E-books may now outsell mass market paperbacks, but successfully selling digital editions of novels and other text-centric titles is only the first phase of a profound transformation of all segments of the traditional book publishing business.
The immediate challenges in realizing the opportunities of e-books are many: navigating among the retail titans, placing your assets in the right hands and into the right channels, using Big Data effectively to optimize reach and revenue, and engaging directly with readers and building community. But we are poised for even more dramatic change as entirely new kinds of digital book reading experiences are enabled by the shift to tablets and smartphones, via HTML5 and ePub 3. As the worlds of apps, browsers, and e-books collide, and a new generation of digital natives emerges, a total transformation of education and reading is imminent.
To succeed, publishers, authors, and other participants in the book industry clearly need to steer through the near-term tactical issues of today’s ecosystem. But it’s also critical to develop a longer-term strategy to exploit the next phase of the digital transformation. William James said “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood,” and in digital publishing tomorrow is coming fast, and many of yesterday’s truisms are fast becoming misleading myths. Here are seven of the most dangerous of these “true lies” of conventional wisdom.
Myth #1: E-books Only Work for Novels and Linear Texts
The multi-billion-dollar U.S. e-book market has been driven by sales of novels and other plain-text titles. Sales of highly-designed illustrated and enhanced digital books have, by contrast, remained low. And costs to develop such illustrated and enhanced titles have been prohibitively high, particularly given lower sales volumes. Conclusion: e-books are only viable, at scale, for digital editions of novels and linear non-fiction.
But sales of dedicated e-readers using E Ink technology are plummeting, while digital readers are rapidly migrating to tablets and large-screen smartphones. E Ink devices, with slow black-and-white displays, were really only suited to plain text. But as the digital reading platform shifts from dedicated devices to tablets, all types of content—color illustrations, videos, interactivity—are becoming viable. And as support for the latest HTML5-based ePub 3 standard proliferates in authoring tools and reading systems, the costs of developing and distributing fixed-layout illustrated and enhanced content are dropping. Best practices for creating and structuring this content are emerging. And most of all, global competition is driving exponential innovation in tablets and smartphones. In two years, tablets as good as today’s iPads will cost $69, while high-end tablets and smartphones will be almost unimaginably improved.
Myth #2: Digital Reading Is a Solitary, Disconnected Experience (Like Reading a Print Book)
E-readers were, for the most part, not fully connected devices, so reading was a largely solitary use of stand-alone artifacts (with analytics jealously guarded by reading system vendors).
But on tablets and smartphones, your readers are always one click away from the world. This implies very different expectations about connectivity and social integration of reading. This further implies new opportunities and trials for publishers and authors in engaging more directly with connected readers.
Myth #3: E-books, Apps and Web Sites Are Fundamentally Different Things
There is an ongoing debate about whether to deliver titles as e-books, apps, or Web sites. Until now these channels have required significantly different approaches to content development, content management, and distribution. While all three may represent valid business opportunities for monetizing premium content, publishers generally can’t afford to reauthor digital content for many different platforms, so have had to make tough choices between these options.
But now the Web platform—HTML5 and related standards—is evolving beyond Web sites viewed in browsers and becoming universal. The latest version of ePub, ePub 3, is built on HTML5, and increasingly, native mobile/tablet apps are built with Web technologies under the hood. So publishers can structure content, from simple text to high-design interactive content—to be delivered via ePub 3 as stand-alone e-books, readily deployed via Web sites to browsers, and where appropriate wrapped into native apps. And in an increasingly connected world, the boundaries between e-books, apps, and Web sites will only further blur.
Myth #4: EPub 3 Isn’t Ready
EPub 3 was rolled out as a standards specification in late 2011, promising support for rich interactive content and tighter integration of e-book standards with the full Web platform. Eighteen months later, while many reading systems support ePub 3, several prominent reading systems still support only the older ePub 2 standard. And even the vendors that do already support ePub 3 don’t support 100% of its features. How can publishers use a standard if it’s not uniformly supported across the industry?
There are two parts to resolving this dilemma. First, publishers can deploy ePub 3 content today that has enhancements that work on ePub 3 reading systems, but the content is also fully usable on ePub 2 reading systems or ePub 3 reading systems that lack some features. Every O’Reilly Media title published in 2013 is ePub 3, and in a Web post, the O’Reilly team explains how to structure content that is future-proofed as well as backwards-compatible. Secondly, realizing the need to “raise the bar” of full ePub 3 support ASAP, more than two dozen vendors and publishers have banded together to collaborate on an open-source ePub 3 implementation, forming last March the new Readium Foundation (for more on Readium, see p. 20).
Myth #5: DRM Is About Reducing Piracy
DRM (copy protection) is often marketed as an antipiracy technology. Tor, the first major English-language publisher to experiment with DRM-free content, recently announced that after a year of selling e-books without copy protection, piracy had not increased. In fact, DRM is not about limiting piracy, as is well-known by savvy publishers; it’s about limiting oversharing.
Ursula Mackenzie, Little, Brown U.K. CEO and U.K. Publishers Association president, was very direct about this when she told The Bookseller last year: “We are fully aware that DRM does not inhibit determined pirates or even those who are sufficiently sophisticated to download DRM removal software. The central point is that we are in favor of DRM because it inhibits file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors.”
A key implication of the growing realization that DRM has nothing to do with reducing piracy is that lighter-weight forms of DRM—including watermarking and other “social” approaches that don’t technologically bar sharing—are more attractive than a quixotic arms race to deploy more and more sophisticated technologies that will only frustrate consumers and lead to them being locked in to proprietary platforms.
Myth #6: Authors Don’t Need Publishers
A number of individuals have found success selling e-books on a self-published basis, i.e., without a traditional publisher contract. Many are “hybrid” authors who in the past, present, or future had, have, or will have a publisher contract. This has led some to argue that, in the digital world, publishers are a superfluous intermediary.
Clearly self-publishing is here to stay, and publishers need to focus on where they add compelling value; publishers can no longer count on being privileged gatekeepers, and the ability to get books on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar bookstores is less and less critical. And the imperative to “bankroll” print runs is also fading. But most titles are really collaborations between authors and publishers, with only a small minority of authors able to act as editors, art designers, typographers, marketers, etc. As illustrated and enhanced titles mutate in the tablet-powered digital world, content will become even more complex and collaboratively authored, with the publisher/editor role becoming akin to that of a “producer” of a video game or mobile app. And in a connected world, segment-specific publishers will be a natural focus for community-building that will typically (although not universally) transcend the “platforms” of individual authors while being narrower than e-retailer storefronts. Overall, in the new digital world the role of the publisher may end up larger than ever.
Myth #7: The Monopolists Have Won
In the U.S. and several other countries, one e-retailer represents a substantial majority of e-book sales. And because that vendor deploys content in a closed, proprietary format, consumers are locked in to that vendor’s systems. Sometimes it feels like it’s already game over, and that we are all about to be assimilated into the Borg, or at best be subject to an oligopoly of a handful of proprietary vendors. But we need to remember that market leadership is often fleeting, especially during disruptive transitions, and that we are in many ways only beginning the real transition from print to digital. There was a time when AOL’s domination of Internet access and online content seemed equally inevitable, but in hindsight the AOL era was only part of the prehistory of the Internet.
Changing factors in the e-book market tend to favor a more open ecosystem. First, the migration of digital reading from dedicated devices to multi-purpose tablets and smartphones inherently weakens the ability of any one company to control content usage. Secondly, publishers and authors can use connected devices to directly engage with, and distribute to, readers, reducing the need for an e-retail intermediary. Lastly, the Open Web Platform—with HTML5 and ePub 3—is becoming the universal content architecture. With a level playing field for content standards, no one company will end up controlling the content format standard.
Conclusion: It’s Game On, Not Game Over
The next phase of the disruptive digital transformation of the book business will bring risks and threats as well as openings. But we can take comfort from the fact that in the first phase of consumer adoption, as e-books have achieved scale as a multibillion-dollar business, by and large, publishers and authors have continued to thrive. By charting a strategic course based on emerging truths, not yesterday’s realities that are already becoming dangerous myths, publishing industry participants can continue to thrive now and into the future.