content purchase commitment. Fence-sitting consumers might have been more inclined to acquire a free e-reader or tablet even if it meant committing to future content purchases. The ebook retailer market share numbers we see today might be somewhat different if someone not named Amazon would have tested this model a few years ago.

So why is it too late for another retailer to give it a shot? First of all, it would now come across as a Hail Mary, a futile, last-ditch effort to remain relevant.

Second, I don’t think consumers would respond as well as they might have before Amazon added so many elements to Prime membership. Prime not only means free two-day shipping these days. It’s also an alternative to Netflix and Spotify, for example. And even though Amazon’s video and music catalogs aren’t as broad as Netflix or Spotify, most consumers perceive those services as throw-ins to the free two-day shipping that’s still the heart of Prime.

Third, and perhaps more importantly, I think other retailers now know that any model they offer will quickly be copied and likely squashed by Amazon. That may have always been the case but it feels like there’s no less room for retailers to innovate and compete than ever before. Besides, Amazon is (and should be) more focused on making Prime as broad and irresistible as possible and less interested in the more limited goal of free devices to secure future content purchase commitments. Even though Amazon started with books they’re now making more money from people like me because I’m ordering so many other things. They don’t want to be the next Barnes & Noble when they’re on their way to becoming the next Walmart instead.


Making apps a core part of your digital publishing strategy

Arun BentyOn May 15, 2013, Apple celebrated 5 years of the App Store and released some astounding statistics.  Over 50 billion apps have been downloaded and that number jumped to 60 billion just 5 months after that announcement. That’s an average of 800 apps downloaded per second! With Apple paying out $15 billion to developers and December alone recording $3 billion in sales, do publishers need more reasons to look at the app store seriously? Let’s not forget, we haven’t spoken about the Google Play store yet, for which numbers are difficult to come by.

But aren’t customers tuned to buying books from iBooks and apps from app stores?
The answer is no. 10 to 30 times as many books are sold on the app store as compared to iBooks. The iBookstore pales in comparison to the Appstore in terms of traffic. So why would you place your wares in a store that has no footfalls? App Stores have changed the way we buy and install software and this begs the question: Aren’t ebooks software in a sense?

What’s the most important benefit of using apps for publishing?
It’s a common notion among publishers that apps makes sense only if you want to plug in some “interactivity” into your book. But there’s so much more to publishing books as apps than just this. Apps give you direct access to the consumer so it opens the doors to promotions, up-selling and cross-selling. It creates a channel to sell direct and increase margins. With the ever increasing focus on direct-to-consumer methods, apps can help publishers build a relationship with their readers despite the control exerted by dominant ebook retailers. With 90% of book sales driven through word-of-mouth marketing, engaging with your influencers is becoming increasingly important.

Aren’t apps expensive to build and maintain?
Yes, apps are expensive to build and maintain. This is where the Papertrell platform comes in. With an easy to use, feature rich, do-it-yourself app publishing CMS that simultaneously builds for all device platforms natively, Papertrell dramatically reduces the cost of app development and maintenance. It’s a platform that’s built for scale: an interactive app can be repurposed from an ePub file in under 48 hours. The platform also supports tools to import and repurpose from InDesign, PDFs and even blogs.

What about distribution? Isn’t it a complex ecosystem across multiple device platforms?
Manually managing titles across app stores is a complex process. The Papertrell platform takes care of end-to-end app distribution, publishers can now automatically submit or update to 7 different app stores with a single click. This also makes managing price promotions and meta-data management simple across multiple app stores. Publishers have a choice of distibuting as a paid app or as a “collection” of titles within a Shelf app with in-app purchase or subscrition as a payment option. The Shelf is fully cusomtizable with a host of features like banners, collections, a fully-featured EPUB and PDF reader, a cloud synced library, offline access, social reading with Facebook and Twitter integration.

What about updating content?
One of the most important features in Papertrell is the ability to quickly respond to customer issues related to content. App stores are notoriously slow in reviewing apps and this can sometimes kill the chance of an app being successful. A Papertrell app can be updated instantly without the need for time consuming app store reviews and will still work in an offline mode.

Can any type of book be converted to an interactive app using Papertrell?
It’s important to define what we mean by interactivity. Most content apps use audio, video and animations to add interactivity, but Papertrell uses a completely different approach. The idea is use existing book assets and repurpose it into a usable, interactive app without relying too much on “bells and whistles”. There are many instances here and here where this principle has been effectively applied. These are examples of books that contain no multimedia but the products have been repurposed into commercially successful apps by simply “gamefying” the content around usage, for example, unlocking chapters based on the quiz result. This is how “interactivity” is defined in Papertrell.

How scalable is app production in Papertrell? Can the process be automated?
Papertrell automatically ingests content from EPUB and other digital formats into a structured content dictionary using pattern recognition methods. Once the content is mapped, and a template is created, an app can produced from a subsequent EPUB in the same series in a matter of seconds. Here’s an example of a series that was produced using automation. This makes it incredibly easy to quickly make changes to the design and look and feel. The structured content dictionary also helps in reusability as new titles can be easily produced by remixing content across a series.

What sort of publishers are best suited for Papertrell?
Papertrell provides a robust platform for publishers who want to build a direct-to-consumer sales channel. Today this pretty much covers every type of publisher: trade, educational, comics, graphic novels, STM, Illustrated, non-fiction and even B2B publishing. With a range of options available to reach out, acquire, sustain and nurture readers, Papertrell provides depth and breadth in terms of features and flexibility to suit any requirement. Whether it’s creating highly engaging and interactive interpretations of books, social reading, ebook promotion and bundling or direct selling and subscription, Papertrell can play an integral part in your digital publishing strategy.

This article was written by Arun Benty. Arun is responsible for Papertrell's business development and product strategy. He is also the Co-founder and Director of Business Development at Trellisys.net, Papertrell's parent company. He has guided several globally recognized app projects for publishers including HarperCollins and Hachette including The SAS Survival Guide - a Webby Award winning app.


The sorry state of ebook search results

Why is Google so popular and how does it quickly help you find what you’re looking for? It’s all about their algorithm. Google uses a variety of metrics, including how many inbound links a site has, to determine what’s in their search results and how those results are presented.

Imagine Google without their algorithm. Rather than using all these metrics to figure out which site is most relevant, they just give you a list of sites that happen to contain your search phrase. Pretty worthless, right? So why do we accept that same, lame functionality in ebooks today?

Let’s look at an example. I remember reading Jean Edward Smith’s terrific FDR biography awhile back and wanting to go back to re-read the details about Hyde Park. The author provided information about the location earlier and I wanted to find that specific part of the book. Here’s what I got in the Kindle in-book search results:

Hyde park

What an awful user experience. I get every instance of the phrase, listed in the order of appearance in the book. There’s absolutely no indication of how in-depth the coverage of Hyde Park is in any section; I’m left to figure that out on my own.

Now take a look at these search results:

Olive results

There I searched for the phrase “BeagleBone” in a technology book and each of the results has a score associated with them; the results with higher scores offer more in-depth coverage of the topic.

How did I produce those results? They came from an ebook reading platform that does much more than simply reproduce “print under glass.” The content comes into the system as a simple, text-embedded PDF. It’s then analyzed and converted to render in a browser-based reading engine. No third-party apps or plug-ins are required.

The magic is in the content ingestion process. This platform knows when a phrase appears in a first-level heading vs. a second-level heading as well as how many times it appears on that page or in that section. In short, it applies technology to produce a far superior set of search results. 

When will we see this type of functionality in any of the popular ebook reading apps? I’m not holding my breath. The leading vendors apparently don’t see a need to bring their search capabilities out of the dark ages.

If you’d like to learn more about this platform you’ll find summary information here. You’ll also notice it’s the ebook platform solution offered by my employer, Olive Software, Inc. I may not be a book publisher anymore but I’m thrilled to be part of an organization that’s helping lead the industry forward. Relevance-ranked search is just one of the cool innovations that sets us apart. Let me know if you’d like to learn more.


Global Ebook Market Report

TOC is dead but I'm glad to see some elements of it live on. A couple of years ago the TOC team launched the Global Ebook Market Report with Ruediger Wischenbart. Ruediger updated the report once or twice a year and we typically released a major update each October for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The book fair opens this week and I was delighted to see that Ruediger and his team did yet another thorough update to the report for 2013. You'll find all the various formats of it here.

If you're looking for the latest data on ebook momentum by geographic region you'll find all the details in this update. If you want to read what's happening globally regarding popular formats, piracy and pretty much everything else related to ebooks you'll also find it in this report. The best news though is that the Global Ebook Market Report has always been and continues to be free. No cost, no registration, nada.

Do do yourself a favor, download this report right now and start reading. You won't regret it and you'll quickly become an expert on the global ebook marketplace.


Best of TOC

Best of tocIt's challenging keeping up with publishing industry news and analysis. I have way too many content feeds to monitor and I'm sure you do too. We do our best to highlight the most important developments on the TOC website but you're forgiven if you fall behind or miss an article every so often.

Most of analysis on the TOC site is somewhat timeless but the blog format might not make it feel that way. That's why we gathered the best of the best articles and assembled them for you in a handy, to-go version. It's called Best of TOC: Analysis and Ideas about the Future of Publishing. More than 60 of the most thought-provoking articles from the TOC team and community are featured and it's available in EPUB, mobi and PDF formats. Best of all, it's completely free.

If you need to catch up on your TOC reading you no longer have an excuse. Download your copy today and tell us what you think.


What devices and formats do your customers prefer?

Most publishers create ebooks in all formats figuring it doesn't matter whether mobi is more important than EPUB or if the content is read on an iPad more frequently than on a mobile phone. That approach means these publishers have no idea how their content is being consumed. It also means they probably don't have a direct channel to their customers or some other way of polling them on their preferences.

At O'Reilly we like to stay on top of our customer reading habits and preferences. We monitor device and format trends through surveys and download statistics (from our direct sales channel). For example, here's a chart showing which primary and additional devices our customers read our books on:

Devices

As you can see, a computer is the O'Reilly customer's preferred reading device and the Kindle family is a distant second. What I find interesting here is the fact that Android tablets are much more popular reading devices for O'Reilly content than an iPad is. In fact, for our customers the small-screen iPhone/iPod combo is also a much more popular reading device than the iPad. Another interesting tidbit is that the iPad's popularity is almost exclusively as a second option, not the primary reading device.

Now let's look at preferred formats:

Formats

Here we see PDF still dominates; we learned long ago that most of the reading taking place on the computer is with PDFs, not EPUB or mobi files. This is a trend we've seen for years now and PDF doesn't seem to be any closer to relinquishing its format leadership status now than it was back in 2009, for example. And despite the Kindle's popularity EPUB is preferred much more so than mobi.

That begs the question: If the Kindle is such an important device for O'Reilly customers (see first chart), why is mobi a distant 3rd in format popularity? Is it possible our customers are loading their Kindles with PDFs? Sounds like a great question we need to add to our survey...

These charts reflect the preferences of the O'Reilly customer. Unless you also happen to publish technology books I'm pretty sure your results will look different from ours. But are you even taking the time to ask your customers these questions?