Previous month:
February 2012
Next month:
April 2012

4 posts from March 2012

Rethinking Samples

I'm bored with ebook samples. I feel like I'm collecting a bunch and then forgetting about most of them. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone and I'm even more certain this adds up to a ton of missed sales opportunities. Although this would be impossible to prove, my gut tells me the revenue missed by not converting samples into sales is a much larger figure than the revenue lost to piracy. And yet the publishing industry spends a small fortune every year in DRM but treats samples as an afterthought.

Think about it. Someone who pulls down a sample is already interested in your product. They're asking you to win them over with the material you provide. Far too often though that material is nothing more than the frontmatter and a few pages of the first chapter. Some of the samples I've downloaded don't even go past the frontmatter. I'm looking for something more.

Let's start with the index. Would it really be that hard to add the index to ebook samples? No. And yet I've never seen a sample with the index included. Sure, many of these books have indexes that can be viewed separately on the ebook's catalog page, but why not include them in the sample? Give me a sense of what amount of coverage I can expect on every topic right there in the sample.

How about taking it up a notch? Give me the first X pages of the full content, include the entire index at the end and in between include the rest of the book, but have every other word or two X'd out? That way I can flip through the entire book and get a better sense of how extensively each topic is covered. Btw, if the entire book is included like this then the index can include links back to the pages they reference.

Next up, why do I have to search and retrieve samples? Why can't they be configured to automatically come to me? After awhile a retailer should be able to figure out a customer's interests. So why not let that customer opt in to auto sample delivery of ebooks that match their interests? I love baseball. Send me the samples of every new baseball book that comes out. I've got plenty of memory available in my e-reader and I can delete any samples I don't want. I've also mentioned this before but it's worth saying again: How about letting me subscribe to samples from specific authors? Again, it would be an opt-in program but I wonder how many interesting books I've missed because I didn't discover the sample.

Finally, this problem doesn't appear till after the sample is converted into a sale but why can't the newly downloaded ebook open up to where I left off in the sample? Seriously, this has got to be one of the easiest annoyances to fix, so why hasn't anyone taken the time to do so?

B&N's Nook Platform is Rough Around the Edges

Now that I've abandoned Amazon I need to find an alternate ebook retailer. Even though I'm switching platforms I have no desire to buy someone else's dedicated e-reader. My plan is to do more reading on my new Asus Android tablet. B&N was my first choice but my initial results have been very disappointing.

The Nook ebook buying experience is similar to Amazon with two exceptions: the number of customer reviews and topic subcategories. Most reports indicate B&N has no more than half the ebook market share that Amazon does. That translates into considerably fewer customer reviews for most titles on I don't base all of my purchase decisions on customer reviews but I always feel more confident when I see a larger sampling.

It's more the awkward navigation and lack of subcategory depth in the Nook app that really disappoints me though. I enjoy reading about WWII and the Kindle app lets me drill down with the following menu structure: History->Military->WWII. The nook app, on the other hand, only offers this sequence: History->Military History. That's it. There's no WWII option, so the resulting page shows all wars lumped together. And there's no going back one level with the Nook app. If you accidentally selected Military History when you really wanted another option on the History list you're out of luck and you have to start over.

Also like Amazon, B&N has created a series of reader apps you can use on other platforms. I use a Mac every day, so I try Nook for Mac. No dice. It downloads and installs but won't run on my Mac (running Snow Leopard). It turns out I'm not the only one with this problem. This thread on B&N's own forum features posts from other frustrated users who can't find a solution. The last entry on that thread was from a couple of months ago and was a desperate plea from someone else who's been waiting weeks for a solution. Btw, if you run into this problem you might want to follow that thread's advice about using Nook Study instead. It's apparently intended for students but it looks like anyone can use it. Why don't they just fix the Nook for Mac bug though?

After all that the Nook app on my tablet partially forgot who I am. Despite having bought a couple of books and downloaded a number of samples the app suddenly showed absolutely nothing in my library. This, despite the fact that when I went into the settings it still showed me logged in as well as my AMEX card info. I had to play around a bit with the app and finally got it to recognize my content again after a few screen refreshes.

The reading experience in the Android app is very similar to what you find with Amazon's Kindle app for Android. At least that part of the Nook experience was free of any annoying problems. But, if B&N is really trying to compete with Amazon for a leadership role in the ebook space it's clear they've got a lot of work to do with their Android and Mac apps.

Thoughts on eBook Pricing

With all the buzz about the agency model, the Justice Department, allegations of collusion, etc., I figure the time is right for a post about ebook pricing. Here are some quick thoughts as both a consumer and a publisher:

Eliminating waste is always a good thing -- Walmart has mastered this for years. They squeeze every bit of waste out of the supply chain and generally end up with the lowest prices. I'm a frequent Walmart customer and I greatly appreciate this. In fact, the only people who don't like this are (a) other retailers who can't match those prices and (b) ecosystem players who are part of the waste that's being eliminated, including suppliers. 

Loss leaders are a great retail model -- Selling some products at or below cost is a great way to bring customers in the door, regardless of whether that door is physical or virtual. I'm sure I've bought many cartons of milk at a loss for the retailer who made it up by selling me other items at a nice profit. It's a model that works, but have you ever seen a store that sells most of their products at a loss, every day?

Taking loss leadership to a new level -- Remember when Amazon first launched the Kindle and pretty much every ebook was $9.99? It's no secret that Amazon was losing money on the majority of those sales. In fact, they still are. Prior to the agency model Amazon was free to set whatever customer price they wanted for ebooks, even if it meant they were selling every single one of them at a loss. That brings up the razor/blades model, where it's not unusual for the razor to be sold at a loss but the profit is made on the sale of the blades. So if ebooks are the razors what are the blades? The ereader device? According to iSuppli, the Fire's manufacturing cost is slightly higher than its retail price. How long can a retailer stay in business when they're losing money on both the razors and the blades? Presumably they're making some money on other products they're selling (e.g., shoes, electronics, etc.) Perhaps. Then again, if they have deep enough pockets they can continue selling all their products at a loss till the cash dries up. In the mean time, competitors will find it difficult, if not impossible, to compete, so they'll disappear. What happens after that? Do prices remain low as products are still sold at a loss? Not if that company wants to stay in business.

The agency model prevents brand erosion -- Think of the premium products you've bought or admired. Oftentimes their prices are higher than most of the competition's. What would happen if those prices were suddenly significantly reduced? Would those products retain the full value of their premium brand? Highly unlikely. And shouldn't the owner of that brand have a say in what price is associated with it? Again, it's OK for a short-term loss-leader model but I'm talking about selling something at or below cost for years and years, not just for a day or two. Over time the value of that brand is affected. That's why I think publishers should definitely have the option to go with the agency model so they can manage retail prices and not let their brand lose value. Btw, consumers will ultimately vote with their wallets. If they feel the publisher's prices are too high they'll stop buying and that publisher will either need to make adjustments or go out of business.

Fixed prices vs. price-fixing -- In the U.S. we're so used to competitive retailer discounts that we're surprised to hear of the fixed price models used in other countries. For example, in Germany the price you pay for a book doesn't change from one retailer to the next. They're all required to sell them at the same price. Obviously there's a huge difference between Germany's fixed price law and the price-fixing the Justice Department is alleging. Germany's model doesn't lend itself to squeezing out waste like the U.S. model but I'll bet it prevents one deep-pocketed retailer from putting their competitors out of business.

I don't work at a big six publisher but I believe publishers should have the option to choose between the agency and wholesale models. The key issue though is that the Justice Department has suggested that Apple and a number of publishers colluded to keep prices high. I think this article by Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal sums it up quite nicely, particularly in the closing two paragraphs. Read that piece and ask yourself if the Justice Department's efforts will actually fix or merely add to an existing problem.

What's your opinion of the pricing questions and allegations currently facing the book publishing industry?

My iPad Replacement

The name is a mouthful: Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime. Don't confuse that with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer. Yes, the Prime is the newer generation device. Maybe they should have just called it "Prime." Either way, it's the new tablet in my life and, for the most part, I love it. If you're interested in buying one all I can say is "good luck." They're extremely hard to find. I got mine at my local Fry's. It was the last one in stock and it had already been opened. They gave me the same warranty as an unopened one though, so I was delighted to get it there.

After a few weeks of use here are the pros and cons I've found to owning an Asus Transformer Prime:


Android -- Jumping from iOS to Android is a liberating experience. You definitely have the sense that you're getting more access to the device's capabilities and that you're more in control. Also, I've downloaded and installed a few dozen apps on the Prime and my Android phone (Samsung Galaxy S II) and I've never spent a penny on a single one. There's a downside to that too, of course (see below).

Unique device combo -- The Prime comes as a tablet in a box, just like the iPad. But Asus takes you a step further by offering a keyboard accessory that fits the Prime like a glove. It's a $150 option, which means that buying it makes the Prime a higher-priced option than an iPad, but it's worth it. Those who say a tablet should exist without a keyboard are wrong. I find the combination of keyboard and touch screen outstanding and, of course, you can always disconnect the keyboard if you want a standalone tablet.

Battery life -- The battery in the Prime lasts longer than the one in my first-gen iPad. But if you get the keyboard accessory you suddenly have access to much more power. That's right. The keyboard has a battery inside as well. Asus claims the two together will give you 18 hours of power but I'm finding it to be more like 12-14 hours, max; and that's while using wifi and actively using the device, not letting it drop into sleep mode. So if you're looking for a powerful tablet that won't run out of juice on a long overseas flight it's hard to find anything better than this one. (Bonus: I can recharge my Android phone from the keyboard battery, so it's like having my own tiny power plant on a plane. I wonder if I could start selling charges to other desperate passengers...)

Expandability -- Where's the SD slot on the iPad? That's a trick question, of course, as Apple doesn't want you to add memory to it. I had to make plenty of compromises on my iPad because of this limitation. The amount of video I could keep on it was limited and I never bothered putting my music on because it would have taken up more than half the iPad's memory. That's no problem with the Prime. In fact, Asus goes a bit overboard here. You'll find a microSD slot on the tablet and a full SD slot on the keyboard. The memory upgrade options on the Prime are endless.

Speed -- Can you say "quad core processor"? That's what you get with the Prime and that means it's a screamer. You'll notice the impressive speed while you're downloading apps or running a whole bunch of them at the same time. 


Android -- OK, Android has it's plusses and minues. As I mentioned above, I haven't paid for a single app. There are plenty of paid ones out there but none that I need. And even some of the paid apps in the iOS ecosystem are free (or have free equivalents) in Android. So if developers aren't making much money on Android what's the incentive for them to continue building on that platform? That's an important problem that needs to be fixed. At this point though, I'm starting to feel like I should never have to pay for an app; that's not a good model for Android's long-term viability, at least if the goal is to have a rich app ecosystem.

Missing key apps -- Speaking of apps, I really miss both Zite and Flipboard. Zite is definitely an app I'd gladly pay for on Android. I feel like Google is asleep at the wheel on this aspect of the platform. They seem to want to let the app world develop on its own but I think it desperately needs an injection from that mountain of cash Google is sitting on to push it over the top. Would it really cost Google that much to pay developers to port some of the key apps from iOS to Android? No, but it would make a world of difference in the platform's app experience. And while they're at it, why not invest in a couple of totally new apps that don't exist on iOS. Isn't it worth Google's time/money to create a killer Android app or two? I think so.

App glitches -- This is probably where Apple shines the brightest. Every so often I'll open an app that thinks I'm in portrait mode when I'm really holding the tablet in landscape mode. Sure, some apps require one mode or the other and that's fine. What I'm talking about is a situation where certain app operations flip the orientation for no good reason. It might be when I'm tweaking the settings or doing something else and I have to awkwardly hold the Prime (with keyboard attached) at a 90 degree angle to read it. Silly. I guess there's a good reason why Apple has a review process for their apps while pretty much anything can get into the Android app Market.

Do I miss my iPad? A bit. But I still have visitation privileges on evenings and weekend when I'm home so I still get my Zite fix from time to time. Do I regret spending more for this Prime+keyboard than a comparable iPad? No way. I'm thoroughly enjoying the experience and trying to figure out how I can move all my docs to the cloud and start leaving my MacBook Pro at home.