Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The iPodding of Books: Kindle is the Darling of BookExpo, but the Industry is Nervous

This year's BookExpo America in Los Angeles featured much of the usual multi-story ballyhoo of years past, with a thinner crowd and thinning expectations for the book industry in general, though with a few bright exceptions. One of these exceptions has been Amazon's Kindle eBook reader, which has become the Pet Rock of the 2008 book industry. Still inscrutable in terms of its limitations (no PDFs, no general Web content) and as awkward as ever, the Kindle is the darling of book-readers on the go who can't afford the space, time or trouble of loading multiple books in their overnight bags and pocketbooks (and yes, one of them might be me when I break my el-cheapo mental barriers).

It's also becoming the darling of traditional media outlets, which have the ability to push print-like materials into a medium that's unbound from print production limits, enabling them to maximize revenues when a title gains its peak value in a very short period of time. AP notes that former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book on his experiences in the Bush administration sold out quickly at Amazon in print format but that the book continued to sell briskly in Kindle eBook format, albeit at a lower price. There's some question as to exactly how much Amazon really makes on the book sales themselves (the New York Times claims along with others that Amazon takes a bath on each Kindle book sale), but as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos noted that the Kindle is still in its developmental phase it's likely that book publishers' existing business models are considered a part of the platform's developmental cost at this point.

Silicon Valley Insider's back-of-the envelope model for Kindle sales noted that if the Kindle business scales as quickly as Apple's iPod/iTunes business scaled it's possible that Amazon could be enjoying more than USD 740 million in combined Kindle device and content sales by 2010. That's highly speculative, especially given that there had been more than a decade of well-established consumption of music via online portals before the iPod came along to become a cool fashion tool for content amongst the young. Book publishers face a far tougher proposition of moving beyond a graying population of book enthusiasts still young enough to value technology as a status symbol towards younger generations that have yet to discover books at all in a big way. A whole generation of college students is now coming of age that has not ever turned a paper page on a regular basis. So Kindle's ability to grow rapidly beyond its early adopters into iPod-like growth is still in question.

That may suit book publishers just fine in the short run, given their need to maintain a pricing structure that covers the 99 percent of their sales still done in print. But now that they have locked themselves into a proprietary DRM-secured format for Kindle content they have in essence handed Amazon the keys to the paper mill for electronic content. Certainly Sony's eBook platform provides a "Brand X" that will generate the illusion of consumer choice in eBook reading, but with the extensive infrastructure and branding of Amazon people wanting to purchase content rapidly for their eInk-displayed content will have but one real choice. If in fact eBook sales rise rapidly enough to push Amazon into a position of dictating book industry pricing, then book industry executives may be wondering why they didn't consider the music industry's death at the hands of iPod's proprietary 99-cent downloads as a lesson to have been studied more carefully.

Fortunately the book industry has the opportunity to adapt to these changes in relative slow motion compared to the music industry's fast-forward realization that Apple had stolen their business model. In doing so book publishers may want to consider how music companies are learning to benefit more from broader artist management services as a supplementary line of business. As noted in The New York Times recently Universal Music Classical Artists Management and Productions has been formed as a unit to produce and profit from live performances of music and artist fan items other than CDs. Thinking of the good fortune my friend David Meerman Scott has had on the speaking circuit in the wake of his runaway hit business book "The New Rules of Marketing and PR" (available as a Kindle book also, of course), how much more could his publisher have profited from his management as a speaker as well as from his imprinted word?

At the same time book publishers are becoming smarter about benefiting from the value of book content in pre-print communities as well. My own relationship with John Wiley & Sons has enabled content from my own forthcoming book "Content Nation" to be posted online and publisher programs such as O'Reilly's Rough Cuts are well into developing pre-print subscription communities for tech book consumers that act more as knowledge exchanges than peeks at books before publication - artist management for art still in the making, if you will. So although there are certainly exposures that publishers face via Amazon's proprietary eBook platform they are already developing more diversified revenue channels to maximize the value of their content.

Future iterations of the Kindle are no doubt going to change the shape of this debate significantly, but for now it's probably good that the intense interest in Kindles from a relatively narrow band of book readers is probably going to grow more slowly than some would think. It opens the possibility that book publishers will be able to develop an approach to eBooks that will open the marketplace to far greater competition amongst technology platform providers - and more opportunities for more ways to package and sell content on eBook platforms.

Although the Kindle itself is proprietary it is using the Sprint telecommunications company's broadband wireless network in the U.S., a strong network with standardized communications technology that could easily accommodate any number of services providing downloads of eBooks and other media. Enabling any media service to provide subscription or on-demand downloads into any device at a cost lower than typical broadband Internet services via such a network might accelerate a market for competitive platforms before Amazon gets to flood the market with cheaper Kindles at a not-so-distant future point in time. Here's hoping that publishers of books and other media jumping in the Kindle bandwagon think carefully about who should be in control of their distribution mechanism before locking themselves into being curators of content proprietary to emerging mobile platforms.
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