ebooks

Off The eBook Shelf

Readers are voting with their wallets: The eBook is winning. In the US, eBooks sales are now topping hardcovers for the first time (story in TechCrunch). Not everywhere of course. According to the Bowker Global eBook Research, the global market for eBooks is driven — in that order — by India, Australia, the UK and the United States. The laggards are Japan and (no surprise) France. The chart below shows the percentage of internet population reporting the purchase of a digital book over the last six months prior to the survey.

Interestingly, for most population samples, the level of purchases is not correlated with awareness. France enjoys the highest level of awareness but its internet population buys five times less eBooks than India’s. Once an Indian internet user finds an attractive digital book offer, he/she will most likely jump on it. This could lead to the following: in emerging countries, the cellular phone has become the main communication tool, leapfrogging the deployment of land lines; similarly, we could see eBooks bypassing print in countries like India where a large segment of the population is getting both literate and connected at a fast pace. (Actually, Bowker also reports that over 50% of respondents in India and Brazil are likely to buy an eBook in the next six months, ten times more than in France.)

If the rise of the eBook happily provides access to knowledge in emerging countries, the picture is more contrasted in countries with a long history and high penetration of printed books.

For instance, let’s have look at the ISBN registrations data for the United States. The chart below, drawn again from Bowkers (full PDF table here) shows a steady progression:

Between 2002 and 2011, in the US market, ISBN registration grew by 61% and reached 347,178 new titles. (A technical note: I’m only taking into account books that fall in an identified category, such as Arts, Biography, Business, etc. I’m excluding the huge segment labeled as nontraditional, which includes reprints, public domain, and titles printed on demand; this segment grew by over 3500% to 1.2 million registrations, which would distort the picture.)

We clearly see the impact of mainstream e-readers such as the Kindle and the iPad. Without any doubt, they contributed to the growth of registrations. (Unfortunately, ISBN counts does not provide a breakdown between print and digital.) Over the last nine years, some book publishing segments fared better than others. See the chart below:

Fiction is doing twice better than all other categories together. The Digital Book is the medium of choice for fiction: a) eBooks are set to be cheaper that print and price elasticity is now a proven fact, the cheaper a book is, the more likely a reader is to try it; b) e-commerce breeds impulse buying (cf the famous “One-Click® feature); c) readers can test the product more efficiently than in the printed world as Amazon and the iBooks Store make larges sample available for free. No surprise, then, to see the Fiction category holding well.

No surprise either in seeing the three worst performers also as prime victims of the digital era. History books have to compete with the vast trove of material available on the web; that’s the Encyclopaedia Britannica syndrome, going out of print after 244 years of duty, demoted by the 11-year-old Wikipedia. Like it or not, most history books publishers will follow the same fate.

Similarly,Travel and Computer books are in direct competition with mostly free online services. Who will buy a “how-to” computer book today? There are plenty of video tutorials explaining how to replace a hard drive or how to struggle with Photoshop? And let’s not even mention the Travel segment with tons of guides, reviews, price comparators and transactions services. As for the language sections of the bookstore, again, a simple query in Google can help with spelling, translation and grammar… Even the precious Roget’s Thesaurus is online, and rather efficiently so. I’ll just venture French Canadians did Roget one better: A company called Druide publishes a suite of applications for PCs, tablets and smartphones called Antidote. It’s an unusually clever combination of dictionary, thesaurus, quotations, etymology and more. I wondered for a while about the name Antidote — until I realized Quebecois saw the product as an antidote to… English. An old struggle.

The main eBooks casualty is likely to be bookstores. In a city like New York, in the Fifties, about 330 bookstores were in business. Now they are down to 30 or even less, laments André Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon Books, in his recent book Words & Money. Countries like France or Germany have laws that protect independent bookstores: From Bordeaux to Berlin, citizens are thankful for finding warmer and more relevant recommendations than the algorithm-based suggestions provided by Amazon. But how long will it last?

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Ebooks: Defending the Agency Model

(Last of a series — for a while.)

Launching an antitrust probe against books publishers, as the US Department of Justice might do, can’t come at a weirdest time. In the two previous Monday Notes, we explained how Amazon is maneuvering itself into a position to dominate the entire book industry. The Seattle giant keeps moving up the food chain, from controlling ebooks distribution (in addition to selling print books), to competing against publishers and even agents by luring best selling-authors. No one would bet a dime on the printed book as it reaches its peak while ebooks sales keep exceeding expectations.

Then, why does the DOJ waves the threat of an antitrust action?

Five publishers –and one distributor, Apple– are in the the US administration’s crosshairs:  Hachette Book Group (a division of Lagardère Group), Simon & Schuster (CBS Corp),  MacMillan (Holtzbrinck GmbH), Penguin (Pearson PLC), and HarpersCollins (News Corp). All are said to be suspected of ebooks prices collusion. (The Wall Street Journal broke the story on March 9th).

First, some background. There are two competing distribution models for printed books, electronic books and electronic newspapers as well: the wholesale model and the agency model. Using the wholesale model, the publisher sells its goods to the distributor for a fixed price — say half of the suggested street price — and the distributor is free to decide the actual price to the public. In the agency model, the publishers set the retail price, the distributor gets a fee (30% or so) and that’s it.

Amazon is fond of the wholesale model. But, in order to effectively enter a new market, the company had to make concessions. For example, in the newspaper business Amazon reluctantly yielded to the demands of European publishers who preferred the agency model. French publishers went for this arrangement last year (but they priced their publications too high, forgetting that a real e-paper format has nothing to do with PDF facsimile or a digital edition loaded with features). In the UK, British newspapers went for the wholesale model, much cheaper for the customer: they are doing well with lower margins and much higher volumes. (Price elasticity is a proven concept for digital publishing).

In the US market, Amazon offers nothing but the wholesale model. You end up with absurdly low prices:

…While the French weekly Paris Match won’t accept any discount:

… At least on Amazon. On the Relay.com digital kiosk, the magazine is sold for €1.59 ($2.08) per copy.

When it comes to selling newspapers or books, the wholesale model doesn’t seem to favor the publisher, this for three main reasons:

The wholesale model’s primary goal is to serve the retailer’s overall strategy. Let’s assume Amazon wants to strengthen its general e-distribution market share and to increase sales of its Kindle product line. Then, the price of the primary product becomes secondary: it is in the company’s best interest to price-dump ebooks top-sellers in order to stimulate the sale of other products, or to up-sell high-margin items through its incredible recommendation engine –something Amazon is extremely good at. The entire retail sector strategy is based on a similar combination of moves.

– This makes the wholesale model is a deflationary one. Once it has acquired the rights to distribute a book (print or digital), the retailer is free to lower its margin as it sees fit, even going into negative territory (provided there is no law, such as in France, that prevents dumping practices). As a side effect, consumers gets used to low prices, ignoring the fact such prices may or may not reflect the item’s true economic value: a bestseller acquired for $14 by Amazon will be sold for a discounted $9.99. Once the the consumer bites, the retailer catches up by selling other higher margin products and/or hooking the customer into its system.

That’s why, when Apple launched its iBooks Store, publishers stuck inside Amazon’s wholesale system were willing to take their chances. They asked Steve Jobs for the agency model: price set by them and Apple taking its 30% cut. Jobs obliged, he wanted to boost iPad sales and, to do that, needed to attack Amazon’s domination of the ebook market. (Kindle formats currently accounts today for 60% of total sales). Jobs’ move put publishers in a position to go back to Amazon and ask for the same conditions.

Coming back to the DOJ’s looming antitrust action, did the book publishing industry collude in trying to pressure Amazon to change its practices? I don’t know if they acted in concert (people talk, you know) but they moved in accordance to their best interest by taking advantage of the newcomer, Apple. Now it seems the dispute over pricing has resumed: last month, Amazon pulled out 4,000 ebooks from one of the biggest books distributors in the US, the Independent Publishers Group (story in the New York Times here).

Pricing an item should be left to the one who produces it. The case of the book publishing industry is not as simple as, say, an appliance maker looking for the most potent retail channel for its hair-dryers or its toasters. The book sector is entering a painful transition: First, it needs to respond to consumers who want a large catalog of inexpensive ebooks; two, there is a plateauing but still strong print market ($73 billion worldwide). Managing a smooth decline for this segment is key to the industry’s health, especially as the ebook market yields thinner margins. Legacy publishers are culturally ill-equipped for such a difficult transition: they now find themselves competing with the agile, cash-rich, data and technology-driven players of the digital world.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Ebooks and Apps, same challenges

(Second of a series)

Last week, we looked at the ebook’s Giant Disruption. A new ecosystem in which Amazon eats publishers’ and agents’ lunch by luring authors into self-publishing.

Today, we examine the new regime’s impact on book-making and distribution processes.
The outcome will surprise few readers: Over time, the new book publishing business will look more and more like the software industry.

1/ Managing abundance. Traditional publishing’s most salient feature is the maintenance of high barriers to entry. The journey from manuscript to bookstore is an excruciating one. Publishers are deluged with books proposals; a quick glance at a few pages and the bulk of submissions is rejected. Still, far too many books get published. Several Parisian booksellers told me they sometimes have to return unopened boxes of books to distributors, simply because they don’t have enough space for them. Therefore, the 80/20 rule applies: most of the revenue comes from a small assortment of books. Digital publishing removes those barriers –brutally so: the floodgates are now indiscriminately open to every aspiring writer. This will have two effects: more difficult choices for the reader (see Barry Schwartz TED’s talk on The Paradox of Choice) and, on average, lower quality products.

Overtime, two factors will help solve the problem of the choice: search engines and manual curation. As semantic search rises, books content gets treated like data, searchable not only by words clusters, but by variations of meaning, pitch and, at some point, style. Put another way, a search engine will soon be able to differentiate and to attribute texts written by two novelists working in the same segment of literature.
Such breakthroughs will impact recommendation engines systems that already act a serious sales booster. Again, tech companies, such as Amazon (more than Apple, which does not seem to “get” search) will ride the wave thanks to their past and future investments into search and data analytics.

Semantic recommendation engines won’t kill the need for human curation. Like the app business where abundance creates a need for more human-powered guidance and suggestions (see Jean-Louis’ idea of a Guide Michelin for Apps), book sections of magazines and newspapers will have to adapt and find ways to efficiently suggest e-readings to their audience.

2/ The need for editing. The most potent selection tool will remain the quality of the product. In the iPhone/iPad AppStore, Apple guarantees the overall technical quality of what lands on its shelves. Apple’s primary motive is to avoid poorly coded apps that crash or, worse, interfere with the inner core of the iOS. No such things on Amazon. Once a manuscript is properly formatted (not very complicated), it’s eligible for sale. That’s where reality barges in. Many self-published authors insouciantly flog texts replete with grammatical errors and typos. Very few seem to rely on proper editing and proofing, this is the main divide between amateurs and pros. Editing is both a mandatory and costly process — but worth every penny. It is probably the most critical part of the value added by traditional publishers. In the digital world, it must remain a key component of the process.

3/ Segmented manufacturing. Self-published ebooks won’t escape the laws of digital economics, of decentralized and specialized crafts. Here again, ebooks publishing and the making of applications converge. The entire process will be handled by dedicated freelancers focused on specific tasks: manuscript formatting (easy for text, but complicated otherwise); cover design — it will become more important as digital bookstores gain in sophistication; editing and copy-proofing the manuscript by a competent and well-paid professional, etc.

At a higher level of complexity for a book production (rich media contents, interactive learning features and more), two forces will kick-in: cloud computing and offshore outsourcing. The most recent example is the San Francisco-based startup Inkling: last month, the company made its own cloud publishing setup Habitat available to the general public. It went a step further by relying on companies such as Aptara, a US corporation with the bulk of its 5000+ workforce located in India. Note that Aptara is a contractor for almost all traditional publishing houses such as Hachette Livre, Pearson, Oxford University Press… Inkling will bypass publishers by connecting customers and contractors through a collaborative platform that provides highly sophisticated correction and versioning tools. It is no incident that Matt McInnis, Inkling’s CEO, is an alumnus of Apple’s education division, as told in this recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek story.

Ebook publishing is often linked to value depletion for the entire food chain. Ebooks obey the other digital law: low price, high volumes. In this case, extremely low prices. But evidence shows professional authors can find their way in the new world.

Take thriller author and self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath. His blog is a well-documented plea for getting rid of what he calls “legacy publishers”. A year ago, he posted a 13,000 words dialog with his pal Barry Eisler. Eisler, is a former CIA operative; at the time, he was making headlines for turning down a $500,000 deal from his traditional publisher and taking the self-publishing road instead. I recommend reading their conversation, especially when the two discuss business strategies, such as the time-to-market problem:

— Barry Eisler: [Time to market]  was one of the reasons I just couldn’t go back to working with a legacy publisher. The book is nearly done, but it wouldn’t have been made available until Spring of 2012. I can publish it myself a year earlier. That’s a whole year of actual sales I would have had to give up.
— Joe Konrath: We can make 70% by self-publishing. And we can set our own price. I have reams of data that show how ebooks under $5 vastly outsell those priced higher.
— Barry Eisler: This is a critical point. There’s a huge data set proving that digital books are a price-sensitive market, and that maximum revenues are achieved at a price point between $.99 and $4.99. So the question is: why aren’t publishers pricing digital books to maximize digital profits?
— Joe: Because they’re protecting their paper sales.
— Barry: (…) Fundamentally, it’s extremely hard for an industry to start cannibalizing current profits for future gains. So the music companies, for example, failed to create an online digital store, instead fighting digital with lawsuits, until Apple–a computer company!–became the world’s biggest music retailer.
— Joe: I was in love with the publishing industry. It was my dream to land a Big 6 deal. And I still believe the industry is filled with intelligent, talented, motivated, exceptional people. I’m grateful to have sold as many books as I did (and continue to do.) My switch to self-publishing isn’t personal. It’s just business. I can make more money on my own.

For context, among tons of books Joe Konrath wrote, one, The List, was first rejected by a New York Publisher in 1999. In April 2009, he self-published it on Amazon for $2.99 and sold a first batch of 25,000 copies. Then he took the price further down (!) and had sold 35,000 copies at the time of the interview (March 2011). Today, The List is now available on Amazon for $11.97 (paperback, 310 pages) or $4.01 in Kindle format.

Before wrapping this up, I’ll answer a Monday Note reader who asked what would I do if I had to publish a book today. Like most journalists, I’m not short of ideas; my two most advanced projects are a global techno-thriller and an essay about internet economics. (Because of my day job, they are likely to stay untouched for quite a while…)
To me, it’s a no brainer: I’d go digital, especially if I publish in English.
Among the reasons:
Time to market: I’m not exactly the patient type who’ll wait for a release window that will fit my publisher.
Pricing: I’dont want to compete against well-established authors releasing their opus in the same format for the same price. Mine has to be lower.
Size and scope: I want to be able to publish a book with a number of pages based on the subject’s scope, as opposed to antediluvian dictates saying books should have x hundreds of pages.
Updating capabilities: for a business book, being able to quickly make a new version with fresher data (or thoughts) is a must.
Control: I like the idea of picking the professionals who will help me with editing and design; no such freedom with a traditional publisher. Same for marketing and promotion; there, given the level of frustration I often see authors endure, I’d rather go by myself, or hire the right person to do it.
Permanence: an ebook never dies; it’s as easy to find as a new release in digital bookstores. Great for personal branding.
Revenue: I’d rather bet on volume than on a small number of high-priced copies.

But I still might print a small limited edition on dead trees. Because despite all rationale I’ll always love paper books.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Ebooks: The Giant Disruption

(Part of a series)

In the last twelve months, I’ve never bought fewer printed books — and I’ve never read so many books. I have switched to ebooks. My personal library is with me at all times, in my iPad and my iPhone (and in the cloud), allowing me to switch reading devices as conditions dictate. I also own a Kindle, I use it mostly during Summer, to read in broad daylight: an iPad won’t work on a sunny café terrace.

I don’t care about the device itself, I let the market decide, but I do care about a few key features. Screen quality is essential: in that respect the iPhone’s Retina Display is unbeatable in the LED backlit word, and Kindle e-ink is just perfect with natural light. Because I often devour at least two books in parallel, I don’t want to struggle to land on the page I was reading when I switch devices. They must sync seamlessly, period, even with the imperfect cellular network. (And most of the time, they do.)

I’m an ebook convert. Not by ideology (I love dead-tree books, and I enjoy giving those to friends and family), just pragmatism. Ebooks are great for impulse buying. Let’s say I read a story in a magazine and find the author particularly brilliant, or want to drill further down into the subject thanks to a pointer to nicely rated book, I cut and paste the reference in the Amazon Kindle store or in the Apple’s iBooks store and, one-click™ later, the book is mine. Most of the time, it’s much cheaper than the print version (especially in the case of imported books).

This leads to this thought about the coming ebook disruption: We’ve seen nothing yet. Eighteen months ago, I was asked to run an ebooks roundtable for the Forum d’Avignon (an ultra-elitist cultural gathering judiciously set in the Palais des Papes). Preparing for the event, I visited most of the French publishers and came to realize how blind they were to the looming earthquake. They viewed their ability to line-up great authors as a seawall against the digital tsunami. In their minds, they might, at some point, have to make a deal with Amazon or Apple in order to channel digital distribution of their oeuvres to geeks like me. But the bulk of their production would sagely remain stacked on bookstores shelves. Too many publishing industry professionals still hope for a soft transition.

How wrong.

In less than a year, the ground has shifted in ways the players didn’t foresee. This caused the unraveling of the book publishing industry, disrupting key components of the food chain such as deal structures and distribution arrangements.

Let’s just consider what’s going on in self-publishing.

“Vanity publishing” was often seen as the lousiest way to land on a book store shelf. In a country such as France, with a strong history of magisterial publishing houses, confessing to being published “à compte d’auteur” (at the writer’s expense) results in social banishment. In the United Kingdom or the US, this is no longer the case. Trade blogs and publications are filled with tales of out-of-nowhere self-publishing hits, or of prominent authors switching to DIY mode, at once cutting-off both agent and publisher.

And guess who is this trend’s grand accelerator? Amazon is. To get the idea, read these two articles: last October’s piece in the New York Times Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal, and a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story on Amazon’s Hit Man. The villain of those tales is former übber-literary agent Larry Kirshbaum, hired last May by the e-retailer giant to corral famous writers using six-figures advances. (By the way, BBW’s piece is subtitled “A tale of books, betrayal, and the (alleged) secret plot to destroy literature”, a hard-sell come-on…). Of course you can also read the successful self-publishing poster-child tale in this excellent profile of Amanda Hocking in the Guardian.

Here is what’s going on:

– Amazon is intent on taking over the bulk of the publishing business by capturing key layers of intermediation. At some point, for the market’s upper-crust, by deploying agents under the leadership of Mr. Kirshbaum and of its regional surrogates, Amazon will “own” the entire talent-scouting food chain. For the bottom-end, a tech company like Amazon is well-positioned for real-time monitoring and early detection of an author gaining traction in e-sales, agitating on the blogosphere or buzzing on social networks. (Pitching such scheme to French éditeurs is like speaking Urdu to them.)

– For authors, the growth of e-publishing makes the business model increasingly attractive. Despite a dizzying price deflation (with ebooks selling for $2.99), higher volumes and higher royalty percentages change the game. In the too-good-to-be-an-example Amanda Hocking story, here is the math as told in the Guardian piece:

Though [a $2.99 price is] cheap compared with the $10 and upwards charged for printed books, [Hocking] gained a much greater proportion of the royalties. Amazon would give her 30% of all royalties for the 99-cent books, rising to 70% for the $2.99 editions – a much greater proportion than the traditional 10 or 15% that publishing houses award their authors. You don’t have to be much of a mathematician to see the attraction of those figures: 70% of $2.99 is $2.09; 10% of a paperback priced at $9.99 is 99 cents. Multiply that by a million – last November Hocking entered the hallowed halls of the Kindle Million Club, with more than 1m copies sold – and you are talking megabucks.

Again, aspiring (or proven) authors need to cool-down when looking at such numbers. The Kindle Million Club mentioned above counts only 11 members to date — and most were best-sellers authors in the physical world beforehand.

– But at some point, the iceberg will capsize and the eBook will become the publishing market’s primary engine. Authors will go digital-first and the most successful will land a traditional book deal with legacy publishers.

Shift happens, brutally sometimes.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Next week: the editing equation and how the rise e-publishing will segment the craftsmanship of book-making.

Ebooks Winners & Losers

Let’s come back to the ebook with more questions. There is no doubt: the digital book will find its place under the sun; its prospects look much better than those of the online press. In the first place, there isn’t an ingrained, now decade-old, habit of reading news for free on the internet. Second, the book (in its physical form) is the centuries-old incarnation of the “cognitive container”, with its unparalleled convenience and with a value attached to it. And third, it can’t be unbundled.

For the online press, on the contrary, more than 90% of online newspapers are available for free. The “cognitive container” is totally non-practical in terms of size, readability; the interface sucks: most broadsheets’ stories run on two pages but many readers don’t go beyond the jump. Lastly, the daily news is begging for unbundling (look at the Sunday edition of your favorite newspaper, with its ten plus sections).

What does the book gain by switching to the electronic format?
Three things:
- new formats with rich media appealing to reluctant books readers (the current Generations X and Y, mainly)
- enhanced capabilities such as search, ability to create a personal table of contents, or to extract and index snippets
- a complete overhaul in the production system, which will breed new market opportunities as editorial works, once finished, will enjoy instant worldwide availability.

Of course, obstacles remain. A recent survey conducted by Bain and Co listed eight obstacles in the way of widespread ebook adoption (PDF here).

Interestingly enough, said its authors Patrick Behar and Laurent Colombani, the nostalgia of the “paper experience” is disconnected from the generation factor: all age groups continue to enjoy the book as a physical object. This guarantees some level of coexistence between the two medias. But the authors also admit the two next barriers – the price of the device and reading comfort –  will fade quickly as Moore’s Law still rules, both for mass produced devices and for screen quality (see for instance Qualcomm’s Mirasol display combining the advantages of electronic ink and the color depth of LCD screen — see also this story in The New York Times). On the devices’ price, Bain & Co sees the following evolution and point to the thresholds required to convert purchase intents:

Using this backdrop, let’s now try to see how the different participants might fare. (For a close-ip on the digital rights issue, see last week’s Monday Note)

Manufacturers: uncertain. Users expect around a hundred dollars or euros for an e-reader and will soon expect three times this amount for a full color, full-feature tablet. To put things in perspective, a teardown analysis made by iSuppli shows the cost of components for an Amazon Kindle is $176 as the iPad reaches $264 and $214 for the Samsung Galaxy Tab. This gives an idea how thin margins are likely to be in the future. In other words, manufacturers who won’t be able to sell the blades (i.e. contents) along with the razor will have a hard time making any money. More

ebooks: trading digital rights, not files

There are many reasons to be bullish for ebooks. On the device side, the iPad set the standard (rather high) and triggered an intense competition among manufacturers and operating systems providers. On the people side, just take New York’s subway, or a high-speed train in Europe. And we’ve seen nothing yet: tablets prices will go down as cell phone carriers – and eventually media companies – subsidize e-readers. Before year-end, European telcos will offer the Samsung Galaxy — an Android-powered tablet — for €300 or less, preloaded with access to online bookstores and electronic newsstands. For the industry, this Christmas season is critical: tablet makers must secure defensible market territory before Apple’s probable roll-out of its next generation iPad.

The content side remains more complicated to figure out. A first phase is likely to consist of an extension of what we have today, i.e. a transaction system based of book files: text-based books or richer media products. The main players will remain Amazon, or the Apple iBooks store. But, in five to ten years, this way of dealing with intellectual content  will be seen as primitive.

The true revolution will be a shift from a files transaction system to a rights transaction system. This transformation involves radical changes in the way we think of digital content, books, videos or even games.

For now, let’s focus on books. Here is how it could work.

We’re now in 2015. I read books-related contents on a number of different devices: my smartphone, my high definition tablet, and even my PC some times. (I personally do not believe in TV for such products). I want spend a long weekend in Rome. Instead of buying a couple of books – one to organize my trip and another to use on location – I will buy rights to both.

As I download the books I bought rights to on an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy, the content takes advantage of specific screen features and displays large pictures, some of in 360° panoramic format and zoomable. My Microsoft tablet uses the extraordinary DeepZoom technology connected to the Bing Maps Live View

More

Profitable Long Form Journalism

Over the last month, I’ve been stuffing my iPad with books purchased online, long PDF files and other documents for later reading sessions. I’m waiting for the mind-blowing media applications, they’re still in the making. Several prototypes of French newspapers I have seen are quite promising. We have to be patient. This is just the start of the runway.

Compared to my computer, I realize I’m using the device in a different way. No mail (too clumsy), no writing, no twittering. Just reading stuff, the longer the better.

And I wonder: Can tablet computing be the missing link, the one that could rehabilitate (or rather introduce) long form reading in digital format — in a profitable way?

Let’s project ourselves two years from now. And let’s put the iPad aside for a while. It’s 2012. Tablets have become a cell-phone-like commodity, competition is strong. Aside of Apple, devices from Samsung or HTC running Android or god knows what operating systems are thriving. Standards for digital formats have emerged and e-books are heading toward a 25% market share in Europe and the United States. The digital publishing chain is running smoothly and efficiently with the following characteristics.

  • The old production and distribution system that was eating 65% to 70% of the retail price is now down to a 30% fee taken by publishing platforms. They get this 30% for putting the publications on their virtual shelves and for collecting the money.
  • These inventories are served by clever search and recommendation engines (not the Trabant-like system of the iTunes/iBooks store).
  • To reflect decreasing distribution costs when compared to physical books, e-books retail prices are down by at least 30%.
  • Authors also take advantage of the technological shift, they get higher royalties.
  • New formats have emerged; the old dichotomy between hardcover, priced at $25, and paper back, at $10, is gone, replaced a by a more diversified pricing structure.

Hence the question: What will the impact be on journalism and on the bottom line of media companies?

Before attempting an answer, let’s reframe this in the dual context of the current business situation and of the newscycle. Managing a newsroom within today’s constraints is a difficult exercise. In daily newspapers, physical editorial space (i.e. column inches) is scarce, making long pieces a hard-sell to the editor-in-chief. The web is more welcoming, although we all know that beyond a 600 words story, reader attention tends to fade — especially for younger audiences.

As for the newscycle, it accelerates and becomes increasingly complex, requiring more expertise and, in theory, more editorial resources — should editors decide to go below the surface. Take the debt crisis in Europe, for instance. The general framework is pretty simple: thirty years-old traders in shark-frenzy mode, going against sixty years-old politicians. The sharks prey on the politicians who have failed to build decent economic leadership since the introduction of the euro system (coins and banknotes entered in circulation January 1st 2002). More

The iParanoid Scenario

I’m not through with the iPad. Actually, I’m just warming up. For today’s column, let’s focus on the perils of a closed system.

I live in a country (France) where censorship is a big deal. It comes mostly from greedy celebrities (sorry for the truism); they use a legal system that largely favors them. Often, they find a compassionate judge when it comes to extracting money as compensation for a supposed privacy violation or for some other unauthorized disclosure. Convictions are frequent and expensive; they can lead to the seizure of a magazine or even of a book. France has a long history of such practices. In the early sixties, the country was waging a colonial war in Algeria. Then, for the most avid news readers, the game was to get the weekly magazine l’Express at the kiosk as early as possible before French authorities seized it. (No such risk with today’s Gallic newsmagazines).

Let me reframe this in the context of an upcoming iPad era. An iPad newsmagazine publishes an investigative piece that triggers a legal injunction: remove that from the publication or face a $10,000 penalty per day. No, says the publisher, who has guts and money (proof this is a fiction), we want to fight in court. The plaintiff then turns to Apple. Same talk: face a huge fine, or remove the offending content. Furthermore, says the plaintiff’s attorneys, thanks to your permanent and unique electronic link to your proprietary devices and the fact that the electronic kiosk now resides on the device – yes we can argue that point, they say– , you must extend the deletion to each user’s tablet. C’mon, you keep pushing updates, and various contents bits to these gizmos, you can push a delete instruction code.

What would Apple do? This is a question of balance of power. If the legal action involves some neuron-challenged celebrity, chances are Apple won’t balk. But what if Nicolas Sarkozy or his whispering-singer wife are the plaintiffs? Truth is, given the pattern of legal actions against the press in France, it is more than certain a French judge will be tempted to request an immediate remote deletion of a presumed infringing content. Then we’ll see a replay of what happened last summer in the 1984 case, when Amazon remotely deleted a copy of George Orwell’s novel in the Kindle of buyers for copyrights issues. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos apologized profusely for the mishap (plus it involved 1984 not Alice in Wonderland, tough luck). More

The e-book tractor application

Let’s rejoice: French teachers embrace the internet. Well, calm down. I’m not saying they embrace it the way I would like them to. This week saw two technological breakthroughs at my son’s Parisian high-school. The first one is a decision-support tool on the school’s website: it helps parents decide whether or not to send their kids to school when a protest blocks the gates, something that happens several times a year. Usually, my son whips up his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning : “Hey, dad, this just in: a text-message… gates are jammed by a barricade of trash bins (the kids’ touching expression of solidarity to last week’s teacher union action), I can go back to sleep”. Now, I’ll be able to fact-check the SMS alert on the web. (No webcam, though, I’ll have to rely on teachers’ good faith).

The second breakthrough happens as I immerse myself in the Life Science course for the same text-message freak, Abercrombie-clad kid who happens to be my offspring. Then, an epiphany. His science professor is an internet fan. Don’t get me wrong, here. As 90% of the 1.3m members of L’éducation Nationale (the world’s biggest employer after the erstwhile Red Army or, worse, today’s Wal-Mart), I’m sure the lady loathes the internet. You see: the net flaunts apalling attributes of foreign technology, it is the vector of free market ideology. Sorry, Larry and Sergei. Your Google is definitely evil, down here.

OK, the web can be convenient for educators. Actually, there is ample evidence the science teacher I’m referring to doesn’t understand what she teaches but, at least, she tries. Parts of her course come straight form the net. To the point where kids systematically google (sorry) excerpts to see where they come from. Needless to say, this is a powerful boost to the teacher’s credibility — to be found in one of the trash bins at the school’s gates.

Stay with me please, I’m coming back to this column’s subject: e-books. Last week, as my son and I lose ourselves in the genome’s arcana for an upcoming school-test, I get my own revelation. As I struggle to decipher the absurdly complex definition of amino acid in a textbook totally deprived of any practical example, my son browses the web in search of an explanation designed for normal humans. He googles genetic terms, lands on Wikipedia, which sends him to Inserm, a world-class French medical research lab. There, the lab’s site links to a better definition which, in turn, opens the door to a more detailed explanation, and so on. All the beauty and grandeur of hypertext, whose structure a 15-year-old boy navigates as if he were born in it — which, actually, is the case: the browser was invented about 15 years ago.

The e-book needs its tractor application and textbooks might be the “killer” one. Way better than the press (its time will come, but at a second stage). Still, media could benefit from a switch to the e-book form. More

eBooks and Smartphones

Update: see a presentation of the Kindle2 here.

Another look at an old, but not aging, topic: eBooks. There is visible agitation ahead of Amazon’s expected announcement, probably as you read this note Monday February 9th.  Jeff Bezos is set to announce a new version of the Kindle eBook reader, let’s call it Kindle 2.0. [Since I first drafted this column, bloggers obliged with more details.  February 9th announcement, ships Feb 24th, price $359 (?!).  See here]. By “coincidence”, Google announces a neat eBook reader Web application (as opposed to a native one, to code running on the device) for Android and iPhone.  See it here, it’s almost perfect on the iPhone, with an option to place a neat dedicated icon on the Home screen.  I write almost perfect because, unlike Google Reader, another Google Web app, the top of the book reading app screen seems to be fighting with the always present top of the iPhone screen. FINR (Fixed In Next Revision). More