Fans of certain authors or genres are finding enticing e-book “bundles” for sale from publishers ranging from RosettaBooks to Hachette and Penguin, according to The Wall Street Journal article “Publishers Bundle E-Books to Boost Sales, Promote Authors.” Some of these bundles include “freebies” or are sold at special discounts; all of them are designed to promote authors whose brand names are already—or, their publishers hope, soon will be—widely recognized and profitable.
KNOW THIS: True E-Books Access Depends on Further Development
The publishing industry rode a rollercoaster of e-books fears and firsts this past year, but the excitement still has a long way to go before the phenomenal breadth of knowledge and insights offered by access to e-books becomes available to all. How long will it take before the obstacles that obstruct widespread e-book adoption are cleared away, making this potentially field-leveling technology truly accessible? That depends on how long it takes the powers that be in the book industry to make a few things happen:
WORK OUT THE GLITCHES Earlier this week I visited a public library site to see how its e-book lending program worked. When I found its e-book lending options confusing, I discovered a link to LibraryBin.com, a site that sells e-books to library patrons who, due to confusion (like mine) or impatience (ditto), may opt to purchase an e-book they were considering borrowing. Owned by OverDrive, the company that manages public library e-book lending programs, LibraryBIN (BIN = Buy It Now) funnels resources back to the libraries that link to it. Minor problem when I visited, however: The site was down.
A visit to Overdrive.com revealed the company’s entire e-book lending program experienced significant technical difficulties over the holidays. Despite various glitches and frustrated librarians who couldn’t help eager patrons with new e-readers borrow e-books, Overdrive shared the situation’s silver lining on its blog, which trumpeted: “Traffic, checkouts, and new user registration records were SMASHED over the Christmas holiday–all thanks to eBooks.”
“For the first time ever, eBooks out-circulated audiobooks at libraries’ ‘Virtual Branch’ websites,” Overdrive crowed. While this news is great for Overdrive, surely the company’s librarian customers and their patrons would have appreciated more attention to the workings of the system (or lack thereof) during such a record-smashing holiday break.
On the retail side, the Christmas holiday proved challenging for Barnes & Noble again this year, prompting days of complaints that its servers were overloaded and crippled or down completely. According to Slashgear.com, the latest series of outages provided “a painful example of how B&N failed to learn from their problems last year. Considering ereaders are usually billed as the more immediate way to get access to books than heading off to the store and picking up a physical copy, this probably isn’t the best way to demonstrate that advantage.”
Meanwhile, Google eBooks early adopters haven’t been altogether thrilled with their experiences, either. Suite101 columnist Betty Jean Steinshouer suggests that Google went live with Google eBooks “before working out its kinks,” noting that users of certain e-readers must first download software before they can access Google eBooks, and that some complain of the app’s inability to “highlight text and take notes” and its lack of dictionary, “all popular features on Kindle.” Still others find the app’s format less than perfect, leading to irritating pauses “mid-sentence while it refreshes.”
Smoothing out such technical difficulties will go a long way in reassuring consumers e-books are worth the hassle, prompting those with little or no experience with technology who want to read e-books to take the next step.
TAKE CUES FROM RETAILERS Soon after the Google eBooks launch, the American Booksellers Association newsletter featured booksellers’ creative approaches to making e-books more familiar, accessible, and easily purchased. The Book Bin in Illinois not only provides step-by-step instructions on how to set up an e-books account on its site, it offers to lend one of its Sony Readers (on a first-come, first-served basis) to any customer who buys an e-book through its site. Store staff even download purchased titles onto the rental readers. Details of the program aren’t posted and are likely managed on a customer-by-customer basis, but the simple idea deserves industry attention. What if an e-reader recycling program were set up through which discontinued or no longer used e-readers (or tablets or even netbooks and laptops) were donated to bookstores, which could then set up a lending or reselling program designed to get used hardware into the hands of potential e-books customers?
Those customers and others with a web-enabled device could visit their local Starbucks, another retailer with a program that grants easy access to e-books. Through its partnership with LibreDigital, Starbucks provides free e-books and other content to patrons via its in-store Digital Network. Barnes & Noble Nook owners take advantage of this type of program in Barnes & Noble stores, where they can read e-books free “for up to an hour per day when connected to the free in-store Wi-Fi” or get “exclusive articles from top authors” as well as “unique deals” and café offers.
Retailers striving to keep their brick-and-mortar locations up and running understand the need for innovations that get their customers in the store and keep them there for a while. Customers curious about new technologies but restricted by lack of funds or gadget experience would benefit greatly from more programs designed to increase their awareness and put e-reading technology into their hands as quickly and easily as possible.
ABANDON PROPRIETARY PLATFORMS With the pending end of the e-reader hardware war, the return to e-books on browsers, and the advent of e-book lending libraries in every corner of the marketplace (even Amazon’s), the fall of the proprietary platforms that restrict consumers’ abilities to purchase and read what they want however they prefer has become long overdue.
Having the freedom to buy e-books from a variety of sources should be as simple as choosing which bookstore to patronize. As Paul Thurrott, a columnist for the WindowsITPro site, put it: “You don’t think about where books come from–you could have a book from Borders next to a book from Barnes & Noble on a physical books shelf–and it should be the same way with your electronic book collection. Amazon…should open up the Kindle ecosystem on both ends, supporting [non-Kindle] files on its devices and pushing its Kindle books to competing devices like the Nook and Sony eReader. Such moves would benefit consumers in huge and immediately obvious ways, and that’s what really matters.”
Another small publisher, Stephen Cole of eBooks.com, says his company is developing an e-book reading tool that’s free from any operating system. “Our ebooks will be readable on any device at all, provided it has access to the internet. Nothing to download. No app to install. Just start reading.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
BE FAIR Readers deserve to pay a fair price for an e-book, not more than what they’d pay at a bookstore for a printed copy of an identical book. Sarah Weinman, a novelist and Daily Finance columnist, states that the drive to lure book readers to consider e-books makes “finding the right price for the e-book that much more critical.” “Readers ready to choose digital may be put off if the price exceeds that of a heavily discounted hardcover, or gives the illusion of being too high.”
Weinman also notes, however, that e-books generate lower royalties for authors, and those priced a certain way result in lower profits for publishers. Amazon’s early push for low-cost e-books resulted in increased pressure on publishers to accept cuts in e-book profits while e-book sales threatened print sales. The impact of Amazon’s deep-discount pricing practices of e-books impacted publishers early on as much as the deep-discount practices of retailer chains that carry books. While it’s doubtful Amazon will change its policies, one can hope publishers will continue to fight for fair pricing from all resellers as Google eBooks and other on-line retailers broaden the market base, removing at least some of the clout Amazon has wielded in the e-books arena.
MAKE IT EASY Part of being fair to publishers and authors requires renewed attention to backlist titles, and that requires a new way of making backlist titles easy to find and purchase…in any format. Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin reports that “Publishers, agents, and authors are all seeing bumps in backlist sales because of newly created ebook availability. It would be my hunch that…ebook backlist sales will spark a pop in print sales for the very same titles.”
For such reasons, some large publishers are admitting the need “to completely reinvent book marketing.” While such an understanding could manifest itself in myriad ways, Shatzkin suggests one simple tool that could replace current, befuddling on-line e-books search options: e-book catalogs that group digital titles by author or subject for consumers with specific interests:
“I am sure regular fans of romance, sci-fi, historical fiction, business books, popular science, and many other subjects share the same frustrations I do with shopping for ebooks now. Any search you do returns more dirt than diamonds, more chaff than wheat, more noise than signal and, for the subjects nearest and dearest to me, far more books I have either already read or already rejected than that are new and of interest. It would be ever so much easier to have all this information presented in an app or an ebook that I could peruse at my leisure, online or off, and which would have proper navigation rather than a constant struggle with pointless links and back buttons.”
INNOVATE As far as the current state and future prospect for e-books are concerned, Shatzkin states: “There is a tendency in some quarters to declare the ebook wars over…. It is important to remember that ebooks have about 10% penetration in the US and less than 1% [almost] everywhere else. Many more players will be competing for the ninety-something-percent of the 2015 world’s ebook readers that haven’t tried it yet.”
According to a recent study of the e-book market in America, Europe, and Asia from 2008 through 2015, “By 2015, the future of the market will be shaped by factors operating at two levels: the degree of conversion of casual readers to digital media (who represent the bulk of the book market in terms of volume) and the impact of enriched books, hybrid multimedia products capable of attracting people who are not regular consumers of traditional books.”
A few days ago on Mashable, Philip Ruppel, president of McGraw-Hill Professional, identified five eBook trends that will change the future of publishing:
“--Enhanced E-Books Are Coming and Will Only Get Better --The Device War Is Nearly Over --The $9.99 E-Book Won’t Last Forever --The Contextual Upsell Will be a Business Model to Watch --Publishers Will Be More Important Than Ever”
Publishers who intend to be “more important than ever” would do well to focus on “enriched books” that not only present intriguing graphical elements or links, but enter into the realm of truly social reading. Beyond the simple chatting about books read within a certain time frame, social reading entails communal, interactive reading during which readers converge on a book, virtually marking it up as they discuss everything from word choices to characterizations to how a story ends. Such social reading is offered now via sites such as BookGlutton.com and SocialBooks.com.
Some publishers are already venturing into this field. Stephen Cole of eBooks.com states his company is “attempting to rethink every little detail of what a book is for, and what it means to the person reading it. We’re cracking open the current paradigm of a book to see what good things shine out.” He cites AmigoReader.com, “an experiment in social reading” that “offers a very lively social experience.” “You can read your books simultaneously with others, via any web browser. You can share notes and chat. You can access supplementary content streamed from YouTube, Twitter, news feeds, blogs, anywhere.”
Such enthusiasm will keep the e-books revolution rolling, with enhanced and social e-books and other innovations making e-books inviting to many who’ve yet to give them a spin, and with real steps taken toward open access and simplicity making the whole process much easier to navigate and enjoy for all. If supporting, creating, and sharing the written word in its varied, wondrous forms is the ultimate noble goal of book publishing and a focused effort to get closer to that goal via e-books helps those struggling to keep a book-related business afloat, it makes sense for industry players to take the next much-needed steps toward making such a win-win possible.
Now onward to see what’s actually done in this New Year, and those to follow.
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