Category Archives: Industry

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.

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.

BRW’s Fast 100 shows book businesses the way

Lessons from some of the firms in BRW’s Fast 100 list for 2011:

#1 – Australian Power & Gas, 270% growth to $130m – A team of keen executives have learnt from working with larger companies and decided to roll out a new model with less overheads. Most systems are out-sourced (billing, invoicing, payments), their main costs are labour with a team of only 55 people. This sounds similar to Book Depository’s model.

Lesson: off-load, out-source, do whatever you can to focus only on the essential role of your business to connect readers with the book experiences they want, or, when they want them, or, where they want them, or, in the formats they want them in.

#5 – Sportsnet Holidays, 202% growth to $13m – a travel agency just for sports lovers. This is a terrific example of a business honing in on the specific customer experience they want to support and enhance. It is exactly what the more successful publishers are doing.

Lesson: Define your audience and their interests more narrowly, and deliver them enhanced experiences around those specific interests.

#8 – Farmers Direct, 157% to $104m – it may be a long bow to draw, but providing a more direct route from farmers to consumers has some parallels to the various self-publishing models that have taken hold over the last eight or so years.

Lesson: Self-publishers are still crying out for affordable help. Businesses that deliver them sustainable value will continue to grow.

#59 – Booktopia, 52% to $9m – Australian online book-seller. When our bricks & mortar stores are really struggling, its good to at least see a local online bookshop strongly growing. They don’t seem to be selling ebooks yet, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed them down at all.

Lesson: online, online, online, is the new mantra for book retailing.

BRW content taken from BRW Vol 32, No. 42, October 28-November 24 2010

We love the book

This blog is for business people and professionals who simply love the book and who are committed to further building their business or career around it. The monograph is an impressive body of content that has had hours and hours of creative energy devoted to it. Through our experience of books we journey through many aspects of life where people from any walk of life might meet.

First and foremost though, the book is a story. Each book that we read reflects one or more aspects of our personal story. This is big, a personal story made up of many themes and chapters that have influenced our lives, our thoughts, our dreams, our inspirations. It may have supported us through arduous classroom learning and most probably helped us through some tougher lessons in life, these are often common lessons experienced in life. And in this way, the book becomes not just your story, or my story, it becomes our story.

What makes the book unique in this digital day and age is the long-form nature of its content, not short snippets to be skimmed or browsed. It’s a sturdy collection of words and pictures demanding some dedication, perhaps not quite as much as went into its formation, but sometimes it just might. A book invites us into a place of reflection that makes us vulnerable to a new message like few other intimate experiences can. Even when celebrating the delights of food, wine, and other indulgences, the printed work has its own tactile value to offer.

For those of us who remain drawn to a working life connected with pages bound, we know that a strong community exists within the industry. A band of book-lovers that sticks with the enterprises and the professions that sometimes appear to be losing their relevance in the online world.

Our businesses and our jobs will change dramatically over the next ten years. But, whatever format it is read in, and via whatever avenue it is purchased, borrowed, or gifted, the book will remain one of the most important forms of story-telling that our society shares. As online browsing and communicating rapidly reaches across social groupings, generations, and countries, so will our yearning for meaning be increasingly met by the depth and breadth of stories and experiences that books contain.

This blog will explore the many new opportunities that are emerging and being tried by book businesses. We will evaluate and report on these opportunities with evidence-based articles that demonstrate how, with almost every new web page or e-reading device being created, there is also a new chapter opening in the life of every publisher, printer, book-seller, librarian, and of every other business and profession in between.