The Shatzkin Files

Baker & Taylor has the next big thing in ebooks. Really!

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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.

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  • This sounds rather like what Google offers publishers Mike. With the exception of TTV capabilities, which I imagine they could add with relative ease.

    What's more they only take 37% of the sale!

    Am I missing something?

    • Yes, Eoin, a lot.

      I checked with Google. They're not offering any enhancement tools. This
      isn't just TTV; it is adding any links you want. Embedding video.
      Redesigning the look and feel. I think they're offering a lot more
      flexibility to enhance the books than Google will (although the actual proof
      of that will be when both products are in the marketplace.


      • Okay,

        I think I see it now.
        Though I'm not sold yet and you are spot on about how the market will be the judge!

  • Ooh. I'm really looking forward to their presentation at Digital Book World, although if it's as awesome as you say, sounds like I want to get my titles into their system ASAP and not wait until January. Are they approaching publishers or can publishers approach them?

    • Cecilia, they are approaching publishers but I don't know why a publisher
      couldn't approach them. Call Rachel Dicker at Baker & Taylor.


      • Thanks for the heads up! Will do that.

  • Jon Page

    I have seen the demo and is the best e-reader software I have seen. A big leap forward. Blows all black & white e-readers away!

    • Thanks for saying so, Jon. I know I wasn't the first person to see this:
      lots of publishers had committed lots of titles before it came to my office.
      I was a bit amazed that I hadn't heard anything from anybody about it; they
      never asked me for an NDA so I assume they didn't ask others as well. I just
      concluded that a lot of people didn't appreciate the possibilities it
      presented (although it was also conceivable that I was just wrong and was
      seeing something that wasn't there; which is why I'm glad to be supported in
      my opinion!)


    • Troy Johnson

      Problem with using something with a color screen is the power it draws. I have a Kindle and an iPod Touch. If I ever do extended reading I have to use the Kindle because the battery on my iPod Touch does not give enough time. eInk conserves power and that is a huge feature.

      • You're right about that, Troy. It was my biggest concern when I started
        reading on the iPhone rather than the Kindle. So far I've found it possible
        to keep my iPhone charged sufficiently to make it work, but there's no
        question that you've put your finger on the big value of e-ink for long-form


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  • eugenia

    cool this sounds like the leap so many have been waiting for. Ebooks will only really fully break out when any gadget can read any ebook.
    I also love the BGI/B&T v B&N/Ingram comp

    • Thanks, Eugenia. It's always nice to get a shout-out from people who really
      know the trade from working in it!


  • leeemory

    Wow! This sounds like something I'd truly like to check into for my publishing company. I just might be attending that show in Vegas. It's not that far from Arizona.

    Lee Emory
    Treble Heart Books Publishing.

    • Lee, that show in Las Vegas is a mammoth show for technology but not so much
      for publishing. Kurzweil and his team will be presenting the tech there, but
      the emphasis may be more on the aspects that help the blind than on the
      commercial application for publishers.


      • leeemory

        Thank you, Mike, but as a publisher who distributes books through Baker &
        Taylor, why would this not be of interest? If BT is coming out
        with something new, I'd like to hear what's going on. I'm not expecting it
        to be about publishing, but they have come up with a new device,
        isn't that what your information is saying?

        Warmest regards,
        Ms. Lee Emory

  • I just watched the demo. Honestly, I wasn't impressed. The UI looks clunky and dated to me. Maybe it's because I just watched the Sports Illustrated Tablet demo and was blown away.

    One thing is for sure: this space is REALLY getting interesting.

    • Thanks for the response, Mike, even if we disagree. UI disappointment aside,
      have you seen a faster and easier way to get your illustrated content into
      distributable ebooks, particularly with the ability to enhance? That is:
      don't you see opportunities here that no other platform currently gives you?


      • Yes, definitely. The challenge for us as a publisher is how to allocate our resources. We are seeing so many formats now. We have to make sure that we are betting on the ones that have the best chance of succeeding. We will no doubt make some wrong bets; we just can't afford to make too many.

        We are living in exciting times. I best thing to me is that I believe we will see more people engaged in reading than ever before.

        Thanks for your comments.

    • paulgodard

      We have just published a new children book 'Enya & james In The Land Of Magic' in South Africa. As this book has an international appeal, I want to convert it to an eBook. This book is interactive Unfortunately I have not found the best way to convert that interactive photographic book into an amazing eBook working on computers and small devices as well. Is this the solution? Where can I know more about how to create an eBook for that reader?

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  • I'm so glad I was on Facebook to cacth this information. I look forward to it.

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  • eReader

    How is this different than Adobe Reader?
    PDF format already can include multimedia (Flash content like youTube videos).

    • Check out Blio on line and you'll see: tools to work with, additional
      functionality, and multiple device clients. You can't do on Adobe Reader
      what you can do on here.


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  • Thanks for information, I'll always keep updated here!