Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lessons from the iPhone App Store

The Kindle Review blog recently posted this excellent article on lessons we can learn from Apple's App Store. As the post notes, discoverability is one of the major problems in the App Store today. Sure, Apple provides lists of recent additions and even popular apps, but finding your way through 65K+ apps seems hopeless when you're scrolling through 5 or so at a time!

I'm an iPhone owner and I love the device. I've downloaded a few dozen apps over the past 6 months but I'm amazed at how many I miss out on. The other night at dinner a colleague mentioned a new one to me that's just what I was looking for (Fluent News). I had never heard of it but I immediately downloaded it. Word-of-mouth promotion is nice and all but it can't be the only way forward.

I'm anxious to see how this all plays out. What new promotional vehicles will develop that help improve the discovery problem? And before we look at it as just an Apple issue, think about how this applies to ebooks...

Amazon has a tried and true method for promotion and encouraging discovery. But they're only one outlet. More and more ebook storefronts are popping up every week. Then there's the self-publishing angle. How many new self-published works hit virtual shelves every month? Hundreds of thousands?

Is this an opportunity for a third-party aggregator to step in and build an uber-catalog with all sorts of bells and whistles? This isn't just bestseller lists but also community recommendations and other lists tailored for your needs and interests.

Ebook services and offerings are growing like crazy. Without an uber-catalog service we'll soon find ourselves as lost in the sea of unknown ebook choices as iPhone owners are in the sea of apps.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A glimpse of the future?

At the end of the film 2010, Dr. Heywood Floyd looks up at the new sun that had been created in our solar system and observes, "You can tell your children of the day when everyone looked up and realized that they were only tenants of this world. We have been given a new lease and a warning from the landlord."

Amazon's recent Orwell (and Orwellian) debacle served as a similar wake up call for me as a Kindle user.

People are still debating over whether Amazon handled the situation properly.  Some, including our own Joe Wikert, have offered suggestions on how Amazon could have handled it better.

But what bothers me is not whether Amazon was right or wrong in removing books from our Kindles -- it's the fact that they had (and still have) the technology to do it at all.

In a recent Slate column titled "Why 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four," Farhad Manjoo warns that we've just glimpsed the future of book banning.  Sure it sounds alarmist now, but consider the possibilities.  As Manjoo observes, Amazon's mass deletion "sets up a terrible precedent.  Amazon deleted books that were already available in print, but in our paperless future—when all books exist as files on servers—courts would have the power to make works vanish completely."

Unthinkable?  Perhaps.  But now we've been shown that it is technically possible.

Manjoo's suggestion? 

Don't buy a Kindle until Amazon updates its terms of service to prohibit remote deletions. Even better, the company ought to remove the technical capability to do so, making such a mass evisceration impossible in the event that a government compels it.

I'm not quite ready to go that far, but I do think we need to keep the pressure on Amazon.  And the incident has made me think twice about purchasing Kindle editions of books.

I'm sure Amazon didn't intend to send a message when they deleted those files from our Kindles, but a message was sent nonetheless.

It was a reminder that we do not really own the e-books we purchase from Amazon. 

It was a reminder that when we abandon physical media for digital we give up a lot of rights.

And it was a reminder that the media giants who sell us that digital content wield an ever-increasing amount of power.

We Kindle users just got a warning from the landlord.    For the future's sake we better pay attention.

Has the incident made you think differently about the Kindle or the future of ebooks?


Follow me on Twitter @phigginbotham
What I'm reading now on my Kindle:  Nothing.  I'm reading a dead-tree edition of American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury by Kevin Phillips.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Amazon Should Have Handled the Orwell Situation

It's old news by now. Someone who didn't own the rights uploaded Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm to the Kindle distribution service. Amazon then stepped in and removed all the illegal copies from Kindles around the country. It should also be noted that Amazon provided refunds as well.

It's one thing to wake up and find you're missing a book you bought, especially if you had already started reading it. It's another thing when you find Amazon also deleted the notes you took while you read the book. This happened to at least one student that I've heard about, which is unfortunate as Amazon is trying to push the Kindle in the academic channels.

I don't dispute the fact that IP must be protected. I just have a problem with how Amazon addressed the problem.

Amazon's self-service publishing platform clearly needs more checks and balances. I realize one person (or even a team of people) couldn't possibly scan the mountain of submissions to see if something illegal has been uploaded. But how hard would it be to have the system check random excerpts against the content already in Amazon's library of Kindle content? This step would have immediately flagged the problem and rejected the submission.

Amazon should also have some sort of guarantee that the content you're buying is legit and won't be removed, even if they refund your money. The automated review process I described above would be a big first step to helping then stand behind this promise.

But let's say something sneaks through again. Somehow a book from publisher xyz is scanned and uploaded by another party without the rights. Once Amazon discovers this problem they should remove it from the site, substitute your illegal copy with a real one and pay the publisher the full price. That's right. I'm suggesting Amazon foot the bill for the legitimate book. They could start by taking it out of any further payments owed the illegal distrbutor and they could follow that up with a lawsuit to try and recoup the rest. It's highly unlikely this will cover everything, so Amazon would simply have to write off the difference. Maybe that would be enough of a deterrent to reduce the likelihood this sort of thing in the future. At least this way Amazon would get high marks on customer satisfaction, which has to be far better than the PR hit they're still struggling through.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Follow-up: More publishers delaying e-books?

Just two days ago I posted news about one publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc., purposefully delaying the release of an e-book version of a new book. Now The New York Times is reporting that other publishers are considering the same course of action.

Authors whose works may be delayed in e-book format include Dan Brown and Stephen King (Yes, the same Stephen King who wrote a story exclusively for the Kindle to help pimp the Kindle 2.).

Are we heading for a showdown between publishers and Amazon?


Monday, July 13, 2009

How do you spell "shortsighted?"

S-o-u-r-c-e-b-o-o-k-s. As in Sourcebooks, Inc., an independent book publisher that recently announced it is thumbing its nose at e-book readers.

In an article titled "Publisher Delays E-Book Amid Debate on Pricing" from the July 13 Wall Street Journal (I'd link to it but WSJ are stingy with their online articles and the link would expire in a week), the chief executive of Sourcebooks says they are delaying the e-book release of the latest in their Brian Hambric series* for as much as six months after the dead-tree version hits shelves.

* I'd never heard of it, but apparently it's pretty popular with the Harry Potter crowd?

"It doesn't make sense for a new book to be valued at $9.99," said Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks, which issues 250 to 300 new titles annually. "The argument is that the cheaper the book is, the more people will buy it. But hardcover books have an audience, and we shouldn't cannibalize it." An e-book for "Bran Hambric" will become available in the spring, she said.

Let's break that down a bit, shall we?

First, "It doesn't make sense for a new book to be valued at $9.99." Um, it doesn't make sense to whom? Wiser folk than I have repeatedly done a great job at breaking down the various costs involved with publishing and shipping dead-tree books. Sometimes those costs even include being forced to accept unsold merchandise.

When you take away those costs and replace them with a digital product that by nature is in unlimited supply and costs you nothing to distribute how much larger is your profit margin?

Consumers are savvy. They understand these things. No one, especially Kindle owners who cherish reading, wants to cheat publishers or authors out of hard-earned money. But no one wants to be gouged either. Like it or not, the market has settled on a $9.99 price point for new novels. As a publisher you either embrace it or risk alienating a growing percentage of your readers.

Second, "But hardcover books have an audience, and we shouldn't cannibalize it." Maybe you can help me with this one because it just baffles me. Are the profit margins for publishers that much higher for hardcover books than for e-books? If so you're doing something wrong. And if not, why does it matter in what format your fans read your works?

Is it a sentimental clinging to the venerable printed word? Is it a growing fear that as the e-book market grows and the dead-tree format shrinks there will be less of a need for publishers at all?

After watching the music industry completely fail at accepting and embracing digital technology and seeing the resulting consequences, it's almost unfathomable that any other major media industry would make the same mistakes. But the publishing industry is heading in that direction.

Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. and Geoffrey A. Fowler. "Publisher Delays E-Book Amid Debate on Pricing". Wall Street Journal. 13 July 2009.


Follow me on Twitter @phigginbotham
What I'm reading on my Kindle: Nothing! I'm reading a dead-tree edition of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

PC Mag and BusinessWeek on the Kindle

I've been an on-again, off-again print subscriber to PC Magazine and BusinessWeek for many years. I let my PC Mag subscription lapse a couple of years ago, lost track of them and assumed they went belly up. The last several PC Mag issues I saw on newsstands were pretty thin, hence the assumption that they went away.

New magazines seem to appear on the Kindle without a lot of fanfare. PC Mag is currently #5 and BusinessWeek is #10 on Amazon's Kindle magazine bestseller list, but initially it was hard to find either anywhere on the site (despite the fact that you could subscribe to both if you found them!). Another example from the newspaper side is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I've been subscribing for a few months but up until recently it almost impossible to find The Trib on the site. (I'm wondering if Amazon does soft launches initially, letting subscribers slowly sign up, then waits to make sure there are no major problems/complaints before making it more public.)

Having looked pretty closely at the latest Kindle edition issues of both PC Magazine and BusinessWeek I have to say I'm not overly impressed with either. PC Mag is definitely pretty lightweight. I read the small number of articles that interested me in less than 20 minutes. This is a magazine I used to invest at least 2-3 hours immersed in every time a new issue arrived. Yikes. Even John Dvorak's stuff just ain't what it used to be.

BusinessWeek's problem isn't so much the lack of content. All the regular columns appear to be intact. Even the tiniest of sidebar elements seem to have made it through to the Kindle edition. What's missing though are some of the USAToday-like standalone graphics that frequently catch my eye. I'm not sure why BusinessWeek didn't just include images of these but their absence is disappointing.

More importantly, I'm starting to become as discouraged about the quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions the magazine business is doing, similar to what the book publishing world has done up to now. Nobody's really fully leveraging the Kindle's full capability. When was the last time you saw a Kindle version of a product that had more e-functionality built into it than the static print version? And let's not be satisfied with embedded links, although most of those opportunities are often missed as well! I'm talking about really taking advantage of the wireless connection and dynamic content capabilities the Kindle offers.

I blame some of this on Amazon for having such a closed model and not allowing for a third-party development ecosystem like what Apple has done for the iPhone, but most of the responsibility lies with the content publishers. I don't see anyone stepping up and creating some great, new Kindle content that wows you. I almost get the impression we're all figuring te Kindle is a flash-in-the-pan and we (publishers) don't want to spend too much on it for fear of it going away tomorrow. That's a valid concern, particularly if Apple comes through with their much-rumored "iPad."

At this point though, it's hard for me to get overly excited about Kindle content unless it's available at rock-bottom prices, and that's not much of a reason to get excited for the future, is it?

Monday, July 6, 2009

UR, by Stephen King

I love it that Stephen King is willing to experiment with new content models. Do you remember The Plant, a serial novel King started writing and releasing in pieces back in 2000? I loved it...or at least I loved the handful of chapters he released before abandoning the project. It was probably ahead of its time. King relied on the honor system and not enough readers paid up so he never finished the project. Bummer.

King's latest experiment is a Kindle-only story called UR. At first I couldn't help but think it was nothing more than an advertorial for the Kindle, but the story still managed to pull me in. It's an intriguing read and well worth the $2.99 you'll pay for it.

It's also a very quick read. I'm a slow reader and I still managed to get through it in little more than an hour. You might call that "short" but I call it "perfect." I spend most of my Kindle time reading short pieces of content. Newspaper articles, magazines, blog posts. Those are the things I like reading most on my Kindle. For some reason I tend to lose interest with longer Kindle books.

Jeff Bezos originally pitched the Kindle as a way for all of us to get past "info-snacking" and get back to reading long-form works. UR is another great example of how the Kindle is still feeding my info-snacking habit, I'm afraid.