There's no question that e-readers are garnering huge interest from consumers and enterprise users alike. But a niggling problem remains for mobile readers-how to untether content from the device on which it's read. At the recent Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, Calif., Britt Mueller, director of library services at QUALCOMM, found that employee interest was high during a recent pilot program for e-reader loans. But she was frustrated by the lack of material available to her users. "We are talking to vendors about the fact that content will drive usage [of mobile devices]. We need materials that can be used, untethered, on any device."
That preference for untethered, open access formats will be a major decision factor driving device adoption patterns as e-readers move mainstream, according to Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps. "Content choice really matters for consumers," Epps says. "The ability to have a broad selection of cheap content makes a difference to them." While Amazon dominates the e-reader market with its proprietary format-Forrester estimates it controls nearly 60% of e-reader market share-newer entrants are seeking to make it as easy as possible for readers to access content across devices, hewing to the EPUB standards for flexible delivery formats.
LibreDigital (www.libredigital.com) is one player in the e-reader market trying to offer maximum format flexibility to readers. The Austin, Texas-based company, which has offered publishers digital warehousing and e-distribution solutions since 1999, recently showcased a new "AllAccess" content delivery platform at the Texas Book Festival (TBF; www.texasbookfestival.org). The TBF, an annual event drawing more than 200 authors and more than 35,000 book lovers, provided a peek at the technology that company officials expect to launch in 2Q 2010 to allow publishers, resellers, and authors to give readers access to ebooks on nearly any device. Regardless of where they are reading, AllAccess' platform formats the content such that the presentation is optimized for each device, and licensing and provisioning are all handled in the background.
Visitors to the TBF website are able to use AllAccess to download The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by author David Wroblewski to their iPhone, Kindle, Sony Reader, a web browser, or desktop. Bob Carlton, vice president of marketing for LibreDigital, says that the consumer reaction to AllAccess' technology at the festival was encouraging. "We were heartened by the number of ebook readers saying ‘this is what we needed.' They are realizing that prior to this, they didn't own the content they downloaded; they were only renting it on a specific platform."
Carlton sees user expectations for e-readers evolving rapidly through 2010; indeed, according to a July 2009 Forrester report titled "Who Will Buy an eReader?" the mainstream audience now coming on board with e-readers includes more female users and less tech-savvy people who read voraciously than the early adopters. Carlton says his company's use case research suggests that the mainstream reading public will want to read the same content across platforms during the course of a single day. "They may start a book during the commute on a laptop, switch to an iPhone while waiting in the carpool, and finish it sitting at a desktop computer screen while waiting on hold," Carlton says, an experience that publishers can offer readers via AllAccess technology.
Sarah Wendell, who blogs about romance novels as Smart Bitch Sarah at the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog (www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com), points out that the accessibility and portability of the AllAccess approach is hugely appealing to women readers, who not only comprise the biggest percentage of fiction readers (romance fiction alone generated $1.37 billion in U.S. sales in 2008) but tend to read in small chunks of time. "Women are the biggest multitaskers around. The danger to publishing isn't that readers will choose something else to read if they can't access a particular book. It's that they'll choose something else to do entirely," Wendell says.
For LibreDigital, AllAccess represents an evolution in the services it has provided to publishers over the past decade. Six of the top 10 book publishers use Digital Warehouse, LibreDigital's solution for storing, accessing, distributing, and repurposing published content and for tracking its data; and BookBrowse, a technology that replicates the offline experience of book buying by allowing readers to flip through the pages of a book. Additionally, 175 periodicals including newspapers, magazines, and trade journals are using LibreDigital's iBrowse to provide a digital replica of the classic news reading experience.
Those existing relationships with publishers will come in handy as LibreDigital pursues digital distribution arrangements. The company says it is in discussions with a number of publishers about piloting the AllAccess platform during 1Q 2010. Regarding how the service will be priced, Carlton expects that, much like the music industry has done in differentiating price points by distribution channel, LibreDigital's flexible digital access will be bundled as a part of the publisher's overall pricing structure. "We think some will bundle it as part of their content access fee, while others will use the flexible delivery format to add value to their traditional models."
The AllAccess announcement does highlight a further blurring of the lines between digital distributors, publishers, retailers, and authors. While LibreDigital has worked primarily with publishers in the past, it's not hard to imagine authors drawn to the freedom that the AllAccess platform would give them in distributing their works directly to readers. As Forrester's Epps points out, "The AllAccess announcement is interesting because it shows that new entrants are coming from adjacent markets." She believes this shows just how vulnerable bricks and mortar competitors such as Barnes & Noble and Borders are to new market entrants.
But Carlton takes pains to point out that his company is a strong partner of Barnes & Noble, indeed powering part of its site with LibreDigital technology. "In this emerging ecosystem there are spaces where companies compete, and other spaces where they are partners. The majority of ebook reading happens on laptops and netbooks, not on devices. Retailers like the fact that AllAccess gives them freedom of choice."