Thursday, December 04, 2008

What Makes the ebook Experience Potentially Viable

Kindling eBooks
by Peter Brantley
With the Amazon Kindle ebook reader announcement increasingly looking like it is imminent, and with a review at Ars Tecnica of the latest generation Sony ebook reader ready to stoke a smoldering fire, it is an interesting time to speculate about the future direction and utility of ebook readers.

Booksquare today had an interesting muse about what makes the ebook experience potentially viable, and it is not the kind of DRM-laden entrapment that many vendors are providing now. Rather, the model should be that developed in other content areas, such as video.

[Start] with the expectation that media -- whatever kind -- will be accessible on demand. For my money, no matter what cool this or that is launched by major entertainment media, it's the YouTube model that exemplifies today's environment. Love it, hate it, don't understand it, YouTube works. You don't have to do anything special to access programming. This "just works" ability is what today's consumer desires ... and it's the base level expectation of today's youth.
The blog's authors observe how potentially capable the Apple iPhone is as a platform for ebooks, with its native support for reflowable text (including, potentially, IDPF's ebook format, .epub). But with Amazon pushing Kindle hard, how much attention is being paid to alternative channels, such as the iPhone, or the not-quite-here-yet promise of Google's open stack, Android?

Quick show of hands: how many publishers out there are actively engaged in discussions with Apple to ensure that the iTunes store stocks and promotes ebooks? Making sure that the iPhone has the right technology to facilitate reading ebooks? Or heck, any other kind of text? How many of you are making your voices heard when it comes to making certain that iPhone customers are able to download and read books on their phones?
With the bevy of press starting to ride herd on the new generation of dedicated readers, I've begun to try to think through how I feel about their potential success or failure, with the inevitable comparisons to the iPod and the music industry. (Alert! Speculation rampant below!).

I think, on reflection, that the comparison between audio (and video?) and book acquisition is less apt than it might seem at first glance. Given the extant media packaging within each sector, there was innately a higher barrier to the goal of acquisition and use in the music -- compared to the book -- industry, with the possible exception of a few select publishing markets. With growing digital options, the "LP album" as a compilation of tracks quickly became an obviously inefficient, undesirable bundling of content, screaming for disaggregation; perhaps the closest counterpart in the publishing industry, reference works including cookbooks, travel lit, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, have similarly and thoroughly escaped their legacy bounds; in these cases the conversion to print was not merely literal, but transformative.

In contrast, when one considers long form narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, there is less of an impetus to migrate from print use except for the possible advantage of portability and more extensive support for visually handicapped readers; on the flip side, there exist some non-trivial barriers (drm, format wars, etc.) to electronic access. Exceptions to this equation tend to be concentrated in areas where consumption modes are inherently mass-market, and where volume exists in transactions; Harlequin may well be the single most successful ebook publisher in the market today. Replicating their striking success through niche markets, or across smaller-impact imprints, is likely to prove difficult.

One might argue that until text-based book production, as a creative process, turns more mixed media, and lends sufficient scaffolding for user generated content, re-use, and re-publication, the appeal of any dedicated, standalone device will be weak. Instead, it will be easier to generate marginal cross book-sector penetration with mixed-use devices (iPhone/gPhone) in which reflowable text/html formats (such as epub) are a straightforward application.

Not coincidentally, it is these same devices that will most readily support the envisioning and enactment of new forms of creative expression, ranging from discursive texts which mutually engage authors and readers; location-sensitive rich-media manga with self-selected forking plots; narratives with multiple entry points and randomized outcomes; hybrid reality games where communication, collaboration, and interaction occur in a combination of physical and the digital spaces; and artistry that we cannot yet imagine.

Maybe the Kindle and Sony devices will be successful; if so, I think it is likely to be a short-term success, a last gasp of a long-enduring form of socially constructed content packaging rendered anew in digital form. Unfortunately, current ebook manifestations lack the emotive sensitivities of the old, without taking advantage of the opportunities of the new, both in terms of consumer experience and in their power to inform and entertain. How we read will be transformed as much as what we read.

Intrinsically, what will ultimately make devices a success is their openness to hacking and experimentation - although content publishers and distributors might not want to hear it, that is ultimately what will make the market.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

NYT's 10K subscribers on Kindle: The start of something bigger?

NYT's 10K subscribers on Kindle: The start of something bigger? The Nieman Journalism Lab

One other important note from that internal New York Times memo my colleague Zach got a hold of: The company reports it has "more than 10,000 paid subscribers" to an electronic edition of the newspaper on Amazon's Kindle ebook reader. To my knowledge (please correct me if I'm wrong), that's the first time a major newspaper has released numbers on how it's doing on Kindle - a platform lots of newspaper execs are eager to see turn into a saving grace for their industry.

Given that the electronic Times costs $13.99 a month, that would mean the NYT Kindle edition is generating in the neighborhood of $1.68 million a year. How much of that goes to NYT Co. and how much stays with Amazon is unclear.

Amazon has been tightlipped about how many of the devices it has sold, which has led some (including me) to think it might be a smaller success than some had hoped. (TechCrunch claimed in August it knew the number: 240,000.) If we do some highly crude back-of-the-envelope calculation, that would mean The New York Times has a penetration rate on the Kindle of around four percent.

Not bad, considering the Kindle is the first incarnation of that dreamy aspirational future of newspapers: no physical distribution costs, plus a steady revenue stream that comes from news consumers, not advertisers.

This also provides some guidance in how other newspapers might be doing on the Kindle. Amazon publishes rankings of its newspapers' sales: The NYT comes in second behind The Wall Street Journal, but ahead of the papers you might imagine (The Washington Post, Financial Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune). Amazon's sales-ranking systems are famously inscrutable - just ask any author who tries to track how his book fares hour to hour - but I'd guess the Journal is generating Kindle revenue numbers similar to the Times', since they sell their edition for only $9.99 but have more subscribers. My suspicion is that there's a pretty steep dropoff in Kindle sales numbers after the NYT, then a much steeper one after the FT - I'd be curious to see numbers from a major metro like The Boston Globe or The Denver Post. The early-adopter crowd that is currently buying Kindles is, I suspect, more interested in a national news product than their local daily.

I've been at a number of conferences recently where newspaper people point to the Kindle (or at least Kindle-like devices) as a major source of industry salvation - arguing that the Kindle will have an adoption slope similar to the iPod's, and that they'll soon be seen in every park and subway around America. And since Kindle users pay money for content, there may be a business model for newspapers after all.

I'm not yet sold on that vision. I think for the Kindle to reach mainstream success, it'll have to shift its focus from being an ebook reader with a junky mobile web browser to being a great mobile web browser with an ebook reader attached. It'll have to become something more like the iPhone with a bigger screen and better battery life. (There are signs the iPhone might already have the ebook-reader lead over the Kindle, although without the business model attached.)

And when that shift happens, it'll become trivially easy to read newspapers' (free) web sites on the device - which I suspect will undercut Kindle newspaper subscriptions just as it undercuts print newspaper subscriptions. But the NYT's numbers are among the first public signs that people - at least some people - are willing to pay to get news in the electronic format of their choice, even when they can get it on the web or their phone for free.

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