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Of iPads, embargoes and the confrontation with reality

I’ve been settling into my new job, designing the next generation of Microsoft’s TechNet service, but have not turned away from the e-book market or its hijinks. Oh, what a week. Where to start and where will it end?

First off, the Apple iPad. My thoughts: It was one of Steve Jobs’ worst presentations in many years. It was dull. He lacked energy and attitude, which reflected on the device he was introducing more than the device itself was a let-down. Because, really folks, can any one device save publishing? And movie-making? No. However, the iPad is another example of a fascinating blend of pragmatism and accomplished design that is going to be attractive to the average person who has been thinking of a lighter, more convenient PC, an e-reader or a new television.

At the entry price, $499, it’s a steal compared to the comparably priced Kindle DX and sexier than all the netbooks on the market wrapped in a big ball of sexy, with sex on top. The iPad is going to eat the low-end of the market that Apple has so famously “missed” during the past couple years—as though not selling MacBooks for $500 was doing the company damage—for its proverbial lunch while barely cannibalizing Apple’s MacBook sales. The higher cost iPads will be subsidized by carriers wanting to compete with AT&T.

Moreover, with the next generation of e-readers clearly stuck somewhere in the same price range, iPad is poised to destroy the glutted market of E-Ink devices by presenting a singular color-capable choice as an alternative to one of the 50+ e-readers on the market now. Amazon will counter by licensing Kindle features far and wide, getting its PC client onto new netbooks in exchange for a small fee or a small share of ongoing revenue from the PC OEMs.

But Amazon’s real challenge will be staying hip when it’s business strategy is looking so very square. In a little remarked posting by Kara Swisher at AllThingsD, she shared a video clip of Steve Jobs talking with her colleague, Walt Mossberg, after the iPad announcement. In that clip, Jobs says that the $9.99 e-book price point will soon be a thing of the past, because publishers will “pull their books” from Kindle to sell them for a higher price—on iPad. Many took this to mean that Apple will sell books for $9.99. Others missed this completely because they focused on what Jobs has said in the past about reading. But listen carefully. Jobs clearly says, in response to Walt’s question about why someone would pay $14.99 for an iBook title when they could get it for $9.99, that it will not be a problem as soon as publishers decide to draw the line with Amazon. Jobs says “the prices will be the same,” meaning that prices will rise as people shift to a reading experience they value more.

And MacMillan did draw that line this weekend, pulling down its Kindle books. As I have been saying for a while, $9.99 isn’t set in stone and cannot last. Amazon has never been in the business of selling e-readers, only the process of building libraries it can serve to digital readers. This is why Kindle on the iPhone and iPad are more representative of Amazon’s future than the Kindle hardware it sells today. Jobs hasn’t crushed Amazon, he enabled it to get out of the hardware business. Look for Kindle books for the iPad to be priced higher and have more features—you don’t think Amazon has had Mac and PC coders around for 18 months without making some real improvements on the Kindle software, do you?

What of MacMillan, which initiated an embargo on Amazon’s $9.99 price point? It is just the first publisher to launch a salvo over e-book prices, it won’t be the last. Amazon has been losing money on best-sellers for almost two years. The business is unsustainable at $9.99 for Amazon and publishers. In one real way, Apple is saving publishing, because it is pulling the biggest book distributor’s fat from the fire, as PaidContent explains here.

Final thoughts on the iPad. The name is awkward, but the trash talk will settle down. It’s unfortunate that Apple managed to alienate women, one of its target audiences for the iPad. At the same time, in many dialects, “iPad” will sound exactly like “iPod.” The biggest change in the hardware between the announcement and shipping will be the appearance of subsidized hardware deals, most likely from T-Mobile.

We haven’t seen the future as much as version 0.92 of the future. Pads ahead, as well as books. But look for many tablets from other manufacturers, too.

Media traction

It is very gratifying to have Bob Stein repost my recent posting on the Institute for the Book’s blog. I also did an interview yesterday which will be on IT Conversations next week. Will post a link when it is available. The show is posted here. Great job, Phil and Scott!

After three days of CES, I have some thoughts on the e-reader market that need to gel a bit. However, I did talk with a number of guests on the Lenovo Live Webcast about e-readers, tablet computers and the transmission of culture. The archive is here, if you’d like to take a look.

How to create new reading experiences profitably

Concluding my summary of my recent presentation to a publishing industry group, begun here and continued here, we turn to the question of what to do to revitalize the publishing opportunity.

I wrote a lot about the idea of exploding the limitations of the book in the last installment. Getting beyond the covers. Turning from a distribution model to a reader-centric model. It’s simple to argue that change is needed and to say what needs changing. Here, I offer a few specific ideas about lines of research and development that I would like to see begun by publishers, who, if they wish to remain viable—let alone profitable—must undertake immediately. The change in book publishing will happen at a faster pace than the collapse of newspaper and music publishing did, making a collective effort at research and publication of the results for all to discuss and use, critical during the next 18 months. Think open sourcing the strategy, so that a thousand innovations can bloom.

Making books into e-books is not the challenge facing publishers and authors today. In fact, thinking in terms of merely translating text to a different display interface completely misses the problem of creating a new reading experience. Books have served well as, and will continue to be, containers for moving textual and visual information between places and across generations. They work. They won’t stop working. But when moving to a digital environment, books need to be conceived with an eye firmly set on the interactions that the text/content will inspire. Those interactions happen between the author and work, the reader and the work, the author and reader, among readers and between the work and various services, none of which exist today in e-books, that connect works to one another and readers in the community of one book with those in other book-worlds.

Just as with the Web, where value has emerged out of the connection of documents by publishers and readers—the Web is egalitarian in its connectivity, but still has some hierarchical features in its publishing technologies—books must be conceived of not just as a single work, but a collection of work (chapters, notes, illustrations, even video, if you’re thinking of a “vook“) that must be able to interact internally and with other works with which it can communicate over an IP network. This is not simply the use of social media within the book, though that’s a definite benefit, but making the book accessible for use as a medium of communication. Most communities emerge long after the initial idea that catalyzes them is first published.

These communications “hooks” revolve around traditional bibliographic practices, such as indexing and pagination for making references to a particular location in a book useful, as well as new functionality, such as building meta-books that combine the original text with readers’ notes and annotations, providing verification of texts’ authenticity and completeness, curation (in the sense that, if I buy a book today and invest of myself in it the resulting “version” of the book will be available to others as a public or private publication so that, for instance, I can leave a library to my kids and they can pass it along to their children) and preservation.

Think about how many versions of previously published books, going all the way back to Greek times, when books were sold on scrolls in stalls at Athens, have been lost. We treasure new discoveries of an author’s work. In a time of information abundance, however, we still dismiss all the other contributions that make a book a vital cultural artifact. Instead, we need to recognize that capturing the discussions around a book, providing access (with privacy intact) to the trails that readers have followed on their own or in discussions with others to new interpretations and uses for a text, and the myriad commentaries and marginalia that have made a book important to its readers is the new source of infinite value that can be provided as the experience we call “reading.” Tomorrow’s great literary discovery may not be an original work by a famous author, but a commentary or satire Continue reading How to create new reading experiences profitably

Challenging publishers to change isn’t the safe path

Continuing my tale of the publishing industry presentation I made last month, begun here, let’s turn to the changes in the book and book supply chain that are necessary to resurrect publishing as a pivotal source of creative value in a time when gatekeepers are despised and largely redundant.

The electronic publishing supply chain is dominated by distributors, particularly those that wield a popular format as leverage to gain a larger share of revenue from publishers, who are still trying to determine how to change their product to address opportunities when books are not trapped in paper. Just as the music industry in the late 90s was led by the nose by encoding companies that charged a million or more dollars to “rip” a new version of a record label’s catalog to address a new format, today’s e-book industry is being hauled along by distributors who trade “free” encoding and distribution of e-books to publishers in exchange for rights to do so. The only major difference between the e-book industry today and music industry of 1999 is that more rights are being exchanged for encoding, where music remained a cash business that sapped the labels of massive amounts of money to keep up with new formats and channels for music. There are, however, plenty of e-book services companies trying to reproduce the music encoding phenomenon with publishers who, thinking that they can pay for a format will then be able to distribute the resulting files directly.

Unfortunately for publishers, the channel is controlled by application and hardware developers who have the actual customer relationships. Amazon, which has been toying with the question of whether to compete directly with publishers for more than a year, finally did so last week by signing Seven Habits author Stephen Covey to an e-book deal that completely circumvents the publisher of the books, Simon & Schuster. When I made my presentation in November, this suggestion was greeted with horror and a reflexive dismissiveness that has been beaten into sensibility by the hard reality that publishers have never mastered the customer relationship.

Publishers have excelled at the paper distribution process, actually managing to earn profits despite the vast return rates that paper books produce by the nature of mismatched supply and demand. With electronic publishing and the Web, publishers can certainly reduce returns—indeed, that is what most publishers I talk to are banking on in order to survive the transition to mixed paper and digital publishing—but no one establishes a branded relationship with a publisher, simply because books are aimed at readers’ attention, which is completely fungible, shifting from one publishers’ products to another’s from day to day and read to read.

Competing for attention and building brand reputation for reliable, enjoyable or authoritative writing (though books will be much more than writing in the near future, as Fast Company‘s Adam Penenberg pointed out on Wednesday), requires that publishers reject Continue reading Challenging publishers to change isn’t the safe path

Updating Kindles sold estimate: 1.49 million

Based on the ever-vague guidance provided by Amazon.com in the form of obscure comments from CEO and Founder Jeff Bezos and fluffy PR releases, such as today’s holiday sales update, I’m continuing to update my educated guesswork on the number of Kindles sold.

Two interesting factoids emerge from the marketing verbiage: First, Kindle books outsold paper books on Christmas Day, the first time that has ever happened; Second, the Kindle is the “most gifted item ever in our history,” according to Bezos. The first may not mean much, since Christmas Day isn’t necessarily a normal shopping day, though the volume of Kindle books sold suggests that on that day a lot of new Kindle users started stocking up on e-books. The second, an aggregate figure that appears to reflect all gifted items over all time, may be very significant or mean absolutely nothing at all, as the increase in online shopping and gifting continues to dwarf previous “record-setting” gift sales by the law of large(r) numbers.

Nevertheless, it is clear that this was the Kindle Christmas. During the third quarter of 2009, I estimated that Amazon sold 289,000 Kindles on sales growth of 60 percent year over year. We can assume, given the disappointing availability of most competitors, that Kindle grabbed a very large percentage of e-book reader sales this holiday season. However, it was also a poor Christmas overall, in terms of retails sales, even if Amazon did sell more stuff than ever before.

So, how many more Kindles sold between the end of the Q3 and Christmas Day? Extrapolating from previous quarters, and assuming this was a break-out sales season for Kindle, meaning that it more that doubled over the previous quarter, factoring in the sales of Kindle books versus paper books as Christmas gift cards were redeemed yesterday, I estimate Amazon sold 419,000 Kindles in the fourth quarter, or 145 percent of the sales in Q3.

That would make the total number of Kindles sold to date 1,491,000. Kindle now represents approximately 65 percent of the hardware reader market despite the appearance of Barnes & Noble’s Nook, which may reach 30,000 units in the quarter because of delays.

I still don’t think Amazon is in the hardware business for the long term. It’s all about building digital library lock-in.

When customers love the product, but hate your mission, it’s time to change publishing

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a vision for the future of publishing to a group of publishing professionals in New York. Can’t say where it was, yet, but suffice to say it was worth saying and that the message was well received by the thoughtful, albeit skeptical, audience.

Despite the increasingly rapid changes in reading due to technological evolution, the folks with whom I was talking rightly believe that they should not revolutionize their business simply for the sake of revolution, and I was perceived, unfortunately, as a revolutionary. They represented publishers, distributors, supply-chain enablers and book retailers, all of whom need to embrace changing roles as they constantly refine those roles in response to greater information about what is in a book, how books are used and what readers think about the books they purchase, borrow or steal. Having worked in publishing—in many forms and markets—for 25 years, and for several huge publishing companies destroyed by the failure to change, I think my perspective is one of pragmatic realism. Certainly, the publishing industry I arrived in as a newspaper/magazine reporter is largely gone, victim of its failure to evolve with the times, with the reader’s habits.

Darnton 2So, it was ironic, I thought, that my opening remark, that the future has never been brighter for publishing (in this, I completely agree with Seth Godin’s remarks about the future of publishing here—I only wish I was a good a presenter at Seth), was greeted with a sense that I was trying to paint my revolution the color of the audience’s fears about the future of their individual business models. Sure, they were thinking, it’s bright if you don’t have to fire people, change the workflows at publishing houses, in composition and printing shops, and so forth.

Books are healthier than ever, really. According to Bowker, publisher of Books In Print, more than 900,000 books will be published worldwide this year. The United States produces more than five times as many titles as only a decade ago. Moreover, the breadth of the titles has never been greater, with genres and subjects exploding in their complexity. Just as the desktop publishing revolution produced an explosion of magazines and newsletters that transformed the periodical business in the late 1980s, print-on-demand and Web technology, including e-books, have multiplied the number of books, about every conceivable topic. Worldwide, the growth of titles published is growing faster than in the U.S., as it becomes infinitely more efficient to address language and geographically specific marketplaces with printed or electronic books.

Moreover, with more than $100 billion in local U.S. media spending in play because of the fall of the local newspaper, the opportunity to connect revenue with books that engage and sustain hyper-local communities, has never been greater. Succeeding in this market, however, means changing the entire book value chain, eliminating the value chain’s focus on distributors and retailers, turning it instead to models predicated on what the reader wants and values. Reader-centrism is the only viable basis for revivifying existing publishing companies, because every new player in the publishing market is starting their business based on close identification with their customer, the reader.

Now, I want to keep this short, and go on in future postings with more detail. But let’s look at the most recent description of what a publisher does that I was able to find, in Robert Darnton’s new book, The Case for Books. Darnton, the chief librarian at Harvard and an accomplished author captures what the publisher does as completely as possible:

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

This is the mission of publishing from the time of the scriptoria until the turn of the 21st century, a risk-defined mission based on the high cost of making information available. It is not what readers want today, even though they do still count on many filters to help them choose what to read. The financial risk of publishing today is perceived as minimal, even though it is still quite risky because publishers are clinging to the hit-driven model that requires a book to sell tens of thousands of copies to be a “success.” Let’s consider Darnton’s definition of publishing through the eyes of a reader who can browse the Web, Google Books and myriad other sources of textual, audio and visual information. These people still love books, but they no longer honor the mission that produces many books, as evidenced by widespread dislike of the ideas highlighted in the following version of the quote:
“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”
Let’s break that down in terms of the networked marketplace.

Gatekeepers are no longer valued, they are despised by people who feel they have the ability to judge information and ideas for themselves. As Jacques Rancière puts it in his latest book, The Emancipated Spectator, “There are not two sorts of intelligence separated by a gulf” in a truly democratic marketplace of ideas, there are different perspectives that demand free rein and resent gatekeepers.

No one entity or person can/needs to control the flow of knowledge when everyone can do their little part by tagging, rating, reviewing and commenting on parts of the data flow; this is “crowdsourcing” in the fully positive sense, free from the stain of mob mentality, which can play an important role in an unbridled cataract of information.

Customers, not sellers, decide what will sell—they always have, but industrial production tended to limit the choices and create the appearance of successful planning, which in many cases is exactly what produced bestsellers, though at the cost of diversity, which people value, too.

Professional expertise is, unfortunately, despised because of knavery on the part of pundits, who claim expertise without the hard self-criticism that is applied by professionals. We do need people to help us select what to pay attention to, just as we have always relied on guidance from others when coming into a new environment. That advice can come from friends. However, it often comes from the loudest knaves in the mediasphere.

What reaches readers in a connected networked world is everything and anything that can be transmitted, but few would surrender their opportunity to think for themselves in exchange for a truncated view of reality—let us remain optimistic about people’s judgment and intentions here—but readers don’t want to admit they rely more on experts today than ever before, because they don’t see the world as information overload, rather they perceive they are seeing it all for the first time without restrictions, which is exhilarating, the very source of growth, egalitarian opportunity and the unexpected. That sudden sense of having options is why more books than ever are being produced and sold.

Given that readers today still love books, in more forms than ever, what is a publisher to do? That’s the subject of the next couple postings in this series.

Cross-posted to ZD Net.

CrunchPad illusion after all

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Mike Arrington has announced his CrunchPad web tablet, covered here, is “dead”, blaming his manufacturing partner for cutting him out of the deal. In the frothy market that is media tablets, just as in other frothy markets Arrington has stirred up, this is a story suspiciously full of holes that make CrunchPad sound like a stunt all along rather than a real project.

Bizarrely, we were being notified that we were no longer involved with the project. Our project. Chandra said that based on pressure from his shareholders he had decided to move forward and sell the device directly through Fusion Garage, without our involvement.

Later, Arrington insists other manufacturers have offered easy terms to him for the rights to manufacture the device and that he had “blue chip angel and venture capitalist investors in Silicon Valley waiting to invest in the company since late Spring. We were simply holding them off until we launched, to eliminate some of the risk.” If he’d said they were holding off for better terms from VCs because the device had launched, I’d have found this plausible. The whole story is too nice to be taken at face value.

Because Arrington, a lawyer, discloses that he never controlled the intellectual property rights to the CrunchPad, other than the trademark, and apparently had very poorly formed business agreements around the project with Fusion Garage, his manufacturing partner, this has the look of a great deal of smoke around something he’d agreed he could market without understanding the business, design and development challenges. At one point, he suggests most of the project was “pushed to open source,” but then why is it impossible to build it with another manufacturer?

Arrington claims that “prototype b” of the CrunchPad was completed by his in-house team. Certainly, it would have represented the major functional features of the design, which, if open sourced, should be available for his use in providing a functional spec to other manufacturers who could have come up with their own solutions with different components. Since he writes that his team had the release candidate device running Win7 and a version of Chrome OS, the components involved surely are commodities supported with well-documented drivers and toolsets.

Why take apart the death notice like this? Tablets and e-readers are the hottest “category” in consumer electronics, with a glut in e-readers and many media tablets on tap for 2010, customers need to read between the lines of announcements that promise revolutions but may represent black holes for their money and time. In this case, Arrington has created expectations that a $250 touch-screen device can be expected to do what consumers want, to “surf on the couch.” He created a baseline expectation that has proven to be out of line with what is possible today. It is certainly possible in six months or a year, yet customers don’t need the noise of empty promises to add to the complexity of making buying decisions.

It sounded too good to be true and it was, yet there are plenty of people who want to buy the idea and will now say it could have been done if not for a legal showdown. Customers need real world class champions of products, not contenders who tell us they could have or should have won if only the breaks had gone their way. Customers’ time and money is too hard won to expect less.

Smashwords gets Kindle distribution deal

Smashwords, the e-book self-publisher services company, is for real. The company has won a series of distribution deals, including through Barnes & Noble, Sony and Shortcovers e-book stores. Today they added Kindle distribution, paying authors 42.5 percent of the sale list price of their Kindle books.

As an author services play, Smashwords has sped to the front of the pack for e-book authors. Congrats to Mark Coker and team.

Headline 2010: e-Reader device failure

The market knows best, right? Markets are bloody paths to progress. At this writing there are approximately 52 e-reader devices coming to market in the next 12 months. Fifty-two different devices coming to market (Here’s what I wrote about Steve Jobs’ approach to reader devices when there were just 45 e-readers on the horizon). Creative, the maker of MP3 players and computer audio cards, is the latest to announce their impending arrival, Zii MediaBook.

This is the definition of “glut” becoming reality. We can see a glut of e-readers coming and there’s no waving off the Kamikaze piloting most of those e-readers toward the deck. Will they blow up the fuel supply needed to get the next generation of e-reading off the ground? No, but the coverage will likely make it sound like e-reader failures mean e-book failure.

With excessive abundance comes failure, and that spectacular conflagration of hardware products, unfortunately, will dominate the headlines in this market next year as many, indeed most, of these devices are pulled due to lack of sales. They are ridiculously expensive for a market where the vast majority of customers buy one book or less a year—more than 180 million Americans don’t buy a single book in any year.

Many hardware makers will retreat and e-books, not the glut, will get the blame.

Today’s dedicated e-readers sell for roughly 10 times the price of a new hardback book. Most people don’t buy hardback books, so for argument’s sake, let’s say the average price paid for a book by the 120 million Americans who buy a book each year is $12. Amazon Kindle2 and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, both of which sell for $259, cost as much as 21.6 books, which suggests they break the book-buying budget for most people. I don’t want to suggest there is a magic price for reader hardware, because we’ll see some of the new e-readers announced this year selling for $59 next year, because retailers cannot get rid of them. That is a result of fierce competition, but leave it to the press and bloggers to turn the whole process into a mandate on e-books, not the expensive hardware.

This isn’t a horse race, but a complex evolutionary event, that cannot be reduced to headlines. Consider: “T. Rex extinct, world awaits silence of lifelessness” would have made the papers, if dinosaurs had had their Gutenberg.

Yet, it’s a short step from “people don’t want e-readers” to Continue reading Headline 2010: e-Reader device failure

Updating Kindles-sold estimates: 1.072 million

Based on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ comments on the third quarter results for the company, Kindle sales are accelerating. Bezos is quoted: “Kindle has become the #1 bestselling item by both unit sales and dollars – not just in our electronics store but across all product categories on Amazon.com. It’s also the most wished for and the most gifted.”

Working from my previous estimate, 783,000 as of July 1, and building in unit volume growth of 60 percent—sales revenue gains in electronics in the U.S., $217 million higher in the first three quarters of 2009 than in 2008, seems to be driven heavily by Kindle sales—I estimate Amazon has sold 1,072,000 Kindles as of Sept. 30, 2009. That would be 289,000 Kindles sold during Q3.