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August 10 2012

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 give 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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August 03 2012

Publishing News: Consequences and questions from the Twitter kerfuffle

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

20-20 hindsight

On Sunday, Twitter suspended British journalist Guy Adams’ account after he tweeted NBC executive Gary Zenkel’s email address. Much kerfuffle ensued, Adams wrote a letter to Twitter, Twitter’s general counsel Alex MacGillivray apologized for the way the situation was handled, and Adams’ account was reinstated.

Reviews in the aftermath were interesting. The account suspension ultimately had the opposite of the intended effect, pointing a spotlight at Adams’ tweet and garnering it far more attention than it likely would have had otherwise. Meghan Garber at The Atlantic put together a Topsy chart of the response to Adams’ tweet, which showed the response began as pretty much nothing and then exploded upon his account suspension.

Kashmir Hill at Forbes also reviewed the situation and the surrounding drama, and concluded that the biggest loser was the complainant, NBC: “Beyond having their exec’s email spread far and wide over the Internet, it’s reflected poorly on their stance on free speech and garnered much more negative press for them than they could have imagined when they first complained.”

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm took a look at the bigger picture and identified a serious issue raised by Twitter’s actions:

“… as it expands its media ambitions and does more curation and manual filtering of the kind it has been doing for NBC, Twitter is gradually transforming itself from a distributor of real-time information into a publisher of editorial content, and that could have serious legal ramifications.”

Ingram points out that Twitter isn’t interested in being a publisher or being seen as one, but notes the company is walking a fine line: “If the company is filtering and selecting messages, however, and possibly letting certain parties know when a legally questionable one shows up, that is much more like what publishers do …” Ingram’s post is this week’s recommended read — you can find it here.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

The key to digital may lie in consumers, not products

Amy Chozick at the New York Times took a look this week at Laura Lang, the former chief executive of Digitas and Time Inc.’s new chief executive. Chozick’s interview with Lang and a few of her staff members offered a bit of insight into how Lang will help transform Time Inc.’s magazines for the digital era, insights that extend beyond magazine publishing.

A few key takeaways:

  • “Although her plans for Time Inc. are not yet completed, she said has homed in on the transition to mobile devices and the customizing of ads for marketers based on the vast amount of consumer data Time Inc. collects on readers. Her theory: if users’ personal information is a treasure trove for Silicon Valley businesses, it should be equally valuable to traditional media. … Marketers hoping to reach new mothers, for instance, can incorporate messaging into an issue of People magazine (and its various app and online editions) with Jessica Simpson’s baby photos or Sandra Bullock’s announcement that she has adopted a child.”
  • “Ms. Lang said the word ‘consumer’ more than 25 times in a roughly 90-minute interview.”
  • “‘We used to put magazines at the center and all the other ways consumers connect were extensions of the magazines,’ said Mr. Caine, the chief revenue officer. ‘[Lang] didn’t come in with a magazine plan; she came in with a consumer plan.’”

You can read more from Lang’s interview and about how she’s tackling the challenges at Time Inc., here.

The state of ereaders and ereading

Alan Jacobs took a look at the state of ereaders this week in a post at The Atlantic. Writing from the perspective that ereaders have been around long enough to be considered part of the “reading landscape,” Jacobs looks at ereading technology progress and lack thereof. On the progress side, he highlights backlighting and improved contrast in e-ink screens; on the improvement-needed side, he points out that screen glare continues to be an issue and typeface options are still too limited, but those are the least of the technology gaps. Jacobs argues:

“… it seems to me that the most serious deficiencies of e-readers involve readers’ interactions with books. In this respect we may be losing ground rather than gaining it. … newer versions of the Kindle software are making it harder to annotate … [and] even to highlight … for engaged, responsive reading, [ereaders] seem to be generally stagnating, or perhaps even moving backward. These are technologies that need a kick in the pants.”

O’Reilly publisher and GM Joe Wikert also recently took a look at ereader technology and areas that leave him wanting. Wikert argues that ereaders need an econtent manager that allows users to create a reading schedule, a sample content manager that reminds users they have samples waiting to be read, and the ability to connect with Instapaper accounts.

These technology gaps may be having an effect on readers’ reading habits. The Book Industry Study Group released the latest report from its ongoing Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading study, and according to the press release, the survey results show “that the percentage of e-book consumers who exclusively or mostly purchase book content in e-book format has decreased from nearly 70% in August 2011 to 60% in May 2012.” The study also found an increase in the percentage of readers (25% to 34%) who either have no preference in book format or who buy both ebook and print formats, depending on genre. You can read more about the latest study here.

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July 27 2012

Publishing News: Self-publishing to be the option of first resort?

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

Self-publishing disruption

Suw Charman-Anderson at Forbes began running an interview series with Smashwords’ founder Mark Coker this week. The first in the series addressed the disruption of self-publishing in the traditional publishing world. Coker says the traditional publishing model is going to be turned upsidedown, that “self-publishing is going from the option of last resort to the option of first resort.” He notes that self-publishing often has had an associated stigma while traditional publishing has not, but says “over next few years we’re going to see that reverse.”

Coker also argues the disruption to traditional publishing isn’t only going to come from outside the traditional ecosystem:

“We’re also going to see a mass defection of some of the best traditionally published authors. This has already started to happen among primarily mid-list authors, who do reasonably well and then their books go out of print. A lot of those authors are republishing their back catalogues as self-published ebooks, and they are earning more money, enjoying more creative freedom, and having more fun than they did working under the thumb of traditional publishers.”

The disruption is becoming apparent in the sales of indie books, Coker says. He points out that “if you look at the top sellers on Barnes & Noble or Amazon, indie authors are appearing more frequently in their bestseller lists. They’re starting to dominate and take significant sales away from traditional publishers.”

In the second part of the interview series, Charman-Anderson talks with Coker about marketing. He says that “marketing is not as important as people think it is” and that writing a high-quality book is “the best marketing an author can do.” He notes that marketing is important for building a platform, but argues that investment in quality trumps investment in promotion:

“If you’re getting ready to release your book and you have $3,000 burning a hole in your pocket, and you can either invest that in a marketing campaign or editing, I’d say invest it in editing. It’s all about writing a book that sells itself.”

Both series installments are well worth the read and can be found here and here. Charman-Anderson writes that the next interview in the series with Coker will address book pricing and length.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

DOJ’s response a bit “snippy”

The DOJ filed a 66-page response (PDF) to the 868 comments it received in regard to its antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five major publishers and the proposed settlement for Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly reports that “the Department of Justice has determined that the proposed ‘final judgment’ provides ‘an appropriate and effective remedy’ for the antitrust violations alleged in its complaint ‘and therefore is in the public interest.’” Milliot says the response addressed arguments that the lawsuit is feeding into an Amazon monopoly, calling them “highly speculative at best.”

John Mutter at ShelfAwareness took an in-depth look at the response as well and noted:

“The Justice Department also implied that its suit has already resulted in positive changes in the industry, saying that since the proposed settlement was announced, ‘more companies are investing to enter or expand in the market and compete against Amazon, Apple, and other e-book retailers.’ It cited Microsoft’s investment in Barnes & Noble and tablet computers that will be launched by Microsoft and Google.”

Philip Elmer-DeWitt at CNNMoney called the response “overheated” and “snippy,” offering several examples, including:

“It uses highly charged language — ‘seismic shift,’ ‘hobbling retailers,’ ‘unfettered competition’ — yet insists that Apple’s arguments be ‘stripped of [their] rhetoric’ before it declares the company wrong, wrong, wrong on every point — as near as I can tell — of antitrust law.”

Elmer-DeWitt writes that in all fairness, he’d be defensive, too, “if public comments were running at better than 10 to 1 against me and I’d been just excoriated on the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed page in the middle of an election year by one of the President’s most powerful allies in the Senate.” You can read more from his insights here.

Why didn’t I think of that?

There were a couple of stories for the impressive ingenuity file this week. Writer and media inventor Robin Sloan wrote a book review of Ellen Ullman’s 1997 memoir Close to the Machine as part of his Summer Reading series. In and of itself, a smart review from Robin Sloan isn’t surprising, but the book is a programmer’s memoir, so Sloan wrote it in JavaScript — the review is an interactive program. You can participate in the book review in his blog post.

NFC technology made an appearance in publishing news this week as well. NFC already is spilling into publishing technology, with B&N preparing to include it in the Nook, and this week, German design studio Razorfish demonstrated its application to ebook distribution — through a gumball machine. Matthew Humphries reports at Geek.com:

“The modified machine uses a Galaxy Tab as a display, two Arduino microcontrollers, and an NFC reader embedded in the front to allow delivery of the paid-for digital content. The user simply selects the content they want using the touchscreen (be it an app, movie, ebook, or music track), inserts a coin, turns the handle, and holds their device up to the NFC reader to have the content transferred.”

The NFC Gumball Machine is demonstrated in the following video:

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July 20 2012

Publishing News: B&N embraces the web

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

B&N launches Nook for Web

Just last week, Valobox co-founder Anna Lewis (@anna_cn) wrote a post about the strengths of the web and lamented that ebook publishers have “remained oblivious” to the advantages — her post was part of last week’s Publishing WIR. This week, Barnes & Noble stepped up to the webby plate and announced Nook for Web.

Chris Davies at SlashGear reports that “the new service runs in Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer, with instant access — registration free — to ebook samples, and then the same purchase options as on a Nook Tablet or similar device. … There’s also synchronization with any other Nook device or app you may be using, so you can stop reading on the web and pick up where you left off on your tablet.”

B&N also is giving away six bestseller titles as a promotion until July 26, but as Matt Elliott at CNET discovered, “before you can add one to your library, Barnes & Noble forces you to sign up for an account, which entails providing a credit card number, billing address, e-mail, and phone number.” So, anything beyond reading a sample will require registration.

The company also hasn’t completely embraced the advantages of the web — as Davies points out in his post, readers still can’t annotate on the platform, and on a browser-based system, “it would be easy enough for B&N to add such a feature.”

The other thing you can’t do with this new platform is view it on your iPad or iPhone, as Sarah Perez reports at TechCrunch. As counterintuitive as this seemed on first blush (B&N’s website says iPad support is “coming soon”), I recalled statistics from a recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (which I wrote about here):

  • 42% of readers of e-books in the past 12 months said they consume their books on a computer.
  • 41% of readers of e-books consume their books on an e-book reader like original Kindles or Nooks.
  • 29% of readers of e-books consume their books on their cell phones.
  • 23% of readers of e-books consume their books on a tablet computer.
The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

Ebook landscape is dominated by “madness”

Baldur Bjarnason wrote a blog this week following an interview he participated in, during which he came upon a realization: He writes, “I discovered just how bloody annoyed I am about the farce that is today’s ebook landscape. Much to my own surprise, I found that I’m more than a little bit angry about the madness that dominates ebooks.”

Overall, the post is a transcript of the interview — questions addressed DRM (Bjarnason says, “Once you require DRM you impose a set of conditions on every level of the publishing industry. The requirement puts limits not just on what everybody can do, but also on how they do it.”); format standardization (“Standardisation should mean a reasonably standard rendering across all platforms … Standardisation is not what we’ve got.”); and the interaction of EPUB3 and DRM (“Adobe’s system isn’t likely to support EPUB3 for a long while, which means that EPUB3 support is on hold for most players on EPUB side of the ebook world.”).

Bjarnason added a tangential aside to the interview as well, addressing fixed layout ebooks. He writes:

“Whoever at Apple had the bright idea of taking HTML+CSS, discard its strengths (adaptability, multi-device support, etc.) and focus on its weaknesses (limited and complex layout systems) should have their computer privileges revoked. … What Apple could have — should have — done is to introduce responsive layout ebooks. By default they would have adapted to whatever rendering space they were in but would have had the option of setting a fixed dimension.”

Bjarnason’s post is this week’s recommended read — you can find it here.

The newspaper and music industries wish they had it so good

The annual BookStats Survey was released this week, and the overall news for the book industry, all things considered, is fairly positive. Peter Kafka at All Things Digital summarizes the sales stats:

“[The survey] finds that Amazon and other digital distributors are taking an increasing chunk of the market, and that sales of ‘trade’ e-books — basically, everything except educational and professional texts — doubled in the last year. That helped keep the publishing business more or less flat in 2011, even as print sales dropped off. Net publisher revenue for trade books increased 0.5 percent, to $13.97 billion, with e-books accounting for $2.1 billion of that. Meanwhile, overall net revenue dropped 2.5 percent, to $27.2 billion.”

That the overall drop in industry sales was only 2.5% speaks volumes. Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah told Julie Bosman at the New York Times (NYT): “I would never dare to call an industry healthy, but it certainly seems to be robust.”

In that vein, Kafka points out in his post at AllThingsD, “[t]hat’s the kind of year executives in the newspaper and music business would have loved to have over the last decade.”

Bosman also notes in her NYT piece the relatively good news from the survey for physical stores: “Despite the closing of hundreds of Borders stores, brick-and-mortar stores remained the largest sales channel for books, the survey found.”

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