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5 posts from July 2012

The Used Ebook Opportunity

I've got quite a few ebooks in two different accounts that I've read and will never read again. I'll bet you do too. In the print world we'd pass those along to friends, resell them or donate them to the local library. Good luck doing any of those things with an ebook.

Once you buy an ebook you're pretty much stuck with it. That's yet another reason why consumers want low ebook prices. They're lacking some of the basic features of a print book so of course they should be lower-priced. I realize that's not the only reason consumers want low ebook prices, but it's definitely a contributing factor. I'd be willing to pay more for an ebook if I knew I could pass it along to someone else when I'm finished with it.

The opportunity in the used ebook market isn't about higher prices though. It's about expanding the ebook ecosystem.

The used print book market helps with discovery and affordability. The publisher and author already got their share on the initial sale of that book. Although they may feel they're losing the next sale I'd argue that the content is reaching an audience that probably wouldn't have paid for the original work anyway, even if the used book market didn't exist.

But rather than looking at the used book world as an annoyance, it's time for publishers to think about the opportunities it could present for ebooks. I've written and spoken before about how used ebooks could have more functionality than the original edition. You could take this in the other direction as well and have the original ebook with more rich content than the version the customer is able to either resell or pass along to a friend; if the used ebook recipient wants to add the rich content back in they could come back to the publisher and buy it.

As long as we look at the used market through the lens of print products we'll never realize all the options it has to offer in the econtent world. That's why we should be willing to experiment. In fact, I'm certain one or more creative individuals will come up with new ways to think about (and distribute) used ebooks that we never even considered.

PW recently featured an article about ReDigi, a startup that "lets you store, stream, buy and sell pre-owned digital music." As the article points out, ebooks are next on ReDigi's priority list. Capitol Records is suing to shut ReDigi down. I suspect the publishing industry will react the same way. Regardless of whether ReDigi is operating within copyright law I think there's quite a bit we can learn from their efforts. That's why I plan to reach out to them this week to see if we can include them in an upcoming TOC event.

Btw, even if ReDigi disappears you can bet this topic won't. Amazon makes loads of money in the used book market and Jeff Bezos is a smart man. If there's an opportunity in the used ebook space you can bet he'll be working on it to further reinforce Amazon's dominant position.

Why Aren't E-Reading Devices Smarter?

I'm sinking in ebook samples. I've stored so many articles that I cringe when I open Instapaper. I almost forgot I'm only halfway through Walter Isaacson's book about Steve Jobs. In fact, there are at least three other ebooks I started and pretty much forgot about finishing. They've just fallen off my radar.

What's wrong with this picture?

I'm drowning in econtent and I'll bet you are too. My nook's user interface is similar to the Kindle's. Virtual shelves are considered a revolutionary content management technique. Really? Why are we so focused on replicating the physical world in the e-reading world? Shelves work fine for print books but why should we limit ourselves to that solution for ebooks? These devices we're reading on are capable of so much more!

Today's e-reading devices are the equivalent of yesterday's dumb terminals. Let's make 'em smarter! I want one with an econtent manager that has the following capabilities:

  1. Let me create a reading schedule and help me manage it. I'm currently in the middle of reading at least 4 different books on my nook. The problem is I only seem to focus my attention on 2 or 3 in any given week. This econtent manager should let me tell it what books I want to prioritize on my reading list and nudge me every day to tend to each one. Let me configure it to text me on my phone if I fall too far behind, for example. Rather than presenting me with a set of shelves and an ordering of the most recent ebooks I've opened I want something that's far more powerful and helps me stay on top of all of my econtent.
  2. Don't let me forget about samples. Sample content management is pathetic on all the major ebook platforms. Seriously. I've told B&N that I'm interested in a title and they're content to simply toss the short sample my way and never follow-up. I've got samples that are really old now and I've forgotten about them. Let's have a feature in this manager that knows when I downloaded every sample and, based on how I configure it, reminds me to check them out. For example, I'd love it if my nook would tell me I've got 4 samples that are now a month old and I've never even opened them. You'd think the ebook retailers would see the benefit of this service, especially since it would only lead to more conversions from free downloads to purchased ebooks. And let me subscribe to samples! I love baseball. Go ahead and send me the sample for every new baseball ebook as it's published. Don't worry...I'll delete the ones I don't care for.
  3. Tap into my Instapaper acount. Why do I have to go from ebook reader app to Instapaper app to read all the interesting web pages I've saved? Can we please just do this all in the ereader app?! And be sure to integrate this with the reading schedule feature outlined in point #1. So let me prioritize which Instapaper articles I need to read today, this week or this month. Better yet, how about we just cut out the middleman and just give me a "Send to..." option in every browser on every device and platform I use? A quick click of that button in my browser means that page will be pushed to my nook's new content manager and ready for me to read the next time I turn it on.

Today's ebook platforms are pretty hard to distinguish. I switched from a Kindle to a nook earlier this year and didn't notice any difference. This is an opportunity for everyone who's not in first place (B&N, Apple, Google or Kobo) to rise above all the others. They should push aside the physical world metaphors, leverage the capabilities of a digital device and help their customers manage their content and achieve their reading goals.

Can You Force a Customer to Buy Print Instead of E?

That's the question I kept asking myself as I read a report called The Impact of Ebook Distribution on Print Sales: Analysis of a Natural Experiment by Jeff Hu and Mike Smith. You'll notice that the report was originally written a couple of years ago but I believe the results would be the same today.

Back in 2010 there was some debate about whether a publisher could maximize revenue by delaying the release of an ebook. So just as paperback release follows hardback release the thinking was the ebook's release should come out after the print book so that customers would have to buy the higher-priced print, not the lower-priced ebook.

Thanks to a unique opportunity to work with a publisher who stopped releasing new ebooks for two months in 2010 the authors were able to analyze the sales impact of delayed ebook availability. Their conclusion: Delaying the ebook only works for the best-sellers. As the authors put it:

For popular books, delaying ebook release dates leads to a significant substitution toward print books. In contrast, for niche books, that do not have strong brand awareness among consumers, we find an insignificant substitution toward print books when ebook release dates are delayed. [Further,] the net effect of delayed Kindle releases is an overall loss in sales and, based on the best available data, a net loss in revenue and profit to the publisher.

That makes sense. I'm pretty sure if the Harry Potter series was only available on stone tablets they would have sold just as many copies. On the other hand, all those other books out there with either delayed ebook releases or, more importantly, no ebook releases, are leaving money on the table. That last point is the most important takeaway for me.

I scanned the B&N top 100 (print bestsellers) as I wrote this and I saw that every title in the top 20 had a nook edition. Once you get past the top 20 it's hit and miss. You find more gaps when you look in certain subject areas. I still come across titles from time to time where there's no ebook edition. There aren't very many publishers playing the delay game these days but there are some who are still on the ebook sidelines.

Then you have the authors who insist on a print-only option. OK, you can get away with that if your name is Stephen King. He's an enormous brand and can use his clout to force readers to print...or at least most of them. I wonder how long it will take for someone to scan King's Joyland and post it on all the torrent sites. I'm not encouraging that, of course, but I do believe that you can reduce piracy if you offer your content at a reasonable price in all the popular formats. Although King's intent is to provide a reading experience from the old days I'm convinced it will only increase piracy of the title and cause him to complain that ebooks and ebook customers are evil.

As a publisher I believe we should make sure that our content is available in every storefront possible, both physical and virtual. It's amazing to me that in 2012 we still see so many books that are only available in print format.

A Better Lending Library Model

I wrote earlier about what I don't like about Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library program (think pay-for-performance) and a recent interview I did with Logos CEO Bob Pritchett helped crystalize where this model is (hopefully) heading.

First of all, I now figure Amazon could just leave the flat fee mode in place for those publishers who are OK with it. Obviously there are some smaller publishers who feel they don't need pay-for-performance and they're happy with the flat fees Amazon offered. But since the service is missing content from so many other publishers Amazon needs to start thinking about other options for this program.

As Bob Pritchett mentioned in that interview, the cable TV model is a good one to follow here. Think of the existing Lending Library program as basic cable. It's part of the Amazon Prime subscription package and doesn't cost the customer any more to access the current library of books. But just as there are sports packages and movie packages for cable TV, Amazon should offer verticals content packages and charge add-on fees.

I read a lot of sports books and I'd gladly pay $10/month for unlimited access to baseball, hockey, etc., books from all the publishers missing from Amazon's current Library program. I also like to read books on U.S. history and would be willing to pay an additional $10/month for unlimited access to this list as well. So that's $20/month, or $240/year I'd pay for this sort of program. Btw, that's actually more than what I pay every year for sports and history ebooks. So why would I pay more for this than I do today?

Two reasons: selection and what I'll call "dud avoidance." Both of those reasons are somewhat related. Even though I never buy an ebook till I've read the free sample I still find books I lose interest in beyond the sample end point. Sometimes I feel guilty about the purchase and force myself to finish. Other times I just delete the book from my device and try to forget about it. In an all-you-can-eat, monthly subscription model though I'd be more willing to try (and potentially abandon) books that don't disappoint me till I get past the sample material. And since there would be so many more choices available that don't cost any more to explore (because of the monthly flat fee) I'm likely to expand my reading and discovery horizons.

Pay for performance is key here. As a publisher I'd want to make sure my authors are getting compensated based on how popular their books are. That's how it works in the print world and that's how it works with the better ebook subscription programs (e.g., Safari Books Online). And since Amazon would be charging more for these verticals (as opposed to just stretching that $79 Prime subscription even further) they should be willing to pass that revenue along to publishers using a pay-for-performance rev share model. If they don't, I hope B&N, Apple, Google or some other ebook publisher will step up to the plate and offer this type of package.

I Want Instapaper for Newsletters

Instapaper is one of those apps I use every day. My email inbox often includes links to "must-read" articles recommended by others and I rarely have time to read them immediately. Instapaper lets me read them later on whatever device I have in front of me.

I'm noticing a similar problem with newsletters. I subscribe to a bunch of them and I don't always have the time to read all the interesting links they point to. I can open each link and quickly send it to Instapaper but even that starts to become time-consuming, especially if the newsletter has 5, 10 or more links.

So here's a great business opportunity for Instapaper (or for someone else who wants to connect it to Instapaper). It starts by me providing the following:

  1. My Instapaper credentials.
  2. A list of all the newsletters I subscribe to.

In return, this service will do the following:

  1. Sign up to receive all the same newsletters.
  2. As each newsletter issue arrives, scan it and push the blog posts, articles, etc., it contains into my Instapaper account. Rather than just dumping all this into the root directory of my account, create folders for each newsletter to improve navigation.

Pretty simple, right? Does something like this already exist and I just haven't discovered it? This would be a big time-savings for me and would also help me avoid missing any interesting articles. I could just do a quick Instapaper sync on my phone, tablet or whatever device I want and know that all those newsletter articles will be there waiting for me, even if I'm heading into a wifi-free zone.

As I said, this isn't something we need to rely on Instapaper to implement. It could easily be a third-party service that connects to Instapaper accounts.

So will someone please create this as soon as possible? It's a service I'd gladly pay for and I'll bet others would too.