Amazon Just Made Ads in Books Work – Whether We Like it or Not

So I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that this year, Amazon will release a standard Kindle for $99 or less, making the prospect of buying a device like an e-reader that much more palatable (and possible) for ebook readers. What I didn’t really think about – but Amazon’s announcements overnight made clear – is that for the first time we’re going to see ad-supported Kindles hit the mainstream and make the awkward marriage between advertising and book reading an inescapable reality.

Amazon has been hawking its “Kindle With Special Offers” for nigh on six months now, so the ad-supported model is not something new. Many people complained, when they launched the new line, that the ad-supported Kindle wasn’t worth the $30 saving and made cheap and nasty the very idea of a book. I argued both.

The ad-supported Kindle has been selling relatively well, by all reports, but not shockingly well. This morning Amazon announced four new Kindle models (actually only three): the Kindle Fire (a tablet for $US199), the Kindle Touch with 3G ($149), the Kindle Touch ($99) and an updated standard Kindle ($79). Holy crap, that’s $79.

But the reported price points are all for the ad-supported version of the Kindle:

All three new Kindle e-readers also come with special offers and sponsored screensavers that appear when you’re not reading. Customers enjoy special money-saving offers delivered wirelessly sponsored by AT&T, the Dove beauty brand and Amazon.com Rewards Visa Card by Chase.

There will be an option to pay more for no ads, but it’ll cost $30. Ask yourself whether you’re willing to pay $30 to remove ads from your book. Then remind yourself that you’re reading a blog dedicated to ebook reading that you probably came across on Twitter. Then pretend you’re an ordinary consumer, the kind of person Amazon has always appealed to. The kind of consumer who feels like Amazon is doing them a solid when they undercut all the competition and sell books for less than what they’re worth.

The new line of Kindles is the first time that a brand new shiny has been released that will cost you more to buy if you don’t want ads. The previous ad-supported models were released mid-cycle (a very clever move in hindsight). Nothing about those “Kindle with Special Offers” was new, and so it was easy to ignore what was happening. But these new Kindles are. And Amazon’s customers are very price conscious. Are they going to be bothered by a few screensaver ads if it means they can get a $30 saving? And when Amazon have a couple of hundred million devices floating out there with the in-built ability to display advertising – what do you think those ads will be worth?

They’ll certainly be worth a lot to publishers. Publishers have always wanted an avenue to advertise books that specifically reached book readers. They’ve paid millions in dollars in co-op payments to Amazon and many other stores to promote their books at the front of store (or on the front page of a web store). How much do you think they’ll pay to have (virtually) every Kindle reader in the world looking at the cover of a book they’re selling?

As I said in the headline, Amazon just made ads work in books, whether we like it or not.

Kindle Library Lending – What You Need to Know

Amazon announced this morning that they are rolling out their support for library lending to 11,000 libraries (read: 11,000 libraries in the United States). This has been a long time coming, and the deal and technology has so many moving parts I wasn’t sure if it ever would. But are libraries a part of our digital book future? And should they be?

First of all: the history. Amazon hasn’t made connections with all of those 11,000 libraries all alone. To access the libraries they went through Overdrive. Overdrive is an ebook distributor/wholesaler, who has primarily been concentrating on the library market for the last few years. They’ve done well – almost every library ebook lending service is powered by Overdrive. However, Overdrive’s service has previously only supported ePub and Adobe’s DRM scheme. That means that it only worked with devices that support Adobe’s DRM – for example the Sony eReader, Nook, Kobo, iPad (via Overdrive’s app) and other less successful devices. The partnership with Amazon opens up Amazon’s entire platform to library lending.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a one-way street. Amazon’s major strength as a platform has always been its range of ebooks. The Kindle’s range is by far the biggest of the ebook vendors. This range of ebooks is not suddenly going to be available for lending now that Amazon has joined up with Overdrive for library lending. All it means is that the same ebooks that are currently available to Overdrive’s customers via their local library will now also be available to Kindle owners (or owners of iPads, iPhones or Android devices who use the Kindle app).

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons. First of all, libraries still have to buy access for their patrons to individual titles. And they’re not all buying. Second of all, many publishers have not made their ebooks available to Overdrive for lending to libraries. Why? Because it’s still a model that has bugs.

Dead tree libraries are limited by what they can fit on their shelves, their budgets for purchasing and, in the end, that each book can only be borrowed by one person at a time for a certain amount of time. These are physical limitations that don’t apply to ebooks at all. At the moment, Overdrive imposes physical limitations on library lended ebooks – dependent on what the publisher has agreed to. For the most part it is two week lending, and only one person can borrow one ebook at a time. Some publishers (like HarperCollins) have imposed further limitations, allowing that each ebook a library makes available can only be borrowed 26 times before the library must buy anther copy of the book. As many have said, these limitations seem to be quite artificial in a digital world.

But what is the alternative? Books cost something. Libraries foot the bill for that cost in the dead tree model. It is difficult to evaluate how to make that cost work in a library environment for a book that will never wear out and could be copied by a thousand people at a time with no degradation of the original. All limitations in this model will have to be artificial, or else there will be no limitations. And that will inevitably undermine the business model for publishing books in the first place. I don’t have an answer for how to balance that equation, or indeed if libraries will even work as a repository for digital books in the future at all.

What do you think about digital libraries? Do you borrow ebooks from your local library? What kinds of limitations do they have? Why do you think publishers should support libraries (and how much should they charge?). Sound off in the comments below.

The Challenges and Benefits of Digital-only Publishing

Some rights reserved by donjd2

This article was adapted from a speech given at the National Editors’ Conference on 8 September, 2011.

I’m a fan of the dead tree book. Even though I call them dead tree books. Paper books are an amazing technology. There’s a reason they’ve lasted for five hundred years. They’re cheap to produce, durable, beautiful and they smell good. But even the best technology has its limitations. Compared to digital storage, paper is slow and expensive.

And so is traditional print publishing. Think of big publishing companies as massive oceanliners. They haul a tremendous amount of baggage, they have a tremendous amount of power and it can take several crucial hours to turn away from the iceberg. Unlike the Titanic, though, I imagine that the band won’t be playing as the ship goes down – instead, editors will be arguing about whether it’s really a good idea to move the copyright page to the back of the book.

Momentum, on the other hand, has been set up from the beginning to be small, nimble and unencumbered by the traditional way of doing things.

And that, really, is the main reason why we set-up Momentum. To be an advance scout. To experiment and learn the lessons for the mothership before it’s too late to change course. I prefer to think of us as a tugboat rather than a life raft. It isn’t too late. We might take on some water, but we’re not all going to drown. But that isn’t the whole story. The story begins with the iceberg itself.

The iceberg represents the problems that are facing the publishing industry. The book isn’t dying, and it’s certainly not dead. But the printed book as it stands today is under threat. To even consider acquiring a book, a publisher has to think they have a reasonable chance of selling at least three thousand copies at upwards of twenty dollars each. That isn’t impossible, but it’s getting harder. And it’s new and developing authors who suffer. The print book is moving inexorably in two directions – at one end there is the beautifully designed, very expensive gift book. At the other end is a retail environment where it is only economical to sell blockbusters – a Top 40 business.

The problem with that is that it chokes off emerging talent and those authors who have a small but steady readership. New authors need guidance, development, care, attention and just a little bit of money if they’re going to hone their skills and build their audience.

We are in the unique position of helping authors develop. It’s quite a specific skill. Authors want their books to be as good as they can be. Readers want each book to be better than the last. The better books are in general, the more people will read.

Some of the world’s biggest authors were allowed to develop a readership over several books. Ian Rankin, famously, took nine books or more to get to international superstar level. Pan Macmillan’s own Di Morrissey had ten books before she really cracked the bestseller list. Even if we look closer to the midlist now you’ll find authors like Tony Park, who has successfully been building his sales book by book. But Tony started publishing seven books ago. Do publishers have deep enough pockets and enough patience to build that success with an author they sign up today?

Every new author is a potential bestseller, and bestsellers are what keep a traditional publishing company afloat. So that’s the iceberg in the distance. It isn’t in the immediate future, but it’s on the horizon.

At Momentum we are trying to get back to the roots of why most of us got into the book world to begin with – and that’s passion for stories. The biggest pressure on us as publishers and editors is that there are times when we find great stories that we simply can’t publish, and that’s a tragedy. At Momentum we think we’ve found a way of getting past that problem, and we do that by reaching out to a new and rapidly increasing audience of readers.

Momentum has flexibility. In print you can only publish books that are about 60,000 words up to about 200,000 words, and that’s being generous. Digital-only publishing isn’t limited by word length. Short stories, long-form journalism and essays may all find a place in the digital world.

Digital-only publishing is also very fast. We can get books on digital shelves much more quickly than a print publisher. And we’ll never run out of stock when a book goes viral. Digital books are not limited by shelf space – a digital bookseller will never tell you “sorry, there’s no market for that homoerotic science-fiction novel” even though you know it’s totally awesome. Digital books have global reach – a book published by Momentum from Sydney can be read by a Texan stay-at-home mum as easily as it can be read by a German university student.

Of course all of this wonderful accessibility opens up a whole new set of problems for publishers, which can loosely be grouped under “discoverability”. How do digital readers find digital books? Who, in fact, are these digital readers? We think they boil down to three broad categories. There is the rapidly expanding mainstream audience who have always bought paper books but are considering buying an e-reader, and probably will do so in the next 24 months. There are the early adopters, the people who’ve had a Kindle since 2007 or a Palm Pilot since 1997 and no longer buy paper books at all. And then there are the young people – kids and teenagers who have never bought a paper book and probably never will.

Traditional publishers have generally aimed the majority of their marketing efforts at booksellers and journalists. Even though every major publisher is putting a substantial amount of effort into digital marketing, it’s still something that’s seen as an adjunct to traditional publicity and marketing.

I think that to reach these new audiences without the benefit of a print book is going to require a very different kind of marketing. And to be brutally honest, it’s not the kind of marketing anyone is absolutely sure how to do just yet.

My hunch, though, is that it’s going to require a holistic approach. Long before acquisition right through to the end result, publishers will need to have a very good idea of who the audience is, what they want and how to reach them. Publishing will have to become laser-guided. I once heard someone say that the R&D department of a publishing company is the publishing department. In the digital-only world, however, we can be more deliberate. We can’t just throw books out there and hope they stick. Not when the internet gives us the tools to understand the audience for particular books in a way that we’ve never had access to before.

At Momentum we’re tackling this head on by ensuring the ratio between digital publicity and marketing and publishing is 2:1. There is a horde of books out there, but finding the right readers for those books takes time, dedication and skill. Publicity, marketing and publishing need to feed into each other and work together to bring books to publication.

Now this might sound suspiciously like we’re letting the market decide what books should get published. And you know what? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The audience should dictate what gets published. Not booksellers. Not book critics. Not even publishers. If there isn’t an audience for a book, we shouldn’t be publishing it. The publishing industry can no longer stay in an ivory tower. Authors can’t write into a void. The online world is connected, hungry and knows what it wants. The publisher’s role is to facilitate connecting that hungry audience to the author, and to help make the meal as delicious as possible.

That is the essence of curation in a global digital world. It isn’t about gatekeeping. It’s about understanding the community of readers and writers and building relationships between the two.

None of this is to say that good writing won’t find a home. In fact, I think good writing will find a home in the digital world more easily than in print. The audience for every single digital book is potentially global. And that means we can and should publish books that may not have ever been put into print before.

When Angela James came out from Harlequin US recently, she mentioned a title they’re launching this year that can loosely be described as paranormal, gay, erotic horror fiction. People have accused traditional publishers of racing to the bland middle ground to maximise their audience. Publishing digital-only books is all about racing to the edge. There’s an internet meme called Rule 34. Rule 34 states that if you can think of it, there is a fetish for it on the internet.

Of course, by edge I don’t just mean marginal or trivial. I also don’t mean they need to be weird, genre-bending books that only a niche would enjoy reading. However, the internet gives us access to specific readership numbers within niche communities – centred around unique pageviews, Twitter followers, Facebook connections and the like. We can use this information to justify publication of digital books in almost the same way that we use sales data of comparison titles to justify publication in the print world. A niche, in a global market, is not really that niche.

Which brings me to the literary market. The biggest niche of them all. In the print world, “literary” is a short hand word that means “not many people will read this book but it’s damn good”. In the digital world, a literary book that might not even get a print run up in a traditional publishing company can, at the right price, with the right team of people helping out, find an audience big enough to cover costs and earn a little bit extra.

There are lots of challenges facing Momentum and digital-only publishing in general. The selling periods that we’ve relied upon for years may no longer apply in a global sales environment. Fathers Day? Mothers Day? We share Mothers Day with the United States, but not the UK. We share Fathers Day with nobody, but it’s the same day in the UK and the US. Christmas is somewhat universal, but is there a gift market for ebooks anyway? What about summer holiday reading? When does summer holiday even start in the other English speaking territories? Who says books even have to be purchased during business hours? Early research seems to be suggesting that there’s a big spike in ebook sales after 10pm on a Sunday when people are preparing their reading for the commuting week. What else will we discover as we dig deeper into these patterns?

Rather than being the death knell of the book, digital publishing creates opportunities for new books and new audiences. And that inevitably means a new kind of editing. Editors will have to get used to work of drastically varying lengths and completely different idioms and dialects. There will be new skills to learn and new technologies to explore. Some editors are going to have to be as familiar with the quirks of XML and CSS as they are now with widows and orphans and typesetting mark-up. Editors will no longer have the luxury of being the authority on all things. There will be plenty of questions we don’t know the answer to before we ask them. There may well be no entirely accurate style guide.

But in comparison to the rest of the book trade editorial is going to be the calm centre of the storm. Editing is going nowhere. It is just as vital to digital books as it is to print. When the self-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking decided to take a multi-million dollar deal with St Martins Press one of the main reasons she did it was for the access to editorial support. She knew that her books were reaching an audience and that people were responding to her characters and stories. But she also knew that she could be a better writer and that she’d gone as far as she could on her own. Good editors are going to be a scarce resource. Well-edited books are going to do better than the cesspool that is the Kindle Direct Publishing program. We’re standing on the edge of a brave new frontier and all that is holding back linguistic oblivion is us.

The Many Faces of the Kindle

So Amazon have finally started officially letting word out about their new tablet. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has used one himself, and TechCrunch put together the mock-up above to demonstrate how it looks. The tablet will be called a ‘Kindle’ – not a Kindle Pad, or a Kindle Slate or any of the other variations thrown around. I can’t decide if that’s a good move or not – capitalising on the branding/cachet of saying you own a Kindle whilst risking confusion about what a Kindle actually is. Either way, this new Kindle is going to be focused squarely at the book reading market, which is a good thing for all digital readers.

As you can see from the mock-up above the new Kindle will be focused on the content, providing a carousel / CoverFlow like interface that puts the stuff you own on the device, rather than the device itself, at the forefront of the experience. This is quite different to the iPad, and to other Android-based tablets, and I’m sure that’s deliberate. Amazon isn’t shy about owning their own ecosystem through and through, and that’s almost certainly why they’ve been so successful with it. They’ll be using their own Amazon-branded app store, which they launched for Android-based devices at the end of last year. Even the flavour of Android they’re using on the Kindle is completely different to the one used on smartphones and other Android tablets, and apparently there isn’t a Google app to be seen anywhere on the device (Google is responsible for the lion’s share of the development of Android – and releases it for free as open-source to the developer community, which means it can be easily changed by vendors like Amazon to suit their purposes).

So, on to the details. The new Kindle will be 7″ (somewhere between an iPhone and an iPad – and the same size as the original Galaxy Tab by Samsung). It will only have WiFi – no 3G. It looks like it doesn’t include a camera of any sort. But here’s the kicker – it’ll be $250. That’s half the price of the entry-level iPad, and a good hundred bucks cheaper than the cheapest Android tablets. Granted, it’s not going to be as useful as an iPad, but this is going to seriously complicate how I answer the “Should I get an iPad or Kindle?” question.

So what do you think? Will you be tempted to get a new Kindle? Is this something that would lure you away from e-ink? Or is this device just falling between the cracks of usefulness – a big phone without 3G mobile data that isn’t as easy to read on as an e-ink reader? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.