Nitty-gritty of book formatting will limit ebook market growth

‘ePub is now the standard’ and ‘thank goodness’ we all say, almost believing that it is like MP3 for music. But is that ePub in iBooks, Kobo, Kindle, Stanza, Adobe DE, or in another software reader? And then is it one of these readers on the iPad, the iPhone, the Blackberry, Kindle, Kobo, Sony, or another reading tablet, or a desk-top? How many possible variations do these combinations represent? Is the next version of ePub going to make things better, or worse?

If my device can play an MP3 file, there is no quality variation between devices, or none that my untrained ear can notice. But if my device can display an ePub file, I could be driven completely batty by what appears to be broken paragraphs, a vanilla font for all text, italics, superscripts, etc lost, and be left seriously wondering about the nature and quality of the content I am reading.

ePub files need to be optimised to suit your target market and the format/device combination that are most likely to be used. This embeds a serious flaw in the economy of digital book content that will limit its growth, particularly in professional, reference, education, and academic markets. As the AAP reports yet another stellar month for digital book sales (up 160% on same period last year), we need to remember that these vagaries of digital formats will eventually put a dampener on such growth. In fact, it is probably one of the main reasons few textbook publishers are yet to wholeheartedly embrace the ebook format.

Even more to the point, we do not yet really know where the bulk of the sales growth is coming from. If they are from library sales, for example, we can be confident that the useability factor of ebooks will become increasingly important as libraries become more alert to what borrowers can and can’t do with their ebook libraries. Many of these formatting issues will be difficult for publishers or aggregators to solve, and we may see a gradual decline in uptake as readers get weary of the unreliable standards, as compared to the printed edition.

Every publisher has no choice but to produce ebooks now, and to do so to the ePub standard most of their readers would expect for a mainstream mobile device would expect. There is a growing market there, and it might even provide a return on investment soon. However, publishers’ willingness to invest in more robust formatting will continue to be seriously hampered while these long-term demand issues remain so uncertain. And this, in turn, will hamper the ultimate size and growth levels of the ebook market, with the formats as we know them today. The good news is, it will also put a dampener on piracy, as few content pirates will want to invest in overcoming the formatting challenges either.

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New ‘traditional’ shows that old ‘traditional’ book publishing is in sharp decline

Bowker’s recent release of their 2010 annual report on print book publishing highlights an important, but not that new, shift in the meaning of the term ‘traditional’ book publishing. They report that the number of print titles published by ‘traditional’ book publishers has grown by 5%.

There are many aspiring publishers, or self-publishing authors, who might be encouraged by this news. But, if you are a traditional ‘traditional’ book publisher who publishes in the fields of literature,  humanities, or  social sciences, this is not good news. From the article announcing the report:”Literature (-29%), Poetry (-15%), History (-12), and Biography (-12%) all recorded double digit declines. Fiction, which is still the largest category (nearly 15% of the total) dropped 3% from 2009, continuing a decline from peak output in 2007. Religion (-4%) fell to 5th place behind Science among the largest categories.”

However, if you are a new ‘traditional’ publisher this is very good news. “Major increases were seen in Computers (51% over 2009, with an average five-year growth rate of 8%), Science (37% over 2009, with an average five-year growth rate of 12%) and Technology (35% over 2009, with an average five-year growth rate of 11%).”

Bowker explains these declines in the context of those segments being more vulnerable to fluctuations in discretionary spending. This may be true. However, it is equally plausible that the traditional ‘traditional’ audiences have shifted their demand to utilise electronic formats and devices, online experiences, and other content experiences.

If you are a new or an old player in any of the traditional ‘traditional’ segments, the pressure is really on to better understand just where and what your audiences are doing with the content they love. Bibliobazaar’s stellar expansion during 2010, with 1,461,918 out of copyright titles converted to their print-on-demand model may be one indication. We are yet to see if their model is a commercial success, but the brains behind them (two of the guys who set up Booksurge, sold to Amazon) would suggest they certainly know what they are doing.

Push Pop Press – significantly extending ‘the book’

Software developer Mike Matas demos a full-length interactive book for the iPad — with clever, swipeable video and graphics and some very cool data visualizations to play with. The book is “Our Choice,” Al Gore’s sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Watch this 5 minute TED talk to get the full picture.

In brief, this is technology for book publishers, and what you will see is:

  • a full-length interactive book ‘Our Choice’ authored by Al Gore
  • moving images, web links
  • chapter browsing by chapter cover image, or, scrolling through page images
  • all images expanded to full screen size
  • audio tracks to accompany an opened image
  • map links to check geographic location of photo
  • embedded documentary footage (that continues to play while you browse elsewhere)
  • interactive (by touch) infographics – see new information presented as you move your finger across a map
  • interactive (by blowing from your mouth!) images – the reader can blow the windmill to see the energy flow to batteries and lighting.

It only works on the iPad or iPhone, but is still a terrific demonstration of how the ‘long-form’ book functionality will continue to be extended.

University Press Content Consortium – a major USA collaboration to watch

Further to our February 22 blog advocating for more collaboration amongst Australian university presses, the March announcement of the USA’s University Press Content Consortium (UPCC) launching in January 1, 2012, confirms and expands the potential for such collaboration.

Although precise details are hazy, the primary driver for this initiative appears to be more on the marketing and distribution side of things, rather than on the production side. Their media release states: “The partnership allows e-books from an anticipated 60-70 university presses and non-profit scholarly presses—representing as many as 30,000 frontlist and backlist titles—to be discovered and searched in an integrated environment with content from nearly 500 journals currently on MUSE.”

It will be interesting to watch over time how this level of collaboration spills over to sharing production platforms also. It would make sense for the 60-70 presses to develop alliances around platforms, and perhaps some services, for manuscript submission, peer-review, copy editing, design & layout, ebook formatting, print-on-demand, and other common areas of need.

For a stimulating collection of thoughts about the future of scholarly publishing, see this edition of the Journal of Electronic Publishing dedicated to ‘reimagining the university press’.

O’Reilly Media took five years to have confidence in POD

This report in Publisher Weekly highlights how slowly things work in book publishing, and how building the right supply relationships takes time.

O’Reilly has to be considered one of the most innovative and tech-savvy book publishers on the planet, but even for them it took five years of dedicated trialing of print-on-demand before they could be ‘comfortable that moving more printing to pod to will free up cash to be used on the acquisition of content’.

And their partner is Ingram, parent of Lightning Source, the most well-resourced book wholesaler with pod facilities in the world.

It is further evidence that the Lightning Source model makes sense. In one way it heightens the challenge for local printers who can not match Ingram’s global distribution capability, but it may also give them some hope. It is difficult for large companies like Ingram to always respond quickly and effectively to the needs of local smaller publishers, and that’s how new players can get a stronger hold on local opportunities.

Business opportunities: students and their ‘everyday life research’

In First Monday’s recent issue (Volume 4, 4 April 2011) researchers Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg from the University of Washington report on their research into college students’ everyday life information-seeking behaviour.

A few helpful findings for book industry players:

  • ‘books’ are often considered more authoritative than blogs or random info – one student went in search of methods for curing food, they ‘blew those (blogs) off’ and went to an online cookbook.
  • students are ‘more engaged’ with ‘everyday life research’ than conventional course work.
  • search engines are used most for making purchasing-related decisions and other high-risk decisions (like curing food properly so it doesn’t make you sick).

Most importantly, this research points to  business opportunities for publishers and campus book-sellers in:

  • identifying the everyday life research that students engage in.
  • developing online information services to meet these needs.
  • integrating these information services with course-related products and services they already access.

Ebook Buying Behaviour – a personal view

I just received Kobo’s new release email appropriately named ‘Hot off the Digital Press!’.

Instantly I saw a book I wanted for one of my sons, called ‘Life Without Limits’ and nearly bought it. I haven’t bought it yet because I don’t want to sacrifice my iPad for the length of time it might take him to read it, (I’m too tight to buy him his own iPad, although the iPad2 is appealing, a hand-me-down may soon eventuate…) and that I know he, at 17 years of age, actually likes sitting/lying with a printed version. So, I’ll wait till I see it as a paperback somewhere and pick it up then.

But then I realised, I am in fact buying ebooks to satisfy demands that I didn’t even notice I had, till this opportunity for instant satisfaction was here. E.g.:

  • Some new releases that I have bought instantly: had been meaning to get ‘that’ book, its now available as ebook, great, will grab it ‘now’.
  • Attending a conference recently I was fascinated to hear about Peter Levine’s ‘Shaking the Tiger’, I wanted it ‘now’,  bought it as an ebook (could only get a Kindle version), started reading it on the iPad immediately, loved it.
  • I wish there were more titles available in ebook format. At the same conference there were four other books I wanted ‘now’ but none were available as ebooks, had to wait weeks for them to come from online hardcopy sellers. I would actually still buy them as ebooks because they are are for work and I would like to be able to dip into them while traveling, I don’t want to carry my library with me.
  • I have a purchased a few books in p and e versions, for this reason, I enjoy the different reading experience and convenience they each offer, depending on where I am and what I am doing.
  • Weirdly, reading Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Spiral Staircase’ on my Blackberry offered a different reflective experience to that I had reading the print. The print was my main focus, but when on the train, or in a cafe, with a few spare minutes, I would delve back in to a favorite passage and experience it anew. Now I consider this added reflective experience that the e version might offer and about a third of the time buy both e and p. Why aren’t more bundles available?

In summary the ‘now’-ness of ebooks is fantastic, both its fast delivery and its flexibility to adapt to what we are doing at any point in time. This added reflective experience is something that might have surprising potential in other ways too, for learning in particular. Never before has the book product known such potential to play a greater role in people’s lives.

By the way, I actually don’t like reading ebooks on any device, it kills my eyes, perhaps its time to try one of the epaper versions (Kindle, Kobo, etc) . BUT I love the features above so much that I am prepared to stand the eye-fatigue at least a few times a week.

Learning Management Systems – the ‘location’ for educational book businesses

Learning Management Systems (LMS) are fast becoming the centre of the ‘learning experience’ for all tertiary students. School education environments are showing early signs of following this trend.

About five years ago we were given access to over 2,000 undergraduate student essay bibliographies. Less than half of the references used were conventional book or journal sources. Using non-‘published’ resources for acquiring new knowledge is both a product of students’ appetite for Google-ease and of lecturers’ need to use resources that are more current and timely than what publishers can often provide.

Whether a student is enrolled for on-campus or online courses, they are increasingly being provided course guides plus essential and non-essential reading materials (or links to them), plus a variety of other learning tools such as online tutorials and work groups, via the LMS.  In this environment, lecturers and students are strongly tempted to limit or even avoid using traditional book business products, because of various complexities it involves.

Blackboard is the clear leader in the Australian tertiary LMS market. Having one major vendor would seem to present a good opportunity for there to be an industry-wide approach for businesses to become involved in the LMS environment. Educational publishers, campus (and other specialist) book-sellers, campus (and nearby) printeries, all could benefit by developing ways to ‘locate’ their services within the LMS environment. University Libraries, who are usually managing the user interface of the LMS, also may benefit by facilitating a more seamless user experience.

Libraries are budget constrained and tend to steer away from activities that involve ‘selling’. Therefore, what better way for bookshops to pick up unmet demand where libraries do not have the materials readily available online to meet student demand, in either print or electronic formats. Publishers might try to sell direct to students in this environment also, and for smaller publishers this might be viable. But for the larger publishers, who need to still protect their printed textbook sales volumes, it would make more sense to work with the campus book-seller for this opportunity. And printers stand to pick up considerable on-demand printing opportunities if they can work with LMS vendors and managers to embed links to POD local solutions.

Here are a couple of industry-wide approaches that might be considered (or re-considered) on a national basis, to help make the LMS ‘location’ more accessible and viable for all book businesses. The second idea is not new and was part of the COLIS project that was discontinued around 2005.

1.     A national LMS strategic plan for all educational institutions.

This would provide guidelines for the management of the LMS environment and how businesses might provision relevant products and services such as:

  • Ebooks and electronic journal content
  • non-book or journal learning tools and resources
  • access to printed books and journals to purchase or borrow
  • print on demand services for materials copied under Part VB of the Copyright Act, and for materials to be made available commercially (e.g. custom publications complied by the lecturer or student)

2.     A national approach to the standards (that follow trends in international best practice) for handling online activities such as:

  • Learning object identification, importing, and use
  • Ecommerce in an education environment
  • Product information, price and availability
  • Print job ticketing

It might be argued that the LMS environment as we know it today will not exist in a few years time. Whatever is on the horizon, it is clear that students will be interacting with their lecturers, their institutions, their class-mates, their learning resources, through one ‘portal’-type environment. And they will be doing it on their iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, and a multitude of other devices, including print products. The more educational book businesses are embedded there now, the better chance they have of being a profitable partner in the business associated with that location in the future. 2011 is the year to start seriously negotiating what that ‘location’ means.

Shared Scholarly Publishing Infrastructure – a sure way to promote Australia’s research excellence

Academics form one of the most prolific online user communities throughout the world. They are also amongst the most well-defined groups of ‘users’ that act simultaneously as both authors and readers.  The online environment has enabled geographically dispersed academics to be more closely and actively connected around their core fields of research. However, research outputs in print or electronic book form are still hampered by relatively high costs of production that require better economies of scale to overcome.

In recent years the Australian federal government has invested heavily in digital repositories to provide some of the necessary infrastructure for storing and accessing the great wealth of our academic research output. ‘Open Access’ has also been openly advocated by Minister Carr throughout his term as being a logical approach to sharing publically funded research.

However, electronic means for packaging (ebooks/digital books/bits of books, for web/mobile device/print on demand) and distributing (via wholesale, retail, and library networks) are also needed, in addition to storage and access, to achieve a substantially higher level of exposure for Australian academics both here and overseas, even if ‘open access’ models are adopted.

A collaborative approach to packaging and distribution would be a logical development alongside the various collaborations invested in for storage and access.  These include the Australasian Digital Theses Program and the National Collaborative Research Strategy into eResearch.

At least seven universities (ANU, Monash, RMIT, Uni of Melb, Uni of Syd, UNSW, UQ) have been developing different but complementary approaches to electronic publishing in recent years. These efforts could be analysed to identify what common infrastructure would best serve the further development of e-publishing  models for academic research outputs from all universities in Australia.

A shared scholarly publishing infrastructure used by each university with its own identity and secure space, perhaps under an Application Service Provider (ASP) model, could offer a range of functions, including the following:

1.     Manuscript submission – tools for authors to submit works for review by editors or editorial committees.

2.     Peer review – a place where reports are administered, submitted and stored.

3.     Design and layout tools – a toolkit for converting manuscripts (prepared in pre-defined templates) into files ready for print and electronic packaging.

4.     Book packaging tools – a set of tools for preparing files for specific book products types such printed formats, standard and large print, various ebook formats, including ePub, HTML, and PDF.

5.     Print on Demand services – an integrated print service (perhaps tendered on an annual or other basis) for all university publishers to access bulk rates and high standards of quality service.

6.     Marketing – a set of tools for generating relevant information for lodging with international databases for marketing and distribution purposes.

7.     Distribution – an electronic platform for lodging new titles with international distribution channels to book-sellers, and libraries. Whether they are free-of-charge or for-charge materials, this function could be established to provide a gateway for content subject to the terms established by each publisher, and for each work.

There are many more aspects of book production and distribution that a shared platform might provision. However, those mentioned above are probably the core components that might attract sufficient interest from those willing and able to invest in a collaborative venture.

The federal government’s support would provide necessary impetus for this important foundation to be established, to support the greater and enhanced dissemination of Australia’s excellence in academic research.

(This is an extract from Enakt’s recent submission to the Australian Federal Government’s Book Industry Strategy Group)

Online book-selling – a growth opportunity, price is NOT the only driver

Australian book-sellers have got it particularly tough at present – as Borders troubles partly reminds us – publishers are not willing or able to respond fast enough to the intense price competition from overseas, GST continues to put them at a disadvantage, and free freight offered by players like the Book Depository makes Australian postage rates for the average book-seller appear  almost extortionist.

Yes, it would be sweet if the current BISG investigation resulted in some of these issues being effectively dealt with. But book business people are generally good at simply accepting that their future is in their hands, and more than ever before it is time to explore more fully the opportunity for growth that online book-selling represents.

1. Customers especially know best – those book-sellers who do well regardless of the trends are usually independent and are exceptionally good at listening to their customers, and selling them more of what they want. Riverbend and Readings are two of several that come quickly to mind, both have vibrant and relevant online stores to complement their bricks&mortar base.

2. Specialization means advantage – one of the criticisms of Borders recently is that what they offered was not much different to Kmart’s book sections, but were a lot more expensive.   Many people love lounging in a Borders store, with a coffee or not, reading a favorite author. But that was not translating into sales, being a destination is good, but it must be grounded in a form of specialist interest(s) that prompt people to spend. Again, the Indies are good at this.

3. Current advantage gives leverage – many stores have the simple advantage of a good retail location, or a well-known brand. Established stores with these types of strengths may have more leverage online than they realize. Growing an email list, and an online customer base does add competitive advantage and value to the business over time, even if it is not the main source of revenue.

4. Online represents multiple propositions – events, partnerships, book-inspired ventures, multi-media products, can all form the myriad of products and services a bookshop might consider offering their customers, with their specialist interests in mind.

5. It must be slick – Amazon and The Book Depository have set the benchmark for ‘slickness’, you have to be confident you can come close to their standards of ease of online use, if you are serious about exploiting these opportunities online.

Price is a major driver, that is true, but when a bookshop gets these other types of drivers right, their customers are less inclined to seek out a few dollars in savings.