In three prior posts, we’ve explored the initial conversation that surrounded the announcement that Sourcebooks would delay the ebook release of Bran Hambric; sketched out what we think are the four stages of ebook adoption; and looked at how publishers see the early “establishment” stage, which is where we are now.
This post is about the other stakeholders: authors, retailers, distributors, and, of course, readers.
In the “vision” stage of ebook adoption, which ended with the launch of the Kindle in November 2007, authors were virtually powerless. With ebook sales even for established books struggling to make triple digits, publishers were gunshy about accepting digitization costs for books other than the biggest sellers and it hardly made sense for authors to make the investment on their own. With the exception of genre fiction, particularly romance and sci-fi, where vertical audiences were able to cluster early, the ebook world was inhospitable to the author working on her (or his) own.
That has changed dramatically. Today Amazon Kindle as well as web services Scribd and Smashwords make it easy for an author to upload a pdf or doc file and publish an ebook. While Amazon appears to be paying authors only about 35% of the selling price to access its army of device users, Scribd (80%) and Smashwords (85%) pay much more. Barnes & Noble’s ebook announcement yesterday didn’t mention author-generated ebook content, but with their goal being clearly to offer as many titles as they can, one must assume they’ll figure out a way to get at it too. So there is a clear path to the public developing for anybody with ebookable content; the challenge will be driving audiences to the content.
At each end of the bell curve, the publisher doesn’t contribute much to that equation. Small books and unknown authors often get little or no support from a publisher; big books and big authors often don’t need help to alert the public to their content. So after several years of publishers driving down ebook royalties to the current Major League standards of 15% of retail or 25% of net, we can expect to see the pendulum swing back to the author. Big authors will negotiate far higher ebook royalty rates; small authors will turn down small advances in favor of self-publishing as the ebook market grows (and the physical books, remember, can be delivered through a variety of POD self-publishing options.)
The biggest book retailers basically stayed out of the ebook game during the vision stage. Both Barnes & Noble and Amazon made a pass at the ebook business, but gave up on it pretty quickly (although Amazon first bought the Mobipocket format, which became the foundation for the Kindle software.) That made sense; there was too small a market early in this decade to occupy the attention of corporations doing billions in sales on printed books.
There were other complications which ultimately left ebook retailing to the smaller players. Early in the vision stage, the two big formats for handhelds were Palm, which displayed on Palm Pilots, and Microsoft’s dot lit, which displayed on handhelds that used the Windows operating system. Adobe Reader software, which was installed on PCs, began back then and has been used continuously to this day. Early in the decade, Palm’s model was to keep control of the sale of Palm ebooks, first through “Peanut Press” and then through the “Palm Digital” store. That meant no other ebook retailer could sell Palm books. When Palm became, by far, the preferred format for handheld ebook reading, they left the general ebook retailers, including B&N, without access to the heaviest users of ebooks on devices.
Mobipocket was created as a cross-platform ebook reader that would work on both Windows and Palm software. The first indication that Amazon would look for a path to ebook hegemony was when they bought Mobipocket in 2005 (they bought BookSurge, the print-on-demand capability, at about the same time.) But even though Mobi ebooks would play on multiple platforms, the market was apparently too small to interest Amazon.
The Palm Digital store became Ereader in 2007 and the Ereader platform, just bought by Barnes & Noble, will work on almost all devices (except Kindle and Sony Reader) now. In the final years of the vision stage, before Kindle, ebooks were sold by independent bookstores (Powells being the most successful) and dedicated ebooksellers like Diesel ebooks. Discounts off publishers’ established prices were only offered in targeted and time-limited promotions and seldom offered even as much as 10% reductions. The stores were “powered” primarily by Ingram Digital, which replicates its print-world role as a digital wholesaler. Competing with Ingram was an upstart company in Cleveland called OverDrive, whose wholesaling operation is called Content Reserve. Content Reserve became the primary supplier of ebooks to libraries.
When Sony Reader came on the scene in September 2006, publishers had four formats to convert their ebooks to: Palm, Microsoft dot lit, Adobe, and Sony. Adobe, which played on PCs, was at that time by far the market leader in titles available and sales. But publishers, still seeing very little market, would not necessarily convert each ebook into all formats. At a time when Adobe had over 100,000 titles available, there were perhaps 40,000 on Palm and fewer than that on Microsoft or Sony.
Amazon’s arrival with the Kindle changed everything: title availability jumped, prices were slashed, delivery was vastly simplified, and the biggest online book-buying audience in the world was constantly pushed to think about ebook reading. That signaled the shift from the vision stage to the establishment stage.
Another critical development that enabled the movement from the vision stage to establishment was the development of the epub format by the International Digital Publishing Forum, the ebook trade association, facilitating use of ebook content across platforms.
Now in the establishment stage, the big book retailers — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Canada’s Indigo — are in, competing in every possible way: price, selection, and merchandising. B&N and Indigo are trying to appeal to ebook readers regardless of the device they want to use. Amazon has suggested they’ll go that way, but so far are only pushing the Kindle format for Kindle or iPhone. Prices at Amazon and at B&N are clearly being subsidized in pursuit of a larger customer base. That is going to make things very difficult for the independents or any new entrants to make a go of ebook retailing.
As we proceed in the establishment stage, we can expect publishers to start selling digital downloads and we can expect most web sites to offer vertically-curated offerings. The big horizontal aggregators will thrive for the next few years as the market grows, but the verticalization of consumer attention will eventually chip away at their sales.
The distributors are, or have been, Ingram and Content Reserve. (I say “have been” because Barnes & Noble’s just-announced deal to power the Plastic Logic content offering positions them as a competitor to Ingram as a digital wholesaler, although there is no suggestion as to how far they want to go and, as of now, several days after the announcement, nobody else to my knowledge has raised this point.) CR has recently done a deal to provide service through Ingram’s print-world competitor, Baker & Taylor. The subsidized discounting taking place at Amazon and B&N is going to make it very difficult for the distributors’ horizontal customers. Ingram may recognize this problem as being similar to what they faced when they tried to launch ebook wholesaling the first time in the late 1990s and Amazon responded with deep discounting.
The distributors have to find new opportunities through web sites that don’t think of themselves as content-centric or content-sellers now (they’re communities.) The trick will be to curate the set of offerings in a very granular way, but there is a marketplace that will develop there that will be served by aggregators.
For ebook readers, it is definitely the best of times, so far. Because of the epub standard developed by the IDPF, most ebooks can be offered for use on multiple devices without high conversion costs (which, in any case, are easier to bear now that there are real sales.) More and more titles are available and, despite the Sourcebooks experiment that triggered this series of posts, we are moving to a standard of ebook release when the book first comes out. I believe we’ll start to see ebook releases ahead of the book before long. The competitors have prices of the content to the consumer plunging. The choice of devices is proliferating and, of course, that means the devices will cost less in the future too. The deployment of smartphones that can also be used as book readers continues to increase. The pieces are in place for evolution to turn to revolution and, when it has, a few years from now, we will move from the establishment stage to “transition”. That’s when the printed-book world as we have known it for about the last century will change into something completely different.
Due to a little programming change we did, I haven’t been alerted to comments and I haven’t been answering them for a little while. I will clean this up on Friday (and then this message will disappear…)