Along with my registration materials for the London Book Fair (sent to me by mail — a sign of how traditional most of the publishing industry remains) was a ticket to something called the "London eBook Show at the London Book Fair."
At first glance, I was excited to see that ebooks would be featured so prominently at the Fair, but a closer look showed it was actually just a (brilliant) tactic from the folks at DNAML, ebooks to get bodies to their booth. The "show" was a presentation from DNAML’s US GM Peter Kent about DNL’s take on the future of ebooks (a future that unsurprisingly prominently features their software …). If anyone’s looking for a case study on effective trade show booth promotion, talk to these guys. It was quite impressive to see folks
lined queued (I am in London) up with tickets in hand for the "show." While the overall message was right on target, there were several points of the presentation that don’t quite mesh with the future of publishing as we’ve been seeing it:
- DRM. Peter talked quite a bit about DRM, and at one point even mentioned that their research discovered O’Reilly titles on file sharing sites. But that implies that we believe that’s a bad thing, when in fact, we feel quite the opposite — that "piracy" can be a valuable promotional tool (and we’re not the only ones)
- The future of devices. I certainly don’t fault someone who’s selling PC-based ebook software for downplaying the future of dedicated reading devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader. And Peter’s right that laptops are becoming cheaper and smaller, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a considerable amount of ebook reading happens on laptops. But connecting a few dots (half of Japan’s top 10 books last year were written on mobile phones; the iPhone has proven a game-changer for user expectations on a mobile device; Kindle results for at least some publishers have been quite strong) suggests that reading away from a PC will be at least as big, if not bigger, than reading on one.
- Open formats. I’ll admit that DNL’s software does some pretty impressive stuff with content. But I disagree that keeping that format proprietary is the best choice. The history of proprietary data formats is not a rosy one, and it would be great to instead see work contributed to the emerging .epub standard to improve features there — if their reader is that good, they haven’t got much to fear from sharing.
Those points aside, it really was great to see so much interest in ebooks among the publishers at their "show." And I thought Peter was spot-on in making parallels between ebooks and software: software used to be sold in boxes in retail stores (and later from online retailers, but still in boxes); now most software is downloaded and often includes a trial period. It certainly makes sense that ebooks will eventually follow a similar model, which does mean some serious re-evaluation of existing sales and distribution channels. We’ve said before that the tools and techniques for developing content are becoming very much like those used to develop software, and it was useful to hear this other analogy raised.
Although there are still standards squabbles, pricing questions, and distribution methods to be worked out, the money to be made is too attractive not to motivate resolution, and 2008 is going to be a very big year for ebooks. Perhaps next year there really will be an "ebook show" at the Fair.