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Kindling eBooks

With the Amazon Kindle ebook reader announcement increasingly looking like it is imminent, and with a review at Ars Tecnica of the latest generation Sony ebook reader ready to stoke a smoldering fire, it is an interesting time to speculate about the future direction and utility of ebook readers.

Booksquare today had an interesting muse about what makes the ebook experience potentially viable, and it is not the kind of DRM-laden entrapment that many vendors are providing now. Rather, the model should be that developed in other content areas, such as video.

[Start] with the expectation that media — whatever kind — will be accessible on demand. For my money, no matter what cool this or that is launched by major entertainment media, it’s the YouTube model that exemplifies today’s environment. Love it, hate it, don’t understand it, YouTube works. You don’t have to do anything special to access programming. This “just works” ability is what today’s consumer desires … and it’s the base level expectation of today’s youth.

The blog’s authors observe how potentially capable the Apple iPhone is as a platform for ebooks, with its native support for reflowable text (including, potentially, IDPF’s ebook format, .epub). But with Amazon pushing Kindle hard, how much attention is being paid to alternative channels, such as the iPhone, or the not-quite-here-yet promise of Google’s open stack, Android?

Quick show of hands: how many publishers out there are actively engaged in discussions with Apple to ensure that the iTunes store stocks and promotes ebooks? Making sure that the iPhone has the right technology to facilitate reading ebooks? Or heck, any other kind of text? How many of you are making your voices heard when it comes to making certain that iPhone customers are able to download and read books on their phones?

With the bevy of press starting to ride herd on the new generation of dedicated readers, I’ve begun to try to think through how I feel about their potential success or failure, with the inevitable comparisons to the iPod and the music industry. (Alert! Speculation rampant below!).

I think, on reflection, that the comparison between audio (and video?) and book acquisition is less apt than it might seem at first glance. Given the extant media packaging within each sector, there was innately a higher barrier to the goal of acquisition and use in the music — compared to the book — industry, with the possible exception of a few select publishing markets. With growing digital options, the “LP album” as a compilation of tracks quickly became an obviously inefficient, undesirable bundling of content, screaming for disaggregation; perhaps the closest counterpart in the publishing industry, reference works including cookbooks, travel lit, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, have similarly and thoroughly escaped their legacy bounds; in these cases the conversion to print was not merely literal, but transformative.

In contrast, when one considers long form narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, there is less of an impetus to migrate from print use except for the possible advantage of portability and more extensive support for visually handicapped readers; on the flip side, there exist some non-trivial barriers (drm, format wars, etc.) to electronic access. Exceptions to this equation tend to be concentrated in areas where consumption modes are inherently mass-market, and where volume exists in transactions; Harlequin may well be the single most successful ebook publisher in the market today. Replicating their striking success through niche markets, or across smaller-impact imprints, is likely to prove difficult.

One might argue that until text-based book production, as a creative process, turns more mixed media, and lends sufficient scaffolding for user generated content, re-use, and re-publication, the appeal of any dedicated, standalone device will be weak. Instead, it will be easier to generate marginal cross book-sector penetration with mixed-use devices (iPhone/gPhone) in which reflowable text/html formats (such as epub) are a straightforward application.

Not coincidentally, it is these same devices that will most readily support the envisioning and enactment of new forms of creative expression, ranging from discursive texts which mutually engage authors and readers; location-sensitive rich-media manga with self-selected forking plots; narratives with multiple entry points and randomized outcomes; hybrid reality games where communication, collaboration, and interaction occur in a combination of physical and the digital spaces; and artistry that we cannot yet imagine.

Maybe the Kindle and Sony devices will be successful; if so, I think it is likely to be a short-term success, a last gasp of a long-enduring form of socially constructed content packaging rendered anew in digital form. Unfortunately, current ebook manifestations lack the emotive sensitivities of the old, without taking advantage of the opportunities of the new, both in terms of consumer experience and in their power to inform and entertain. How we read will be transformed as much as what we read.

Intrinsically, what will ultimately make devices a success is their openness to hacking and experimentation – although content publishers and distributors might not want to hear it, that is ultimately what will make the market.

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  • After testing the iLiad for quite some time (and having sqome quick trials with other eBook readers)
    i came to the conclusion that these readers are good for carrying Manuals (maybe even O’reilly Books), but mass market devices have to be more versatile and based on existing technlogies most important lcd screens.

    I also had a couple of talks with newspaper publishers/editors. They were quite positive about eBook readers 1-2 years ago. But today even they complain about lacking color and video capabilities

    Owning the iPod touch now for a couple of weeks, i definitely prefer the Books application to all eBook readers i tested.

    So my perfect eBook device now looks a lot like a iTouch enlarged to a A5 size, staying as slim as the iTouch. This device definitely would also be a definite couch surfing, video watching in bed, … device.

    All engineering is already doen. Apple just has to decide that there is a big enough market.

  • Mike Olson

    I own the first-generation Sony eBook reader. I travel with it, and like the fact that I’ve got a library of books in my laptop bag, rather than one or two to see me through my trip. The digital-ink display is magic — looks like print and uses very little power.

    The device has a number of problems, though. The pushbutton controls on the front panel are confusing. Why are there two ways to turn a page? The joystick-and-menu control confuses every new user I show the device to.

    Most important, though, the electronic format should offer ways to exploit structure. I want search inside the book. I want to navigate easily among chapters and pages. I want to be able to annotate the text with notes.

    Sony’s done an excellent job of shipping a display device that runs for a week of regular use on a single charge. The trade-off is that there’s no CPU horsepower in the device.

    I agree with Gerd Kamp in his comment. Sony’s got some interesting technology here, but I’d like to see it manufactured by Apple.

    Perhaps Apple’s consumer marketing muscle could also convince publishers to make content available. I enjoy re-reading Dickens, and I am glad that Project Gutenberg exists, but I’d like some O’Reilly new releases, too!

  • Doug

    I am giving away my great idea in the hope that someone will actually make use of it. I never will (too attached to my paycheck to be an entrepreneur).

    There is a chicken and egg problem. There are not enough titles to make it worthwhile to buy an ebook reader. The price is too high for people to buy one and maybe never use it. What is needed is a way for people to try the ebook, and see if they like it.

    The ebook companies need to get user feedback to improve the devices. But there are not that many users. Why build a million ebooks when there are not that many titles, and why publish in ebook format when there are not that many ebook readers.

    Here is the idea: rent travelers ebooks. Do this by putting ebook vending machines in airports. $15 for an ebook rental, already loaded with four or five magazines, and custom loaded with one novel. Publishers may even pay you to but teaser blurbs for ‘other’ books you may like based on your selection. The user can customize their selection, the book is loaded and dispensed.

    Take it on a trip. Drop it back into the machine on your return.

    If it is not returned in 30 days, charge the credit card full price of the ebook.

    Now people can try it, see if they like it. If the vendor is smart, they get an email address, ask the users how to make it better, and improve the reader. Even offer to sell them one at a discount.

    That is my idea. Please, someone take it and run with it.

  • Peter,

    I agree with Gerd Kamp that the iPhone or some other multifunction device is the way people will read ebooks. And I agree with Mike Olson that the electronic should be at least as functional as a paper book for searching and annotating. And Doug is dead right when he says that todays devices cost more than anyone should ever be willing to pay.

    Where I want to add something new is this The Kindle is supposed to be cool because it is connected to a network. And the iPhone is connected to a network. Even the iPod touch is loosely connected to the network through the iTunes Sync. In today’s blogging, commenting, tagging, social networking world there is something new. The ability to have a web page for the book or chapter or magazine article. Even if this web page does not have the full contents it can serve as an anchor point for the social network. This can be as simple as a way to dog ear a page while reading and then come back latter and categorize your own marks. Export a citation to a section of text or something else.

    What will in my estimation trigger the cascade of the use of ebooks is not a new device, but a business model that separates the book from the device entirely. User will want to slide content from screen to screen depending on what else they are doing. (we are all always multi-tasking) Fro example, I read the news on my blackberry as soon as the train emerges from underground. (Sites that chop news into tinny bits with lots of next buttons are not doing me any favors when the 7 heads underground. But at home I go to the laptop in the kitchen to read the paper. And Find the Blackberry the wrong screen for reading at home.

    A couple other things. Not only do we need reflowable type. we need resizable type. I sit int he kids playroom in chair leaning back my face is at least four feet from the screen and it is comfortable to read for long periods. Unless changing the browser setting to make the font larger distorts the whole page (and I mean you NYTimes). So in all of this the current approach to DRM is the single thing making it impossible to move content easily from screen to screen. and therefore DRM is the thing preventing real adoption of ebooks.

  • ncarter

    Here’s my post for all ebook publishers, reading device designers and industry marketers out there.

    First, my demographic info: I’m a white, middle class, middle aged, college educated female who has become a complete ebook devotee from the moment I discovered them two years ago. I buy an average of two books a month (mostly mysteries and popular fiction by my 10-15 favorite authors) from Fictionwise in the Mobipocket format and download them to my windows-based smart phone (Palm Treo 700w).

    The key things I love about ebooks are:
    1) as a form of entertainment, it’s instant gratification: if I’m talking with a friend on the phone and she tells me about a great new author she’s just discovered, I can turn to my computer and download the book from Mobipocket in two minutes. I don’t have to write down the author & title on a bit of paper, then make sure I put it in my wallet, then remember it’s there when I get to the bookstore 2 weeks later. I can also download four books in 5 minutes on my way out the door to catch a plane for vacation (like I did two weeks ago).

    The speedy factor is made possible by the lovely folks at Fictionwise and Mobipocket: they’ve definitely the most user-friendly (even if their website is in desperate need of a make-over). They’ve managed to take the pain out of the technology – like YouTube it just works.

    2) I love having one device with everything on it. I have my audio books, music and ebooks all on my Treo which makes life simple. The backlighting makes it easy to read in bed or on a darkened airplane without disturbing others. I was curious about the Sony Reader and played with it in a Sony store for 20 minutes a year ago, but thought nope, too expensive, and I don’t want to carry around multiple devices anymore. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on an iphone, but am having to wait as I live in Canada. My only concern about the iphone is the battery power: the Treo has seemingly endless battery power and I would HATE to be reading and worrying about running out of power.

    3) Ebooks cut down on the clutter of books in my home, and they’re environmentaly friendly.

    I still buy reference books in hard copy, but for a fun, relaxing read there’s nothing as good as an ebook.

    My advice to designers is to really think about the consumer and to know the different markets. Crotchety techno-phobes like me will embrace a new technology WHEN IT MAKES SENSE IN MY LIFE. It can’t be mired in DRM annoyances and it doesn’t need to have a lot of bells and whistles. My idea of heaven is relaxing with a great story, and ebooks have made this experience easier and more enjoyable than ever.

  • “Harlequin may well be the single most successful ebook publisher in the market today.”

    So they’re making some real money from this? Can you provide any pointers to some background (rough sales figures, quotes from strategy people there, etc.)?

  • One of the peculiarities of the Kindle (and other e-book readers) is that the only people who will buy it are almost certainly already avid readers. Publishers hope it will add another revenue stream (like audiobooks) but the real prize would be growing the market for books, not dividing the same market up among formats competing for the same dollars.

    Currently publishers give away hundreds of advanced reader copies of the books they publish. A large newspaper gets hundreds a week and runs reviews of maybe three or four (if that) and the rest go into the landfill or are sold or given away. (Oh no! Escaping content!!) Now that review space is shrinking, they’re giving ARCs to readers through contests and places like Library Thing (again, reaching the audience that already is sold on books).

    I don’t understand why the industry is worried about the spread of the same books in electronic form.

    They seem terrified they will face the kind of “piracy” problem as the music industry. They should be worried they’re acting too much like the music industry instead. It’s pretty obvious that won’t work.

  • Malle

    In response to Bob’s question about the statement “Harlequin may well be the single most successful ebook publisher in the market today.”

    I was going to reply yesterday but got so involved reading about the Kindle that the day slipped away.

    I’m the Director of Digital Content & Interactivity at Harlequin and have been working on our eBook program since our launch in October 2005. Since that time we have moved from publishing 9 titles a month to our entire frontlist plus more: approx 140 titles a month. This has all been due to our customer response. Our customers are avid readers it is not surprising that they are among the first to embrace eBooks, because it is part of a reading experience along with benefits: convenience, portability, immediacy. By being the first publisher with a 100% eBook frontlist we hope that we are helping forge the path for other publishers and consumers on the digital road that offers consumers ultimate choice in format.

    Sometimes audio works for me; sometimes a bound book; and very frequently an eBook. It’s about giving the customer choice.

  • I think ebooks will fill a niche that folks aren’t considering. Does anyone remember the old days when serious books were hardbound, and paperbacks were the cheap, disposable way to try out a book before you bought the hardback?

    *crickets chirp*

    Er. Anyway, I see ebooks as the new cheap pulp paperbacks. For publishers, they are an easy way to take a chance on new writers, and for readers to take a chance on writers they’ve never tried before without sinking $14.95 on a PoD TPB, 8 bucks on a mass market paperback, and so on.

    I also see ebooks really taking a bite out of the periodicals market. I asked for (and recieved, thanks sweetie) a Kindle for Christmas for the express purpose of subscribing to several newspapers, without adding to the disposal problems of the two real papers I already get. Auto-delivered ebooks are a perfect match for this. My papers are (or will be, when I subscribe) delivered wirelessly to my Kindle. I can read them, then throw them out – or store them on the SD card – at my leisure. Magazines aren’t quite so good a fit, as often their color illustrations are more important.

    I agree that for ebooks to really take off, there needs to be a standard for formatting. Hopefully, this would be one that continues to make the text available even if the higher functions (color images, sound, etc) aren’t supported on a given device.

    Anyway. My two cents.

    -JRS

  • E-reading can be handled by the kindle and other devices like the iPhone (my fav! but the batter won’t last me through 3 chapters!), so what about the future of “p-reading” (p = physical)? We’ve still got plenty of people looking to read paperbacks and hardcovers because they either can’t afford an e-device or love the feel of a book. These books are getting increasingly expensive (average NY Times Bestseller is $22, all the way up to $39 per book) so people have begun to look for other book distribution alternatives to lower their costs.

    This is where netflix-like book rental companies, such as Bookswim, enter — http://www.bookswim.com. No due dates, no late fees, and free shipping both ways is a good alternative to expensive book purchasing, and a good transition before ebooks really start to fly.

    I’m looking forward to the redesign of the Kindle. Let’s see how this increases the spread of ebooks.

    -George Burke
    Founder, BookSwim.com