Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Summer is Here!

Two new titles have gone live today and both have me dreaming about the sun and beaches. What credit crunch?

Living Abroad and Spain Magazine

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why the Kindle does not have enough Kith

The iPhone is an amazing device, but we are going to look back on it in a few years and marvel at its already much too apparent limitations. For the size, it has a fantastic screen, but it is small. We eagerly await the Netbook-sized iPhone, iPhone maxi or Mac mini, with a screen of similar quality but reasonable dimensions. (say 20cm rather than 8cm diagonal). It should be with us by September/October.

The iPhone even in its small format is becoming the preferred platform for digital editions and ebook development. I doubt that the new improved Kindle will disrupt this triumphal march. Here is one reason why: one of the more important iPhone features, neglected by the dedicated eBook platforms, is that it is very easy to take a snapshot of your screen and email or sms it to someone else.

A screen grab from the Continuum Directory of Publishing 2009

This limited copy-ability, share-ability, via mobile, is a very important feature for use with digital editions which has been overlooked by commentators. It is important because it is now easy to share snapshots of your books with friends and network contacts. This development from the mobile platform is accelerating our tendency to develop social reading habits. We like to share our insights and the references we find in books, and the iPhone makes this easier than many other device to do this. Oddly, it is even easier than on a desktop or notebook computer, because the iPhone interface, for all its simplicity has brought these features to the surface. It is easier and more natural to make a screen grab on an iPhone and email it to a friend than it is on most Macs.

Why haven't the dedicated eBook devices enabled similar screen-grab and shareability behaviours? Three reasons occur to me. The first is that were any form of copying a design feature, 'selling the concept' of the Kindle, or the Sony eBook, to publishers or authors agents would have been harder than it already is. OK it is not hard now, but it probably was an uphill struggle two or three years ago when the ventures were being planned. The second reason, is that the devices do not support emails or SMS, which is to say they are dedicated eBook readers. But that is an easily remedied design limitation: why were they designed in such a way that it is not easy to become a community of Kindle readers, or to engender a tribe of Iliad enjoyers? Which gets us to the real reason why the dedicated eBook readers do not enable the rather limited content-sharing that is facilitated by the iPhone and its cousins. The real reason is that the eBook reader is based on a deeply flawed model of reading which supposes that reading is just a matter of providing a text to the human brain/mind in the most convenient format. A view which sounds plausible, but is radically mistaken because in many ways that are important reading is more like eating a meal: sharing, comparing, offering, tidying up afterwards, reflecting.... not simply a matter of digesting. Reading is deeply social, was made more so by the invention of print, and the exciting future of the mobile network is that it will show us new ways in which to enjoy social reading. The company of books and each other.

Monday, February 16, 2009

One to Watch?

Outsell, the respected, opinionated and energetic, information industry consultancy and reference resource, reckons that Exact Editions is one of the 30 industry innovators to watch in 2009. They published the press release in December, but Google Alerts has only just alerted me to it (wake up Google!). Well, for sure they are right, but we get in there with some pretty impressive and distinguished company: the British Medical Journal, Thomson/Reuters, The Guardian, Nature, PLoS (Outsell are covering all the angles!) not to mention Google and Safari (is that Safari Books or the browser? Could be either: maybe they know that Apple are going to launch an eBooks tablet with a souped-up Safari, but probably they mean Safari Books). There are some other relative unknowns in their list: so keep your eyes skinned for Brown Book and Flat World Knowledge -- mind you I have heard of that lot. They are aiming to open source the college text book market. Bold and timely. Bold oxymoronic title too, when you think about it.

Good luck to all the other innovators. Look forward to comparing notes in 2010!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Breakthrough to Online Magazines?

Tom Colvin who has a wide-ranging blog, Becoming a Writer Seriously, has bought a digital subscription to PC Utitlities and he approves of the Exact Editions platform

I love Great Britain’s PC Utilities Magazine. But getting the issues has been a problem as I move back and forth between two residences in different parts of the world. I’ve even encountered problems with Mexican customs, which sometimes wants a fee since the magazine comes packaged with a DVD full of computer programs.

But no longer. I just purchased a one-year online subscription via Exact Editions in the UK. The subscription costs noticeably less than the print edition. As a bonus, I get access to the past 20 issues, as well as to all of the 1000’s of software programs it has offered on its DVD’s. While I’ve already got all of those issues in print editions, I now don’t need to carry them from residence to residence — and I can let the magazine’s search facility to find what I’m looking for, a major time-saver.

Exact Editions represents quite a number of UK-based magazines, several of which will appeal to writers.

Now that I’ve broken through to online magazines, I may next subscribe to the online edition of PC World and Publisher’s Weekly. I’m delirious. (Becoming a Writer Seriously)

While we are delighted by Tom's appreciative note, we have to point out that we do not alas offer subscriptions to PC World or Publishers Weekly. Well not yet, but we would love to be able to do so....

Since this a week in which Belkin have been caught out astroturfing, we come right out and say: we have never met Tom Colvin, and have no connection with him.

But of course we like his views and now we know about his blog we like that to.

Sponsored Subscriptions

Dazed & Confused who have been using Exact Editions for a couple of years have found a new way of generating sponsorship revenue and new subscriptions. This month the sponsor is Selfridges, the department store. Selfridges are sending emails to their customers offering them a free one month access to the magazine. At the end of the sponsorship period, or when a new issue of the magazine appears, the user accounts expire. This is an important way for magazine publishers to provide sample access to the current issue and also a way of generating advertising/sponsorship revenues.

Since the service can be co-branded for both the magazine and the sponsor this has an important effect on the perceived value of the sponsorship.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

News Stand Sales: Are They the Solution?

There is no doubt that the physical distribution channel for magazines in the US is in major crisis. In the last month some of the major distributors have pulled out of the market, and it is now being reported that circulation of consumer titles through news stands collapsed in the second half of 2008. Audience Development offers an Analysis:

In the last week the fragile newsstand distribution system has essentially broken down. Two of the four major wholesalers have, in effect, exited the business. Publishers and the remaining wholesalers are scrambling to pick up the scattered pieces. If this wasn’t enough, the recently released second-half 2008 ABC and BPA newsstand sales data revealed (based on a preliminary analysis) that the unit sales of audited publications fell a devastating 14.9 percent and the revenue declined a record 6.7 percent.

The story behind the dysfunctional newsstand distribution business is so convoluted that it makes Tim Geithner’s stimulus plan explanation seem clear by comparison. But regardless of its complexities one thing is sure—there is plenty of blame to go around for the collapse of the distribution channel. It includes wholesalers seeking massive unilateral price increases and a ranting former channel partner that apparently would rather sue than try to find a reasonable solution. Equally culpable are the publishers and their National Distributor representatives that have allowed, largely for competitive considerations, channel conditions to reach these devastating proportions.

The system is very broken, and a major part of the problem is that the news stand sales for magazines (and for newspapers) have been barely profitable, even loss-making for years. News stand sales matter much less for the dollars and dimes that are generated from circulation, than for the way they build an audience for print-based advertising. Magazines that sell for a dollar or two on the news stand generate negligible revenue for the publisher ('returns' from unsold stock run at roughly 50% - -consider the cost of that). So this crisis in news stand sales comes just when the advertising market is already falling fast.

There is no quick and easy solution, but there is a solution and building digital subscription revenues and digital circulations has to be a key part of the response of the magazine industry. The British consumer magazine has not become as over-dependent on advertising as the American market, but it is suffering from the same general malaise. Advertising revenues are slowing fast and revenues from subscriptions and news stand circulation have been neglected in recent years. Obviously digital subscriptions can now play a key part in rebuilding the audience and generating profits from circulation.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Will We Read? Google or Kindle

Yesterday, Amazon announced the Kindle 2 at a Press Conference at the Pierpoint Morgan Library. A few days ago Google released Google Book Search Mobile, an implementation of their rapidly growing digital library. What do these two events tell us about the way that Amazon and Google see us reading digital books?

  1. Amazon have 230,000 books available for purchase on the Kindle. Google have 1.5 million.
  2. The Kindle is still only available to US purchasers. The Google Book Search resource can be used eveywhere, but only 620,000 of those titles can be read in full and accessed page by page ex-USA.
  3. To read the digital books in the Amazon collection you need to first buy a dedicated reader which will cost you $399. The Google titles can be read on any system which supports a web browser.
  4. The Amazon collection includes many front list titles, many new best-sellers and they are often priced at $9.99 (ie less than the price of the equivalent hardback). All the Google books are old titles, many of them of very little interest to today's audience. But there are plenty of great works of literature and masses of curiousities (its a bit like Great Granny's library). They are all free. They are all free....
  5. You can import free books to the Kindle system (eg from a PDF file), but you can certainly import those titles to whatever device you are using to access the Google collection.
  6. Amazon's system allows the text of any book to 'flow' into a scale and type size that suits your reading style. Google BSM also now allows for a downloadable 'reflowable' version of the text.
  7. Both systems will allow you to download a book to read it on a plane (or on the subway, where you can not access broadband). But for some of the older books, the Google ASCII downloads are sub-standard.
  8. Amazon gives much more information about the books in the system. Google has very limited meta-data and it is not at all easy to tell what books they have in their 'library' (which given the absence of a catalogue may be too polite a term for it).
  9. Amazon and Google's systems both 'look' rather monopolistic, but at this point the Google system is free, so it may be churlish to worry about the Google monopoly just yet. Amazon's potential monopoly may worry publishers, but Amazon today has plenty of competition from other systems which operate a similar downloadable ebook service (Sony, Iliad, Plastic Logic coming etc).
  10. Every book and every page in the Google service can be directly cited and referenced, which makes their books much better for bloggers and social networks. Amazon's file format is non-standard, proprietary and wrapped with its own form of DRM (digital rights management).
  11. Kindle's still lack colour. 16 shades of grey is the best that can be offered for illustrations. Few of the books accessible to Google BSM have any colour, but when contemporary titles are offered on the Google platform. Colour will be no problem for Google.
  12. Neither platform supports the concept of 'first sale' (ie second hand books). Google because it is fundamentally an access model, Amazon/Kindle have DRM.
  13. You can't read Google Books on a Kindle and you can't read the Kindle books on a PC or a mobile phone. But there have been rumours of Amazon making an announcement of a mobile version of the Kindle system (and Bezos mentioned synchronisation at the press conference) so this might be coming. If and when that happens mobile users will be able to compare Kindle books and GBSM books on the same device.
I have not been keeping the score on these comparisons. Many of them are qualitative trade-offs on which different constituencies will break in opposed directions, but my sense is that in the big picture Google is winning this hands down. The library of our future is going to be much more imbued with Google than with Amazon innovations. Starting from a large and substantially free and open foundation, Google will be attracting many developers and innovators to their track. It will be fascinating to see whether some Android (Google Mobile Phone) devices appear that are specifically geared to the books/newspaper market. Google is aiming to make its Book Search a resource for the whole web and will build a system with which many other web services can interoperate. Amazon is building a system which will allow individuals to purchase and collect titles in a format which suits them and their private needs. Google is aiming at aggregation and integration, Amazon is limited in its vision to using the web as a distribution medium

Monday, February 09, 2009

Theming and Branding

The Exact Editions web service can be branded, or if you prefer, themed to support a magazine, or to support an important advertiser. When you think about it, the service can also be customised to support both. The magazine subscription that goes to the ordinary subscriber should carry the magazine's branding, but important advertisers might wish to offer the magazine (or a short-term subscription to the magazine) to its own audience. This may be an important message for the big brands that have traditionally found magazine audiences to by a key segment. Here is an illustration of the 'furniture' that can be branded for a sponsor.....

Customising the favicon... that is what I call attention to detail!

Subscriptions and Advertising Revenues

We have noticed that some big and very successful magazines are showing an increased interest in the prospect of building digital subscriptions. Subscription revenues are looking attractive and necessary as advertising revenues in magazines and newspapers shrink. Gradually the largest magazine publishers are thinking about the potential for digital subscriptions, see some comments from Hearst's John Loughlin. He reckons that each new email address is worth 80c to them. Using the back of the only available envelope, and factoring in conservative renewal rates, each new subscriber to a digital magazine is worth at least £20 and as much as £300 to the publisher..... Since the marginal cost of doing a digital edition can be effectively zero offering digital subscriptions in this market has to be a no-brainer, (Exact Editions will assume all the costs if the magazine has a solid market and good digital prospects. We trade the costs for a modest commission on sales). Its time I dropped John Loughlin a note about digital subs.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Google Book Search Mobile

Yesterday Google announced a mobile implementation of their Book Search service: Google Book Search Mobile.

There are 1.5 million books available for complete reading on your mobile phone (iPhone or Android recommended), but less than half of them will be available outside the USA, for copyright reasons previously discussed on this blog. In an email forum a Google engineer estimated that 620,000 are readable ex-USA. 40% of a huge library is even so a very large library. There are some wonderful gems in the collection (Mark Twain, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens and lots of wonderful Victorian stuff). But I think that they are all really old books -- browsing these stacks is a bit like sniffing around a very dusty and arcane book depository from about 1898. Some of these tomes have not been touched for decades.

If you like reading on your iPhone you now have a wonderful library of treasures to explore. You will need a battery booster.

There are some surprising features of the implementation. First, the system works by piping an ASCII version of the text on to your screen, so that it can 'reflow' to fit the dimensions of your screen. For some of these old books the ASCII version that Google infers from OCR is poor, in cases unusable. Google will have to improve it (we can be sure that some engineers there are already relishing the challenge -- improving the quality of the ASCII is a key requirement for the other things which can grow from GBS). Second, Google offers a 'version' of the printed page which you can tap through to, if you want to check up on the doubtful ASCII. This is not the full page of the book, but a section of the page or column of print synthesised for display. So the text appears in the original typeface and linebreaks but without the full page detail, without the original linespacing. Nor can the images be expanded in the usual iPhone style. This strikes me as an odd and complicated compromise. I wonder whether Google is paying too much attention to the temporary limitations of today's screens. Will there be another, richer, enlargeable, photo-realistic layer for the A4 mobiles that will surely appear next year?

It will be interesting to see how enjoyable this platform becomes as a reading environment. It is certainly great for browsing and for searching. Will consumers expect this open and free library to become the foundation of their individual digital libraries? One guesses that this is the Google intention.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Newspapers, will they be paid for and will they be digital?

The answer to this question is obviously yes, and yes. But there is a widespread and total conviction in the newspaper industry itself that paid for digital newspapers will not fly. Anyone who doubts this is considered to be an unrealistic dreamer. Roy Greenslade, who puts out great blogs about newspapers for the Guardian subscribes to this view. But Roy is not blinkered and the other day he mentioned a countervailing opinion:

"Giving away information for free on the internet while still charging 50 cents to $1 for the print version of the paper was one of the most fundamentally flawed business decisions of the past 25 years. Newspapers told their paying customers that the information truly had no value." - Professor Paul MacArthur, Utica College, New York. Greenslade, quoting Storch
This seemed such a sensible and sane view that I hunted down the original interview. You will find a good deal of balanced reason in the Professor's views. From the passage quoted he goes on to say:
Why would anyone pay 50 cents for something he or she can get for free? This poorly conceived and obviously flawed strategy has helped put the newspaper industry into its current financial condition and hastened the demise of many publications. Any newspaper that attempted this strategy deserves the consequential losses.
The rest of the interview is also good sense. Sooner or later newspapers, which have become over dependent on advertising, and magazines that rely 90% on advertising, will realise that digital subscriptions are a good source of revenue. Sooner or later newspapers will stop obsessing about the fact that they all carry the daily news (in different selections, shapes and formats) and learn to live with the fact that they each and everyone have a style and editorial format which endears them to their readers, and for which some readers will be willing to pay reasonable subscriptions for a good digital service.

Professor MacArthur is also acute on the Detroit newspaper crisis (the 2 dailies in Detroit have moved to stop home delivery 4 days of the week).
It makes them irrelevant. The Detroit papers are breaking the newspaper habit. They are telling their customers, "You can no longer trust us to deliver the news on a daily basis."
Detroit seems to be as sadly out of touch with the business of newspaper publishing as its car industry.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Google Book Search and the Tragedy of the Anti-Commons

Michael Heller, a property lawyer at Columbia University, has coined the term the 'tragedy of the anti-commons'. This is a twist on the more familiar idea of 'the tragedy of the commons' -- which is thought to be the cause of such ecological disasters as the implosion of fisheries, perhaps even the nearing apocalypse of global heating. Heller's insight is that too much private ownership can be as much of a problem as too little: “When too many owners control a single resource, cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears and everybody loses.” He gives plenty of examples in his book The Gridlock Economy -- the book's argument is forcibly stated in its subtitle: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives.

There is a good chance that the Google Books Settlement is going to show us all how this tragedy of the anti-commons works out in the world of books. The Google project, which is backed by the American publishers and American Authors's representatives should be (in my view will be) a wonderful resource for American universities, schools, public libraries and through them for American consumers. By 2011, if the Settlement is approved, at least 5 million out of print but not yet out of copyright [OOPnotYOOC] titles will be available to readers in the US market. This resource will have little opportunity to work so well for authors, readers and consumers in the rest of the world. The books will by and large not be available in the rest of the world (perhaps in American embassies?).

Google is already serving a very different and vastly narrower view of Google Book Search to the rest of the world (even to Canada and Mexico). Books which are public domain and wholly visible and readable in the US are not visible and readable elsewhere. And this copyright caution about territorial rights is unlikely to change, because the Settlement, when it is approved, is only going to be approved and agreed for the US market. Google has been persuaded (or has volunteered?) to accept the territorial restrictions and complications inherent in the market of copyright books. In my view, Google will not risk starting court actions in other jurisdictions, for the very simple reason that they might be lost, or worse still settled on a different basis from the US dispute. Google will be bound to leave the ex-US position of its wonderful aggregate of unloved (mostly 'orphan') copyrights in a national limbo. The orphans will remain unloved outside the 50 states.

The complexity of the rights situations of these millions of titles is effectively unmanageable and un-negotiable, which is pretty much what Michael Heller means by a tragedy of the anti-commons. By developing and growing an intricate and incredibly complex system of rights for different legal regimes and market territories the publishing industry has produced a system where a negotiated and innovative new service is probably impossible. It would take something like a new Berne convention on copyright to make this a level plane for all jurisdictions.

One might say that this hopeless and impenetrable thicket of rights which are largely historical and dormant is a problem for the rest of the world and for scholars outside the US. It is not a problem for the US, or for Google. Well maybe..... but it is also possible that this lack of international and global relevance will undermine the authority and the prestige of a US-centric resource. I wonder whether US scholars will accept a situation in which citations and references cannot be made and verified in a global context?

There is another dimension in which the impenetrable complexity of the rights position OOPnotYOOC titles: illustrations and photographs in these titles are in effect excluded from the scope of active exploitation by Google. Interestingly enough, Children's Book Illustrations are to be treated differently. They are defined as 'inserts' and therefore fall within the scope of the settlement and will presumably be in the searchable and readable services that Google produces. But, in the place of ordinary illustrations and photographs in books which are not 'Children's Books' we should expect gaps or blanks, such as one already finds in the Google Book Search service. Eric Rumsey thinks that I may be on my own in reading the Google Settlement this way, but some apparently well-informed, anonymous, commenter makes a similar point in a comment on the Martyn Daniels blog. Why should illustrations in Children's Books be treated differently from those in other books? I suspect that the publishers and the Authors Guild felt that they could negotiate with certainty on these rights (as also on quotation rights, rights in poetry etc) but they knew that they could not negotatiate for the owners of artistic rights.

Will it matter that Google Book Search, when it is marketed as a commercial subscription service for libraries and universities cannot be accessed or read in the world at large? Will it matter that many of the photographs and illustrations in millions of the OOPnotYOOC titles will not be there? Yes, it will matter, and that it matters will be another instance of the tragedy of the anti-commons.