Archive for Commentary
We live in a world of tremendous political upheaval and lobbying groups consistently push their own agenda. When it comes to digital books, they are less immune to being edited or certain passages, words or phrases being replaced and substituted with something else. How do we know our eBooks are not being altered when we buy them from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo or iBooks?
Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884. There are over 200 racial slurs spread throughout the book and it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the USA, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright. Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books published in 2011 a new edition of the book that replaced certain words with more politically correct ones. The publisher went on a PR speaking tour of libraries and schools to hype the fact this particular version of the book is acceptable to be sold.
One of the big proponents that contribute to the overall problem is open sourced books that are royalty free and not have a copyright. Many publishers such as Penguin resell them as Penguin Classics, and other companies like Project Gutenberg give them away for free. Public domain books can be edited or changed without reason and then resold and distributed through other self-publishing platforms. There are no gatekeepers, no one to make the judgement call if this is best practice.
Many European countries actively erect barriers to combat the problem of changing words in a book. They have what’s known as a moral rights that has no time limit. So you are not allowed to significantly change work and publish it even if the commercial copyright has expired. Moral rights have had a less robust tradition in the United States. Copyright law in the United States emphasizes protection of financial reward over protection of creative attribution.
In a recent thread at the e-reading website MobileRead one user explained their reasons of changing the fabric of a book “I recently uploaded The Queen of Hearts (a collection of novels written in the 1850s) by Wilkie Collins to the MR library. As well as changing ‘gayety’ to ‘gaiety’ and ‘gayly’ to ‘gaily’ I also changed ‘gay’ to ‘light-hearted’. I did this because the English language has changed in the last 150 odd years. In our day ‘a gay man’ would almost certainly be read as ‘a homosexual man,’ and this is simply not what Collins meant – he would have used a different term if he had dared to mention a character’s sexual orientation at all. I did add a note to the posting that I had updated spelling and hyphenation – I also changed ‘to-day’ to ‘today’ for example.”
We are experiencing turbulent times when books are banned and publishers want to push out their own sanitized versions. Others merely clean up old English with modern day English to make books more accessible. Many people believe making any edits is a horrible violation of the author’s work and a disservice to readers. I lean towards that mentality primarily due to respecting literary history.
Authors are battling the economics of words in the modern era of traditional and self-publishing. Many book deals encourage authors to release a set number of books a year and indies need to engineer their own ebooks, do their own layouts and generate the books to ePub and Kindle friendly formats. Trade authors need to pump out as many books as possible and indies shoulder a tremendous amount of burden to not only write a book, but market it stronger to get sales. All of these factors are contributing to the overall decline of quality and the death of the great American novel.
Author Tracy Hickman was responsible for the success of TCR publishing with his Dragonlance chronicles. Dragons of Autumn Twilight captured the imaginations of many youth in 1984. After his run with the publisher he engaged in self-publishing six years ago. He now works 12-14 hours a day writing four times the books he’s comfortable writing because he makes a fourth of what he used to. During a recent interview at AnomalyCon in Denver Tracy said “My audience of 6 million no longer find me because the book store is dying. A book signing in older days would have fans lining around blocks just to have my signature, but a booksigning now might only get six people. I have a 6 million following and they don’t remember me.”
Tracys comments of self-publishing eliminating success on the physical retail level are quite telling. Borders, B. Daltons and Waldens are all bankrupt and out of business, the process of book discovery has been severely diminished. Self-publishers normally just do it digitally and it limits the reach of the books, but does allow them to make more money.
Authors like Stephen King, James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Maya Banks and many others pump out more than five titles a year. They have big publishing deals that mandate X amount of books being sent out. Authors who do not have a well known names are often forced to either not write at all or change their genres. Many big New York publishing companies are not really accepting submissions for vampire paranormal or erotica books because the market is too saturated. Unless you are a EL James, Silva Day or Anne Rice you will have to write about something else.
Lee Siegel wrote a piece for the New York Observer back in 2010 declaring that the American public no longer talk about novels and that this creative form, once so full of fire, has lost its spark for ever. “For about a million reasons,” Siegel claimed, “fiction has now become a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers. For better or for worse, the greatest storytellers of our time are the non-fiction writers.”
There has been no notable great American novels since self-publishing became popular in 2007. Authors who switch from trade to self-pub like having more flexibility and a greater revenue stream. The stark truth is that they are under the gun to write serialized fiction, short fiction and Kindle Singles in order to make mortgage payments and to sustain their lifestyle. There is no time to write that epic novel because they need to be making money pronto. Authors who sign with a publishing label are often stifled by their chosen literary genre and are discouraged by editors and agents to not branch out. All authors have to sell themselves by visiting libraries, doing book signings, visiting literary events, writing on a blog and engaging in social media. It is a full time job to promote yourself and write at the same time, all of these factors combine degrade the quality of literature.
We live in a world where each major operating system has a digital assistant. Apple is the most well known with Siri, followed by Google Now and the recently announced Microsoft Cortana. The priority seems to be on mobile phones and to a lesser degree tablets. e-Readers have never had this sort of software, but maybe its high-time they start to incorporate it.
During the last few years most e-readers have ditched onboard audio of any kind. A few years ago Amazon, B&N and Kobo all had speakers and a 3.5 mm headphone jack to allow readers to listen to music or audiobooks. When they all decided to offer the most cost effective devices possible and compete heavily against each other, audio had to go. This prompted a massive backlash from the National Federation of the Blind which had numerous protests outside Amazon headquarters. The lack of audio has also been a major factor on why schools never embraced them.
e-Readers overall are fairly refined and affordable. I think its time that they start to incorporate audio functionality once more, or at least have a higher priced option for consumers. One of the direct benefits would be for a digital assistant that would be able to aid visually impaired people by being able to launch tasks by voice. You could say “Michael, open the Hunger Games – Catching Fire” and it would open the book for you. Alternatively, after reading the book you could prompt the reader to buy the next one in the series. In addition you could do common tasks like access your Dropbox account or open an audiobook.
If a digital assistant were to be done right, it would suddenly make e-readers more accessible for the elderly and disabled. It would make purchasing and opening content much easier and give a reason for companies like Kobo to develop an audiobook catalog.
The idea for this news item came to me after reading about Microsoft Cortana. This is a new beta feature that will come out with the release of Microsoft Mobile 8.1. It has integration with Skype that will allow you to call people by merely using your voice. It has compatibility with Bing to search the web and is voiced by the same voice actor that did Cortana in the Halo Series.
Do you think this idea makes sense? Programming one on Linux would be the most viable solution, as most companies use it for their OS. Sony and Nook buckle the trend with Android, but are minor players in the arena.
Three years ago e-readers seemed to embrace new technology and give customers a reason to update their devices. In 2011 and 2012 we saw high resolution displays, color e-paper and the ability to read in the dark with front-lit screens. The constant innovation was directly attributed to the sheer amount of e-readers shipped between 2010 and 2012. Why the lack of innovation? e Ink, the largest company devoted to e-paper screen technology has become complacent.
e-reader orders from companies like Amazon, Kobo, Sony and B&N have fell in the last few years. Total sales in 2013 were 13 million units vs 2012 where 14.9 million were sold. The largest boom period was in 2011 with 23.2 million units were shipped worldwide.
The decline of e-reader sales were partly attributed to the consolidation of the industry. Indie companies such as Cool-ER, Entourage, iRex, Pandigital, Colby and many others went out of business. Bookeen, Ectaco, Icarus, Onyx, Pocketbook Wexler and others still exist, but they manufacture way less products. Major players in the industry such as Sony have scaled back on production and abandoned the North American market altogether. Barnes and Noble has seen almost one billion dollars of loss on their e-reader endeavor and is a non-factor in the industry. Amazon and Kobo are the only big players left in the game.
The other primary factor responsible for the decline of e-readers is the lack of innovation from e Ink. The company has become complacent, only releasing incremental updates and has a bloated portfolio of old technology. They are simply not investing in the future of e-readers and are clinging to old technology. The last major thing they developed was Triton, a color e-paper solution. Only two companies ever bought into this technology and it basically went nowhere.
The current generation of products that e Ink is actively marketing is Carta and Mobius. Basically the technologies main benefits are better contrast, more lightweight and higher resolution. Hardly gamechangers.
80% of e Inks revenue still derives from e-reader screen sales, but most of their focus is on digital signage. They are incorporating the essence of their technology into airport, luggage, clocks, watches and grocery labels. Instead of developing next generation e-reader tech, they are spreading themselves too thin, at the expense of their core market.
The lack of innovation from e Ink is forcing their main partners to look at other avenues. Amazon purchased Liquavista from Samsung last year, and is rumored to be using color e-paper in future Kindles and tablets.
I appreciate what companies like e Ink and Neonode have done for the e-reader industry. Without them, we would not have the long-battery life and easy to read devices we sometimes take for granted. e Ink as a company is one of the easiest to approach and always have time to talk to the media. It just feels like the world is passing them by and they have lost the disruptive spirit that had in 2010 and 2011.
There are a few things I would recommend for e Ink in order to continue to stay relevant and start to innovative again. I would purchase Pixel QI, they have patents and have not been active since 2012, when Mary Lou Jepsen got hired at Google. There tech is a bit outdated by today’s standards, but they have hundreds of deals with government, military, and Chinese smartphone and tablet companies. I would also purchase Plastic Logic, a company that is at a crossroads of identity. They have RND in California and the UK, with a factory in Dresden. They have been doing excelled prototypes with secondary screens for cell phones and paperthin screens that have loads of potential. It is basically about acquiring patents and assimilating new talent. e Ink could do amazing things with executive John Ryan from Pixel QI and the RND team at Plastic Logic. It would inject a burst of creativity and open new markets for them. It might not change the game with e-readers, but it would allow them to survive the coming storm.
Industry analysts are claiming that by 2020 50% of all digital books will be written by indie authors. This is going to create massive problems for online bookstores who constantly wrestle with eBook discovery. Simply put, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo did not design their systems to take into account 25,000 new indie titles submitted to their services every month. They were designed for traditional publishers. Without spending hundreds of millions of dollars in redesigning their entire infrastructure, there is a simpler, more elegant solution. Indie authors need to have their books segregated from traditionally published books.
Traditional publishers are beginning to feel a financial pinch due to the dirge of self-published eBooks. Recently Harlequin stated, “The proliferation of less expensive, and free, self-published works could negatively impact Harlequin’s revenues in the future.” Self-Published books have basically forced the company to shed staff and overhead costs in order to remain competitive.
Forget 2020, right now the onslaught of self-published titles is causing chaos in online bookstores all over the world. Last October a massive firestorm erupted due to hundreds of adult eBooks with topics ranging from threesomes to incest were being listed in the same category as kids’ books. Major booksellers such as WH Smith shuttered their digital bookstores, resulting in thousands of customers unable to buy books at all. This was basically a Kobo problem, since WH Smith actually has a license with Kobo to sell digital books. Not only did Kobo get dissected by mainstream media, but they pissed off authors by deleting over one thousand titles from vanity presses and their own Writing Life platform.
Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo all have self-publishing platforms that allow writers to submit content right to their websites. Other companies such as Smashwords and LULU have distributing programs that allow their own pool of authors to submit content. There is no quality and control over the books when they are put up for sale, other than abiding by general formatting principles. Since there is no vetting process, there are hundreds of thousands of indie titles listed side by side with traditional publishing.
Not only do we have a massive problem with adult content still creating problems in every major bookstore, but eBook discovery is also being hampered. Indie writers are using keywords they shouldn’t use. Instead of being realistic they are using keywords from other popular books so they show up when customers do search queries for existing titles. Amazon is actually cracking down on this process, but there are too many titles being uploaded to manually get them all.
A few days ago, I wrote a piece about self-publishers not being considered real authors. You are only considered a real author if you can make your living solely from the book sales. If you can’t, you are merely a writer, which is still fine. The reason I wrote that post is the industry needs to define the good writers from the bad. The primary way we can do this is by sales figures; if authors make their living from publishing, they are often considered good writers. Once we can define a good writer from a bad, we can start to segregate them.
All major bookstores have indie titles listed side by side traditionally published books. Normally, traditionally published books have an expectation of quality in editing, cover art, formating, and foreign translations. I am not saying all traditionally published books are good, but there is some expectation of quality in being able to read it. Indie titles have no quality and control, often they are merely submitting a Word document to Amazon and clicking publish. Having indie books listed alongside properly published books is causing massive issues.
My suggestion is for all major online bookstores that take submitted indie content to create their own sections for self-published writers. These titles should not be listed side by side with the traditional press. Indie titles should have their own dedicated sections until such time as they reach a certain threshold in sales. Once they can attain an arbitrary sales milestone, they are drafted to the big leagues and listed in the main bookstore. This idea has merit as every single sports organization in the world as the minor leagues and the big leagues. The minor leagues hone talent and develop them into good athletes who eventually get the call up.
Once you can separate indie authors from traditional published ones, it will solve a ton of issues facing the publishing industry. You will solve the problem of eBook discovery and readers will once again find a solid read faster. Searching algorithms do not have to be totally redone, you just need to have one for indie titles and one for real books. You will not have adult XXX content listed in the kids section or have people stuffing their books with negative keywords. Traditional publishers will seem more appealing and they can tap into the draft pool of indie writers to sign them to long-term book deals. Finally, the issue of Public Domain Books being repackaged as new books will be squashed for good.
If bookstores do not segregate self-published writers their entire ecosystems will be ruined. There will be so many titles listed on their bookstores that you will not be able to casually browse your favorite genre, hoping to find a good read. Take Smashwords for example, what normal human being browses that bookstore to buy and read books? It is a cesspool of poorly edited, poorly written and has no quality or control. These same books are being distributed to every major bookstore, basically creating huge problems. Right now, check out the Amazon bookstore in the Romance section. Even on page 1 is nothing but self-published books, with terrible cover art. These titles need to be culled, ASAP.
Hugh Howey is a self-published author who leveraged Kindle Direct Publishing to distribute his Silo Saga about a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They have sold over 300,000 copies in the US and have been optioned for a movie to be directed by Ridley Scott. You might say that Howey is a self-published professional author whot did well for himself. Lately, he has transcended from being a writer to perpetually standing on his virtual soapbox. Indie authors have elevated him to being a poster child for self-publishing and he is giving unrealistic expectations to writers who want to emulate his success.
Wool was one of the breakout success stories for self-publishing. It has been featured on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, and was the number one bestseller on Amazon, where it was also named winner of Kindle Book Review’s Best Indie Book of 2012. He has signed international distribution deals with Random House to have the works translated into foreign languages.
Aside from the success of his books, Hugh is a non-stop promotional machine. Most of his blog posts are endlessly dissected throughout the media and his new Author Earnings website tracks how much some self-published authors are making. In a recent report he said, “Indie authors are outselling the Big Five. That’s the entire Big Five. Combined. Indie and small-press books account for half of the ebook sales in the most popular and bestselling genres on Amazon.”
Hugh is a whirlwind of interviews and Twitter chats that tend to make him accessible to almost anyone who asks. The more hype he builds, the more ebooks he sells. One blogger referred to him as a “patron saint of empowering authors”
But there is a darker side to being Hugh Howey, more than anyone realizes. Indie authors have elevated him to practically a religious figure of the self-publishing movement. He has become the poster child for any writer who has a dream of making it big. He is consistently cited by journalists, bloggers, and indie writers as being a stalwart vanguard of self-publishing and a mirrored reflection of everything indie writers aspire to be.
Recently Howey mentioned, “The key to making it as a writer is to write a lot, write great stories, publish them yourself, spend more time writing, study the industry, act like a pro, network, be nice, invest in yourself and your craft, and be patient. If you can do all of these things, you’ll earn some money. Maybe enough to pay a bill every month. Maybe enough to get out of debt. Maybe enough to quit your job. Thousands of writers are doing this, and we are welcoming all comers with open arms.” You can see by this quote that some of it makes sense. It is also apparent that he is feeding people dreams and wants people to self-publish more.
Howey also tends to make inflammatory remarks to drum up support for himself, his books, and self-publishers in general. “For a long time now, self-publishing has been dismissed as an act of vanity – mainly by frightened executives in publishing houses, who hold up terrible examples of self-published works and say ‘See? This is why we exist.’” You can see by this quote he is alluding that the traditional publishing industry is the evil empire, something self-publishers do not need. Quotes like this manage to rope in more writers who say, “I feel the same way.”
Mike Shatzkin, publishing expert and founder of The Idea Logical Company, called Howey out, saying he is “a much better author and self-promoter than he is a business analyst,” and warns authors his advice is potentially “toxic.”
Hugh consistently makes inflammatory remarks, trying to build resentment towards the traditionally published industry. Recently, he said, “When I was a kid, everybody wished their father owned a candy store.” Hugh’s advice for publishers is to eliminate things that annoy him (non-compete clauses, length-of-copyright licenses, New York City offices) and to lower prices, give away ebooks with hardcover purchases, and pay authors monthly.
His latest business inspiration — a call to arms suggesting to independent authors that they should just eschew traditional publishing or demand it pay them like indie publishing — is potentially much more toxic. Is he most interested in getting more authors self-publishing, or in organizing authors to demand better terms from publishers? Well both, as he is becoming a spiritual figurehead that indie writers with no voice can get behind. He is leveraging popular opinion to try and change the industry. The potential victims of this effort are the very authors he is trying to save. Likely, the outcome of this “revolution” is to widen the gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Instead of banging down walls, he is raising them up. Instead of building bridges he is arming them for detonation.
Critics and industry watchers can hypothesize all they want to about what’s wrong with publishing. Is it these upstart authors coming along and thinking they deserve to publish their garbage? Is it the publishers who wield their iron-leashed authority while practically stealing from authors with their abusive contracts?
No. It’s articles like this one by author Lynn Shepherd, which basically tells JK Rowling, “You had your shot, go back to writing kiddie books and leave adult fiction to us.” Shepherd goes so far as to say that Rowling’s continued publishing efforts are actually bad for the industry as whole, as evidenced by her headline. She suggests that Rowling continue writing for her own pleasure, but that she give up publishing.
This is what’s wrong with the industry. Through troll-like behavior, even “real” authors have taken public stabs at each other while the reading consumers sit back watching the tennis match-style back and forth exchanges. Happily, I am not expecting Rowling to respond to this garbage, as Shepherd’s most recent title is sitting firmly in the 700,000 range on Amazon’s bestseller list. If anyone cares, that’s about 696,000 spots below Snooki’s from Jersey Shore‘s book on motherhood.
And that makes me smile.
According to Shepherd, “So this is my plea to JK Rowling. Remember what it was like when The Cuckoo’s Calling had only sold a few boxes and think about those of us who are stuck there, because we can’t wave a wand and turn our books into overnight bestsellers merely by saying the magic word. By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.”
Luckily, news came today that there may be as many as seven planned titles in Rowling’s series, written as Robert Gilbraith, so Shepherd’s misguided nastiness is hopefully equally pointless. There is no room for public author bashing, certainly not from a disgruntled-yet-traditionally published author whose works just aren’t selling. Her sad attempts at marketing herself with a sensationalist headline and subsequent spoiled-little-girl rant will hopefully not pay off, while someone with the poise and talent of Rowling will ideally not even bother to read the post.
Sony has been selling e-readers since 2006 and only saw 300,000 units being sold until 2008. Everything changed when Amazon got into the eBook and e-reader market and the industry took notice. This increased the visibility of the Sony brand and they sold 800,000 units in 2010, just before the market peaked in 2011.
Sony has seen diminished sales since their peak and they have been on the downward trend ever since. In 2011, Sony accounted for 28% of all e-readers sold in Canada. In 2012, its presence diminished to 18% and in 2013 dropped down to 12%. Last year proved to be the beginning of the end for Sony, as they abandoned the USA market and instead are focusing on Canada, UK, Europe and Australia.
A few weeks ago Sony announced that they were closing down their Reader Store and all books would be transferred over to Kobo. All future e-readers, phones and tablets sold in North America would have the Kobo app loaded on it and Sony would cut a piece of commission for every title sold. Kobo is also paying Sony a licensing fee to have their bookstore replace the one that Sony has been running for a very long time.
Can Sony be saved? They have the financial resources to make it happen, here is my plan to save the Reader Store and bring their e-Readers back into prominence.
Saving the Reader Store
The Sony Reader Store has been operating for a very long time. It wasn’t really a viable bookstore until 2008 when they abandoned their proprietary LRF format and switched to EPUB. This attracted publishers and self-publishing platforms such as Smashwords to easily contribute content in a universally accepted format.
The Reader Store really expanded their reach in the last three years when it expanded into UK, Japan, Germany, Austria, Canada, and Australia, and opened up shop in France, Italy, and Spain in 2012. They have great market position in countries where the digital book selling market is not absolutely corner-stoned.
Natascha Helbig is the director of the Sony Reader Store in the US and Canada. She was instrumental in solidifying publisher relations and launching their book club, book discovery tools, and infographs. When the bookstore first started rolling out these features, she told me in an exclusive interview, “We always look for new and exciting ways for our customers to discover new books and authors, and to learn more about the authors they love. The Sony Readers Book Club was a great experience which brought us closer together with our customers and allowed us to all participate in a reading experience together. We had hundreds of applications for the club and our online chats generated millions of impressions. The book club was a great way to discover new authors and titles and facilitate lively discussions amongst our customers and authors, and those are themes you will continue to see at Reader Store.”
The Sony Reader Store right now is in big trouble. The fact that commissions from Kobo book sales make financial sense and licensing fees outweigh the revenue earned from Reader Store book sales speaks volumes.
If I was in charge of the Reader Store, I would first bring back their book club. They started to do it every month, but after six books decided to abandon the project. Considering it was basically being run through their blog, it makes sense that things fell apart. Book clubs were instrumental in bridging the community and starting a book culture at Sony. This is what they are sorely missing, anyone can sell books, but if you don’t have a community, you are nothing.
I would save the Sony Book clubs by implementing a Netflix of eBooks type of subscription system. You would pay $29.99 a year and get access to a new front-list title every single month. The exact title would be determined by user voting to insure that the one title that was available was voted on by the majority of people participating in the book club. The actual titles available for vote would be curated by someone at Sony to insure they can give the titles away and insure the author was available for a Q/A. Instead of relying on Facebook for community discussion, I would iron out a deal with Goodreads to have a special Sony Book Club discussion center. This could be accessed via the web and a new book club app I would have the boys in IT make. This book club app would be available for Android, where they could subscribe, talk, and read, while the iOS app would just have the social aspect since Sony can’t sell books on Apple. Finally, I would insure the author would participate in a live Spreecast, where they could appear on web-cam, answer peoples live questions and talk about the book.
Sony continues to see moderate success over in Europe and Australia. I would continue to operate normally in these markets, but I would expand into the rising markets where no one controls the digital ecosystem yet and Sony can leverage their strong brand. Brazil, Latin America, and South Africa are the easiest markets to break into due to the political climate and the strong reader base. It is important to not be complacent in the few markets you operate under and continuously have to expand into other markets. This keeps the brand fresh and brings new ideas to the table from local agents and publishers who are feeding Sony books to sell. It would also stimulate hardware sales, selling e-readers for less than the competition.
Website owners may be oblivious to this fact, but the Reader Store has a commission program. They pay bloggers, website owners, and authors 6% of any eBook they sell via people clicking on banner adverts. The problem is there is no information on this at all on the Reader Store website. This are no links to the program or easy enrollment options. Obviously, having other people promote your brand is the easiest way to advertise. I would revise this section, allow people to customize banners on any book they want, and pay people out at the $100 threshold once a month.
Sony needs to lower their prices on their eBooks. Often, they are double the cost of Amazon and basically on par with Apple. The average price of a fiction bestseller at Amazon is $9.99 and at Sony it is $15. Sony needs to sell books at the exact price that Amazon does for key markets in Europe. This is the only way they can promote themselves as being a true Amazon alternative, which is what allowed Kobo to get so strong, so quickly.
In the end, the Reader store needs to lower eBook prices, build community, open a proper subscription based book club, expand into foreign markets and leverage their name brand as a primary mover of growth. Sadly, the Reader Store team is tiny, there are less then eight full time people running the show, a few interns, and that’s it.
The Sony e-Reader Regains its Prominence
Sony has close to eleven e-readers in their product portfolio and has been a solid brand since 2006. When the company first started releasing e-readers they basically had no competition. Within four years they had hundreds of competitors, and they were caught unprepared for how fast the industry had grown in the few short years.
In the past, Sony would always release three new e-readers a year and for the last three years has only issued one. Sony also relies on 3rd parties for content, which often shoots them in the foot. They had an agreement with Google to hustle books directly with their PRS-T1 e-reader, but when Google changed their system and amalgamated everything into Google Play, it disallowed anyone with a Sony to buy books from the Play Store. Imagine having a new Sony e-Reader, using the device for the first time, and clicking on Google Books only to see error messages. The PRS-T2 did a little bit better of a job with Evernote and Overdrive Library lending. The PRS-T3 was a let down and was not even marketed in the US, Sony had abandoned the market completely.
The truth behind the decline in Sony e-reader sales, starts with the executive team. This actually hinders growth. The first thing I would do if I ran the hardware division is fire people like Stephanie Lang, head of group IT division of Sony France. She was instrumental in the e-reader designs and said that front-lite screens were a dead technology, instead she developed reading lights for the PRS-T3. Reading lights people, in 2014. Kindle, Kobo, Barnes and Noble all have close to three generations of illuminated screens, to allow you to read in the dark, and Sony bets on reading lights. You wonder why the e-reader brand is failing? It is because you have idiots like Stephanie that are oblivious to market trends and fail to see the virtues of forward thinking technology. I am surprised each new e-reader did not ship with a candlestick and a note saying “happy reading – the future is now.”
To turn around the Sony hardware division I would hire Bill Saperstein, who was the VP of Nook. He has experience in running a modern hardware company and Sony could get a breath of fresh air in the executive ranks. Sony needs to think in terms of being a startup again, pressing reset on the e-Reader hardware and starting new. Here is the plan.
Sony and e-Ink worked together in 2013 to develop Mobius technology. Mobius displays can weigh less than 50% of an equivalent glass based TFT and they can be cut to any specific size. This is what I would incorporate into the Sony PRS-T4 and also front-lit technology. Most people aren’t aware of this, but Sony e-Readers run Android. I would make deals with companies like Instapaper and load their rss/read it later service on it. This would be my counter to Kobo and Pocket.
The Sony 13.3 is the best e-reader I have seen in my entire life. It weighs almost half of the Kindle DX and other large screen e-readers. It has amazing resolution and was primarily designed for reading and editing PDF Files. No e-reader in the world gave you the robust level of reading and clarity as this reader gave me. Where is it now? Wallowing in obscurity at Sony Japan, in their business unit. Customers could not even buy these if they wanted to. There are rumors that it crossing over to the USA in April 2014, but at a $1200 price tag. Obviously, this would be the next great product. I would charge $500 for it and bill it as the best PDF e-reader in the world. I would market the hell out of this and use this as the flagship device, that schools, education and anyone who needs PDF Files for their work. Why Sony is sleeping on this e-reader, when it still has tremendous buzz surrounding it, does not make any sense to me.
Finally, as I stated above, all modern Sony e-Readers run Android. I would put our own Good e-Reader APP Store on it, and design it that the only apps to install would be e-reading, comic book apps, newspaper and magazine apps, and small productivity apps, such as Dropbox. No Android e-reader has a small app market built right into it. This is what is needed for Sony to distinguish themselves from the competition. Give customers a greater choice, give them more freedom, give them modern hardware, give them a reason to buy one. The company mantra should be – we empower readers.
I have looked at the major changes I would implement if I ran either the Reader Store or the hardware division. Sony seems too complacent and does not have strong motivation to do well in the market. Everyone working there in the executive ranks are there for a paycheck. They wake up in the morning, talk to publishers, get more books, and have them added to the site. They certainly aren’t issuing firmware updates, doing research and development, or staying current. They certainly are not innovative anymore and have lost the will to live. Sony right now is like a death row inmate, you don’t know when execution time is, but you get into a daily pattern of pseudo-zombie living.
Sony is an e-Reader brand that is dying. The writing is on the wall and the company will ultimately abandon their own store and line of e-readers within a year. Europe will follow North America’s suit once they get a few paychecks from Kobo. Kobo will then take over their entire digital ecosystem and Sony will just make tablets and phones.
Honestly, it is not that hard to turn things around. e-Readers are a low-cost gateway to expand with. It is hard to enter Brazil with a $700 tablet or phone, but relatively easy with a $100 e-reader. This is how the e-reader division should be organized. It is a gateway to success and open with Android to allow people to install their favorite reading apps, local newspaper apps or local news apps. You then release the 13.3 inch device to a very niche market, that is positively starving for something like this.
I wish I could just save Sony. I have been following the e-reader industry since 2008, I have a very unique perspective on how the worldwide market works for eBooks and e-Readers. I talk to hundreds of start-ups a year and travel all over the world looking at the latest tech. You get to a point where you can see who will do well and who will wallow away and fade. Unless Sony hires some new key executives and changes their approach for selling e-readers, eBooks, newspapers and magazines, they are doomed.
The Barnes and Noble Nook division is one of the most longstanding and successful brands in the e-reader and tablet sector. The bookseller jumped into the eBook revolution in 2009 with an online store and their own flagship device. Their first few devices sold like wildfire, but sales have tapered off with each subsequent release. Nook Media has been losing money each quarter for over a year and most of their executives in charge of books, hardware and accessories have all left the company. What if they hired me to run the show? Here is my game plan to turn Nook around.
Enhancing the Retail Experience
The average Barnes and Noble bookstore is around 26,000 square-feet in size. The Nook retail area, where devices are showcased are normally 1,000 sq ft, and larger stores have 2,000 sq ft.
This is a solid amount of space to showcase the Nook Glowlight, Nook HD and Nook HD+, which is the current generation lineup. Not to mention accessories, such as cases, and screen protectors.
The Nook display section has no consistency in overall design and customer experience. The flagship Union Square location looks way better than the store in Las Vegas. Once you start going to more rural bookstores, in smaller markets the Nook display section lacks. I have walked into bookstores and saw nothing more than a wooden table, with a blue sheet and stuff piled all over it.
If I was in charge of Nook Retail I would create a blueprint and template that all stores would have to abide by. I would mandate that all Nook areas would be close to the front entrance and by the window. It would feature a clean white overall design, with vibrant color coded areas where you would find devices, accessories and a Nook Kiosk. Having street traffic seeing a cool, hi-tech area would prompt them to come in the store. It is important to build a consistent experience, walking into a big store in New York, would be the same as walking into one in Seattle.
The Nook Kiosk would be another hardware innovation that all stores would get. It would allow customers to browse the Nook library of eBooks. They would be able to buy and send the books right to their devices, or pre-order ones that have not come out yet. If a new e-Reader or tablet is announced, customers would be able to order them in the Nook area, and make sure they are on the list. This would all be fed to a centralized Nook admin server, where stores could get extra allocated units. This would save time from the retail staff having to this manually, which is the only way to currently do it.
The average Barnes and Noble bookstore does not have an army of employes. I have witnessed that many in the store wear different hats, whether its inventory, cash, restocking or helping customers. The people in the Nook area, often are not dedicated and feature a revolving cadre of characters. I would mandate that every store location needs 3 trained people for the Nook area, two of which are full time and another that works when one the core people are sick, or on vacation. There would be regional trainers who would be responsible for each State, and would bring people into that State’s flagship store for a week of training. They need to be Nook Certified.
Accessories, Accessories, Accessories
Barnes and Noble has a line of accessories for their line of tablets and e-readers, none of which are really compelling. Sure you have the ubiquitous cases, screen protectors, charging cables and even a pair of Nook headphones. They need to solve this situation to make the Barnes and Noble accessories line, more modern and current.
If I ran the accessories division at Barnes and Noble, the first thing I would do is buyout a company called DecalGirl. They make custom art and designs for the back of Barnes and Noble e-readers and tablets. You can buy a vinyl decal and attach it yourself. You can also elect to buy custom cases with hundreds of funky designs. If a customer has their own vision of what they want their device to look like, they can use the automated online tools to customize their own and have it shipped out.
This is the exact type of service and design strategy that Barnes and Noble has to employ. Amazon is the only other company to offer something like this, but they don’t have a retail environment to put these in customers hands and showcase the product in a compelling fashion.
Barnes and Noble has to stop developing their own headphones and other accessories. The product line is really outdated and no new designs have been made in a number of years. Instead I would reach out to Pebble, Jawbone, Qualcomm, Fitbit, Beats by Dr. Dre and other smart accessory companies that make things like rings and necklaces. There is no denying that more people are buying these types of things from electronics stores, or companies like Best Buy. It would serve Barnes and Nobles interests to enhance their stores image with carrying an ultra modern line of accessories people are buying now in droves and will be buying in the near future. They likely would cannibalize their own accessory sales by doing this, but in the long-term they would make more money selling Beats headphones with a cool book design on it.
Barnes and Noble has their own app store, but it is only compatible for users living in the USA and UK. Barnes and Noble has a movie and video area, but again is only good for those two countries. The inclusion of Google Play suddenly made Nook accessible to more people, in more countries.
Many avid Nook users claim the Barnes and Noble App Store is woeful and does not feature a great selection of apps. The staff who is charge of curation and business development are under funded and short of brilliant minds. If I ran Nook Services, I would kill the App Store and Kill the television and movie rental business.
My intention is to remove all of the barriers that would hinder more international adoption of the Nook Tablet line. There is nothing worse than buying a new device and finding out nothing works in your country, and there is no way to uninstall it. It would free up internal resources to focus on more critical aspects of the business. Honestly, now that Google Play Services is on the Nook tablet, my bet is the metrics say more customers are downloading apps from Google, rather than Barnes and Noble now.
The goal is to find identity with Nook Services. Is the priority your own app store and television system or is relying on Google. You cannot do both and it is a waste of resources, management and time to do two things at once. Its one or the other, and I would bet on Google as a content distribution system.
The Synergy between Nook Press and Indie Titles in Bookstores
If there was one oportonity that Barnes and Noble is missing, more than anything else, is the synergy between Nook Press and their bookstores. Nook Press is the companies self-publishing program and is a direct follow-up to PUBIT! The platform itself pales in comparison to competitors programs like Amazon and Kobo. Heck, UK authors cannot even use Nook Press to publish in the US and UK.
If i was in charge of Nook Press and displaced Teresa Horner the first thing I would do is partner up with a service like Ingram Lightning Source. US authors would be able to self-publish books digitally and make them available for the retail stores to purchase. Ingram basically runs a giant print on demand system, where authors can have copies of their books printed, if someone places an order. This method proves to be quite popular with competitors.
There are obvious benefits of partnering with Ingram, rather then investing in a POD system from the ground up. It would save a massive amount of time and money to just bite the bullet and get in bed with Ingram. Eventually, once you figure out the logistics of the entire POD process, you can slowly roll-out your in-house alternative.
I have been following the entire eBook and e-reader industry since one year after the original Kindle came out. I have seen many major booksellers go bankrupt, some taking chances, some taking none at all. The most squandered opportunity that Barnes and Noble has missed in the last five years is getting self-published titles in their store, from their own authors. Barnes and Noble sorely needs a self-publishing super-star to carry the torch and be a walking banner for their services. They cant do that without Nook Press POD.
One of the big hindrances of Barnes and Noble international expansion for the Nook in general, is the complex publishing rights to books, magazines and other digital content. Since self-publishing does not abide by these same restrictions, Barnes and noble is in a position to expand their print on demand service and digital titles on a worldwide basis.
Nook Press would be a viable way to expand the Nook bookstore into other markets and launch with self-published titles and then make inroads with local publishers. The start of international expansion would be indie titles.
Expand or Die
Nook Media is at a cross-roads when it comes to their entire line of e-readers and tablets. The USA market, which is their core, is woefully saturated with offerings by Acer, Asus, Kindle, Samsung, LG, and a slew of others. How many quarterly loses of hardware sales do you need before you have that pivotal wake-up call.
If I was in charge of Nook Hardware, the overall emphasis would be international distribution and what do we have to do to make this a reality. Latin America, South Africa, China, Russia, Netherlands, Australia are all growing markets. Nook has to expand, there is no way the product line can continue if they dont.
The first thing I would do is make the tablets and e-readers as internationally friendly as possible. They are all running Android, it is quite easily to localize them to a foreign language. The Google Play store makes it relevant in almost every country and putting a priority on reading, is the name of the game.
The second, would require moving into Germany, Spain, and France, first. These are the markets that are most mature digitally and is a natural land crossing from the UK. I would hire someone with a decade of publishing experience to open a satellite office . Next, they would be able to say what stores would make sense to carry the devices. I would select bookstores, because that is where the readers are, you don’t want tech shops. Next, the agent would hire a small team of publishing veterans to make deals with anyone who made a deal with Kobo or Amazon to get their digital content in the localized store. The store, would only be on the tablets and e-readers to start and later the website. This is the blueprint to expansion on a superficial level. This move for localized content would keep the Microsoft overlords happy, because they would be able to market more books on Windows 8.
Does anyone really wonder why Sony abandoned the USA with e-Readers and Why Kobo did too? Why did Pocketbook pull out of North America all together and most companies bypassed it? It is because its a lost cause. If you are USA-centric with your hardware, you are neglecting all of the markets that have not been the focus of other companies international strategies. Pure Google tablets are boring, everyone who has one, has one already. People want something more compelling, a device to read technical PDF documents, to read books, to read a newspaper. Nook is all of these things at heart.
This article is not meant to talk about, if Barnes and Noble should get out of the e-reader/tablet game. For better or worse, they are basically committed to it for the long-haul. Making device recommendations is a fools errand, because technology changes so fast.
Nook has spent a copious amount of money on making devices, making bookstore, a self-publishing program, an app-store, movie/tv services and building accessories. There are too many things on the go, with little development happening on any one thing. Ditching the App Store, movies and television services would free up capital, talent and assets.
It is important to make partnerships to get self-published books in all Barnes and Noble bookstores and give the book buyers recommended options for the stars of Nook Press. Put the authors on a bookstore tour and build momentum. Get in newspapers, blogs and websites. Draw attention to Nook Press, make indie authors believe this is the best Amazon alternative.
Many bookstore chains are fiercely anti-Amazon and are always looking for alternatives. This has been the key to Kobo’s success, an upstart company who built a template on expansion and duplicated it many times. There is nothing holding Barnes and Noble back from doing this, other than just hard work and the will to persevere. I fear, the old management who has all left were just complacent. Living off past accomplishments, like a high-school football player dreaming of that big play they made, once. Nook is a basically a 30 something year old former football player, living off their past glories, and lost for a personal identity.
Book discovery has been a hotbed issue for the last two years as digital books become more prevalent in our society. Unlike real books, you cannot download the entire novel to read samples, instead an algorithm extrapolates the first ten or twenty pages and delivers them to your e-reader. The exact number depends on whether you are shopping with Amazon, Kobo, or Barnes and Noble. One of the biggest problems right now with eBook samples is you only get less than a chapter to determine if you like the book, in some cases you only have a single page to read.
When you are shopping in your favorite bookstore, it is quite common to pick up the book, read the jacket and flip through it. It is quite easy to pull up a chair and read the entire chapter if you wanted to and if it was compelling enough, purchase it. Some people go to the store on their break and complete an entire book in a few days, some would say they are bucking the system, others participating in the culture. This is the way bookstores have always functioned.
When you are on the fence about buying an eBook, often the only thing you can do is download a free sample. One of the big problems with this approach is the number of pages included in the sample. If a book has a large table of contents, a forward, likely you won’t even get to read the first chapter. I took a look at a title “Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box,” by the Arbinger Institute. The entire first half of the sample chapter for this book is nothing but promotional testimonials — the kind of blurbs you’d see on the back cover of a paperback. Then follows the cover art and front matter. Finally, at the very end, you get to the actual content: barely what would fit on a single printed page, and just 4% of the total sample chapter file. It’s a brief introduction that indicates almost nothing of the substance and style of the book.
Barnes and Noble and Kobo also deliver samples to you and normally comprise of less than 10% of the book and most publishers actually have a say in how many pages of a book can be available in a chapter. If you self-publish with Nook Press or Kobo Writing Life, there is a difference in how many sample pages are available for the reader, then your average mega title published by Penguin.
I have basically given up on downloading samples of any kind of eBook these days. I have been burned too many times downloading a sample for the purposes of reviewing a new Kindle e-Reader or a new Android tablet. Instead, I am usually forced to buy a book because its nearly impossible to get a few pages into the first chapter, before the sample ends. eBook samples need to eliminate the table of contents and all of the other superficialis data, and start directly at chapter one.