Kobo steps up

Following my “bold prediction” that 2014 will be the breakthrough year for illustrated books, I am gratified to see ereaders beginning to step up to the challenge. It’s only when all the ebook retailers can sell the same interactive, multimedia ebook format that the illustrated book market will really be able to take off. This article in Talking New Media, about Kobo suggests that Kobo are starting to adjust to the agreed standards for ePub3 hammered out by the AAP last year. Kobo have revised their ereader app for iPhones, so it can read ebooks with audio clips in, and video clips, as part of the text.  I am hopeful that this is in response to the ePub3 white paper, which sets out how device manufacturers (is an app a device?) can take advantage of the new standards, and enable publishers to produce one ebook for all markets.

2014 – a good year for illustrated ebooks

After Frankfurt 2013 I boldly made the prediction that 2014 would be a year of opportunity for illustrated books, like never before.  This year, they will finally get their chance to shine, and find a way to market.

EPub 3 can make a lovely illustrated book with multi-media, interactivity etc etc, but finding a place to sell the resulting glossy beautiful ebook is much harder.  Apple iBookstore can sell them, and people can get the full experience on their iPads, but beyond that, the market is sketchy, and the formats are incompatible.  

That means that to sell the same book on say, a Kindle Fire, you have to re-do the whole thing, because the format that works for Apple doesn’t work for Kindle, and neither of them work for other kinds of tablet.  There is one standard in theory, but it’s customised by each retailer for their own device.  To sell the book for many devices means producing the ebook in many formats.  The problem is, that’s too expensive and complicated to produce – and for most books, the sales don’t justify that level of investment.  

Currently, publishers of illustrated books are left with two choices – steer clear, or dumb down to the lowest common denominator – an uninspiring flat, fixed format that may or may not fit on the reader’s screen – Not Good.

The Association of American Publishers decided to do something about this.  They spent 2013 getting device manufacturers, retailers and publishers to talk to each other, and agree on a set of features from ePub3 that they could commit to support.

The promise is that new devices and software coming out will all display the same set of features.  This means that if a publisher produces a book which makes use of those features, they can be sure that the same ePub3 ebook file will work on all the tablets from all the retailers.  They only need to do one file, and it will be suitable for many markets.  This is revolutionary!  Thank you AAP for getting it together.

You can see the ePub3 standards in the Implementation Paper published by the AAP just after Frankfurt: http://publishers.org/press/117/

 

Which is the Best Publisher for my Ebook?

How can an author evaluate a publisher’s offer for ebook rights? Sometimes an author finds themselves in the lucky position of having three choices.

1 a mainstream publisher makes an offer to put on of their backlist titles into ebook. They offer a standard royalty, but no advance.

2 an ebook-only publisher, perhaps in America, offers a higher royalty, which is nice, but it only kicks in after a certain amount of money has been earned back, to cover their costs.

3 if the author is being asked to subsidise the cost of production themselves, perhaps they should go the whole hog and publish the ebook themselves too? Then they would get to keep all the money received from sales.

How should the author or her agent resolve this dilemma?

This is a question which takes us back to the fundamentals of what we can expect from a publisher, and which one will do the best job. My answer to this question is that the author should choose the route that will give the book the most publicity, because that is what will ultimately lead to the most sales in the long term.

Option number 1 – the mainstream publisher – will start making the author money straight away, in the next royalty statement, with no deductions. The book will be published alongside several others, which will hopefully give it enough ‘critical mass’ to be noticed.

Option number 2 will make more money in the long run, but only after the contribution has earned out – and how many sales will it take to cover that?? Is the level of contribution the author is expected to make realistic for the stature of the book? The ebook-only publisher is likely to have fewer titles, so this one might get more personal attention, but are they big enough to make a splash with it?

Option number 3 is a risky business – after all, publishing is all about risk. Obviously there are the upfront costs of production, which includes proofreading the conversion, a new cover design, and then there is the whole business of selling the ebook around the world. But if the author already has a ‘platform’ with a large number of followers or fans, it could be the best option.

Publishing is all about publicising the authors work and making it available so the best choice of publisher will be the one who can do that most effectively. That may be the mainstream publisher who has well-oiled channels to the market; it may be the ebook-only publisher who understands their niche and has the energy and focus to drive each book to success; or it may be the author herself who is in touch with enough readers to persuade them to part with their hard earned cash in return for a good read.

Publishing is not about producing an ebook, putting it on sale in a couple of places and forgetting about it. That is almost as bad as printing a load of paperbacks and leaving them all in the warehouse. The real work of publishing is telling people about it and enthusing them, and the publisher who will do that is the best one for an author’s book.

Ereader Woes

I saw this article on Book Brunch today: The Ebook Transfer Headache.  In it Nicholas Clee bewails the fact that although he has multiple ebook readers on multiple devices, he can’t swap books from one to the other – his Kobo books won’t work on his Kindle (needless to say) and the Waterstones books that he’s put on his Kobo reader won’t appear in the Kobo app on his new tablet; and he can’t move his Kobo books into another ereader …

The DRM is tying his purchases to the device or app of the retailer he got them from, even though the formats are supposedly compatible, and he’s within his allowed number of copies.  It’s all so frustrating.

But I wonder whether the solution would be, in a way, worse.  The only way that we could all have access to everything we’ve bought on any device would be for the whole lot to be stored in some sort of cloud.  At the moment each retailer, be it Kobo, Kindle or iBooks, has their own cloud, so we can see our stuff on their apps; but a different company’s app is not linked to that cloud, so it doesn’t have access to that stuff.

The alternative would be that instead of giving us access to our books in a personalised area of their cloud, instead our purchases from all retailers are put into our own cloud.  That means that all our stuff would be visible to any of our devices accessing our cloud.

The only way I could have my own cloud would be to rent space from a cloud storage company.  That way all my stuff would be there all the time.  It would be like Dropbox, or Google Docs.

But this throws up two questions:

  1. Would the retailers – Kobo, Amazon et al – relinquish the files to my cloud in this way?  Probably not because of all the valuable usage data they can collect from me, as I dip in and out of my purchases, reading my ebooks in their cloud.
  2. Who would I trust to store my stuff in their cloud?  I hate having all my eggs in someone else’s basket.  Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like Google, or Dropbox or anyone having access to all my digital belongings.  For me there’s a massive privacy issue there – not that I’ve got anything to hide – I just want some privacy.

A partial solution for Mr Clee might be removing some of the DRM from the ebooks.   That would make it easier for him to transfer them from one reader to another, but it wouldn’t make them transfer by themselves.  He’d still have to side-load from his computer, or swap memory cards to and fro as he is already, but once they were transferred, they would work.

This all shows that at the moment the ebooks we buy are still very much tied to the retailer we buy them from.  It’s more than an interoperability issue, and I think it is going to be a long time before retailers sacrifice the valuable market intelligence this gives them in favour of more convenience for their customers.

Most Favoured Nations – the lesser of 2 evils

I was not happy when I first came across this clause in an ebook retail contract, so my initial reaction was relief when it came under the same black cloud as The Agency Model, as one of the bad-boys of price fixing.

 However, now I’m not so sure that I’ll be glad to see it go. 

 It occurs in contracts where the publisher sets a suggested retail price for the retailer to base their own price on.  The retailer may sell at the suggested retail price (srp) – and a lot do, or they may offer their customers discounts – it’s up to them. 

The most favoured nations clause is in the contract between the publisher and the retailer, and by signing it, the publisher agrees not to give a title a lower srp at another retailer than the one he gives for that book to this retailer.  This sounds fair enough – the price (srp) is the price, and don’t confuse things by setting different prices in different shops, even your own website bookshop.

But some contracts take it further.  In order to put this into practice, the retailer asks the publisher to agree that the book may not go on sale anywhere at a lower price than their price.  This gives the retailer the right to trawl the web, to see if the book goes on sale anywhere in the world at a lower price, then drop their own price to match it. 

This is good for the retailer, because it gives them the right to match any special offer or price promotion or local price set to suit a poorer country.  This undercuts the effect of any retailer’s special promotion which is intended to attract customers.  It gives Amazon the right to never allow itself to be ‘undersold’; it gives any other retailer with that clause in their contract the right to price-match Amazon.  Which is why publishers fear it triggers a “race to the bottom”.

It is not good for publishers because it takes all control over pricing completely out of their hands.  Publishers cannot favour their own websites with special offers, because those offers will be discovered and matched.  They can’t do exclusive short-term promotions with particular retailers, perhaps in conjunction with a local radio interview, or newspaper extract, because that special limited offer will immediately be replicated all over the world.  What you do for one, you have to make available to all.  Perhaps it means publishers will come up with more creative marketing offers than price promotions, as they had to in the days of the net book agreement!

So why am I now better disposed towards the dreaded Most Favoured Nation clause?

Well there are a lot of dangers to ebook publishing, and admittedly one of them is the race to the bottom in pricing (exacerbated by many factors).  But what I see as a greater danger is the over-dominance of one retailer.  The Most Favoured Nation clause works for smaller retailers as well as large, so it gives them the chance to price-match the strategic discounting used by a big retailer trying to undercut them.  By allowing all the retailers to compete on the same terms, the publisher frees them to compete on price with the big ones. 

The problem is, dropping the price is an expensive pursuit because someone has to pay for that discount in lost revenue.  Under most contracts the retailer will have to pay the publisher the same amount (the wholesale price), regardless of how much they sell it for.  It takes nerves of steel to drop the price close to, and perhaps even below that wholesale price – and only certain retailers can afford to do that for long. 

So the ‘race to the bottom’ it provokes is not good for small retailers, but at least the favoured nations clause permits them to run in that race, rather than being left on the starting line with their wares priced out of the market. 

So the reason I favour the Favoured Nations is because it’s the lesser of two evils: although it’s bad, it’s not as bad as the alternative – life without bookshops.

Tools of Change, Chicago

I enjoyed reading the tweets from the one-day conference in Chicago the other day, so I thought I’d summarise just a few of them and share them here.  You can see the full range on Twitter at #tocchicago

Children’s Books

How to handle the friction between children’s ebooks and the desire to reduce screen time?
For many children, picture books are their first introduction to art.

Re childrens ebooks: what’s useful? What’s a gimmick? Engaging without distracting is the tricky part
What helps readers understand? What is engaging and motivating? What disrupts learning? Good questions generally, not just for children’s books.

Poetry

http://Pf.org Mobile poetry app: built to target folks standing in line. Works in single servings, which causes more poems to be accessed. Includes a fun “spin” browsing feature + mood categories.  Has increased exposure for poetry foundation. Reach up 300% while overall engagement has gone down.

Repackaging existing content helps expose it to new audiences.  Context may be just as important as content.

Uses of and representations of poetry online is the nexus of many online issues: Digital formatting can play havoc on poetry, where formatting is everything.

poetry will continue to have to compete agains Angry Birds & Pinterest but it will also thrive

Maybe the http://pf.org data suggests that print is the best home for poetry. Is that too radical? Hmm.
Maybe not:  Catherine Halley’s talk got me to give poetry a chance via Poetry Foundation’s app http://www.poetryfoundation.org/mobile/

The paradox of attention span: should lead toward shorter content, but poetry often requires more attention & time than prose

Crowd  Publishing

Distance.cc, a quarterly journal devoted to long essays about design. Funded by Kickstarter.

First Kickstarter effort by @nickd: cadence.cc, a book on design.  Sold out print run last year, still available as eBook. “my book wasn’t published by me, it was published by my audience.”

Readers are out there but you have to meet them on their terms on their devices.

“The more time you spend running around freaking out, the less time you spend building the future.”

“We need to stop thinking like publishers, and think more like software companies”

Distance Authors getting good visibility. An editor helps writers think through ideas and people take them more seriously.  A key feature is editing. “difference between an essay and a rant is that an essay offers an actual solution.”   prefers well-written and passionate writing to just passionate writing (Wants fewer rants, more essays)

Distance’s business plan included keeping it’s owner eating three burritos a week: “If either of those goals proves untenable – paying writers or eating burritos – the project is a no-go.” Ha!
Supply-chain issues still essential to authors. Self pub created closer connection to work, audience.

Information

“Seek information, not affirmation.”

We are creating a new form of ignorance that’s killing us. It does not distinguish between highly informed and well informed.  We’re not suffering from information overload, we’re suffering from information over-consumption.  What are healthy levels of information consumption? schedule your various channels/forms of information consumption; don’t consume right now just because you can

“Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?”   we’re a more polarized nation now b/c no matter what crazy thought you have, there’s a media outlet to tell u ur right.  The desire to be right frames our mass media. “Opinion tastes better than news” and pizza tastes better than broccoli.  We’ve industrialized our media for poor consumption habits the same way we have with fast food

Content

Content trapped forever in your CMS is the new content trapped in your CD-Rom.
Big question 1: can I get my data out in an open, easily-readable format?
Question 2: Can I get my data out for the same price I paid to put it in?
Question 3: (most important & overlooked) How much time will it take for me to get my data out?

people put themselves in data jail all the time

Have we gone fr “information wants to be free” to the 2nd half of that quote “or it wants to be expensive”?

Content is not a commodity. Data is a commodity. There are no sensationalized 5-day weather reports.

The idea that you should wake up and be a producer instead of a consumer changes your relationship with information.
Still thinking about writing 500 words every morning before 8am. Thinking about other changes too.

Show your work when publishing; empower readers to make up their own minds.  Not to do that is disrespectful.
instead of saying “this is great content,” think about WHY it’s great for your audience.

Libraries are the first line of defense against piracy.  This is an interesting question.

Credits

Thanks to #tocChicago Tweeters: @nelltaylor, @petdance, @theanalogdivide, @digipub. @aburke8  et al

and the speakers they Tweeted: Junko Yokota, Doug Siebold, Nick Disabato, Clay Johnson, Brian O’Leary.
Here are some of their slides:

http://nickd.org/log/nickd-oreilly-toc.pdf
http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/bfoleary/using-content-to-acquire-new-members

 

Ebook sales? Not telling you.

The Problem

One problem with selling ebooks is that it’s very hard to know exactly how many copies other titles have sold.  This means there is no best-seller list and very little data on the relative success of different genres.  It’s almost impossible to do a comparative analysis of the market as a whole, of the kind that magazines like the Bookseller do for print books on a regular basis.   As an ebook distributor, I only know how many copies my titles have sold, and I can’t compare their performance with sales of similar titles from other publishers.  Unless we are a publisher with huge lists across multiple genres, we can’t get a balanced picture of the market.

The Reason for the Problem

The reason for this is that there is such a small number of retailers selling ebooks in large quantities.  All the sales data for printed books is collected from the retailers, who report to Nielsen how many copies they’ve sold of each title.  Because there are so many bookshops giving this information, you can’t tell how many copies any one shop or company has sold.  The problem with ebook sales is that they are concentrated in so few retailers who are reporting their sales to Nielsen, that if those figures were published, it would expose their individual sales figures to the public, because by looking at the different formats (Kindle or ePub) we could deduce who had sold what.  As this kind of  information is normally considered confidential, the figures have not been released.

Will the Problem Go Away?

I hope that this problem is just a symptom of an immature market, and that it won’t be long before so many bookshops are selling ebooks that none are identifiable from the aggregated data.  However, as long as Amazon remain almost the only  retailer selling Kindle versions, their anonymity is never going to be protected, unless the format information is left out of the data.  That would again limit the usefulness of the data to publishers, who need to be able to make informed decisions about formats as well as topics and overall figures.

Maybe One Day

The news (on Moco News) that some publishers are opening up their book sales data to authors,  saving them from having to wait for their six-monthly royalty statement may well (as Laura Hazard Owen hopes in her article) prompt calls for greater openness about sales generally, and pressure to find a way round the commercial confidentiality risks of reporting ebook sales in particular.

Evolving Ebook Clauses

Ebooks have always been difficult to define.

Publishers used to claim that the ebook was just another delivery method for the author’s work, so naturally belonged implicitly under volume rights.  That didn’t last.  In 2001 Random House Inc lost a court case against Rosetta Books for trying to define them as part of volume rights.

Once it was established that ebook rights needed to be explicitly defined in the contract, definitions emerged which confined the ebook to being an electronic replica of a printed book.  They used words like ‘verbatim’, ‘in whole’, ‘unaltered’ etc in a form ‘primarily designed for reading’.

But it is very difficult to make a water-tight definition that can’t be mistaken for anything else.  On the Ebook Strategy course I teach at Book House, we always try, but ebooks are very difficult to pin down.  But although we can’t define it, we feel we instinctively know what an ebook is when we see one.

Now it looks as if ebooks are becoming even harder to pin down.  The ebook clause is evolving again.  This time the definitions aim to allow for enhanced editions, giving the publisher scope to make full use of the the features of ePub3 described in my last post.   Recent examples include the use of words such as ‘additional materials’ of various kinds to ‘enrich’ and enhance’ the reading experience.  Does the intuitive “knowing it when we see it” still apply?  If it has the full text of the book at its heart, with extra material added at the beginning or end, yes, we are happy to say it’s still basically an ebook.  But if the text itself is broken up, re-interpreted with images and audio, and perhaps even accessed non-sequentially, is it still an ebook?  Or has it become something else?  If so, what?

This is very exciting for readers, but the worry is that if the ebook is defined too broadly, it will encroach onto other rights, such as film, or app rights.   The challenge now is to hammer out new definitions that accurately describe the ebook in all its glory, without being so loose that anything goes.

Or will the divide disappear altogether, and this become another front line of convergence of media.

Ebooks have been around for just over 10 years, and in the mass market only for about 3 years.  It’s very early days for this new technology.  We are still making ebooks that look like books.  The first cars looked just like carriages.  Just as the very first car manufacturers could not imagine our sleek, fast cars of today, so we cannot imagine the ebooks of 2111.  I wish we could fast-forward, and take a look.

 

5 Reasons to Love ePub3

Everyone is talking about ePub 3 which is launched this autumn, so I went along to UCL’s Digital Publishing Forum to find out what the fuss is all about. This is what I discovered from a very good talk by Graham Bell of Editeur.

Where did it come from?

ePub 1 was the Open Ebook format (OEB) developed by the IDPF
ePub 2 is the one we use now. The first device we could read ePub books on was the Sony Reader, launched in 2008.
But many publishers and readers are painfully aware of it’s limitations, so the IDPF have been working on upgrading it.
Now they have ePub 3 about ready to use, and you can see the specs on their website at idpf.org/ePub/30/spec

What does it do?

  • Media: The thing that makes all the difference is that an ePub 3 file also contains other media, so things like audio, and animation can be added to the book, yet it still retains the all-important reflowing text of ebooks. These other media will appear in the correct place in the book, synchronised with the text – they don’t have to be grouped in an appendix at the back. Some ebooks do already include multi-media but they only work on a few types of reader, so if you have the wrong kind of phone, or your ereader is the wrong make, you miss out. ePub 3 aims to reduce these differences between machines as ePub 3 becomes a universally recognised industry standard.
  • Layout: Current ePub ebooks are fine for novels and straight text, but ePub3 goes much further – not just books but also magazines, newspapers, journals, corporate publications whose highly designed pages need a fixed layout to look great, are more likely to work well too.
  • Languages: whether the writing goes left to right or right to left, and starts at the front or the back of the book, whether it writes in letters or scripts or characters, ePub 3 will show it correctly.

How does it do it?

ePub 3 is based on HTML5. As this is the same code that many apps are created in, it will pave the way for ebooks to become more app-like. At the moment web browsers use HTML4 so we won’t be reading ebooks in Internet Explorer or Google Chrome.

HTML 5 is based on XML so ePub 3 tags keep meaning and structural descriptions separate from presentation instructions. This has the effect of making them less media-specific. An example is the <i> tag. Instead of meaning italics as it does in HTML 4, it means emphasised. A screen may be directed to show this in italics, but a read-aloud programme will know (directed by the CSS) to put a stress on that word when it reads it out. Similarly, the <b> tag no longer just means bold, it means strong, so the read-aloud will speak louder at that place.

What does this mean for publishers?

  1. Better slicing and dicing: selling parts of a book is something publishers would Ilke to do more of, and the new structural tags in ePub 3 make it much easier to do. Each chapter or section has its own self contained structure showing headings and subheadings in relation to the part, not just the whole. It’s like a row of terraced houses that you can move apart into small detached houses without the party walls falling down.
  2. Better page design: ePub 3 benefits from better styles in CSS. The designer can now put the page or parts of the page into columns and the reading device will fit them onto the screen, regardless of the size of the screen – they just reflow. This makes ebooks a possibility for a whole range of titles that really need that option in order to look good
  3. Better discoverability: no-one can buy a book unless they can find it, and online you find by searching. ePub 3 uses SVG graphics. This means that diagrams are ‘drawn’ on screen according to instructions instead of being a fixed image pasted in. Included in those instructions is the text for the diagram, right there in the text of the book. That has two benefits:
    • a diagram’s captions and labels are searchable like the rest of the text, from within the book as well as on the web in services like Google Books
    • because they are embedded in the text, diagrams and captions will always appear in the right place instead of re-flowing off somewhere else and getting separated.
  4. Better bells and whistles: all these things combine to make it easier to add things to help or entertain the reader. Instead of adding one photo, why not add a slide show? Maybe a diagram would be clearer if it was animated to show how it works. Want to know where Sherlock Holmes found the body? Here it is on Google maps. Ebooks will be able to be more like apps.
  5. Better metadata: the book’s details are included in the ePub 3 file showing title, author(s), publisher, date etc in a way that a computer can read (ie not just painted in the artwork of the cover). Based on this information, and its links to further information, the computer can classify the book appropriately in its database. Thus we will have the self-cataloguing book. That will make life easier for librarians

All we need now is lots of affordable ereaders to enjoy these lovely new ebooks on.

 

 

Sherlock Holmes with sound effects

I’ve just started reading Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band which is the UK’s first  ebook with its own sound track, published by Booktrack a couple of weeks ago.  This Telegraph article promises driving rain, thunderclaps and blood-curdling screams, so I’m not sure how I’m going to read it on the train, or in bed, which is where I do most of my reading!  Better get my head phones out.

Here’s a little clip of the ebook in action: