Treating Ebooks Like Software

Peter Kent, DNAML’s senior vice president for U.S. operations, brings a software-centric perspective to ebooks. In the following Q&A, Kent discusses the merits of in-book transactions, affiliate marketing, and other digital initiatives that can benefit book publishers.

Q: In your presentation at last month’s IDPF Digital Book ’08 you discussed treating ebooks like software. Do you feel the software model is directly related to ebooks, or are there specific aspects of the software model (“try before you buy” trialware, download ebooks through multiple outlets, etc.) that are more in line with ebook/publishing goals?

Not sure of the distinction you’re making here. I think that there’s much about software distribution that applies to ebooks, and why not? Ebooks are, of course, pieces of software. In particular, providing ebooks in a trialware format makes a lot of sense, and is a proven model. That’s why Amazon let’s people view a portion of a book, that’s why Barnes & Noble likes having people in their stores hanging out reading. And of course, download through multiple outlets makes a lot of sense, too. Why wouldn’t you distribute your products as widely as possible? If trialware works — and it does — then you naturally want as many people as possible to get the books in their hands. The large, established publishers are going to have a shock when they see the new book-distribution world. It’s no longer a gentleman’s game in which everyone hands over their books to a bookstore, and then they all compete on the same level. In the future the more aggressive publishers are going to go out and find book buyers even before the buyers have thought about buying!

Q: Do publishers focus too much on the “book” aspect of ebooks? Would a shift toward a file/software perspective open things up?

Some do. The more advanced publishers understand what’s going on, but I do think there’s still a bias toward the old method of distributing books: give your books to a retailer who puts the books on shelves. Certainly up until recently most publishers have had the idea in their mind that in order to sell ebooks they have to create the ebooks and then give them to Amazon and other retailers to sell. Little thought has gone into new methods of distribution. What may save the publishers is that new distributors will come on the scene: distributors who understand the new landscape and go out and push the books.

Q: Are ebooks available through sites like, and other software-specific hubs? If not, should they be?

You can already find ebooks in many software download sites, though most do not yet have specific ebook categories. ZDNet’s download site doesn’t have an ebook category, for instance, though it does have an ebook “tag.” has a music category and a games category, why wouldn’t they have a book category? Of course they will eventually, as more and more books become available. But one thing holding back the creation of ebook categories is that only free books, or trialware books, will fit. Once books from major publishers are commonly sold as trialware, you’ll see the download sites pay more attention.

Q: What about ebook availability through P2P sites/mechanisms, such as BitTorrent?

Trialware books are perfect for this form of distribution.

Q: In your conversations with publishers and others in the industry, do you feel most people understand the basics of internal ebook transactions and affiliate tagging? How do you describe these concepts to newcomers?

Most publishers haven’t the slightest idea about this. When I ask publishers “do you know what affiliate marketing is?” I typically get a response such as “um, well …”. So if they don’t understand what affiliate marketing is, they certainly don’t understand affiliate tagging. This isn’t true of all publishers; Harlequin, for instance, is really good at online marketing, and certainly understands affiliate-marketing well.

So, how do I explain these things? Well, by internal transactions, I mean that each ebook is its own shopping-cart system. You reach a point inside the book that you cannot get past without paying. You enter your credit card information into the book itself (though the actual form is retrieved from a server so, for instance, the book price can be changed at any time), and when you submit your card and it’s approved, the server automatically unlocks the book, so you can continue reading.

As for affiliate tagging, this is the ability to add a code to each book you distribute — one code for each specific distribution channel — so the publisher or distributor knows where that book came from. If you distribute through Web Site A, 10,000 people download the book, and 500 buy it, you know that those 500 people came from Web Site A. If you put the book in a magazine insert, 100,000 people buy the magazine, 10,000 copy the book to their computers, and 500 buy it, then you know that those 500 customers came from that particular magazine insert. Thus you can pay the right company the required affiliate commissions.

So these two components, along with the ability to partially lock a book, allow you to create trialware books — try-before-you-buy books — that can be distributed widely, through many different channels.

Q: Is there an opportunity for competing publishers to generate affiliate revenue by selling other publishers’ books?

Absolutely! Books can be bundled within books — certainly our DNL format allows this — so a publisher might bundle several locked books at the end of the book. Those books might belong to the publisher or, in appropriate cases, from another publisher. In particular, of course, small publishers could benefit from these sorts of relationships with other publishers.

Q: What is the upside of “try before you buy” in ebooks?

A try-before-you-buy book with built-in transaction processing, and built-in affiliate tagging, opens up a whole new world of distribution options. All of a sudden, the book can go anywhere. Sell computer books? Talk with computer manufacturers about putting your books on the desktop of every new computer sold, and talk to software manufacturers about bundling the books in their software downloads. Sell photography books? Put them on the software CDs inside digital-camera packaging. Sell wine books? Give away try-before-you-buy books on wine Web sites. Science fiction novels? Give books away on fan sites. Those three things — try-before-you-buy, internal transaction processing, and affiliate tagging — free books from ecommerce Web sites, and provide almost limitless marketing opportunities.

Q: What viral/social aspects does your company include in ebooks? (Email to a friend, etc.)

We include Email-to-a-Friend, of course. If you try a book, like it, and buy it, that book is now unlocked. But if you email it to a friend or colleague, when it lands on the recipient’s computer it’s now locked. Word of mouth is hugely important in book sales; it always has been. Email-to-a-Friend is essentially a modern-day word-of-mouth feature. We also allow people to share notes. Members of a book club could highlight areas of the books, add notes, then email the highlights and notes to each other. Members can import these things, and see who said what based on the name at the top of the notes.

Q: Are ebook giveaways useful?

Of course. Companies such as Harlequin use giveaways to build interest. I think, though, that these giveaways will get more sophisticated, as publishers learn more about try-before-you-buy books. For instance, if you’re giving away a book, you’re hoping that the reader will come to your site and buy another one at some point. But why not create a giveaway book, a single file, that includes a book for sale at the end of the free book? Or several books from which the reader can choose?

Q: Do you recommend user tracking and registration? How in-depth should this tracking/registration be?

Of course you want as much information as possible; we’re in business, after all, so we need to create relationships with buyers. Amazon does this. I like to point out to publishers that someone owns the relationship, it’s just not them. If you sell photography books and someone buys one of your books through Amazon today, tomorrow Amazon will start promoting other photography books to this buyer. Some of these books will be yours, perhaps, but most won’t! So Amazon’s tracking, and Amazon’s benefiting. Publishers are going to learn to do the same for themselves, and some already are.

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