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Publishing News: Amazon continues its trek toward total retail domination

Here are a few stories that caught my attention in the publishing space this week.

Amazon targets students with print textbook rentals

In headline news this week, Amazon expanded its digital textbook rental program to include analog books. Students can now rent physical paper textbooks, complete with prior students’ scribbles, for less than buying a used book (in many cases). Sean Ludwig at VentureBeat reports that most textbooks rent for $30 to $60 and are rented for the typical 130-day semester.

According to Amazon’s FAQ on the program, shipping in both directions is pretty easy to get for free: rentals are eligible for free Super Saver Shipping on orders over $25 and are also eligible for Prime free Two-Day shipping for Prime subscribers. Students can also sign up for the Amazon Student program and get six months of free Prime Two-Day shipping, then get a Prime membership at a discounted rate of $39 per year (the “adult” version of Prime is $79 per year). Amazon will conveniently autosubscribe student members to adult memberships upon graduation. Sounds a lot like those “free” credit cards that came with swag during my college days, designed to suck you in from the get-go.

Which brings me to Martin Sosnoff’s look over at Forbes at Amazon’s path to becoming the “Wal-Mart of the Internet.” Sosnoff writes:

“The Amazon story is about scale and momentum in general merchandise sales, here and abroad. I don’t care how many Kindles they deliver or their burgeoning downloads in books, music, video games and streaming of films. All this activity is designed to suck you into buying TV sets, washing machines, even disposable diapers and bottled water by the case.”

Or as O’Reilly publisher and GM tweeted in relation to Sosnoff’s post, “Books are nothing more than roadkill on Amazon’s highway to total retail domination.” So as publishers are frantically trying to find innovative ways to compete against Amazon, Amazon is just using publishing, in all its variations, as a means to an end.

Which brings me to Jim Tanous’ post at The Mac Observer, looking at ebook DRM: one possible positive outcome of this one-sided publishing battle against Amazon is the potential eradication of DRM. As Mathew Ingram pointed out last December at GigaOm, publishers “handed Amazon and Apple the stick of digital-rights management, which the two companies are now using to beat them.” And publishers are starting to come around to understand that DRM isn’t just locking content away from pirates (which it doesn’t do anyway), but that it’s locking content in to closed platforms, ala Amazon Kindle.

After looking at the new StoryBundle platform that gives readers a bundle of books for whatever price they want to pay, all DRM-free, Tanous writes: “I was struck by how the DRM-free nature of the books mirrors a growing trend by publishers and independent authors to make their products easily available on multiple platforms and escape the stranglehold they fear Amazon holds on the market.”

Tanous looks at the overall trend, including fantasy publisher Tor’s removal of DRM from its catalog earlier this year and publishers like O’Reilly and Double Dragon that don’t use DRM. He notes that removing DRM removes the constraints on “customer mobility between providers and platforms” and that publishers’ recognition of this and subsequent changes to distribution and sales models, such as StoryBundle’s model, “will not only be good for consumers but for the overall health of the eBook market as well.”

Opportunities in “creative destruction”

Alistair Burtenshaw, director of the London Book Fair, recently attended the Leadership Strategies for Book Publishing program at Yale. This week, he shared some insights from the week-long experience in a post at BookBrunch. He writes that attendees from around the world found themselves in the same publishing boat:

“Whether the percentage of ebook sales in our markets is currently in single or double digits, we all understood that we are in a new ‘ecosystem’ of parallel supply chains, new market entrants, new platforms and new channels to consumer: a period of ‘creative destruction’ that presents unparalleled challenges and opportunities for all publishers.”

Burtenshaw identified four key themes that emerged throughout the week regarding changes required in thinking, skillsets, business models, and markets. Of “New Thinking,” he writes:

“The fast pace of constant change requires us to be nimble, open to new ways of working, able to decide which changes to respond to and how and which opportunities to pass on, at least initially. Questions such as ‘do we want to lead or to follow’ have profound implications for our businesses — in some instances the benefits of leading, of innovating first may be offset by the risks of creating new forms of content that markets are not yet ready for.”

You can read more of Burtenshaw’s insights here — definitely this week’s recommended read.

Big data is the future of big publishing

The importance of data to the future of publishing was highlighted in coverage of the recent launch of publishing analytics company Hiptype. For a bit of background, Laura Hazard Owen recently reported on the launch and describes how the platform works:

“Once Hiptype’s plugin is added to an ebook, it provides insights like reader demographics, reading behavior (where people start or stop reading; what they skip), conversion patterns (who buys an ebook after reading a free sample); and sharing and highlighting behavior (which passages readers highlight or take notes on).”

Hiptype then provides data visualizations for publishers and, Owen notes, will “also [help] publishers run Facebook campaigns and target readers with personalized recommendations.”

Sarah Kessler at Fast Company talked to company co-founders James Levy and Sohail Prasad, and alleviated fears that big data will drive books down the path of “bad reality TV and link-bait reporting”: she writes that the company vision “is less about getting authors to craft the ending to their books based on page turns than it is about marketing books better.”

Company co-founder Levy also talked with O’Reilly publisher and GM Joe Wikert this week in a TOC podcast. In a post here on Radar, Wikert highlights several points from their discussion, noting that data-driven publishing “goes beyond simple sales stats and review information to understanding how the product is used; where readers spend the most time; and even though we don’t like to think about it, how far they get before they abandon a book.” He also shares some statistics from Hiptype:

  • Where sharing happens — The majority of content sharing with friends takes place in either the first 10 pages or the last 10 pages of the book.
  • Why the first 50 pages matter — Almost a third of readers won’t return to the book by page 50. 85% of readers who get to page 50 are likely to read the next 50 pages. Think about that the next time you release an ebook sample with only 10 or 12 pages.
  • Low conversion of samples — Not only are there loads of unread samples sitting on most devices, but only 4% of all samples downloaded are ever read at all.

You can watch the entire Levy interview with Wikert in the following video:

Photo: College Books by wohnai, on Flickr

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