Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Maybe the Launch was too Soft

We have recently 'stealth' launched some digital books that seems to me so good that I am a trifle frustrated that hardly anyone has yet noticed that books now have live phone numbers and post codes. With the iPhone, such digital books give a whole new resonance to the phrase "Let your fingers do the talking." I blogged the Time Out City Guide to London a couple of weeks ago here. But you can now buy it for £4.95 from our Time Out shop. The same subscription will run on any computer, but the iPhone potential is the killer.

Of course, the iPhone is still a small market segment. There are barely 12 million users in the world, and the digital travel guides work in pretty much the same way on desktops and notebooks. But it is the application of digital travel guides in a phone that really intrigues me, and currently few PCs have direct phone connectivity. Also, the iPhone knows where it is, and the Google Maps implementation on that platform is very well thought out. So the live post codes in the Time Out book also work very well as a direction finder. Google and the iPhone can take the credit for that very cool resource.

This sense of mild impotence and excitement about a new mobile interactivity for books, has encouraged me recently to follow blog links to stuff about PR. Aaron Swartz's thoughts seemed bang on. Especially apt is the note of one commenter who points out that successful web PR is a bit like 'Restaurant PR'.

This is exactly what we are doing "Basically, you open your doors to the public without advertising, to serve those folks that stumble by and see you are open." But we are still in stealth mode and we have not yet seen a review...... BTW where does stuff like this get reviewed? Reviewing the new and unexpected functions of a digital book is not a trivial matter.

Restaurants get reviewed in Restaurant Guides, of course. So maybe its time we digitised a Restaurant guide, but who will review that? Who reviews the digital reviewers?

Is the Kindle a Platform?

There is a fair amount of speculation that Amazon is preparing a second iteration of its innovative Kindle, eBook reader. Maybe it will have a larger form factor. Maybe it will be targeting the college textbook market. Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch wonders whether Amazon would not be best advised to open up the spec and invite other hardware manufacturers to deliver better implementations. He is suggesting that by keeping the hardware proprietary Amazon may be making the same mistake that Apple made vis a vis Microsoft and the Windows O/S. This is an entertaining line of speculation, and of course its not going to happen, but why not? And what does this tell us?

  1. There should really be no margin in selling eBook readers. They are small lumps of silicon and plastic, the screens are mass produced, and the one that works will be a massive seller. The profit has to be in the service or the digital offerings. Really Amazon should have been pricing Kindles at $99 all along (current official price is $359). They should have been using the free-razor, but pay for the blades strategy. Arrington realises this and suggests that third party manufacturers will be incentivised by "shar(ing) a percentage of net margin generated from downloads with the hardware manufacturers."
  2. But, please say that again: "Share net margins". I thought that is what Mike said. But can you see Amazon sharing a percentage of net margin generated with anyone? That way people outside Amazon get to know what the net margins on all their digital transactions are. I think they will be offering "net margin shares" to publishers or authors before they start offering them to hardware manufacturers. But dont count on it before Christmas.
  3. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Kindle is its web-connectivity. It gets this through Amazon's deal with Sprint for the EV-DO cellular network. You cant make or receive phone calls with the Kindle but you can download books and to a limited extent you can browse the web. This costs Amazon something (no one knows how much) but it makes buying and downloading new books a cynch. This is its big plus over the Sony eBook. Is Amazon going to underwrite the risk of excessive and costly use of free web browsing by users of third party manufactured devices? The connectivity feature of the Kindle is the key to its success and there is no way that Amazon could give that away to manufacturers of devices that will use it for who knows what. It could well be that this deal that Amazon has with Sprint will be hard to replicate in other markets, and this may explain why they have been so slow to roll the Kindle out in ex-US markets (not even in Canada).
  4. That is the other reason. Amazon has to have a global strategy before any hardware manufacturer would dream of kloning the Kindle, or before Amazon could invite PC manufacturers or cellphone makers to emulate it. The Chinese market for digital books is going to be a lot bigger than the US market for them.
So, although Michael Arrington's speculation is interesting, it is never going to happen. It is never going to happen because Amazon are trying to build a proprietary platform for eBooks.

Amazon have invented the Kindle on the basis that the digital books domain should be a platform, and the manufacturer of the right device for eBooks will own the platform. The big problem with this strategy, and in my view it is going to be a problem for Amazon and its Kindle customers, is that the platform for digital books is the web. Digital books that work well for their readers, need to be accessible from any web device and they need to be able to link seamlessly to any web resource. The Kindle gets this wrong both ways, and the limited but enticing connectivity that the device affords, simply underlines the failing. The Kindle would be better if it were more like the iPhone.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Book in its Context

When a book is in the library, the library catalogue is a key part of its context. This is even more true for digital books, where there is little opportunity for users to find out about the books except through searching the catalogue.

Last week we realised that we could enable a small change which helps digital books to appear in a better context in the library catalogue. The goal is to help librarians to include a link in the catalogue which takes the reader straight to the digital book, and in the case where the library has subscribed to several titles from Exact Editions it should be immediately obvious to the user which magazine or book they will be searching/reading:


It would be even better if the library Catalogue contained an image of the front cover which linked to the login page.

Many libraries now offer these links from front cover image as a way in. We will need to find an easy way to broadcast to librarians the availability of these login shortcuts. For the users its an important cue that we have provided the subtle 'branding' that goes with the individual book or magazine title. So the user is guided as to the specific part of the library's Exact Editions account that they are using. Preserving the branding and using the front cover of individual titles is an important part of the Exact Editions philosophy. The platform should encourage books and magazines to sustain their individual character in the digital domain.

Putting a book or a magazine in its right digital context is a matter of bringing out its digital identity, and of developing its character.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On Being Positive in August

Vint Cerf, who is one of the internet's founding fathers had a nice positive piece in last Sunday's Observer If you thought the internet was cool, wait until it goes space age

It's amazing how quickly those of us with internet access have come to take for granted the remarkable amounts of information we have at our disposal, but we're only seeing the beginnings. The bulk of human knowledge remains offline. As more of us get access to the internet, more of the world's information will find its way online.
Cerf is right. We havent seen the middle of the beginning, merely the beginning of the beginning. There is a lot of knowledge to be shifted in the next ten years. Virtualised. Objective Knowledge, which has been printed in books is now being dumped in the cloud.

The publishing industry too often has a depressing air of worry about digital technologies. Sometimes Amazon fear. Sometimes Google gloom. Too many possibilities. New technology can, after all, be a bit challenging to an established industry.

But, who can doubt that digital publishing will be a golden age for publishers and authors? Even staid old Television (which relies on mid-2oth Century technology, not on our Renaissance invention of moveable type) can, according to Mark Cuban, be rejuvenated by the application of a new technology. Boring 73", High Definition, flat panel TVs which have led to audience surges for the Olympics.

I dont have a flat panel TV. If I did, since its a digital device, I would want it to bring me the daily newspaper (all of them), magazines and books by the truckload. And why not?

Publishers need to consider the possibility that anything that can be published, will certainly be published digitally, and will, in principle, be available anywhere from many devices. That does not mean that it all will be free (why should it mean that?). But it does mean that it will either be available for free (sponsored by advertising) or because someone wants to buy, give, or rent it. That is a medium term horizon. Cerf should live long enough to see the end of the beginning.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Free as in Free Beer for the next two weeks

Sawdays Pubs & Inns of England & Wales will be free to access for a couple of weeks. That means you can browse it and search it as much as you like, just as though you had bought it, until August 24th.

This is one of the easiest and cheapest ways of getting the full flavour of Exact Editions on the iPhone. And The Fox and Hounds at Christmas Commons has my personal recommendation.

If you have telephone access from your browser (perhaps through SkypeOut on your laptop or from the iPhone) you will be able to call the pubs directly by clicking on their phone numbers. Please no random phone calls!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Time Out Guides to London, Beijing and Sydney

The initial batch of three titles is available at

Three olympic city guides. They have lots of clickable links and they all click-call to the relevant local phone numbers. By our count, 1,485 telephone numbers in the London guide, 548 in the Beijing guide, and 564 in the Sydney guide. When we saw the London guide with its density of very useful phone numbers, we had to see about generalising from the eight digit (London) phone numbers to get valid (+44) 12 digit international numbers. Phone numbers will not always be parseable, but in these books they were. The London book also has lots of post codes which link to Google maps of the locations.

Yet more iPhone excitement. The titles are free to search in the shop, but you dont get the clickability from the search results. For that you need to buy the books. So attractively priced at £4.95 each.

Phoning off the page

The Sawdays guide to Pubs & Inns of England and Wales has been enhanced so that all the pub phone numbers are clickable.

Here is a YouTube video showing our Technical Director, Tim Bruce, calling the Red Lion at Hinxton from his iPhone. Then getting the Google map so he can walk to it.

We think that this is a 'first'. The first time that digital books can initiate a call to ordinary phone numbers mentioned in them.

An annual subscription to this invaluable guide is the merest snip at £4.95, and it will surely improve the quality and precision of your drinking and eating.

Exact Editions has been able to support calls to international format phone numbers for some time (but we are still? the only digital edition format to do so). The enhancement in the last week or two has been to our 'import' technique, so that we can im many cases make live and callable phone numbers that lack the international prefix. This interactiveness becomes more important with the iPhone and Exact Editions is making maximum use of our iPhone compatibility.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Sony already vanquished by the Kindle?

There is a major article in today's Financial Times by John Gapper on how Sony lost the battle of the e-book, Gapper reckons that Sony has been trounced for two main reasons:

First, the Kindle links to Amazon’s online store and there are now 145,000 titles available to download. As well as books, readers can subscribe to daily newspapers and even blogs, which makes the Kindle a more useful device in everyday life.

Second, Amazon came up with a clever way of linking the Kindle to its content. Each Kindle is connected to a 3G mobile network, so books and newspapers can be downloaded within a minute. If you subscribe to The New York Times, for example, it arrives wirelessly in the night, ready to read on the morning commute.

This is a kind of replay of the battle that Sony lost to Apple over the iPhone. The Sony device was outsmarted by a newcomer who introduced much better connectivity. It is a bit odd, from a European standpoint to see the Sony system, shortly to be launched in the UK, being written off in favour of the Kindle that has no plans for ex-US deployment. But Gapper may well be right. The Kindle may have vanquished the Sony system already.

But it doesnt follow that the Kindle will be a big-time winner. The Kindle also looks to be vulnerable and may be outflanked by a device with better connectivity. That device is the iPhone. If the iPhone beats the Kindle as a reading device, it will be partly because it supports colour, but also because it is actually a more open device than the Kindle, which is still pretty much an Amazon walled garden.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Opening Windows on the Text

We had some interesting feedback from a valued critic yesterday. She was looking at a large title (nearly 900 pages) that we have in a test account and she pointed out that it was very easy to read different chapters once she had decided to keep the Table of Contents in one tab, and opened the specific chapters she was studying in separate tabs.

I am a very messy user of tabs and windows (my colleagues shrug their shoulders when they see that I am running three browsers on my system with multiple tabs and windows in each). I am not a tidy reader. But this matter of reading the same book in a multiplicity of tabs is something to think about.

It is often assumed that the instant availability of masses of information, billions of web pages, which are all only two or three clicks away, is impoverishing our reading experience. But as we learn to read books using search, Google web search, library search, single volume search, linkage in all its forms, all available navigation, and with multiple windows open on the text at different places, and in different texts, it may be that our reading experience is actually getting to be in some senses deeper, more total, and more analytic than the simplistic model of continuous reading with which we are often confronted.

More Mygazines

The Press Gazette has more about the Mygazines site and its possible business model. They reproduce a lengthy but empty email from the creator of the web site, supposedly 'John Smith', but that may well be an alias for whoever has built the service. Here is an extract from John Smith's email:

The true future of the industry lies in the final stages of our site concept. We can easily transition to the final revenue model quickly with the co-operation of the publishers. We cannot however reveal the full concept at this time as we are saving that discussion for the publishing industry directly.........
As per our press release: We have every intention of working with the industry to provide not only revenue streams that are vast, but also an answer for the Publishers in general. Our method will increase current revenue, halt and reverse advertising revenue lost to the internet, and overcome the lack of the ability for magazines to stay current.
There is more in that bombastic and questionable tone.

There was something fishy about the Mygazines claim that these magazines (hundreds of complete magazines) were being uploaded by end users who aimed to share 'their' magazines with others. One tell-tale sign, most of the magazines were uploaded in their entirety with Contents Pages clearly identified. If a magazine sharing site, built by the community, was for real it would be chock full of magazines which had been partially uploaded or badly annotated in the upload process. Mygazines content looked far too perfect. Much more probable that it was the work of one or two bodies toiling away with a guilotine and feeding the scanned results into the database system that lies at the heart of the service. There is no 'safe harbor/user generated content' defence for doing that.

It all looks like a shameless and pointless ripoff operation, with no under-lying business proposition which could possibly appeal to publishers. What a pity that the ingenuity and effort that has been put into building this 'service' was not applied to a more worthwhile and sensible project.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Digital Book Pricing II

Peter Brantley runs a newsgroup to which he feeds interesting links (interesting to the bunch of publisher, web 2.0-type people that go onto the Reading 2.0 list he curates). Peter mentioned my Digital Book Pricing blog on Friday, and there followed a burst of highly opinionated and expert views, about 30 emails by my count, some of them lengthy and thought-out. Some of these postings may go on to the web, in which case I will link to the record. I meanwhile spent the weekend in the mountains, and was only within Blackberry range of the debate. Since I agreed with quite a lot of the feedback, and much of it was not really about my original posting there was no compulsion to peck away at the bb.

One thing that struck me was how sure many of us are about the way the future is going to unroll. Surely certainty is not warranted in this field. Two years ago, we none of us knew about the iPhone or the Kindle.

Some of the digital experts in this Reading 2.0 group are very sceptical and gloomy about the prospects for publishers from the digital wave. Some are much more bullish. I incline towards the bullish wing. Here are three reasons for being bullish about the digital future for book publishing, even if prices generally come down, or flatten, as we go digital:

  1. For some sorts of books (especially books which in print would be low-cost, and mass market) digital publishing will open up an attractive source of advertising revenue. Advertising revenues from digital editions will be particularly interesting for books such as travel guides, which are already able to capture advertising in their print editions. But travel is only one example.....
  2. Paradoxically, the increasing prevalence and superabundance of advertising-backed and 'free' literature may provide a renewed impetus and validation for subscription-based digital services. The advantages of 'advertising-free' or 'privacy-controlled' subscriptions may be an important driver for certain kinds of digital publishing. Not perhaps for 'sky-high' subscriptions, but for consumer-level subscriptions and fees which mark one's affiliations and aspirations.
  3. Digital Libraries will be another source of strength to publishers who can produce and promote high quality literary services. For many types of publishing the digital wave will be a much better opportunity to develop proper library markets than the printed book offered. Libraries and librarians will be looking for affordable, high quality digital services that meet the needs of their audiences. Subscription services should aim to target both the individual consumer and the institutional and public library market. Book publishers are very lucky that in most developed countries there is a public library market which supports and encourages the value of the publisher's output. Music publishers have never had this advantage to any significant extent.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Print and Prices

Book prices are much influenced by the cost of production. Magazines are different, the most successful magazines have their size limited by the quantity of advertising that they can attract at an appropriate rate. For this reason, very large fashion magazines can be priced quite low on the street. Book publishers will say that they price to 'the market', and it is a naive mistake to suppose that one can publish profitably be achieving adequate margins at 5, 6 or 7 times the unit cost. Nevertheless the range of book prices is remarkable. What other product type spans three or four orders of magnitude in its pricing from £1 to £3,250 for the multi-volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography? Of course the physical volumes of the ODNB cost a very great deal to produce.

But the marginal distribution cost of adding one more subscriber to the list for an online service is close to zero, which is why you can get a one month subscription to ODNB for only £25 (+VAT). The annual single user price of £195 seems too steep to catch any but a very exclusive market. I suspect that once OUP manages to 'forget' that it priced the multivolume book at £3,000+, the market-makers in that august institution will realise that they should be able to attract a large digital audience at a much lower price. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the old Oxford English Dictionary were sold in a completely unreadable microformat, (was it 24 pages photo-reduced to each page?), in the 1970s and 80s. The books were shifted mainly as a premium offer by the book clubs but an amazing number were sold with a magnifying glass in the binding because the photoreduced pages were too small to be read with the naked eye. Actually the OED is completely unreadable even when you have discerned the type with the glass wobbling in your hands. The OED thanks to this huge promotional boost may be the most purchased least read book of all time (the two volumes in their slipcase look great on your shelves). The ODNB is highly readable in comparison.

At this stage in the development of the ebook market, book publishers who think about digital pricing tend to work back from the print price, to find a satisfactory, ebook price at 50% or 60% or X% of the list price of the print work (think of £195 annual subscription as the mortgage payment on a book -- I bet that is the way OUP fixed their subscription price). It will take a bit of time before publishers and marketers realise that the cost of production, in the sense of 'unit cost', has no conceivable bearing on the digital pricing, whether for outright sale or for an annual subscription. The chances are that in the medium term ebook prices will migrate to some more or less fixed pricing levels: $2.99, $4.99, $9.99, perhaps $19.99. Simplicity will be a virtue and digital books will be seen as having some natural price points (cf CDs or DVDs).

Pricing digital books for institutional use is a completely different matter. This is an area in which book publishers who want to service institutional markets with effective subscription services will need to do some creative thinking. Charging as much as possible will not be a clever long-term strategy.