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April 27 2012

What if ebook DRM goes away tomorrow?

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("What if DRM Goes Away?"). This version has been lightly edited.

TOC Latin America was held last Friday in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires. Kat Meyer, my O'Reilly colleague, and Holger Volland did a terrific job producing the event. As is so often the case with great conferences, part of the value is spending time with speakers and other attendees in between sessions and at dinner gatherings.

Last Thursday night, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Kat, Holger and a number of other TOC Latin America speakers. We discussed a number of interesting topics, but my favorite one was asking each person this question: What happens if DRM goes away tomorrow?

The DOJ suit against Apple and five of the Big Six has led to a lot of speculation. One of the most interesting scenarios raised is that if the government is intent on limiting the capabilities of the agency model, publishers need to figure out what other tools they can use to combat the growing dominance of Amazon.

Charlie Stross is right: DRM is a club publishers gave to Amazon and then insisted that Amazon beat them over their heads with it. So, what if we woke up tomorrow and DRM for books disappeared, just like it has (for the most part) with music?

I was unable to reach a consensus at that dinner, but here's what I think would happen: Initially, not much. After all, Amazon has a lot of momentum. If current U.S. estimates are accurate, Amazon controls about 60-65% of the ebook market and B&N is second with about 25-28%. That only leaves 7-13% for everyone else. And if you've been buying ebooks from Amazon up to now, you're not likely to immediately switch to buying from B&N just because they both offer books without DRM. On the surface, Amazon's and B&N's ebooks use incompatible formats — mobi for the former and EPUB for the latter. But that's where it gets interesting.

Converting from mobi to EPUB (or vice versa) is pretty simple with a free tool like Calibre. I've played around with it a bit, converting some of the DRM-free ebooks we sell on oreilly.com. I didn't do those conversions to get our books in other formats. After all, when you buy a book from oreilly.com you're buying access to all the popular formats (mobi, EPUB and PDF, as well as others), not just the one format a device-maker wants to lock you into. I did the conversions because I wanted to see what's involved in the process.

If you've ever used Microsoft Word to save or convert a DOC file to PDF you'll find it's just as easy to go from mobi to EPUB in Calibre, for example. But just because the tool is available, does that mean if DRM goes away we'd suddenly see a lot of Kindle owners buying EPUBs from B&N and converting them to mobi with Calibre? I doubt it. Those Kindle owners are used to a seamless buying experience from Amazon, so unless there's a compelling reason to do so, they're not likely to switch ebook retailers. And that leads me to the most important point ...

Creating the best buying and reading experience is one way any ebook retailer can steal market share from the competition. Amazon has a pretty darned good one, that's for sure, but there's plenty of room for improvement. I'm not convinced any ebook retailer has pushed the envelope on innovation and exciting new features in their devices or reader apps. In fact, these enhancements seem to move at a glacial pace. So, what if B&N (or anyone else, for that matter) suddenly invested heavily in reader app functionality that puts them well ahead of the competition? And what if some of those features were so unique and innovative that they couldn't be copied by others? I'd much rather see a competitive marketplace based on this approach than the one we currently have, where the retailer with the deepest pockets wins.

Innovation is better than predatory pricing. What a concept. The iPod revolutionized music, an industry that was highly fragmented and looking for a way forward in the pre-iPod days. The iPhone turned the cellular market on its head. Think about how significantly different the original iPod and iPhone were when compared to the clumsy MP3 players and flip phones that preceded them. I believe today's crop of ebook readers and apps are, in many ways, as clumsy and simplistic as those MP3 players and flip phones. In other words, we haven't experienced a radical transformative moment in the ebook devices and app world yet.

Of course, all of this innovation I'm dreaming of could happen today. We don't need to wait for a DRM-free world. Or do we? Amazon has no incentive to innovate like this. They already have a majority market share, and it's only going to get larger when the DOJ dust settles.

This is more of a rallying cry for B&N, Kobo and every other device and ebook retailer. If DRM goes away tomorrow, nothing much changes unless these other players force it to. But why wait till DRM disappears? It might not happen for a long time. Meanwhile, the opportunity to innovate and create a path to market share gain exists today. I hope one or more of the minority market share players wakes up and takes action.

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.

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April 13 2012

The sorry state of ebook samples, and four ways to improve them

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("Rethinking Samples"). This version has been lightly edited.

I'm bored with ebook samples. I feel like I'm collecting a bunch and then forgetting about most of them. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone, and I'm even more certain this adds up to a ton of missed sales opportunities. Although this would be impossible to prove, my gut tells me the revenue missed by not converting samples into sales is a much larger figure than the revenue lost to piracy. And yet, the publishing industry spends a small fortune every year in DRM, but treats samples as an afterthought.

Think about it. Someone who pulls down a sample is already interested in your product. They're asking you to win them over with the material you provide. Far too often, though, that material is nothing more than the front matter and a few pages of the first chapter. Some of the samples I've downloaded don't even go past the front matter. I'm looking for something more.

Let's start with the index. Would it really be that hard to add the index to ebook samples? No. And yet, I've never seen a sample with the index included. Sure, many of these books have indexes that can be viewed separately on the ebook's catalog page, but why not include them in the sample? Give me a sense of what amount of coverage I can expect on every topic right there in the sample.

How about taking it up a notch? Give me the first X pages of the full content, include the entire index at the end, and in between include the rest of the book but have every other word or two X'd out? That way I can flip through the entire book and get a better sense of how extensively each topic is covered. By the way, if the entire book is included like this, then the index can include links back to the pages they reference.

Next up, why do I have to search and retrieve samples? Why can't they be configured to automatically come to me? After a while a retailer should be able to figure out a customer's interests. So why not let that customer opt in to auto sample delivery of ebooks that match their interests? I love baseball. Send me the samples of every new baseball book that comes out. I've got plenty of memory available in my ereader, and I can delete any samples I don't want. Also, I've mentioned this before, but it's worth saying again: How about letting me subscribe to samples from specific authors? Again, it would be an opt-in program, but I wonder how many interesting books I've missed because I didn't discover the sample.

Finally, this problem doesn't appear until after the sample is converted into a sale, but why can't the newly downloaded ebook open up to where I left off in the sample? Seriously, this has got to be one of the easiest annoyances to fix, so why hasn't anyone taken the time to do so?

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.


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March 30 2012

Top Stories: March 26-30, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Designing great data products
Data scientists need a systematic design process to build increasingly sophisticated products. That's where the Drivetrain Approach comes in. (This report is also available as a free ebook.)


Five tough lessons I had to learn about health care
Despite the disappointments Andy Oram has experienced while learning about health care, he expects the system to change for the better.


A huge competitive advantage awaits bold publishers
"The Lean Startup" author Eric Ries talks about his experiences working with traditional publishing structures and how they can benefit from lean startup principles.

The Reading Glove engages senses and objects to tell a story
What if you mashed up a non-linear narrative, a tangible computing environment and a hint of a haunted house experience? You might get the Reading Glove, a novel way to experience a story.


Passwords and interviews
A candidate that forks over a social media password during an interview could become an employee that gives out a password in other situations. Employers aren't making that connection.


Fluent Conference: JavaScript & Beyond — Explore the changing worlds of JavaScript & HTML5 at the O'Reilly Fluent Conference, May 29 - 31 in San Francisco. Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20.

Ambulance photo: Ambulance by plong, on Flickr

January 27 2012

ValoBox wants to reward content creators and consumers

Earlier this year, I chatted with Anna Lewis (@anna_cn) and Oliver Brooks (@cn_oli) about their new startup, ValoBox — a platform that allows readers to consume books by the page, chunk, or as a whole. The duo has been hard at work through the summer and fall, and ValoBox has launched. I got in touch with Brooks to see how the platform and development have progressed. Our interview follows.

How has ValoBox evolved since our interview in May?

OliverBrooks.pngOliver Brooks: The product has stayed laser focused on keeping things light and simple. It has gone through a lot of tweaks to the user interface and system, to boil it down as much as possible.

ValoBox is really comprised of two applications, the publishing system and the ValoBox reader.

The changes to the publishing system have focused on ease of integration use and quality of output. The system can now create a ValoBox book automatically from an ONIX and EPUB file feed. A lot of effort has gone into making sure the content is presented perfectly, even when split into small, purchasable sections. We've also built a system similar to Google Analytics for books, which provides the publisher with information for each book, such as where on the web is best for selling books (Twitter feeds, blogs, etc.) and details about how each book is used.

In our earlier interview you discussed a "premium layer for the web." Is that still guiding your efforts?

Oliver Brooks: Absolutely. We believe books are just the start of our game — we see ValoBox as suitable for premium articles, audio, video, and even web pages. We think premium content should integrate with the web rather than be a separate ecosystem.

The existing book reader interface will be one of many portals into premium content. We have designs for interfaces that don't intrude on the design of a website at all. When you want to buy something, you will see ValoBox branding and have an easy way to purchase the content. As almost everyone is always signed into a system of some kind — be it Twitter, Facebook or Google — our vision is that you can always access premium content with just a click.

How does ValoBox work?

Oliver Brooks: It's an HTML5 application that runs inside any modern web browser. This means you can access it from any website, on any device wherever you are. Content is stored in the cloud and streamed securely from our servers on demand. A future enhancement will mean you won't even have to be online to read books you have read before; they'll automatically be stored on your device for later.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

How does ValoBox help readers?

Oliver Brooks: The core benefit is accessibility to premium content. ValoBox lets you access an entire catalog, and you can choose which pages you want and buy them for cents at a time.

So, you might see a book reviewed on your favorite blog or hear about an interesting topic from a Twitter feed. A couple of clicks and cents later, you can be reading what they are talking about. We think it's ridiculous that books are locked behind lengthy and expensive checkout and download processes, and then require special applications to read when videos and audio are available with a click.

Another huge bonus is our social retail system. If you like what you read and think you know someone else who would like it, you can share it with an embed or a link. Anything that is bought from your share will earn you a 25% cut.

How does it help authors and publishers?

Oliver Brooks: Authors will have an awesome tool for promoting their books. Books can be integrated with their websites and social media promotions, providing the tip of the pyramid leading to many other shares and embeds. All the activity is tracked in real time to give an unparalleled level of knowledge about where books perform best. Don't forget that if an author sells the books, they will not only get their royalty but also the 25% ValoBox social retail cut.

As for publishers, they get a great way to empower their readership to create new and sustainable sales channels. Imagine thousands of innovative readers finding the right places for books inside their personal and professional networks. No traditional retailer could dream of going into places such as a university e-learning environment or a team management wiki, or of garnering sales from inside a full-scale social network. Just like authors, publishers have real-time, detailed analytics of how each book is being bought. They also have a view of how all of their books are read across the entire web.

I like to think of ValoBox as a way to realize the value of creating a symbiotic relationship between the content creation and consumption communities, rewarding each one for their efforts appropriately.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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October 11 2011

August 26 2011

To page or to scroll?

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)


Designers of digital books and magazines face an elemental question: to page or to scroll? Might as well ask: Android or iPhone? There is no single correct answer. Here, I'll chip off a teensy portion of the tussle: some very specific use cases in which it feels like the content itself helps point to the right choice.

I think vertical scrolling is good for long magazine articles or even chunks of a lengthy narrative (chapters in a book, for example). The unbroken, flowing layout matches the mental state you engage in when following a writer's extended argument or story. In the case of magazine apps like Project and Wired, these vertical dives into individual articles contrast nicely with the horizontal swiping required to move between articles; that action, I think, matches the kind of browsing we do while flipping through a magazine looking for something to read.

Furthermore, in a long, vertically scrolled piece — a New Yorker article, for example — the only material that's important is what's visible on the screen. The reader of a 5,000-word profile doesn't "need" to see beyond the text they're currently viewing. If the article is interesting they'll keep scrolling down. If not, they'll stop. My point is that there's no risk readers will miss the remaining text because it's submerged off screen. If they bail out, they'll do so intentionally, because the writing failed to hold their interest.

In contrast, where I think scrolling is a bad idea is with any kind of table of contents or other place where you want an audience to pick from a content collection. Anything "below the fold" gets diminished attention. The home page of The Atavist app, for example, showcases the titles available for purchase.

Catalog page for iPad app The Atavist
Catalog page for iPad app The Atavist

But look at that poor, hair clipped fella down at the bottom of the screen; even more are hidden further below. Unless a user knows more selections await, they'll miss out on a chance to read some of the great stories this startup publishes.

The problem here is the same one grocers have known about for decades: stuff that's at eye level sells better than stuff that's not. Similarly, when a table of contents dumps its listings on a long scrolling page, the stuff that's off-screen doesn't get as much attention.

Better, then, to design a birdseye-view style home page — one that gives visible placement to all the main categories. The Fotopedia Heritage app, for example, does a nice job giving viewers multiple points of entry into its photo collection.

TOC for photo browsing app Fotopedia Heritage
TOC for photo browsing app Fotopedia Heritage

The only stuff not given full top-level placement are other apps the publisher is promoting; three are shown in the bottom row and others await by clicking the downward pointing triangle. Seems like a good decision.

And thanks to the fluid qualities of a digital display — think: content that refreshes, showing different versions; modal pop-overs; and so on — lots of quick peek opportunities exist for those who choose to confine their TOC content to one screen. The cover of the business book Bold: How to Be Brave in Business And Win cycles a new photo and pull quote onto its TOC every seven seconds or so and offers drill-down menus into the main parts of the book.

TOC for business book app BOLD
TOC for business book app BOLD

Finally, copywriting and visual design are especially important in any effort to turn the TOC into a single-screen effort since the page not only needs to "sell" what's featured, it also has to effectively describe which sub-categories are available for further exploration. Entertainment Weekly's Must List app does a nice job on both fronts. The variable-sized content boxes break up the visual monotony that a fully symmetrical grid creates and suggests, subtly, what's most important. And the tabs at the bottom of the screen — Movies, TV, and so on — let the user further explore the stuff they like.

TOC for Entertainment Weekly's Must List app
TOC for Entertainment Weekly's Must List app

One last example I can't resist throwing in: Music discovery app Aweditorium. Its home screen is a nearly endless mosaic of tappable album art. Their neat twist? To let users know that choice awaits in every direction, there's a birdseye view tucked into a mini window at the top left of the screen.

Home page for music discovery app Aweditorium
Home page for music discovery app Aweditorium

It's a nice, quick visual way to say, "hey music lovers, there's much more to explore than we could fit on one screen."

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast



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