Monday, August 3, 2009

eBooks Platforms Flourish. Winner: The Web

While there's been enormous buzz about Kindle eBook readers from Amazon and, now, the new eBook platform offering from Barnes & Noble and an updated eBook reader from Sony, the broader truth is that eBooks represent just a sliver of the book industry as a whole and an even smaller portion of online attention. With USD 118 million in U.S. eBook sales last year versus USD 24.3 billion in overall book sales, electronic books have barely scratched the economic surface of publishing, in spite of all of the Silicon Valley bluster about their potential. Yet this isn't stopping major retailers and publishers from experimenting with eBook technologies again and again - and continuing to pull their punches when it comes to realizing the possibilities for books in electronic forms.

This doesn't mean that there aren't good efforts being applied to these improved stabs at eBooks. The new Barnes & Noble eBook store includes lots of state-of-the-art best practices, including easily downloaded reading software for PCs, Macs, Blackberries and iPhones, a decent offering of current commercial titles and access to free eBooks from the Google Books online archive, as well as a smattering of classics pre-loaded into their eBook reader. A forthcoming eBook reading unit from Plastic Logic will enable Barnes & Noble to have its own little toy for eBook enthusiasts, but wisely they didn't bother to wait for this hardware to show up before launching its attractive and easy-to-use store for existing electronic platforms. As they go to pains to point out in their online orientation materials, they want it make it as easy as possible for people to buy and download eBooks using whatever device people want to use to absorb their attention.

While it's good that Barnes & Noble is offering alternatives to eBooks and a very consumer-friendly approach to their promotion, the broader truth is that the book industry has gained very little from eBooks thus far in taking on their biggest competitive challenge: the Web. If, after more than a decade of Web access to books, the entire book industry can only garner USD 323 million worldwide from a medium that reaches more than 1.4 billion people around the world, one wonders how projections predicting USD 9 billion in eBook sales by 2013 can represent real growth and new markets as opposed to a more probable contraction of overall book revenues as book sales to dwindling audiences transfer to online destinations.

There are many signs that the book industry is becoming more savvy about rethinking their role in publishing and beginning to think of themselves as being able to promote talented authors as assets in many media, but these are baby steps in the face of a Web that has already completely rethought how people can profit from expressing themselves to audiences. As nice as the Barnes and Noble eBook store may be, its level of education and assurance seems to be aimed at people who have very little confidence with using online content. One would think that book publishers would become far more aggressive in thinking about how to engage the most aggressive online content producers and users, capturing their energy and interests - and disposable income - more effectively. Certainly ensuring compatibility with iPhones and Blackberries are a step towards that audience, but the relatively inflexible eBook reader software that packages most eBook offerings on these platforms seems doomed to make books an afterthought rather than a primary focus of aggressive content users.

What publishers should do is to focus far more aggressively on packaging that will integrate book content into personal publishing lifestyles far more aggressively. APIs that facilitate applications development to extend eBook capabilities, collaborative reading, bookmarking, linking, user-generated content and other extensions into the real-time generation of content consumers and producers are essential developments to bring eBooks into the stream of attention that they really deserve. Serving audiences is the real objective of publishing - not generating units of production that may or may not deliver full value to a given audience. Creating services that keep people who are today's greatest content purchase influencers - digitally literate readers - in a position to recommend and amplify the value of a wide variety of book-oriented content and services will take far more than locked-down reading software that operates in a vacuum. These types of services are surfacing in the hands of innovative online companies, but as to where that leaves mainstream book publishers and retailers remains to be seen.
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