Category Archives: Ebook Publishing

eBook Bundling & Supporting a Diverse Retailer Ecosystem

In a previous blog post about the action at BEA I remarked that, “The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities.”

It turns out that this was an understatement. The technology community is producing plausible solutions at a terrific rate. I covered Zola Books in a previous post. In this one, we have asked Peter Hudson of BitLit to write a guest blog on his company’s solution to the question of bundling print and eBooks. This turns out to be rather timely as Amazon has recently rolled out their Kindle MatchBook program.

I hope that this will be the first of a number of guest blogs that will bring innovative ideas and programs to the attention of independent presses.

—  Curt Matthews, CEO, Independent Publishers Group.

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Peter Hudson is the Founder and CEO of BitLit. As an entrepreneur he’s been told he sees the world differently, but as a physicist he’s not sure that’s optically possible:

Let me propose two things I feel are true: book publishing and selling benefit from a strong and diverse physical and digital retail landscape, and Amazon’s announcement of Kindle MatchBook has forever etched the expectation of print and digital bundling into readers’ minds.

There has been considerable discussion about Amazon’s reasons for launching MatchBook. A point made by Alastair Horne on FutureBook.net is that MatchBook may be mostly about bringing paper book reading holdouts into the Kindle (rather than, say, Kobo) digital reading ecosystem. It seems reasonable that, as the eReader device market saturates, growth must come from traditionalists rather than book mavens and the e-savvy.

MatchBook may also be a tactic to drive Amazon print sales. Print purchases on Amazon as far back as 1995 are eligible for MatchBook. Even if publisher participation is limited at launch, it’s not a stretch to think by buying a print book on Amazon today, the billing record will make me eligible for a bundled eBook sometime between now and 2041. That’s not an offer that a sales receipt from my local indie can match (pardon the pun).

So, while MatchBook is a wonderfully reader-friendly program, it may cause considerable collateral damage to the diversity of both the digital and physical retail landscape.

Enter BitLit.

BitLit is the solution for publishers who want to offer bundled eBooks to readers regardless of where books are sold or what platform they are destined for. It’s all done through a simple and free smartphone app. Readers register their hard copy by writing their name onto the copyright page and snapping a photo using the BitLit app. Once the reader’s print edition has been recognized and registered through BitLit, they can download a free or discounted eBook edition from BitLit’s secure servers to their reading device of choice such as Kobo, Kindle, iPad, etc.

Bundling is not a new idea. Indeed, many well-known publishers have experimented with bundling in recent years. In the UK, Osprey Publishing offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of a print edition through book retailer Mostly Books, for titles published under the Angry Robot imprint.  The result of Osprey’s bundling was a dramatic increase in print sales.  O’Reilly offers DRM free digital “upgrades” through its members.oreilly.com portal for both print books and eBooks purchased through other retailers. In Canada, publishers such as ECW Press and Coach House Books offer free eBook editions to readers who email in a print edition proof of purchase.

The 2012 Canadian Book Consumer Annual Report from BookNet Canada found that 20% of readers would choose one book over another if one came with a bundled eBook edition. Additionally, a further 12% would pay a slightly higher price for a book if it included a bundled digital edition. These figures may well explain the dramatic increase in print sales seen by Osprey when they offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of an Angry Robot print edition.

Bundling has arrived, and offers publishers a huge potential opportunity to drive sales and re-connect with readers. But it’s critical that bundling is used to strengthen the publishing and bookselling landscape.  BitLit aims to do exactly that.

BitLit has partnered with Independent Publishers Group to allow member publishers to opt in and offer free or discounted bundled eBooks through BitLit to readers, regardless of where they purchased their print edition.  There is no cost to participate.  For more information or to opt into the program, please email Peter Hudson or Lauren Klouda (IPG-distributed publishers).

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3 Big Takeaways from Book Expo America 2013 for Independent Publishers

At the big book convention in New York, we saw old friends and made new ones against the backdrop of one of publishing’s biggest powwows. I also observed some very exciting things happening for the indie publishing community.

There were many more indie presses in attendance than has been the case for the last four years or so. At the IPG booth we had conversations with dozens of very promising publishers who have quite extensive and impressive publication lists. It is clear that an improving economy has brought forward a surge of entrepreneurial energy in the book business. The future is going to be a lot of fun.

The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities. For instance, a startup called Zola Books has developed a user-friendly way to deal with the issue of “showrooming”—the term we use to describe what happens when a customer at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore looks over the titles on display and then orders a print or e-book copy from a web retailer, often for a lower price. Zola Books gives a bookseller a well-earned piece of the action for its part in making such sales.

It is now clear that the e-book market will not be dominated by just a few huge web retailers. We were approached by 15 new ventures at the show, all offering very favorable terms for publishers and proposing innovative marketing strategies that could really work. By the end of this month, IPG’s e-books will be available through about 75 web retailers, and it’s great to see that many of the smaller ones are growing quickly. This means there will be plenty of healthy competition, no matter what the Department of Justice thinks have been the sins of the past.

These developments add up to a lot of promising opportunities for independent publishers.

IPG at BEA 2013

IPG at BEA 2013

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The Trouble with eBooks: A Recap

Most of the blog posts put up in this space over the last two months have circled around three very major issues in regard to eBooks. Here they are, together with an account of what if any progress has been made in resolving each of them.

eBook Distribution: What’s the Deal?:
No one who is really privy to hard information about what is going on is able or willing to speak out.

Non-disclosure and Confidentiality Agreements, Most Favored Nation Clauses in distribution contracts, and then out of nowhere, the Department of Justice restraint of trade litigation against most of the biggest houses—all these things conspire to silence any informed debate about the issues. And to be blunt about it, most independent publishers feel abject terror at even the thought of confronting Amazon’s enormous market power. This part of the problem has not improved at all.

Market Share: You’d Be Surprised What the Big 6 Controls:
“The Big Six publishers, who control about half of the entire market for trade books, have been able to drive a better bargain with Amazon than the independent publishers could.”

A structural difference of that magnitude (roughly 20 points of discount) would put the independents out of business in short order (See also At What Discount Should Publishers Sell Ebooks to Resellers). This part of the problem may have eased a bit. The Department of Justice’s litigation could have the effect of largely taking away the discount advantage briefly enjoyed by the Big Six which would level the playing field. We will see.

The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content: Part II:
“The 50% plus take that Amazon insists on for distributing eBooks from independent publishers bears no relation at all to the cost of delivering that service.”

A free market and real competition would squeeze out excessive margins wherever they might be found in the supply chain from author to book consumer. So far we have not had anything like a free and competitive market for eBooks. On this issue, however, there is some very good news on the horizon. Microsoft’s investment in Barnes & Noble’s eBook programs is very welcome. Two other eBook programs, which look to be robust and publisher friendly, are well in the works. Of course for the reasons explained in point one above, I can’t tell you a thing about them.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content

The current controversy about the state of the eBook industry has been unproductive for a number of reasons. Much of the information out there on the blogs is just wrong—which should not come as a surprise because the book business is complicated. What’s surprising is the sour tone of so many of the comments on such blogs. A common theme among them being that “somebody is making a lot of money out of books but I’m not.”

In addition, almost no one outside the industry seems to have any grip at all on the editorial process. How many different editors does it take to make a good book? This sounds like a bad joke about replacing light bulbs, but the answer, if you are talking about a professionally produced book, is four to seven: an acquisition editor, a substantive editor, a line editor, a copy editor, a production editor, a proofreader, an indexer, and often a lawyer to check the text for libel. Sometimes a single person can perform a number of these editorial functions, but each one requires a distinctive mindset.

There is also an insidious source of confusion and misinformation arising from people who hope to benefit financially from the intentional muddling of essential distinctions.

Let’s take a hard look at the phrase “digital content.” Do eBooks have digital content? Many people—people who are in the business of selling digital everything and who proclaim from the rooftops that everything non-digital is a dead duck—would like you to think so. It makes it easier for them to make money. But the idea that eBooks have digital content is very misleading. The content of eBooks is language, language which has been digitized. Likewise the content of the books Gutenberg printed was language set in type. These are just two different ways to make language hold still so you can read it.

The confusion about the supposed digital content of eBooks is important because it fits perfectly into the favorite transformation narrative of the “digital changes everything” cheering section: if eBook content really is digital, publishers could and should wake up from their long but highly profitable analog slumber, and allow the digital revolution to sweep away their antiquated methods of making books. When this happens, the books will be just as good but much cheaper.

But what authors and editors must do now to produce good content is exactly the same thing they have always done. Every book and every edit is a one-off, custom proposition. What authors and editors produce is no more digital than the folk-art wooden rooster a farmer might carve to decorate his weather vane. Of course word processing software has made working with texts more convenient, but these gains in efficiency were achieved a decade ago. Yes, there are some new programs that make the conversion of texts to eBooks quicker and easier, but this conversion cost has always been trivial.

If the content of eBooks was actually in some deep sense digital, the text could be written by a writing program and edited by an editing program. But they can’t be. I knew a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop back in the sixties who was trying to generate short stories out of a computer program. They were just as awful as you would imagine. I sometimes try to write a poem. The best way to know if you have come up with a good line is to check Microsoft’s opinion. Lines that could work as poetry will certainly flunk the simple-minded Grammar Checker that comes with Word.

So the cost of the content of eBooks cannot be reduced much because the making of it is deeply artisanal in nature. Since content is in no deep sense digital, producing it at a high level cannot be automated, which is where important cost savings could have been achieved if any were possible.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG and Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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