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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?

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February 01 2012



Kurz darauf öffnete Amazon seinen Shop in Spanien, wo ich auch relativ schnell ein paar spanischsprachige Werke fand, die mich interessierten und die es bei Amazon.US nicht zu kaufen gab. Wenn man mit einem in den USA registrierten Kindle in einem der anderen nationalen Amazon-Läden etwas kaufen will, dann bekommt man als erstes eine Dialogbox serviert, die einen darüber aufklärt, dass man zum Kauf irgendwelcher eBooks dort seinen Kindle zu eben diesem Laden umregistrieren muss. Wenn man dem zustimmt, sieht man eine zweite Informationsbox, die einen darüber informiert, dass man damit sämtliche vorhandene Subskriptionen beendet - und zwar einschließlich des Rechts, auf zurückliegende Ausgaben zuzugreifen. Das fand ich einen geradezu haarsträubenden Eingriff in meine informationelle Freiheit - und das habe ich natürlich abgelehnt.

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Probe aufs Exempel

Daraufhin schrieb ich dann an den Amazon-US-Kundendienst, um zu erfahren, was sie sich denn wohl dabei gedacht haben, mich mit ihrem Ladenkonzept von einem Großteil der verfügbaren Bücher abzuschneiden - und zwar egal, bei welchem Laden ich mein Gerät registriere. Die Antwort war höflich, aber leider keine Hilfe. Daraufhin erläuterte ich in einer Rückantwort noch einmal etwas eindringlicher, dass eine solche Beschneidung meines Zugangs zu weltweit vorhandenen Informationsquellen für mich überhaupt nicht akzeptabel ist. Schließlich setzt sich im worst case dieses Geschäftsgebaren durch und am Ende wird es unmöglich sein, irgendwelche Bücher zu kaufen, die außerhalb der eigenen Landesgrenzen auf den Markt kommen - die Horrorvorstellung einer intellektuell parzellierten Welt, in der es womöglich ein ernstes Vergehen sein wird, Bücher zu schmuggeln. Ansätze dafür sind ja vorhanden und werden stetig ausgebaut.

Da ich gesehen habe, dass es absolut nichts bringt, die Entscheidung hinauszuzögern, habe ich also die Probe aufs Exempel gemacht und im spanischen Amazon-Laden die Kindle-Version eines Buchs über die Gründung von Kooperativen gekauft - was nur möglich war, indem ich meinen Kindle in Spanien registrierte. Daraufhin entzog Amazon mir - und den Herausgebern - meine Subskriptionen des 2600 Magazins und des gerade frischen Analog SF&F. In Spanien gibt es beide einfach nicht, und somit für mich keine Möglichkeit, sie neu zu bestellen. Das mehrmalige Wechseln ist ebenfalls versperrt:


Adieu, Kindle | Telepolis 2012-02-01 

November 08 2011

Thoughts on ebooks triggered by the appointment of Andrew Savikas as CEO of Safari Books Online

Today we announced the selection of Andrew Savikas as the new CEO of Safari Books Online. Andrew wrote a post about his new position and a bit about where he wants to take the company, and I wanted to share that with you.  I'm excited about Andrew's vision, and I think he has the ability to take Safari to a new level of technical sophistication and user experience. But I also wanted to take a moment to give a few of my own perspectives on Safari's history - and in fact O'Reilly's long history with ebooks - and more importantly, its future and by analogy, the future of publishing.

In many ways, the road to Safari began with Dale Dougherty's work to get our books online. His very first effort was a version of Unix in a Nutshell for Hypercard published in 1987! It was a product far ahead of its time, but it led in two fruitful directions.

The first was the development, starting in 1991, of Docbook as a standard way to represent technical books in SGML, and later, XML. (Docbook was developed by a consortium called The Davenport Group, which Dale co-founded, and our X Window System books were the "test subjects.") What you need to remember is that the web didn't yet exist. There were many online, hypertext, multimedia systems for content, but all of them were proprietary and non-standard. Because our X books were adopted as documentation by all of the leading Unix workstation manufacturers, we were being asked to "port" the books into a variety of these online reading systems: Sun's AnswerBook, IBM's InfoExplorer, HP's LaserROM, and many others whose names have faded into memory.

Influenced by the rise of open source software, and in particular by Bob Schiefler, the head of the X Consortium, who had a wonderful vision of how standards could raise the level of the floor on which companies could then innovate, we decided that the best way we could influence the future was to encourage standards for formatting content, with lots of innovation in the ways to read it.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, we assumed that one or another of these proprietary reading systems would likely emerge as a standard. (After all, these were the days in which our expectations were shaped by the rise of Microsoft Windows, and the power of open source software and the open content standards of the web was not yet fully understood.) But we knew that we wanted people to have the option of a good free e-reader.

And that's what led Dale in 1992 to Viola, which was the first graphical web browser. That was the second big outcome of his explorations, as we adopted Viola, and used it to build the first ad-supported catalog of the web -- effectively the first web portal -- GNN, or The Global Network Navigator. We sold GNN to AOL in 1995, and by then the web was off to the races.

But we continued to produce our books in Docbook, with the idea that eventually ebooks would become commonplace, and we'd need a set of tools that would let us produce print books, and a variety of web and ebook formats from the same source files. That vision has come to fruition today, with a production pipeline at O'Reilly (and for our digital distribution clients like Microsoft Press) that allows us to easily create ebooks in multiple formats. (Our typical catalog offering on, for example, offers people the choice of a book in print, on the web via a Safari subscription, or in the user's choice of any of five different DRM-free ebook formats: pdf, epub, mobi (for Kindle), apk (for Android), and Daisy (for software that supports vision-impaired readers.)) It's relatively trivial for us to add additional formats as they become available.

Incidentally, it was Andrew Savikas who led the development of the modern version of that pipeline, in his role as the head of our publishing tools team at O'Reilly from 2003 to 2010.

Here's the key takeaway here: our original ebook vision was of a world in which ebooks would be published in standard formats and could be read on any device, and where dominance of a particular piece of software or a particular e-reading device would not lock people in. We wanted reading to remain as open as it did when printed books ruled the publishing world.

When the web took off, we thought that battle had largely been won. But the new world of dedicated e-reading devices with proprietary formats has brought back the specter of a single company having a monopoly on the tools for reading - and publishing - long form content.

It's important for publishers to take a stand for reading portability and open access. Offer books in multiple open formats, DRM-free, and from multiple points of distribution, or the world or reading will eventually come to resemble the world of desktop software in the age of Microsoft's dominance.

The road to Safari's subscription business model grew alongside our conviction that ebooks would eventually become the dominant way to consume book-length content, and that those ebooks needed to be in formats that were open and portable.

As early as 1994, I'd given a talk and in 1995 written a paper, Publishing Models for Internet Commerce, about how the web would eventually need to support all the same kinds of business models we saw online, including paid content, subscriptions, and free/ad supported. (I have the dubious distinction of being the person who first introduced the ad-supported model to the web, in early 1993.)

I was also convinced that moving online would change the nature of the book. "A book is a user interface to information," I wrote. And it's not necessarily the best interface. Some kinds of information were books by convenience only - an atlas, say, or a dictionary, or a bird identification guide. Applications can do the same job far more easily.

One early insight I had was expressed with the line "An online book will either be much larger or much smaller than the printed book." We were seeing how the web was allowing readers to consume content in much smaller bites, but at the same time we were seeing the way that information could be aggregated into huge searchable works. It was becoming clear that search was the killer app, and searching one book at a time wouldn't cut it.

And that was where we decided to go with Safari: a searchable repository of all our books, with a subscription business model that would potentially give people access to everything we published. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that important as O'Reilly books were to our customers, we didn't cover every topic, and the service would be even more powerful if we brought in other publishers. That's when we approached Pearson Technology Group, one of our biggest competitors, to join us in a joint venture, and invited other publishers to participate as well.

Safari Books Online now contains more than 17,000 books and videos from dozens of publishers, and is the richest source for professionally curated technical and business content on the web. And we're somewhat amused by the disbelief when the "paywall" erected by sites like the New York Times appears to be working, since we (as well as a host of scientific and professional journal publishers) have been serving our customers with subscription-funded sites for the past decade or more. As I predicted back in 1994, the web has room for every business model imaginable, and smart publishers will learn to exploit all of them.

And that leads me to the future: users want choice. They want choice of device (which means choice of format), and they want choice of business model. Subscription is the right model for institutions and for heavy users; pay-per-view (i.e. standalone ebooks) are a better model for occasional users. Ad-supported appears to be the best way to fund fast-changing current content. And of course, some content is better rendered as an app than a book.

And that brings me back to where Andrew is taking Safari. It was originally designed as a just-in-time reference service, but as we've increasingly realized, it's actually a just-in-time learning service. With the addition of video, we've taken it partway in that direction, but there's lots more to do.

In addition, as people buy our books in multiple formats, we need to erase the boundaries between where and how they buy them. Andrew is focused on making Safari an "access anywhere" service that's far better optimized for mobile and tablet consumption, as well as keeping up with the competitive challenge of making sure that reading remains an open platform.

September 01 2011

Subscription vs catchment

Recently I was filling out an OSCON feedback survey and arrived at a question that stumped me:

Which of the following industry publications and/or blogs do you read on a regular basis?

Following it was a very long checkbox list, starting with ARS Technica and ACM Queue and ending at ZDNet:

OSCON survey

I started going down the list, answering as best I could, but what I really felt was: "The world doesn't work this way anymore!"

As far as subscriptions go, the main thing I subscribe to these days is Google Alerts and other filters for the topics I care about. Things just float through my alerts, or my Twitter feed, or whatever the catchment du jour is. Subscribing would feel like over-commitment to a single source. If the feedback form had asked "Which of these do you find yourself clicking on most often?" that would have been much closer to reality.

I still have an RSS reader, somewhere around here, but the only two items from the survey list actually in my reader are, I think, Slashdot and O'Reilly Radar. Yet, I read articles from the others all the time. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've read more ZDNet articles than Slashdot articles in the last month, even though I'm "subscribed" to Slashdot but not ZDNet.

As I'm usually not in the advance guard of technology trends, I'm pretty sure I can't be the only person who's basically given up on old-fashioned subscriptions [1]. Is the "subscribe to X" model on its last legs?

Active source loyalty may just not be a thing anymore on the Net. Who evaluates sources as sources now? We're looking more at the cloud of endorsements and references around the sources. This gives us subtle clues as to whether we should go the whole way and click through. More and more, this is true even with publications that have a good reputation and that have spent effort to build that reputation. I like Linux Weekly News (LWN), but I'm not actually going to go to their front page. I'm going to wait until the generalized social waves coursing through the Net bring LWN to me.

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The catchment model means that the urgent task, for those trying to get your attention, is to look enough like what your friends and colleagues endorse to fool your filters. (Of course, one way to do that is to enter into partnerships with the filters, or just be the filters. The rest of this parenthetical aside is left as an exercise for the reader.)

In the past, the sources were a destination all on their own. But as the sources become inputs into a larger filtering system, the filters are the next natural target for those seeking influence — or as we prefer to say in the technology field, the next site of innovation. When people are trawling so many sources, it no longer pays to concentrate on sources at all. It makes much more sense to start studying how the trawlers work and how to become part of the filtering infrastructure.

Perhaps this is all obvious. It just struck me because I've filled out similar evaluation forms for years, and only lately has that question felt like it's based on an obsolete model. And that model doesn't just go away: it gets replaced with something else, something in which broad data collection and pattern discernment matter far more than the reputation and branding of any individual source.

Thanks to Andy Oram for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this post.

[1] Subscriptions on the Internet, that is. I'll still get my paper copy of The New Yorker until they make it illegal to chop down trees to support East Coast intellectual elitism — a day I hope never comes.

Associated photo on home and category pages: email_subscribe by derrickkwa, on Flickr


June 09 2011

Apple's in-app shift: What does it mean for publishers?

AppleDeveloper.pngApple has stepped back from its in-app subscriptions rules that were to begin June 30. No doubt this will have a wide reaching impact on publishers' app development strategies. (MacRumors has a nice rundown on the changes.)

Richard Ziade (@richziade), founding partner of Readability, wrote an open letter to Apple earlier this year after their app was rejected for not complying with the in-app purchase API rules. I reached out to Ziade via email to see how the new announcement might affect his company's development plans. Our short interview follows:

What is your reaction to the Apple announcement reversing the in-app rules?

Richard Ziade: We just heard about it, and we're wondering how official it is, but overall I think it's good news. I'm glad they're softening their position here. I think the outcome will lead to a lot more interesting apps on iOS.

Will Readability resume iOS development?

Richard Ziade: We would obviously love to be on iOS, so we're trying to get our heads around what all this means.

How will Apple's new position affect the app development strategy of content providers?

Richard Ziade: It simplifies things for them, which is good. It also validates the importance of being on the web and not just everything being on one platform. There's more flexibility today than yesterday, and that's also a good thing!

(Note: The Apple developer guidelines can be found here — a developer account is required.)

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