The Shatzkin Files


Three new ebook platforms nearing their debut


A year ago — even six months ago — it seemed like Amazon and its Kindle device had an insurmountable advantage in the ebook device and platform competition. Despite our admonition that Amazon’s dominance of ebooks was much more fragile than their dominance in online print bookselling, even we were impressed and sometimes daunted by the enormous percentage of ebook sales that were being made through the Kindle ecosystem.

Then Barnes & Noble introduced the Nook through their 700 stores last December and Apple brought the iPad to market in April. Nearly overnight, it seems, Amazon has gone from the dominant player to the leading player with a share that was often in the 80s for many titles having fallen to the 50s.

Three entirely new ebook platforms are now poised to make their debut. Each of them has an angle, or a USP, that the others don’t and that the vendors, devices, and platforms that preceded them — notably Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, and Sony — don’t. The three new platforms are Google Editions, Blio, and Copia.

Google’s special proposition is ubiquity; Blio’s special proposition is enhanced feature sets; and Copia’s special proposition is building social networking right into the content consumption platform.

The new entrant that is subject to the greatest anticipation, of course, is Google Editions. Whenever they go live (which they say they “hope” will be sometime this summer, which has another 6 weeks or so to run), they are likely to be offering the largest selection of ebooks from any single source. Google has a staggering number — millions — of public domain books but they will also have professional and scientific books not published on most of the prior ebook platforms. Their well-promoted proposition is their cloud model, which will allow their ebooks to be read on any device that can support a browser.

Google is also offering a wholesaling service to enable any bookstore or any web site to sell their ebooks. (What that means, of course, is that their “largest single source” claim could be usurped by their own resellers, who might have added other titles from other places.) Their arrival adds another option for potential ebook sellers who had previously been served by Ingram’s wholesaling operation or their competitor, Content Reserve, which has also reached the book trade through Baker & Taylor.

Google is working the OEM channel as well and not limiting themselves to Android-powered devices in doing so. They’ll have apps available in multiple marketplaces, including Apple. And they are offering to power sales on publishers’ own sites. We’ve seen no announcement of publishers who have accepted this proposition, but it would seem likely that some, particularly smaller ones, will find it attractive.

Baker & Taylor has been developing its own ebook platform, Blio, in concert with futurist Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind. We were first shown Blio last December and were really impressed with its crisp presentation of integrated text-and-pictures pages. They showed us a tool kit that made it pretty easy for publishers to enhance their print books for electronic delivery with sound and video, and even to fiddle with the design in the Blio platform. Because of Blio’s roots as a tool to bring reading to the sight-impaired, the ability to adjust font sizes, a capability which all ebooks offer, had to be integrated into their delivery of complex page layouts.

We have been expecting Blio’s debut in the market for some time, and we’ve been expecting to see many highly-illustrated books, like college texts, that have not previously been in the offerings of Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. Highly illustrated books would work fine on the iPad, of course, but they were not a priority for initial inclusion for iBooks (the dedicated Apple ebookstore) and they were not what publishers would put into the eink-reader platforms that didn’t handle that material well.

Blio has announced that it will power the store Toshiba is creating to support its tablet release. Since that is expected in the next month or so, Toshiba’s offering of Blio titles will probably be their debut in the marketplace.

The tool set for Blio was what really captivated us when we saw it last December. When we saw it at the time, Blio was delivering a Blio-ready ebook from the publishers’ print PDF, and then, within Blio, the publisher could enhance the ebook. At the Untethered conference in June, Blio announced a partnership with Quark by which Blio files could be created directly from Quark. Blio says they expect the Quark release to be in beta later this Fall. Blio plans to integrate its tools into other creation software in the months to follow.

Blio introduces another format into the ebook world: rather than epub or PDF, they are using Microsoft’s XPS platform. Right now, Blio itself is handling the conversion of titles from either PDF or epub into XPS, but the Quark arrangement and the others that will take place will allow publishers to deliver XPS-ready files to Blio, cutting past the conversion queue that now exists.

The open questions have been: when will Blio arrive and what will be the retailing environment for it when it arrives? They say they have 200,000 titles committed to their platform. (They can’t just pick up the ebooks of others; they’re not vanilla epub.) The Toshiba store won’t contain them all because titles are coming in faster than the conversion process can ramp up. Blio, like Google and Copia, expects lots of OEM installation. They project that Blio could be on more than 50 million devices by the end of 2011 and that they will be working with “traditional retail partners” in 2011 as well.

Copia made a splash last week when they announced their line of ereaders, including a larger-than-a-phone-screen color model which will be $99 when it comes out in September. Since Copia is a creation of DMC, and DMC is historically a hardware company, using their own hardware to launch the platform makes great sense. But OEM relationships, and an ability to deliver their platform to any device through client apps as well as through web browsers, are part of the strategy too.

The Copia platform’s unique proposition is that they combine social networking right into the platform in which content purchasing and consumption take place. Amazon’s announcement of an integration with Facebook moves them in a similar direction, but Copia would seem to be going much further than Amazon: enabling the sharing of the content consumption experience itself among friends or a personal network. This could be critical for reading groups, areas of common (vertical) interest, or for educational applications. Inside the Copia network, users can readily share their notes and annotations. And to make it easy for people to get started on their platform, Copia enables the import of existing contacts from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Other ebook platforms have demonstrated the power of syncing the reading experience across platforms; you can pick up your book on one device and it will tell you where you left off on the last device. Copia takes that a step further, syncing the social experience, including the sharing of notes and recommendations as well as the reading itself, across all the devices you want: smartphones, tablets, computers, or ereaders. We saw this demonstrated on their forthcoming iPad app.

What also impressed us about the last Copia demo we saw is that they have apparently licked the problem of allowing an epub file using Adobe DRM to move painlessly into their platform, regardless of from what ebook store it was purchased.

In addition to the hardware plans they revealed last week, Copia has also announced that they will be a launch partner for Windows Phone 7, the mobile operating system Microsoft is putting forth to compete with iPhone and Android. [Maybe we know a bit more about Copia than others do because they are our client, but like all the players in this very competitive market, they're not tipping their cards before they play their hand any more than their competitors. Even to us.]

All three of these operating systems come from substantial players. Blio is being delivered by one of the two book wholesalers in America with true national and international reach and relationships with every publisher in the country. Copia is being delivered by a company with long hardware development experience and a long history of partnership with consumer electronics retailers and phone companies. And Google Editions, of course, is coming from a tech company that has had deep involvement with virtually every book publisher in the world as it has developed Google Book Search over the last seven years.

Of all the current players, Sony would seem to be the most challenged. They have the weakest device, the weakest store, and the weakest strategic position with the industry and with the public. All of the rest either have something important and unique for the developing ebook marketplace and, in many cases, they also have an outside proposition that will keep them in the ebook game regardless of how well they do in it. Whether Google’s ebooks sell 10% of their projections or 10 times their projections, they won’t be going away. Same with Apple. Same with Amazon. So I think we can expect a multi-player ebook market, with some incompatible formats and a lot of incompatible DRM for some years to come. And the players currently in the game can expect their sales to go up but their market share to go down when the three new entrants join the fray this fall. That much seems certain, but very little else does.

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  • http://www.robertburtonrobinson.com Robert Burton Robinson

    It is difficult for me, as a self-published fiction writer, to get excited about any new ebook platform that does not put self-published books on an equal footing with NY publishers' books.

    Amazon gives my ebooks the same chance of attaining a #1 rank as the latest one by John Grisham. All four books of my Greg Tenorly suspense series are currently ranked in the top 10 for “suspense series,” for example.

    For a while last week, one of my books was ranked at #69 in the Romantic Suspense category—right up there with several J.D. Robb books.

    These things never happen for my ebooks on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or Sony. And I'm afraid it wouldn't happen on these new platforms either.

    Barnes & Noble is about to start up their new PubIt! system. I hope that when they do, they will also make their ranking system fairer as well.

    Hopefully other platforms will eventually learn from Amazon.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      The merchandising element of these platforms is one of the great loose ends.
      And it is very challenging to put self-published authors, who are incredibly
      numerous, on “equal footing with John Grisham.” If Amazon actually manages
      that, congratulations to them.

      I think it will be some time, though, before *most people *(who are more
      even numerous than self-published authors) will make this distinction an
      important one in their shopping choices.

      Mike

      • http://www.robertburtonrobinson.com Robert Burton Robinson

        Mike, all I'm saying is that if a self-published author's book is selling 50 copies a day, for example, and John Grisham's book is selling 50 copies a day, and the ranking system is purely based on sales, then why shouldn't these two books have similar rank.

        If the customer wants to sort based on reviews or price or whatever, they can do that too. But why slant the sales rank in favor of well known authors? If a customer wants to see what books are selling best, then give them exactly that.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        I didn't know anybody did. I can't disagree with what you're saying!

        Mike

    • http://www.TheCopia.com Sol Rosenberg

      Robert,

      You will be thrilled to see Copia's offers for self-published authors. We have a unique way for you to showcase all your titles, communicate/discuss with fans/readers and have your own area from which to sell if you so choose.

      Our goal is to help you maximize sales (and word-of-mouth recommendations and conversations leading to sales).

      Sol

      • http://www.robertburtonrobinson.com Robert Burton Robinson

        Sol,

        Sounds interesting. I'll check it out.

        Thanks,
        Robert

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  • http://www.directebooks.com/ Gareth Cuddy

    “So I think we can expect a multi-player ebook market, with some incompatible formats and a lot of incompatible DRM for some years to come.”

    Unfortunately I think your right Mike. What the industry ideally needs is a limited number of formats (2/3) with a simple effective DRM system. The more big players that come into the market with their own agendas the less that looks likely.
    I feel that this fragmentation is a real threat to the overall growth of the eBook market. However, at least we wont end up having an itunes type monopoly which is good for the consumer.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Diversity foster innovation and inventiveness. I am not sure that overall
      ebook takeup is restrained by the confusion.

      Mike

  • Patrick

    Totally believe in Adobe Content Server 4 for DRM and firstyfish.com for eBook sales. The eBooks are all ePub and work on all devices including apples (if the DRM is switched off). Publishers and authors are all welcome.

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  • JaneyR3567

    The discussion above as to Google ignores the “Elephant in the room.” Google has scanned and digitized over 12 million books WITHOUT permission of the rights owners. There is currently an ongoing collusive class action lawsuit involving the Authors Guild over Google's infringement and stated intention to publish these books. The big question is whether Google's publishing plans include infringement by selling copies — in violation of copyright — of millions of illegally-scanned books. And if so, does Google intend to indemnify the bookstore cohorts who will be conspirators in the biggest book infringement project in history?

    • me

      I agree, Janey. I think the issue is, most of us assume that somehow Google is going to make this work. IMHO, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a perfect example of a company/industry rewriting the laws after the fact because they decided the original law didn't suit their business model. That's what Google is trying to do, and I think most of us feel that sooner or later they'll succeed.

      It's funny to think that when the rights-holders are upset about losing revenue (music industry vs. customers) they get their way, but when the rights holders are upset about losing revenue (publishers and authors vs. Google) they seem likely to get left in the lurch. Who needs guns? Just send lawyers and money.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        I am not going to engage in a lengthy disputation about Google's behavior or
        the Google settlement. I wrote more words about it than it is worth more
        than a year ago. All I'll say here is that I don't subscribe to the
        characterizations by either of you.

        The only people who aren't getting to completely control their rights to
        anything Google has done are dead or totally out of touch. And, if they get
        back IN touch, they'll be able to reclaim control. The notion that Google is
        stealing anything of value from anybody who cares not to have it stolen is a
        fiction.

        I won't allow this post to become a launching pad for an off-topic
        Google-bashing thread. Any further comments along this line will be deleted.
        I got worn out on this issue many months ago. Since I don't have the
        patience to respond any further, and I don't want my blog used for the
        “other side” of this debate, that's my only choice.

        I do agree that Congress makes matters worse just about every time they have
        touched the copyright laws in my lifetime. That's part of why I don't buy
        one of the favorite rallying cries of the anti-settlement people: that the
        necessary changes in copyright law should be created by statute.

        Mike

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  • http://www.sportsebooks.com David Horne

    Hi Mike

    I am also anxiously awaiting for Google Editions to come out with their new model. I believe that until customers and readers can read their eBooks on any device they own that we will continue to have confusion ebout which ebooks can be read on what devices. Google's cloud could be a great solution but i will need to hear more from them before i can make judgement.

    One of the keys for Google if they want to gain market share from Amazon and Apple is to allow all online eBook stores, whether big or small, to be able to sell their eBooks. If these independent sites feel like they are making reasonable royalties from sales then may change from selling Amazons eBooks to Googles eBooks. After all, many of the sales from books and eBooks on Amazon come from their associates selling for them.

    Google needs to take a leaf from their own book with regards to how millions of websites use Adsense on their sites to make money. A similar model of allowing all these same sites to also sell eBooks will have an amazing effect on Google gaining ground.

    If Google can make the complexity of selling eBooks more simple for little niche website owners or online stores then watch out! Time will tell!
    David Horne

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      David, we are in complete agreement about the need for a real *service* to
      enable every web site to sell ebooks. I wrote on that subject pretty
      recently.

      And Google certainly has the DNA to do it. It will be very interesting to
      see what they come up with as tool sets for curation and merchandising.
      That's the key.

      Mike

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/UL3UDCP4FMROPO64OLKD33K4F4 Edward J. Renehan Jr.

    The enormous heft of those now dominating the installed base will of course pose a significant obstacle to late entries; but the eBook technology and business model are still so young that anything can happen. Innovation/competition will lead inevitably to the improvement of the whole, benefiting consumers as regards content, platforms and pricing. Onward and upward.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      You make a key point. As much as there are behemoths dominating the market
      in early days, most of the people who will be reading ebooks in 2014 haven't
      tried one yet. It's like an election poll where one candidate holds a big
      lead of the declared voters, but 75% are undecided. Everything is still very
      much up for grabs.

      Mike

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  • http://dustbowlpoetry.wordpress.com Shelley

    How do I know which would be best for my writing?

    Maybe a future post suggesting criteria.

    Because to me, this is a new world.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      In general, Shelley, a writer wants their writing (and a publisher wants its
      publications) sold through *all *platforms. So, no choice, except maybe what
      to do first.

      Mike

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  • Wahoo

    Standardization and cost breaks caused by mass production are the key to mass acceptance and use by the consumer. Format differences, no matter how intriguing or novel, are going to shake out because of market share.

    I am reminded of the format differences in video cameras and players between Sony Betamax and VHS when that technology first appeared. Sony tried the Apple business model (exclusivity, higher price, 'we're better') while the VHS platform was cheaper, franchised out to multiple companies, and quickly had more movies available. VHS format won out as its market share ramped up because consumers chose it over Betamax.

    If we have a lot of elephants in the room competing for the consumer's dollar, this will get bloody and smaller producers of exotic formats will simply get trampled or wind up as cultists over in a corner, sulking and shouting, “We're still better!”

    For the life of me I can't understand why industry giants can't agree on one format with open source capability for new tweaks and development.

    While innovation and invention may be the hallmark of the small producer/company, it seldom overtakes the behemoths who originate the technology and own the market unless a completely superior technology is developed. (R.I. P. 8 Track Tapes)

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      But a big component of the betamax-VHS battle was that people had to get the
      shrink-wrapped format, which *was* “manufactured.” That's not true with
      digital delivery. And the “open always triumphs” winning streak was broken
      the first time the standards battle was fought without the need for a
      shrink-wrapped product, when Apple kicked MP-3's butt around the corner in
      the early part of this century.

      Amazon and Apple are both big enough to sustain some proprietary aspects to
      what they're doing for a long time. Millions of people, many of them very
      heavy book consumers, are deeply invested in the Kindle format. Amazon
      believes they can keep selling them upgraded devices so they can keep access
      to their library. I think Amazon's right.

      In the very long run, we probably will settle down to a single interoperable
      format, or we'll have “translators” that make the format differences
      inconsequential. But I don't think we'll see that in the new few years.

      Mike

  • marytod

    Hi Mike – I read your latest post with pen in hand and the internet to help me browse various websites in an effort to understand how the ebook world is unfolding. I'm not sure if I've got it right, but I built a diagram to explore the trends. If you have time to take a look it's at http://onewritersvoice.com/2010/08/07/so-many-o

    I'm trying to look at the industry from a writer's point of view.
    Really enjoy your blog.

  • http://twitter.com/scribex Floyd Wray

    Blio seems to be aimed at right target — assuming they're actually going to come online at some point. I'm slightly tired of waiting.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Floyd, I understand your patience fatigue. Both Blio and Copia have kept us
      standing on one foot for a long time. I am pretty sure that both of them
      will arrive sometime soon, but news such as we got from Plastic Logic today,
      along with the long wait, does promote skepticism, I must admit.

      Mike

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