Not much news here, but a BBC story suggests that, as part of its digital book initiative, Google may sell e-books sometime in the future. CEO Eric Schmidt – being extra careful in this area it seems – said “that this would depend on permission from copyright holders.” Google already provides links to online booksellers from its book pages, but, as far as I can tell, this would be the first time that Google was selling books directly.
It's a story likely to make some readers queasy. Several British libraries have begun working with a direct marketing firm to stuff inserts into books at check out. "They're going to be inserted right next to the panel with the return date on it, which means that everyone will look at them at least once," said Mark Jackson of direct marketing company Jackson Howse. However, Guy Daines, the director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, however, is concerned about the "creeping commercialisation of library services." I'll second that.
I. Apple's tablet will be unveiled to the planet via a special event on January 27. Industry watchers and gadget hounds have been tracking news of an Apple tablet for years now and will likely incite a frenzy of analysis as they attempt to parse the meaning of the new device. In the wildest scenarios, the Apple tablet, some hybrid of the iPhone and the MacBook, is, through Apple's formidable interface design expertise, a revolutionary device that utterly transforms how people compute and connect. The pessimistic view is that the device fails to generate widespread interest from consumers already happy enough with their iPhones and MacBooks and ends up having limited niche appeal. Given Apple's track record in recent years, I'd wager the outcome will be closer to the former case. The tablet certainly has the potential to further revolutionize how people consume music, TV, and movies on the go, but the implications for the book, newspaper, and magazine industries are potentially much greater. For all the Kindle's success, it remains in many ways a niche product, aimed at consumers who fit a certain narrow profile, namely avid readers. In 2007, the Associated Press reported that a quarter of Americans hadn't read a single book in the prior year. And among those who did read that year, the average number of books read was seven. Even considering that you can get some non-book content on the Kindle, these numbers alone suggest that the market for the Kindle is limited. Meanwhile, the Kindle is siphoning off some of the book industry's best customers into this new format controlled by Amazon and with profit margins that seem to be constrained at best. The Kindle may get avid readers to read more (and maybe that increased volume will make up for the low profit margins), but the Kindle, with its high price tag (relative to not using an e-reader at all) and limited functionality, is not likely on the wish list of non-readers. However, while the Kindle isn't turning those non-readers into readers, Apple's tablet might. II. In the technology world, "unitaskers" don't last long. In the last few years alone, we've seen cellphones acquire ever more features and functions. There's now no reason to carry with you a separate PDA, camera, address book, or music player. Standalone GPS devices are on their way out too and laptops could one day be largely cannibalized by handheld devices. The Kindle, on the other hand, performs a single function and does it well, but no matter how good it is at being an e-reader, in the mass market, it's always going to lose out to a device that can do more things. Owning a device that can do more things is cheaper than owning a bunch of separate devices and a single device takes up less space in a backpack or pocket. Beyond that, a device that can do more things is going to appeal to a much wider group of people. Therein lies the potential promise of an Apple tablet with a robust e-reader built in. If Apple does the tablet right, it will be purchased by an order of magnitude more people than have purchased the Kindle, even with its likely $1000 price tag. Since launching the device, Amazon has likely sold somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million Kindles. Analysts are predicting that Apple sold more than 11 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2009 alone and will sell over 37 million in 2010. Looking farther out, analysts believe Apple could sell 50 million iPhones in 2011 and 80 million in 2012. The bottom line is that an Apple tablet with e-reader capabilities, if it sells at even a fraction of the volume that the iPhone has, will quickly dwarf the reach of the Kindle. More importantly, it will be owned by thousands of people who are not a part of the Kindle demographic, and will therefore put an e-reader in the hands of millions of people who would not have otherwise bought one and will put e-books at the fingertips of those who might otherwise read less. III. The big question mark here is just how good an e-reader the Apple tablet will be. We can already assume based on reports of talks between Apple and publishers that Apple plans on making a big move into the e-reader space, but the tablet is unlikely to have some characteristics that have made the Kindle a hit among serious readers. The Kindle's non-backlit screen is easy on the eyes, a long battery life allows for uninterrupted reading sessions, and a dead simple interface keeps the focus on the book. Apple's tablet, meanwhile, may not have a non-backlit reading setting, is likely to have a far shorter battery life than the Kindle, and will likely be packed with so many enticing distractions that it's hard to imagine getting much reading done. And, though consumers will likely buy the Apple tablet by the millions, the expected price tag of around $1,000 may turn off those who are primarily interested in the tablet for its e-reader capabilities, such as they are. Interestingly, in the face of impending competition from Apple, Amazon is pushing the Kindle to become more of multitasker rather than focusing on the e-reader aspect of the device. This week the company announced that it will allow developers to create apps for the device, meaning that Kindle owners may sometime soon be able to access "a wide range of programs, including utilities like calculators, stock tickers and casual video games." So much for finishing Proust. If you've used a Kindle, you're likely wondering why anyone would bother with a video game on that low-tech screen, and how the Kindle, in its current form, could possibly be good for anything beyond reading. Amazon is likely thinking the same thing, and as time goes on - and prodded by competition from Apple - the Kindle will be able to do more and more, the screen will get more high-tech, buttons will proliferate. And so one wonders if, in the desire to create a mass market device, e-readers and tablets will be laden with ever more bells and whistles, to the detriment of their capabilities as e-readers. If that's the case, a niche market for an e-reader that is focused on providing a good reading experience - and that alone - may thrive. In the best case scenario multitasker tablets of all kinds thrive, don't lose sight of providing a good reading experience, and integrate reading books, magazines, and newspapers back into our lives. If that happens, wherever we go, we are reading. Previously: eBook Evolution: Amazon and Google on Different Paths, eBook Paths Converge [Image credit: Mike McCaffrey]
Who knew. More than ten years after Amazon revolutionized retailing and became a dot-com-boom-and-bust poster child, online bookstores are once again a hot topic. Part of the reason is that corporate book retailing is experiencing a particularly tumultuous period. As we discussed over the weekend, Borders is in dire straits and may be bought out by Barnes and Noble within months. (Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble isn't exactly hale - its stock price is down 32% in the last twelve months.)Borders, as we've noted, has been grasping at new strategies to keep it afloat. The latest is to ditch its long-standing relationship with Amazon to open its own online bookstore. Can Borders possibly gain ground on Amazon? I tend to agree with this sentiment: "'Amazon just dominates,' said Fred Crawford, managing director at turnaround consultant AlixPartners who has studied consumer attitudes toward major booksellers. 'Amazon is nearly unassailable.'"Amazon, meanwhile, is looking to reinvent book retailing once again with the Kindle. The Kindle has been both praised and reviled - guest contributor Buzz penned a worthwhile take on the initial mania that surrounded the reading device's release last year. A few months on, rhetoric from Amazon continues to suggest that the company sees the device as a game changer and positive reviews are trickling in. Perhaps more importantly, Kindles are back in stock after a long hiatus, and they are now sporting a slimmer price, slashed 10% to $359.What happens next? It would be foolish to predict, but don't be surprised if a few months from now we have one fewer big bookstore chain. And don't be surprised if, a few years from now, Amazon is still rolling out new mays to sell books.
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Does a reader who lists all the books he reads on the internet still care about privacy? Should an ebook be an app on its own or one of many books available through an ebookstore? Do readers also want to be writers? And what, if anything, is the publisher’s role in all of this? These and many more questions were the subject of discussion at the second annual Books in Browsers conference at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. Sponsored by O’Reilly Media and planned by the IA’s Peter Brantley, the event brought together publishing and technology professionals from around the world (presenters flew from as far as Japan, Singapore, and Australia to speak) to discuss the consequences and opportunities of books becoming digital. The talks ranged from the highly conceptual to the very specific. Some presenters discussed the history of publishing stretching back before the industrial revolution while others more or less demonstrated their software. This kind of dual-personality is a product of the confusing landscape those of us in the book business face today. Nowhere was this more evident than when the IA’s founder Brewster Kahle gathered those of us in attendance together to take a group photo. Wanting to take a sort of general census of attendees, he asked anyone who considered himself or herself a publisher to raise his or her hand. When someone asked for clarification of what a publisher was, he more or less said “anyone who facilitates production and distribution of the written word.” As an employee of Goodreads, I felt compelled to raise my hand. Then he asked those of us who were authors to raise our hands. As a blogger, both here and elsewhere, I felt I should raise my hand again. I also claimed the title of bookseller, as Goodreads does sell ebooks. If I’d wanted to, I might even have been able to claim I was a librarian, but I didn’t. Lastly, every one of us was, of course, a reader. Nevertheless, clearly the old lines of demarcation in the publishing industry don’t really apply anymore. If there was an overarching theme to the conference it was “social reading,” so much so that several presenters, including Goodreads founder Otis Chandler, who was there to announce the Goodreads Social Reading API, apologized for discussing the topic yet again. Michael Tamblyn from Kobo books proudly announced that his speech was free of any and all things social. “Hell is other readers,” one of his slides proclaimed. But sharing the reading experience was clearly on many people’s minds. In presentation after presentation, speakers discussed their vision for what a social reading experience – and in some cases, a social writing experience – might be. In Thursday’s dazzling keynote address, Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners urged publishers to move beyond the “container model of publishing” and to look instead to create context first: [B]ook, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information. Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit. Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones. In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone. We compete on context. But moving from containers to something infinitely less contained creates problems, as well. Nicole Ozer of the Northern California ACLU spoke eloquently on the dangers of gathering data on what people read. “If you build it, someone will come calling, asking for information.” Other speakers, though, argued that many readers will trade some amount of privacy in exchange for more features and greater possibilities. If a website helps you find the next book you want to read, perhaps giving it your reading history or some portion thereof is a price worth paying. Day two of the conference kicked off with back-to-back talks from two publishing iconoclasts – Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book and Richard Nash, former editor of Soft Skull Press and founder of the publishing start up Cursor. Stein presented a call to create a Taxonomy of Social Reading. Stein aims to provide a framework to discuss all the various ways in which we do read socially in the hopes that the publishers might band together to create an open platform for sharing notations and comments across all texts. It’s only through seizing the social reading moment, so to speak, that the publishers can hope to wrestle some measure of control back from the tech companies that have come to dominate their industry. Stein’s taxonomy is well worth examining in depth, and at the risk of simplifying a complex idea, I will summarize it here. He breaks social reading into four main categories: category one: in-person informal discussion of a book; category two: discussion of a book online; category three: formal discussion of a book in a classroom or book club; and category four: online, synchronous discussion of a book in the margins of the book itself (A few examples of this are the Commentpress platform in which Stein’s piece appears and the website BookGlutton). This concept – of group annotation and community reading – was arguably the most controversial idea of the conference. Does the average reader even want to mark up a text, much less share their annotations with others? Would this idea apply equally to fiction and non-fiction? Or would people prefer to keep the actual reading experience private, to remain immersed in a narrative rather than constantly checking the margins of the text? Richard Nash followed Stein’s presentation with a thought-provoking talk about the ways in which authors are also readers and, perhaps more importantly, vise versa. His new venture Cursor aims to cultivate a community of writer-readers. Whether he is successful or not will not hinge on whether many readers also fancy themselves writers -- that much seems self-evident -- but instead on exactly what people are willing to pay to be a part of a community of like-minded folks. Both Stein and Nash argued that the way most of us read now – alone with the text – has only been the way we read for the past two hundred or so years, a product of the industrial revolution. Prior to that, reading was something done in a small group, typically the family, and discussion was a natural and essential component of it. Whether that desire – to experience a text as a part of a group – has been thwarted by the past couple hundred years and consequently liberated by the connectivity of the net is at the very heart of the matter. Fittingly, the debate about the issue spilled out from the conference itself and onto the Read 2.0 email list, which discusses issues pertinent to the future of the book business. Skeptics argued that shared marginalia was innovation for innovation’s sake, or that it might be applicable to academic environments and certain kinds of book clubs, but that it had little future as a commercially viable project for commercial publishers. While it’s easy to see why many are skeptical, one can’t help but wonder how many people knew ten years ago that they wanted to write a blog? How many could have explained their desire to connect with other readers on sites like Goodreads? And yet there are millions of bloggers and Goodreads has four million members and counting. The text has been an isolated thing for so many years and decades that it’s difficult to imagine it as something different, as one part of a community and a conversation, rather than a thing unto itself. We want to interact with some texts, it seems, but whether we want that to extend to our long-form narratives remains somewhat in doubt. Another thing very much in doubt is the publisher’s role in this changing world. It is telling that at a conference so focused on the future of reading, there was only a single representative of any of the six major publishers in attendance. The leadership, it seems, comes not from New York, but from the startups and thinkers on the fringes of the industry proper. People like Eli James, whose website Novelr has been covering the world of online fiction for some time, and Matthew Bernius from RIT, who closed the conference with the presentation of a canon of publishing, continue to lead a vanguard that increasingly has less and less to do with what’s happening in Manhattan. Leaving the conference, I couldn’t help but be excited for the future. Simply being at the Internet Archive – one of the few places on earth actually digitizing books – was an exhilarating experience. On the second day of the conference, the attendees all banded together to form a "box brigade" to help the Internet Archive move a few dozen boxes from the first floor of their building to the second. The boxes contained hard drives capable of storing 2.8 petabytes of data, or 2 billion books. This is an incredible time to be a reader, even if it’s a terrifying time for traditional publishing. I will admit to getting chills thinking about what the 2020 meeting of Books in Browsers will be like. The only things I’m comfortable predicting that far in the future are that people will be writing long-form narratives, people will be reading them, and they will be dying to talk about it.
A pair of interesting addenda to my post on Amazon from earlier in the month:The online bookselling giant went ahead and snapped up the piece of book cataloging site Shelfari that it didn't already own.As we had noted, after buying AbeBooks, Amazon suddenly owned the two big rivals in the book cataloging space, Shelfari and LibraryThing, and since, to this observer, it seemed like combining the two sites would be a non-starter, Amazon was likely to throw its weight behind one or the other. Unsurprisingly, Amazon picked Shelfari, as Tim Spalding, LibraryThing's founder, has long been wary of Amazon (though not hostile towards it). As TechCrunch speculates, Amazon may divest its shares of LibraryThing, and I'd guess that Spalding wouldn't mind that too much.Secondly, bookfinder.com, the extremely comprehensive used book search engine (now owned by Amazon via its purchase of AbeBooks), has released its annual report on the most sought after out-of-print and hard-to-find books over the last year. Once again, Madonna's relic from the 1990s, Sex, tops the list. But from there the list gets very eclectic and interesting, with books like Bob Dylan's Drawn Blank, The Jerusalem Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali, and Bruce Davidson's photo book Subway. The report also has lists by genre and offers up a little background on some of the more interesting titles.
What better time than now to bring back the pocket paperback? People have no money to spend on hardcovers, and even the full-sized trade paperbacks are a pricey, given the economic times. There are also strong trends in our society that encourage less waste and the downsizing of our myriad possessions. A return of those classic 6 3/4 inch by 4 1/2 inch volumes, now all but extinct, save for in a few genres and in used book stores, could save paper and space and entice younger readers for whom $25 for a hardcover and $14 for a paperback is too much money to risk.I've written in the past that books are too big -- not too long, but too bulky and heavy and expensive -- and pined for a return of the pocket paperback, so that carrying a book with you didn't feel like such a chore. A combination of factors led to the demise of the pocket paperbacks that were prevalent in the middle part of the 20th century. These pocket paperbacks had been sold at newsstands and drugstores rather than bookstores, but as these venues stopped selling books, the pocket paperback market shrunk. Around the same time, a wave of consolidation hit the alternative book distribution network that had sprung up around these pocket editions, shrinking the number of books available, and consolidation among publishers folded the purveyors of the pocket editions into larger publishing conglomerates built on a different business model. Finally, the introduction of the trade paperback -- the larger paperbacks prevalent today -- squeezed the pocket edition out of the publishing equation except in a few genres -- romances and mysteries -- that still cling to the similarly-sized mass market format (which you can still see at grocery stores and in airports).But perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards pocket editions again. HarperPerennial recently introduced the Olive Editions collection. According to the marketing material, "they fit in your back pocket and only cost ten bucks each." (And eight bucks on Amazon). So far the line includes three titles, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. At 7 inches by 4 1/2 inches, they are a touch larger than the pocket paperbacks you see in used bookstores, and while their cover design is smart looking, they are not as inviting as the pulpy art that used to emblazon even the classics. Nonetheless, they represent a smart move by HarperCollins, and one hopes that they will announce more titles in this format and that other publishers will follow suit.A full-fledged return of pocket paperbacks would be surprising, however, as ultimately it seems likely that an even smaller format will take center stage, a format that is indeed infinitesimal. With hardware innovations driven by Amazon's Kindle and perhaps Apple and Sony as well, reading on these devices will become more palatable for a larger percentage of readers. Selection of titles will improve and developments like Google's recent deal with publishers will further expand the availability of titles in digital formats.Like many other sectors of the economy, the publishing industry is likely to face serious challenges over the coming year. The silver lining of course, is that this may drive innovation. New formats (digital and tangible) created now may entice a new generation of readers down the road.