stack of booksRecently, I put my house on the market, and as part of the staging process, the realtor had my wife and I pack up and store about two thirds of our over 5,000 books.  The idea is to reduce visual clutter and let prospective buyers imagine their own items on the bookshelves.  The entire agonizing process got me to thinking about e-books.  What if all those physical books were e-books?  How much easier it would be to move them!  Put the trusty Kindle or Sony Reader under my arm and walk out the door.

Then I started imagining the different kind of havoc technology could wreak on my all e-book library.  Think about the e-book players.  When technology invades an industry, it usually brings with it a fast and unforgiving pace of innovation.  The e-book is no exception.  e-book formats come and go; players quickly become extinct; the companies that store those digital libraries can go under or their libraries hacked.  As a reminder of the shaky ground of technology I had only to look at that box of old records – LPs – that I uncovered as part of the packing up effort.  They were made irrelevant and essentially useless (except as collector’s items) by CDs, which suffered the same fate at the hands of iPods and other MP3 players.  And those devices and the MP3 format itself may be in the gun sight of some garage technologist as I write this.

Suddenly my multi-ton load of print books didn’t seem so much trouble after all.  As long as I have eyes (and glasses) to read them with, I’ll always be able to enjoy the stories and information they have to share.  No batteries or tech smarts required.  I know the future belongs to the e-book; and I am excited by its possibilities.  After all, early readers  probably had similar angst about switching from scrolls to paged books.  Do not fear – I’ll march bravely forward with the e-book revolution.  But when my time comes, I want to my print books to accompany me on that journey to the other side.

Medieval helpdesk (with English subtitles)

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By almost any reckoning, e-books are a fast growing segment of the book publishing industry.  Many self-published authors and traditional publishers who have been reluctant to publish in e-book format are now considering it.  However, because there are many competing standards, navigating the technical / logistical ins and outs of e-book publishing can seem a bit daunting at first. 

We recently had the opportunity to discuss print to e-book conversion and the outlook for e-books with Virginia Thomas, the Business Development Manager at Olive Technology, a leading provider of eBook conversion services. Virginia has lived and worked in Alaska, Argentina, Oregon, California, Texas, Hawaii, India and Colorado and was previously in corporate sales with Paradigm Engineering.  (One of her favorite book genres is confessional memoirs.)

FPP:  What e-book formats should a publisher consider absolutely essential for their titles?

VT:  Since the arrival of ebooks and eReaders, the number of digital content retailers has significantly increased. Each retailer would want to cover most device formats. Since the two most popular readers, the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader use ePub and Mobi, it is recommended that Publishers should at least have these two formats available.EPUB is an open standard created by the IDPF, and is used on numerous devices such as the Sony Reader, the Barnes and Noble Nook, and the Stanza iPhone app. Mobipocket, or .mobi, can be read on the Kindle, but also on a Blackberry, Windows Mobile device, Symbian or Palm device. .azw is Amazon’s proprietary format for the Kindle, for which they provide free conversion when a title is listed in’s eBook store. Like .azw, .mobi can be read on a Kindle, but unlike .azw, it can be sold in a number of distribution channels including Symtio and a publisher’s own website.

FPP:  What steps a publisher should take to prepare for submitting a title for conversion into an e-book?

VT:  Publishers looking at reaching a wide market should first develop a basic idea of planning their marketing and decide on how they would like to take care of the digital rights management. Subsequently, they should identify a reliable technology team that can do a high quality conversion work that can replicate the original book experience into digital format. As they identify the team, the publisher should have their high priority titles organized by the different available format such as hard copy, PDF, Quark Express, InDesign etc. This would allow the conversion team to organize their own conversion steps.

FPP:  What occurs during the process of e-book conversion?

VT:  Depending on the format, the conversion process involves:

  1. Converting the original source format (such as PDF) into a editable format, such (MS Word or HTML)
  2. Reformatting of the editable format so that it can be seamlessly ported into a conversion tool. Depending on the type of book, this step may involve extensive coding to re-create the formatting from the original book. Aspects such as clickable footnotes, endnotes and images are all taken care of in this phase.
  3. The formatted file is then ported into a conversion tool that can then generate the needed extension required. Aspects such as Table of Contents, book details and Metatags are taken into consideration at this phase. (Metatags are information about information—they help identify and position the digital content in order of relevance. For more information see
  4. An eBook conversion team then takes a thorough line-by-line comparison with the original book to make sure that all the needed formats and expressions have been replicated in the converted book. This is a very important step as it ensures a good reading experience for the reader. Depending on the service provider, a conversion team would have multiple quality checks by different members of the team.

FPP:  What are the most common problems that occur in e-book conversion?

VT:  Formatting errors can come in easily, especially inserting spaces into words. This is why Olive Technology does not rely solely on software for corrections. Olive’s proofreading team pores over every word in the eBooks they convert.

FPP:  What is the typical turnaround time for an e-book conversion?

VT:  Average turnaround time for a 200 page book is 2 working days. However, it may take additional time if there are lots of footnotes and endnotes that require extensive coding of tags or there are lots of images that need to be edited before including in the eBook.

FPP:  How much should a publisher budget for converting a title into the most popular e-book formats?

VT:  This depends on how long the book is, how many titles are being converted in the batch, and how complicated it is to convert. Most conversion companies provide a price per page. The more special formatting, pictures, charts, graphs, sidebars, etc. a work has, the more difficult it is to convert.As for a ballpark, conversion of a 200 page novel with a few illustrations from PDF to EPUB and Mobipocket, Olive Technology would charge $160.

FPP:  What limitations / differences in appearance should a publisher expect when going from print to e-book?

VT:  Because of limitations in the eReaders, it is not possible to enforce the original font types into the eBook formats. However, some eReaders allow the fonts to be changed. Since the reader has options to change the font size to large print or smaller print, there are no set page numbers in an eBook. Also, the style of s Table of Contents is limited to one column. All required images would render as black and white in most eReaders, but in smartphones they can be in color.

FPP:  Do you think we will get to a single e-book standard in the near future?

VT:  That’s the question of the hour. Members of the IDPF would scream “YES! EPUB!,” and the industry has already seen a great adoption of the EPUB format. However, Forrester has said that of the 3 million eBook readers predicted to be sold in 2009, 60% of them are Kindles. While Bbeb may be a dying breed, I think .azw and Mobipocket will be around with EPUB for years to come—especially if Amazon keeps making mobile apps. Unless, that is, Jeff Bezos decides to become an open format fan. That will probably occur the same day Steve Jobs endorses Windows 7.

FPP:  Does having a title in XML format simplify e-book conversion?

VT:  Not necessarily. In fact in our experience the reformatting of DocBookXML can be even more challenging and costly. However, the use of XML allows quicker conversion to any future formats that would be made available.

FPP:  How important are mobile phones in the e-book market now?

VT:  According to research done by Nielsen in 2008, younger people favor the idea of books downloadable to mobile phones or iPods over eReaders or PCs (A third of 16-30 year olds compared to 23% of over 30s). The mobile phone market share is relatively small, but growing. The most popular mobile phone for eBook reading now is the iPhone, which only had 6.5% of the eBook downloads in the first two quarters of 2009. However, in a November 1 report the research firm Flurry predicted that with thousands of eBook apps being produced, the iPhone will be in a serious position to steal market share from the Kindle in reading the way it stole from the Nintendo DS in gaming.F

PP:  How do you see the e-book market evolving in the next 3-5 years?

VT:  With the fast adoption rate and decrease in price of eReaders, the only certainties I see are growth, increasing involvement of Google, and device convergence. According to Association of American Publishers, eBook sales have grown by more than 300% in last 2 years. While eBooks are still a small portion of book sales, they more than tripled from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009, and the exponential growth is predicted to continue.

Also, I think it’s a matter of time before foldable/flexible mobile devices cause device convergence to occur. The problem now is that eBook readers are too big to be phones, and phones are too small to read on without a whole lot of scrolling. However, when mobile phone manufacturers roll out devices that can be folded or unfolded to the size of a phone or eReader, consumers will probably opt for the convenience of only carrying around one device. Motorola is said to be hard at work on their line of flexible devices.

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sumerian-clay-tabletSince the development of written language, mankind has experimented with different reading “devices” and formats.

  • Inscription on the walls of dwelling spaces or public buildings
  • Engravings on clay tablets
  • Scrolls
  • Bound books with pages

Over the last two thousand years or so the bound book reading experience has become so ubiquitous it is difficult to imagine any other way to read.  The structure that surrounds our reading experience has slipped beneath the level of our consciousness.  The only thing that surprises us is when a book comes with an odd trim size, similar to the micro jolt we get when someone hands us an odd sized business card.   

early bound bookEvery readng device has its opportunities and tyrannies.  The page in the bound book of today provides a simple unit of reading; the total number of pages lets us know in advance how much information a book contains or how much effort will be needed to read it.  Page numbers and headers provide useful reference points.  But the price of paper and ink limits the information that can be conveyed.  This has always been the problem with all previous reading devices:  the cost of the physical medium used to convey the information scaled with the amount of information.

But electronic reading devices offer an escape from that hard rule.  E-reading or reading with the aid of software offers us new opportunities (and doubtless many tyrannies as well). 

  • Extension – Linking to related material
  • Search – Finding without the need for page numbers or indexes
  • Filtering – Hiding irrelevant or uninteresting parts of the book; especially useful for second readings
  • Layering – Accessing additional information (e.g. pictures and / or background material) via layers that can be turned on or off under reader control
  • Annotation – Adding / editing your personal annotations (actually part of layering)
  • Sharing – Connecting to your favorite reading groups and sharing your comments and quotes from the book
  • Apps – Simple applications that make the reading more enjoyable – e.g. embedded dictionaries, automatic translation to another language and summarization of key information.  For fiction this might include summaries of the story to the point where you last left off to refresh your memory between reading sessions.  Innovative developers will find ways to extend the capabilities of our reading devices similar to what has been done for the iPhone.
  • Multiple modalities – Switch between reading and listening
  • Metrics – Tracking personal stats on everything you’ve read

Like it or not, over time our books will become more like computers and we will expect them to the things that computers do.  Our long standing reading model will change as the physical nature of our primary reading device changes.  The big limitation may become, not physical cost, but reader attention.

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sony readerAccording to a report in the NY Times, Google is preparing to enter the e-book market and take on Amazon.   The delivery platform is unclear, but it does not appear that Google is favoring any particular e-book device at this time.  Details are also lacking about whether Google would support open standards or take a proprietary approach.  The e-book pricing hasn’t been finalized, but Google has hinted it would probably be more open than say with the Amazon Kindle. 

So let’s say that Google jumps into the e-book market in a major way.  How might this change the market?  Here are some speculations.

Google links e-books with Book Search.  While Google has said it has no plans to do this, it certainly is a strong possibility.  Books scanned today as PDFs can be scanned into e-book formats just as easily.  Search – view – purchase – download.  Seems logical.

Google becomes the Book Scan of e-books.  With its own reader or in partnership with reader manufacturers, Google tracks not only what e-books readers browse and purchase, but how they read them after purchase (think Google Analytics with a “phone home” capability).  Publishers use the anonym-ized information to better understand what readers really want.

Google redefines the e-book experience.  Again, with its own reader or in partnership with reader manufacturers, Google provides a more connected reading experience where book lovers can share what they’re reading with others online.  

Google embeds advertising in books.  Print books today often have a page or two in the back showcasing similar books of interest.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to include a Book Search type of capability in an e-book.  A connected reader could view the preview and make the purchase / download immediately.

Google becomes a publisher.  Google could provide tools to make it easy for authors to publish and market their works directly as e-books.  Absurd you say.  A short while ago you might have said it was absurd to think Google would be a bookseller. 


Growth in e-book revenues (data from IDPF, AAP)

Books in aggregate represent one of the largest storehouses of information on the planet.  Yet most of the information in books is not accessible to us online.  Google has the resources to tap into and monetize this infotopia.  Whether it willor not remains to be seen.  According to a recent Forrester report, the e-book market is ready to go mainstream and break out of its current niche status.  My only hope is that if Google is igoing to take the plunge, they do so boldly

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child-wirth-ebookThe ebook continues on a roll.  March 8-14 was national Read an e-Book week and by all accounts was well received.  As if to underscore the continued success of the electronic reading format, the American Association of Publishers announced that e-books sales were up 68.4 percent for 2008.  This amid a mostly gloomy assessment of down publisher sales. Smashwords, a blog focused on ebooks, characterizedd the  growing popularity of the ebook format thus:

For the five years between 2002 and 2007 (Click herefor data, opens a PDF), overall trade book sales averaged an annual increase of 2.5% (lower than inflation, which means unit sales probably decreased), while ebooks for the same period turned in a 55.7% average annualized increase.

As any numbers guy or gal will tell you, it’s easy to show great sales growth when you’re growing off of a small base. But when sales show sequential acceleration off of sequentially increasing bases (meaning, you grow faster as you grow larger), then something really interesting is taking place.

If you extrapolate the 70% growth for five more years (and I would argue 70% is a relatively conservative number), then ebooks rise to $1.6 billion, and assuming a 2% growth rate of the overall trade book sales to $26.7 billion (generous), ebooks would then represent a respectable 6% of sales.

stanzaNot quite a tipping yet, but approaching one.  Other news on the ebook front underscored the continuing interest by authors and publishers in exploring the ebook domain.

  • Novelist Danielle Steel released 71 of her works, including the new One Day at a Time, as ebookson and The eBook Store by Sony. This is the first time Steel’s books, which are published by the Random House division of Bantam Dell, have been made available in digital format.
  • In November, Random House announced it would be making 8,000 to 15,000 additional books from its list  available in digital form.
  • Apple’s popular iPhone, now in use by nearly 20 million people, is also creating a a new market for e-books with free applications like Stanza, an e-book reader for the iPhone, making it easier to read books on the go. Users download the app for free directly from their phones. The popularity of the application is told by the nearly one million downloads so far. 
  • The Canadian bookselling chain Indigo has launched a service called Shortcoversto market e-books to smartphones and computers.  The firm will initially offer about 50,000 titles, priced from $4.99 to $19.99 (US$4.02 to US$16.11), and chapters will be available for 99 cents (80 US cents) each.  Some 200,000 sample chapters will be available for free.  Shortcovers will offer recommendations to users based on their reading habits and is creating a forum where self-published and unpublished writers can submit a chapter from a novel, a short story or an article, and list them for free, with ads or for 99 cents without ads.

The ebook continues to march steadily toward mainstream acceptance despite ebook reader war, pricing confusinos and a still modest inventory of titles.  While it’s still difficult to predict exactly what an ebook world will look like, it does seem more certain that we are heading toward one.



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The Business Blook as Beta Publishingtape-measure-2One of the benefits of living in a digital world is that it gets easier to measure everything.   For example, if we have an online store, we can measure the traffic that comes to our websites and the behavior of visitors once they are there.  We can count conversions – e.g. sign-ups, downloads and / or sales.  With this information, we can optimize different aspects of the website to deliver a satisfying experience for both the customer and the website owner.  So why not optimize the books we sell to deliver a better reading experience?  The term “book” now glows with an electronic aura.  E-books are showing impressive growth, though still a small percentage of overall book sales, and there are many new sales channels opening up for books in electronic form.  It seems conceivable that soon we may see some form of content testing for books in electronic format. 

Google’s free Website Optimizer tool

Publishers could offer variations of sample content on a website or blog to see which drives more interest before making the commitment to an expensive print version.  Certainly authors who develop their content through the medium of a blog already have a good start on this process if they let the blog metrics guide their choice of content for their title.  Publisher could also offer different beta versions of a book title through electronic channels – e.g. serialized content online, to e-book readers or mobile phones – to  see which results in better customer reviews, sales, etc.  In this way a book could be optimized toward a finished product that customers really want. 

In addition to content, other elements of a book could be tested, including:  book title, cover design, cover text, testimonials, even chapter titles.  The tests might even provide greater predictability for future print book sales.   Tools are already available to make such testing easy, inexpensive and statistically significant.  Publisher intuition about what works would serve as a starting hypothesis; testing would be the objective final arbiter of what actually works. 


Which version would you buy?

Will publishers explore “book optimization?”  Perhaps not right away.  But the ease and cost effectiveness of measurement in the digital realm, and the high cost of failure in the analog (read “print”) world could certainly make it a more attractive option in the future.



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sony-ebook-readerOver the last several years, e-books have experienced good growth relative to the overall market for books.  However, their overall share of that market is still small despite the fact that e-books have been around for years.  Some of the factors often cited for this are:

  • Readability
  • Limited player feature sets
  • Incompatible e-book formats 
  • No pricing standards

The first two factors will no doubt be resolved by ongoing technological progress and market competition.   The third factor will probably be resolved in one of two ways:  either open standards will be adopted or some proprietary player will so dominate the market that its format will become the de facto standard.  (No doubt Jeff Bezos hopes Kindle will achieve the second outcome.)

The fourth factor, I believe, is reallythe most important becaue it is a symptom of confusino both on the part of pubishers and their customers.  The confusion is that pricing is set by reference to content rather than experience.  Publishers often  try to justify e-books prices relative to the price charged for a printed book.  Customers still see an e-book as less valuable than a printed book because it doesn’t offer the same physical experience.  Publishers and e-book manufacturers should work to create an e-book experience that is not tied to that of a printed work. 

How would we make that that experience  different?  By rethinking what a computer can (and can’t) do for the reading experience. 

reel-of-filmWhen films first made the scene in the early twentieth century, they were often staged like plays.  The early film aesthetic was limited by film making technology, the experience of filmmakers and the readiness of audiences to make cognitive that cinema allows – e.g. the manipulation of time.  As film entertainment has evolved, audiences no longer expect that a film experience has to mirror that of a play. 

We are approaching that point with e-books where it time to define a new reading experience.   Most e-books are still very close mirrors of their print book progenitors.  But there is so much more that can be done.  For example:

  • Advanced search features
  • Sharing the experience with other readers in real time
  • Easy switch between reading text and listening to an audio version of the book.
  • More graphics, illustrations and video
  • Internal and external linking via wireless connection
  • Dictionary features like every word defined or foreign words pronounced
  • Bookmarking and excerpting
  • Built in note taking

The feature wish list will grow as readers become more accustomed to e-books.  The one thing we shouldn’t do is try to value e-books in the same way we value print books.  The redaing motivations and experiences are different for each type of book.  In fact, someday we may want to stop calling the electronic reading experience an “e-book.”

ebook-markdown1Once we have an e-book aesthetic that is truly independent of the print book experience, pricing and marketing can be liberated from print considerations which reflect production and channel considerations that don’t exist for e-books.  In the reader’s mind, there will be a completely new set of value judgments by which to determine whether to purchase that experience. 

Of course, this presents challenges for both publishers and authors.  Instead of simply taking print book content and “dumping” it into an e-book format, a greater restructuring will be needed to create a differentiated e-book experience; this is similar to what happens in making an audiobook or, better, a movie based on a print title.  This extra work will create a greater value in the eye of the customer and allow publishers greater pricing freedom and standardization.

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