We’re about to see the Next Big Thing in ebooks next month and it’s coming from Baker & Taylor. Baker & Taylor?
For the past ten years, Baker & Taylor in relation to Ingram has looked remarkably similar to Borders in relation to Barnes & Noble. Ingram and B&N are family-owned companies (although B&N has the very significant complication of being publicly traded which, with Ron Burkle as a publicly disaffected shareholder, has been well-reported lately) while B&T and Borders are highly leveraged and controlled by private equity. Ingram and B&N with their long-view management styles have made significant infrastructure investments that the always-looking-for-an-exit B&T and Borders ownerships haven’t matched. Ingram built a great supply chain support structure and digital capabilities and B&N built a well-oiled, customized-to-their-needs internal supply chain. And B&T and Borders have made publishers’ credit managers bite their nails while B&N and Ingram are financially solid.
Over the past couple of years, Baker & Taylor has been cobbling together a team of third party vendors attempting to match the service offering Ingram has bought and built internally. To compete with Ingram Digital’s content conversion and digital repository offering, B&T teamed with LibreDigital. To match Ingram’s ability to set up retailers to sell ebooks, B&T created a partnership with OverDrive’s Content Reserve. And to create a print-on-demand capability like Ingram’s Lightning Print, B&T teamed up with Donnelley, which put a machine in B&T’s Momence warehouse.
All of this made sense to me, but it didn’t add up to B&T presenting any serious challenge to Ingram. But they’ve now developed something that might not only give Ingram food for thought but might have them scratching their heads at Amazon and Google and Apple, as well as ScrollMotion and Vook and anybody else thinking about enhanced ebooks.
On January 7 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, K-NFB will unveil a new “reading technology.” We in the book business will get to know it as a proprietary ebook platform from Baker & Taylor that has capabilities nothing presented previously can match. The platform is called Blio and creator K-NFB is a partnership of tech visionary Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind.
Blio is a software client that can work on “any device with an operating system”, which means computers and iPhones, but not Kindles. Based only on the demo we saw from Baker & Taylor Senior VP Linda Gagnon last week (of course I’d rather be reporting on something I saw on my own computer or iPhone), the presentation is the best I’ve ever seen. The type is crisp and sharp, it has full multiple-media functionality (video, graphics, TTV, links to the web), and it does tricks, my favorite of which is that you can see (on a PC screen) many pages at a time dealt out like a deck of cards. Then you find the ones you want and hone in on them. There are many ways to use that capability, particularly for an illustrated how-to book or a textbook.
The deal B&T is offering the publishing community is pretty compelling. Publishers deliver PDFs, which B&T converts for free to the new format. The publishers get the ebook back with a tool kit that enables totally intuitive functionality that will change styles and layouts, embed links or video or audio and set up the TTV capabilities. If there is a recorded audio of the same text, the toolkit will synch it to the ebook automatically. And users can take notes, or mark up text with yellow (or other color) highlighting.
The setup and tool kit for the publishers is without cost; Baker & Taylor plans to make its money on the transactions. They’re “wholesaling”, on whatever the established terms are with that publisher. B&T will also host and provide ecommerce support to bookstores and publishers who sell direct. There are potential devils in those details but, to start, it is obviously hard for any publisher to resist incremental revenue for no setup cost.
So it is not surprising that Gagnon says B&T has 180,000 titles already committed to Blio, at least 50,000 of which will be available at launch.
If the ebook rendering and toolkit put to shame everything that has been done so far (and they do), the same is true of the retailing presentation. The virtual books look look like physical books on a shelf. They have spines. You click on one and pull it down, rotate it, open it, and flip through the pages. Unless you’re on a PC and want to look at 50 pages at once, that is.
If what I saw on Gagnon’s computer is matched in the actual platform launch, I’ll be shopping and reading on this platform on my iPhone starting immediately. But what is even more intriguing is what publishers — and authors — are going to do with the toolkit.
We’ll assume the Baker & Taylor K-NFB platform works as well in distribution as it worked in the demo I saw this week; then we’re about to see an even richer and more complex ebook world in 2010. We know Google Editions is arriving in the first half of the year. We know the bookseller owners of Kindle and Nook are now engaging every serious book reader in the conversation about reading on devices. We know that the iPhone is a book platform that works for many people, and we know that Android-system phones will be too.
B&T’s Blio system is raising the bar for all of them by combining simple authoring tools with a delivery platform that enables enhanced editions. It won’t take long before many books, and, one would assume, all books that have large audiences will be available in something far more interesting than just a digital rendering of what appeared in print. It will create enormous new opportunities for many of the players, particularly authors, publishers, and the retailers without the scale to push their own devices. And it will put a lot of pressure on all the existing players to take their game up to the next level.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should reveal that over the years both Ingram and Barnes & Noble have from time to time been clients of The Idea Logical Company; Baker & Taylor and Borders never have.
And, of course, we’ve booked Baker & Taylor to talk about Blio at Digital Book World. They’ll appear on the schedule shortly.