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A new survey from the Boston Consulting Group, covered well at Goodnight, Gutenberg, shows that consumers are aware of e-readers, interested in multi-purpose e-reading devices, and planning to buy one in the next three years, but prices have to come down to around $200 first. Note: of the nearly 13,000 respondents, 49% plan to buy an e-reader in the next three years.

I’ll give you that link to the coverage at Goodnight, Gutenberg again. Their summary is worth reading.

Meanwhile, publishers are “trying to apply the old rules,” according to Joe Wikert — and he’s right. Instead of changing things up, publishing to formats exploiting the capabilities of current or forthcoming e-readers, pricing things appropriately, finding ways to go direct, or solving the use-case, publishing are engaging in shovelware again.

So, for something that 49% of readers expect to own by 2013, we’re just going to wait?

Haven’t we learned anything in the past decade?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


29 Thoughts on "E-Readers Will Take Centerstage If Prices Drop, Yet Publishers Still Have Two Left Feet"

The study info is ambiguous. It says that half the people plan to buy in 3 years, but also that prices must come way down and features go way up. Is the 49% sales figure contingent on these breakthroughs? If so it may never happen, because we are talking about a $200 portable PC.

In any case publishers may want to recall J. D. Rockefeller’s maxim that “pioneering don’t pay.” It is hard to design for a business case that does not exist. On the other hand, Rockefeller was a pioneer.

That’s the problem with both the future and what people say they will do — both are ambiguous and confusing. Apparently, so are Rockefellers.

Just because you haven’t seen enough experimentation yet, at a point when eReaders are a tiny part of the market, doesn’t mean that publishers are not working on new ideas. What you’re seeing right now are the “quick and dirty” attempts to throw things out and see if they stick. More thoughtful approaches are likely to take more time as we learn the actual capabilities of the devices people are willing to buy and how they use them. I know we’ve got several in-house projects going that aren’t likely to see the light of day for at least a year or two.

But there are lots of questions they face, for example, should I be designing for a full-color LCD screen with internet connectivity like the iPad or for a black and white e-ink screen without a browser like the Kindle? How are our customers willing to buy these things, do they want to pay for access to an online product or do they want to download an ePub file? How do I sell something like that to a library? Given the nature of scholarly content, do I need to build an editorial support system for constant updating?

If there are incredibly obvious things we should all be doing though, please let us know.

Pricing is one area Wikert points out publishers aren’t experimenting with in regard to e-readers, in many cases pricing items the same as for newsstand or print. Frequency is another simple experiment publishers could do. “Newsweek” admitted that they were in the thrall of the weekly print cycle and didn’t update online enough to compete. Putting small monographs in e-reader formats — that’s a simple experiment. The NYT’s “Editor’s Choice” is a nice idea, but they won’t make it enough of a product. I’ve tried it, and it’s too tepid. Why not a subscription to each of your best article rubrics?

As for the devices, E-pub makes it relatively easy to do these experiments.

Are those incredibly obvious enough?

So your suggestions are “shovelware” that’s been repackaged and sold at variable prices? Releasing one’s previously held notions about specific containers is important, but it doesn’t sound terribly innovative or revolutionary to me.

I’m more interested in material that’s been tailored to the format, that takes advantage of the technology, rather than just trying to re-use and repackage current print product (Wikert mentions the “Elements” app as one example). These sorts of things take time to develop. The iPad only came out at the end of April, and the iBooks application is not yet out for the iPhone. Given the time it takes to create a standard book from the ground up, why should we expect to have seen anything in a mere month and a half?

As for ePub, we sell a lot of our material as institutional subscriptions. How does ePub fit into that? Do you think that there will suddenly be a new market for individuals purchasing their own ePub version of journals or journal articles? What about a lab manual? If a lab buys a copy, they expect that everyone in the lab would be able to use it. How do you do this with ePub?

Your point about how long it takes to make dazzling things like “Elements” made me look into that. It took them 60 days. Its makers knew the iPad was coming out, and were able to launch it in concert with the iPad. So, yes, they take time to develop, but this example proves it’s possible to do it well and quickly, but also to do it in anticipation of what’s to come. Given that you’ve had a month and a half, you should be 3/4 of the way done with your version of “Elements.” Right?

(I say this when our own iPad application has been back-burnered because we can’t find anything worth making solely for the iPad, so we’re focusing on the iPhone. Bigger installed base, and it benefits more from custom development, while the iPad has a browser that does what we need.)

Your point about institutional subscriptions reminds me of a statement made at a recent conference — publishers screwed up the web, but maybe they won’t screw up mobile. In other words, subordinating customer information and individualized purchasing to site licenses and “free information” arguments needs to stop. You’re suggesting that mobile devices should perpetuate the same business models as desktop computers. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

Ultimately, customers will define our success. They’re moving to e-readers. They’re expecting some innovation on the pricing, construction, content fronts. Wikert’s points were about publishers not making simple adjustments to this emerging customer demand.

What price should we plan for technical books, $100 or $10? It makes a difference. If it is $100 or more than I can do some whiz-bang stuff with lots of hyper-links (which are expensive to design well).

If $10 then I don’t want to do anything. I will take the Rockefeller strategy of waiting for the shakeout then buying some of the winners. The premise that anyone who is not out in front will lose is not valid. For many publishers “wait and see” may be the best plan. Innovation is a bloody field.

I love it — you’re definitely in the “shovelware” mode when you think of these things as “books.” Why not sell each chapter? It’s a simple adjustment. I wasn’t arguing that every response publishers should make to the e-reader market is about “whiz-bang stuff,” but offering the idea that simple adjustments can be made sooner rather than later.

You can take the strategy of waiting, but most people who start behind stay behind. I’ve seen again and again that the subtle lessons, the customer-aligned instincts, and the major benefits of starting early only gain momentum over the years. Laggards and wallflowers can feel like they succeed by following, but they’re usually following at a much lower altitude.

Innovation isn’t bloody. Sitting around while predators lurk? That’s bloody.

First you say we are going to transcend books, then you call for “simple adjustments.” You can’t have it both ways. It is precisely this kind of technological ambiguity that makes caution a reasonable strategy.

Breaking books apart is a simple adjustment that transcends the practice of publishing and selling works defined by cardboard and cloth bindings, and it is simple. Part of Wikert’s complaint is about this habit of shoveling a catalog and price sheet onto devices. Innovation comes in a lot of forms. O’Reilly and others have made a real living out of this type of innovation. Why not try it?

Caution is a reasonable strategy, but not a wise one, I’d argue.

Oh, and by the way, innovation is often about having it both ways. Just sayin’.

This is really a key now, with such nascent markets and developing devices. One strategy is to put things out in a variety of manners and see what sticks to the wall. There’s some inefficiency and extra expense there, but at the very least, publishers need to think about their workflow, and about creating products in formats that can easily be broken down and reconfigured into new forms as they become more obvious.

Perjorative terms like laggard and wallflower do not describe the Rockefeller buy-in strategy. My point is there is more than one way to play this game. The structure of technological revolutions is not that simple. Established firms do not have to compete with start-ups, because they have different strengths. Your one size fits all innovation strategy is too narrow.

The “pejorative” terms are descriptive and evocative. I agree, there is more than one way to play this — as a leader setting the tone or as a supplier to leaders. Tech firms decided to lead in media. Who dictates terms now? Not the suppliers.

Kent, responding down here. Wikert seems to love “Elements”, he regularly refers to it. But I see it as a limited, “novelty” sort of publication. Certainly it points out the differences between the development of quality scholarly material and other, faster types of publication. A lab manual takes a minimum of 1.5 years, a textbook usually takes longer than that. I think you could certainly put product out faster than that, but the quality would suffer. And that’s a balance we discuss frequently here–do you want to be a publisher that puts out the top-notch, highly valued material, or someone who cranks out quick, quantity, “good enough” material? I’m not willing to sacrifice our reputation just to get a toe into a nascent market. I’d rather do things right.

I’m not sure either that the institutional subscription is the right business model for eBooks and such. The problem is that our customers (librarians and readers) have expectations for how things will work. Failing to meet those expectation may hurt sales. It’s unclear if every single person in the lab is going to be willing to buy an e-Lab Manual to read on their iPhone, or if they expect to buy one copy for the entire lab or if they expect their librarian to buy one copy for the entire campus. Determining the best sales model that works best for both the customer and the seller is going to take some experimentation.

As you point out, Wikert is right, but he’s talking to weekly news magazines and newspapers, so there’s a level where what he wants doesn’t translate directly to a textbook.

Also, there are alternatives to products specific for eBooks and eReaders for the sorts of business models you’re discussing. As many have pointed out, the killer app for the iPad and iPhone is Safari. We’ve taken our lab manual program and turned it into an electronic product where you can subscribe to the entire collection or purchase each article on an individual basis (or still buy the print book). Ditto our long-running monograph series. It’s not exciting and flashy, but it has, so far, proven effective and popular.

David, I agree about “Elements.” I tried it when I was trying my iPad, and it was superficially beautiful but substantially lacking, and I quickly tired of it. Meanwhile, I’m really enjoying “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” on my Kindle, and the Onion’s weekly humorfest on my Kindle is awesome. Note the two examples. One is a traditional book shoveled to a limited device, and it works. The second is from a publisher that actually exemplifies the modern age — the Onion is hugely successful, and started with a mixed-media model, and just keeps mixing it up more. They’ve been innovating since Day One, and if I were funnier, I’d definitely want to work there.

The danger of buying into the hype is as great as, if not greater than, the danger of being left behind.

What companies dominate music sales, book sales, and soon movie sales (and possibly serials/peiodicals sales)? Risk-taking technology companies. The evidence against your notion of caution is all around you.

But none of these are publishers. So why do you advise publishers to become risk-taking technology companies? You may be confusing publishing (creating information) with digital distribution. There is a lot of that going around.

I am not advocating caution per se, just a different strategy, a more thoughtful strategy, with its own risks. It is interesting that you can’t see that. The real threat in technological revolutions is often confusion, not innovation. The wonderful rhyme “when in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout” captures this very nicely.

Counselling people to go in all directions is not helpful; it is part of the problem.

I’ve acknowledged twice that I see your idea as a reasonable separate strategy. I just don’t agree that it’s a wise one. Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Smashwords, WordPress, SEED, Nature, BMJ, National Geographic, NPR — none if them are going in “every” direction. Each has a core business it’s pursued tenaciously and strategically, each is able to lead because of this. I’d warn against confusing the issues we’re facing with technologies. Design, ideas, customer empowerment, network effects, and pricing advantages are where they win — and these culminate as innovation.

Your idea is reasonable, but my point is that instead of owning a casino in Vegas — the only sure way to win big — your plan feels like saving up a few thousand dollars to play at the tables you don’t control.

Kind of a mixed message here Kent. You’re encouraging us to develop products for use on the new devices from the technology companies, then you’re concerned that they’re going to dominate the industry. If we do as you ask, create great products for the iPad, the Kindle, and such, aren’t we ensuring their dominance?

Surely you don’t expect publishers to become hardware companies. When that happens, you end up with the Joo Joo. Seriously, if HP, Palm, Sony and Dell can’t compete with Google, Apple and Amazon in this market, why do you think a small society publisher is likely to succeed by building their own device?

Well, it is mixed on the hardware front. But why not? Amazon did it. Maybe Nature or SEED will. Why not?

Before that, though, making software instead of just content seems wise. And modifying business models is also sensible.

Writing software is neither simple nor inexpensive. It either means hiring new staff or taking on a tech partner. And with this, it means writing software for an existing device, further cementing that device’s dominance.

And if Nature or Seed creates a market dominating device, is that likely to create a better situation than Apple doing so? Amazon clearly wants to be in the publishing business. Apple seems less interested in this as a business, more as a means to sell devices. Do you think that if Seed or NPG had a monopoly on a popular outlet that they’d make it easy for competing publishers to access? Is this something that we really want to encourage and hope for?

Also, can you tell us anything about the hardware/software that the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery is creating?

I can’t tell you what we might be considering here because I’ve been here less than 6 months. But I can tell you that currently, I’m not dismissing the notion — either for hardware or software. Dismissing the notion seems to me like a mistake, both because each is becoming more feasible (affordable, scalable) and more attractive to users.

I think it’s likely that most publishers have some projects running that they’re unwilling to discuss at this point (we certainly have some as well). That may be why you’re not seeing much action yet, which is leading to your frustration.

But I will note that the idea of developing and manufacturing a sophisticated piece of computer hardware is outside of our core competence, and not something most publishers are likely to pull off anytime in the near future.

I do not believe that “innovation is often about having it both ways.” If we should be preparing for a very big change then making small adjustments is pointless, or worse, an expensive waste of time.

Three reasons why I will never get an e-reader:

1) I own at least 200 books that I haven’t read yet.

2) I read books in the bathtub. Sometimes I fall asleep in the bathtub. Sometimes I fall asleep while reading in the bathtub. Sometimes I drop the book into the bathtub.

3) As an author, I’m wondering how do you autograph an e-book?

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