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Ebook Trends 2013—The New World of Ebook Publishing
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Posted On January 17, 2013
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In the past few months, pricing of ebooks and issues of competition has come into sharper focus. Changes are coming much faster in the publishing world today—prices for titles are dropping and we are seeing the development of new models and channels for publishing, distribution, and sales.

Ebook Prices Continue to Fall

With the settlement of the Department of Justice case with the Big Six publishers and Apple behind them, publishers are now allowing their retailers to discount their ebooks as much as they need. Jeremy Greenfield, blogging at Digitalbookworld.com, presented information showing a steady decline in the average price of an ebook best-seller over the past few months. “Part of the reason is the continued success of self-published ebooks, which are usually priced at $2.99 or lower,” said Greenfield. “But another part of it is the discounting of the $14.99 or $12.99 ebook to under $10. It’s a lot of the same books but at lower prices.”

The situation for libraries remains unclear, with many publishers continuing to require hefty payments for accessing their ebooks. The ALA, which meets soon for its midwinter meeting, can be expected to take up this issue yet again. The current president, Maureen Sullivan, released a message to members earlier this week explaining, “[W]hat you can do about ebooks and libraries.” Without concessions by publishers, however, the answer would appear to be “not much.”

However, self-publishing and other innovations are on the horizon today that may bring major changes that not only disintermediate publishing, but create new models that would better reflect the needs, interests, and technologies of today and tomorrow.

The Rise of New Ebook Models

In addition to the Big Box distribution offered by companies such as Amazon and bn.com, new types of integrated models are arising that work to disintermediate even these middlemen from the ebook cycle.

Smashwords has been around since 2008 and now offers 120,000 titles through retail partners and more than 160,000 titles through its website. Its ebook publishing and distribution platform now covers more than 55,000 self-publishers, as well as hundreds of small indie publishers. Founder Mark Coker claims that the company is “the world's leading ebook publishing platform for indie authors and independent presses” today. Its current dominance is clear; however, success breeds competition and plenty of new ideas and companies have arisen in the past few months.

Zola: Covering Publishing From Soup to Nuts

Zola Books was announced in late summer 2011 and formally launched as a beta in June 2012. Joe Regal, co-founder and CEO, explained that until Zola appeared, there was “no single site where readers, writers, booksellers, reviewers, bloggers and publishers can gather in one place to connect naturally around the books they love. These social connections form in the real world at bookstores, book clubs, and more. Why can’t they happen online?” Zola has begun selling a limited selection of ebooks as well, but has been waiting for the dust to settle on the DOJ/Apple collusion suit before offering a full catalog of titles.

Zola is unique in that it seeks to provide a common platform for authors to create/sell their wares, for book buyers and bibliophiles to communicate about their shared interests and, eventually, a unique “ereader app that will let buy you read ebooks on any device without worrying about file formats.” The Social Reader is intended to work on Kindle Fire, iPad, and NOOK systems as well as HTML5 app systems for broad distribution.

Zola boasts key staff from the literary world as well as seed funding from key authors and others in the industry. Instead of replacing existing components of the publishing cycle, Zola instead seeks to create a single ecosystem that incorporates all. Social recommendation (from buyer/user comments), publisher data (from sales) and, once the e-reader is available, the company will also be able to marry this to detailed information on the use patterns of readers in their titles. The site uses both standard algorithmic recommendations (such as Amazon invented) balanced with human curated/created suggestions—all of which will be captured as analytics for publishers, authors, and marketers. If such a holistic system were created, giving Zola even more powerful relational analytics than Google Books, the only key issue to be worked out is a fair and reasonable privacy policy to guard against abuses or theft of key personal information. Zola has a privacy policy in place, but until the final system is up-and-running, it will be interesting to see if the policy has the power to proactively safeguard the interests of all concerned. Some in the industry see Zola as the strongest contender against Google, Amazon, and Apple today.

A Free Ebook Library in the Clouds

Booki.sh, offering users “your own ebook library in the cloud, accessible from anywhere and almost anything,” including web browsers, does require either downloading or the availability to use a web browser in order to function. With it, its book page numbering system is a little bizarre, you aren’t able to print books purchased through Booki.sh, and only a limited number of retail partners are currently involved. However, it represents another interesting interface and cloud-based storage system for your ever-increasing collection of electronic materials. The privacy policy does outline the types of data they collect and how they would intend to use that information that you provide in lieu of payment for the cloud storage.

Finding Free or Discount Ebooks Fast

In June 2012, BookSliced launched a “price tracking service that helps you find free ebooks and discover discounts. Rather than highlight every price change for every book, our algorithm filters out minor prices changes while only showing books that surpass a certain popularity threshold. The end result is a constantly updating list of quality books with actual discounts.” Users of the system can get money by referring new users as they network with other users of the system. Data on use/preferences maintained by BookSliced—check those privacy policies, please—is used to give buyers discounted prices on book titles in their areas of interest. Currently only working with Kindle books from Amazon, it “hope[s] to add Nook, Sony, and iBooks options in the future.” An interesting aid for book readers; however, this website enters an area already crowded by Goodreads, eReaderIQ, and others.

In another effort, Freebook Sifter launched this month as “a free tool which makes it easy to find free ebooks for Kindle on Amazon.com. We update our database daily, removing books which are no longer free and adding any which have just come in.” Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive,and Online Books Page provide some good sources, though none of these provide the same level of information on what is available, in full text, through Google Books. Perhaps Freebook Sifter will provide another channel for readers.

A Redbox Alternative?

In August 2012, reKiosk opened for business using the model of the freestanding kiosk as their digital storefront. Much as with the RedBox DVD kiosks, these systems require little start-up funding and are structured to allow for the sale of music or ebooks from “individuals, publishers and record labels, to sell their entire catalogs, no matter how large or small.” reKiosk also has a social media aspect, allowing people to add their comments/recommendations allowing “curators with similar tastes and passions the chance to discover great new indie bands of lesser-known authors,” DigitalBookWorld reports. “reKiosk allows publishers to open digital kiosks, while providing buyers with a central, secure, and shareable umbrella site,” notes founder Aziz Isham. “reKiosk is the first platform of its kind to provide an easy, free and shareable way to sell digital files online—whether it's your own original work or someone else's.” Membership is free and if you join, you are able to set up your own kiosk (personal storefront) and sell up to 15 products. Direct sales from authors or independent presses is set at 95% to the author/publisher and 5% to reKiosk. For reselling (they don’t accept DRM products) the split is 70% to the creators, the reseller gets25% and, again, reKiosk gets 5%. This is a relatively simple formula that has already attracted many small publishers and even Julian Assange as an author.

Moving From E-Reader Into Full-Service Customer Support

Kobo, famous for its Kobo eReader, and “inspired by a “Read Freely” philosophy and a passion for innovation,” is now offering a service that allows users “the freedom to read any book, anytime, anyplace—and on any device.” kobobooks.com offers more than 2.5 million ebooks in more than 170 countries. Referring to this as their “end-to-end Kobo reading experience,” Kobo appears to be looking beyond the era of e-readers to serving the needs of readers in whatever viewing format they choose.

Liberate Reading—With a $13 Reader While Shopping for Groceries?

In another effort to “liberate reading,” txtr is a free service that “manages your personal documents online” allowing you to purchase books from its Store icon and uses a Facebook plugin to allow you to share your thoughts and comments with other readers. The txtr bookstore currently carries more than 700,000 titles—not that much less than Amazon. Titles appear to be more international in scope and focus and the pricing seemed comparable to Amazon on the titles I checked. Headquartered in Berlin, the company made a splash recently in announcing a $13 bare-bones txtrbeagle, “the lightest and smallest ereader” to be available later this year. An early review in the London Guardian was very favorable of the reader, which operates for an estimated year on two AAA batteries.

Earlier this month, txtr began selling its ebooks in the U.S., in partnership with ReaderLink. This partnership is looking to new sales outlets for ebooks and other electronic material. “This partnership opens up an entirely new sales channel for our retail partners,” noted ReaderLink Digital President David Barker in the press release. “Whether they are mass merchants, warehouse clubs, grocery chains, drug stores or department stores, they can quickly and easily begin offering ebooks to their customers.” Sound a bit far-fetched? ReaderLink already has distribution for print books with such retail titans as BJ’s, Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart. This is clearly a product and a company to watch.

Streamlining the Process of Ebook Purchasing

Taking another tack at making ebooks easier to find, buy, and use is EZBuyButton, a widget “poised to revolutionize the world of online book sales,” focusing on independent authors and publishers. Founder (and independent author) Jay Siva noted that “we make it free for authors and publishers, worldwide, to quickly and easily create and use our EZBuyButton widget to place on their website or blog to immediately increase the sales of their books, especially if their books are listed for sale in more than one retail store.” Making the selection of ebooks easier to transact is another plus, especially for the indie and self-publishing authors.

The Market Expands—China, Japan, Russia, and India

Kobo’s director of merchandizing, Nathan Maharaj noted recently that the “next frontiers” for ebook publishers in 2013 will be China, Russia, and India, “all of the places we’re looking out to now where ebooks haven’t penetrated yet.” China will represent an interesting puzzle. China Perspective’s Yin Guang recently predicted that “the number of China’s internet users is expected to reach 800 million by 2015 as the nation unfolds its ambitious nationwide broadband project.”

Earlier this week, however, the Central Propaganda Department declared that Communist Party control over Chinese media is “unshakable,” as it faced protests from reform-minded journalists. Hardly the kind of environment to encourage something like ebooks from across the globe.

However, just last week, the official Xinhua News Agency announced their desire that Chinese publishers focus their efforts on competing globally—the agency stressing the need for reforming operations, better promotion of their media and continued efforts to acquire equity stakes in foreign businesses. Looking outwardly, China has set up an English-language channel (CCTV America) and English-language editions of their papers. However, internal access to the world's literature for their own citizens may be a while in coming.

India has been easier for major publishers and aggregators to approach. Ebookstores, such as India Ebooks have thrived selling ebooks, both self-published or from local publishing houses. Penguin, Pearson, and other publishers have maintained an online presence in India for some time. In Russia, a country that has produced some of the greatest writers of all-time, physical distribution of books has been an issue. Two major distributors estimate that “80 percent of books in Russia are sold in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with only 20 percent sold in the regions.” Getting better distribution and access to this huge country—as well as former soviet republics with Russian-speaking populations is key. Last year, Simon Dunlop of Bookmate.ru noted that "with digital media, there are no border controls, no customs and no transport costs," making ebooks a clear opportunity. "As long as people have an internet connection you can start to use the power of technology to crack open new markets," Dunlop noted.

Apple announced in January 2013 that it will begin selling ebooks in Japan this year. Blogging at paidContent, Laura Hazard Owen noted that “Japan has been slow to embrace ebooks, with manga dominating the ebook market and publishers reluctant to digitize books in fear of cannibalization of print sales.” PublishingPerspectives reports that Apple has agreements with “a range of top publishers” and that the initial iBookstore will sell about 80,000 Japanese-language ebooks. Although a tech-forward country, Japanese publishers reportedly “continue to remain reluctant to convert their books into digital formats due to cost, as well as their own ongoing fears about digitization.” However, clearly they are now willing to give it a try.

A Future That is Unrecognizable Today

Author Stefan Kanfer (Ball of Fire, Tough Without a Gun, and The Eskimo Hunts in New York) chose self-publication for his last book. “The ebook revolution is barely underway. This year should see a quantum leap in the sales of ereaders, and, consequently, in ebooks,” Kanfer said. “The epoch of large advances is over, save for the biggest brand names, and after Barnes & Noble folds—this will take much longer but is inevitable—the landscape of book publishing, for better or worse, will be unrecognizable.” And, he may be right.


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther
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