Commentary

Quality Is The Next Chapter For eBooks

If Amazon is to be believed, it was selling over a million Kindles a week this holiday season. We still don’t (and likely never will) know how many of those were Kindle Fires, but at least we got from Amazon some numbers when it comes to reader devices. The company has been famously cagy about quantifying Kindle sales from the beginning. Add to that an aggressive push from Barnes & Noble for its entire line of devices, and it is likely we will see a considerable spike in the personal reading device market this coming year.

Now that eReaders are into double-digit penetration rates, publishers’ attitudes towards the platform are maturing as well. In the beginning book makers were trying to figure out distribution strategies, pricing and revenue models. Which books could be sold on which devices, in what window and at what discount from print, were critical issues for content providers in the first stage. But as the dam has pretty much burst and most new and popular titles are on digital storefronts near their hard-copy street date, publishers are focusing on the reading experience itself. According to a survey of 411 people in the publishing industry by Data Conversion Laboratory, 70% say that “quality” is the chief consideration now when publishing an eBook.

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The concern for things like formatting, appearance, layout, readability, etc. is a change from 18 months ago, says DCL President and CEO Mark Gross. “More publishers were concerned about getting their information onto an eBook platform, and quality was not the overarching theme it is now,” he says. He adds that readers themselves appear to be expecting something more than simple digitization for what many feel is a high price point for books that have such low material costs in their production.

The survey also found that 63% of respondents planned to issue a digital book in 2012. There is a move towards book in a wider range of categories. The survey shows 64% interested in developing nonfiction and technical content for these platforms. The early stage of eBook distribution focused on casual entertainment content.

Publishers themselves preferred the iPad as a reading platform (44%) over the Kindle (36%).

Until now, the differences among the reading experiences across the various devices were trivial. In most of the readers and tablets I have used to read books, it still feels as much like a text dump as anything else. It is tough to maintain control over look and feel when you have to hand over typeface and sizing flexibility to the users. But this is where Amazon, B&N and Apple can start competing with one another more actively, both for consumer and publisher allegiance. This time next year surely we will have some publishers advertising exclusive enhancements to their top books that appear with specific partner platforms. And as the readers have to handle more technical and reference uses, we are bound to see another layer of tools applied to the device and app interfaces.

While many marketers have been focusing on apps and the mobile Web, book reading will be an area to keep in sight as these business and content models evolve over time. The book as we have known it since Guttenberg is about to be opened up in radically new ways that could well be friendly to a whole class of unexpected partnerships.

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