Headline 2010: e-Reader device failure

The market knows best, right? Markets are bloody paths to progress. At this writing there are approximately 52 e-reader devices coming to market in the next 12 months. Fifty-two different devices coming to market (Here’s what I wrote about Steve Jobs’ approach to reader devices when there were just 45 e-readers on the horizon). Creative, the maker of MP3 players and computer audio cards, is the latest to announce their impending arrival, Zii MediaBook.

This is the definition of “glut” becoming reality. We can see a glut of e-readers coming and there’s no waving off the Kamikaze piloting most of those e-readers toward the deck. Will they blow up the fuel supply needed to get the next generation of e-reading off the ground? No, but the coverage will likely make it sound like e-reader failures mean e-book failure.

With excessive abundance comes failure, and that spectacular conflagration of hardware products, unfortunately, will dominate the headlines in this market next year as many, indeed most, of these devices are pulled due to lack of sales. They are ridiculously expensive for a market where the vast majority of customers buy one book or less a year—more than 180 million Americans don’t buy a single book in any year.

Many hardware makers will retreat and e-books, not the glut, will get the blame.

Today’s dedicated e-readers sell for roughly 10 times the price of a new hardback book. Most people don’t buy hardback books, so for argument’s sake, let’s say the average price paid for a book by the 120 million Americans who buy a book each year is $12. Amazon Kindle2 and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, both of which sell for $259, cost as much as 21.6 books, which suggests they break the book-buying budget for most people. I don’t want to suggest there is a magic price for reader hardware, because we’ll see some of the new e-readers announced this year selling for $59 next year, because retailers cannot get rid of them. That is a result of fierce competition, but leave it to the press and bloggers to turn the whole process into a mandate on e-books, not the expensive hardware.

This isn’t a horse race, but a complex evolutionary event, that cannot be reduced to headlines. Consider: “T. Rex extinct, world awaits silence of lifelessness” would have made the papers, if dinosaurs had had their Gutenberg.

Yet, it’s a short step from “people don’t want e-readers” to Continue reading

Kindle books come to the PC

kindle-for-pc-tcg-coming-soon._V229480704_Platform expansion is the logical counter to new competition at the device level. Amazon, facing the introduction of BN.com’s Nook and other e-readers this week, has announced it will support reading of Kindle books on Windows 7, Vista and XP Service Pack 2 PCs in November.

The application offers a few enhancements compared to the Kindle device, including a larger number of font sizes and the ability to adjust the number of words per line and zoom capabilities on Windows 7 PCs, as well as supporting cross-device synchronization of last page read, bookmarks, notes and highlights.

Customers can sign up for an email alert that the software has been released at the Kindle for PC page. I’ve been predicting this for a while, and am not at all surprised to see it come two days after the Nook announcement. It will not be surprising, either, when Kindle books are available on the Mac.

It’s all about making the customer library accessible across devices, so that Amazon—and BN.com, etc.—can keep a customer over the long term.

All in a week’s brutal competition.

Nook clarified: Really solid progress for e-readers

Yesterday, I posted a long analysis of what I thought was right and strangely wrong about the Barnes & Noble Nook. Matt Miller today got a clarification about my main concern, which was that Barnes & Noble seemed to have said, according to several published reports, that Wi-Fi would work only in its stores at launch and be “opened up.” A PR representative for Barnes & Noble’s agency, Fleishman, attributed the Wi-Fi information to “an error, so we’re glad to clarify it today.”

Matt asked the question of William Lynch, president of Barnes & Noble on a press call this morning and got the clear answer: Nook Wi-Fi will work in stores and on Wi-Fi networks operated by third-parties and on home computer networks to allow shopping in the BN.com store. I’ve been able to get some additional details and, to some degree, my criticisms in yesterday’s article have been addressed. I’m going to leave that article up, with clarifications and corrections as part of the public record. I have confirmed it, as well, though only on background.

Nook Wi-Fi will work at launch anywhere you want to use it.

That said, I still think the Nook has some flaws, which are fewer and less bizarre than I thought.

I also received clarification of another important point I raised yesterday: Shopping in the Barnes & Noble e-books store is free via 3G, but it was not clear that Google Books titles would be accessible via free 3G service. That would have raised a lot of synching issue for customers who, frankly, don’t want to synch as much as early adopters are willing to do it.

Barnes & Noble, through its PR firm, said that Google Books will be downloadable from the BN.com eBookstore. So, B&N is subsidizing its customers wireless access to free out-of-print books offered by Google, which is a very good thing indeed.

If you are visiting BN.com, you will have access to more than one million e-books, more than twice the total available at Amazon.com. There are issues of quality in Google Books, but the solution is for either volunteer or for-profit editorial fixes of those books. That means a lot less synching than I thought.

Finally, one of my disappointments (based on the potential for an Android device described in this pre-launch posting) was that the Android OS was not accessible to programmers (never mind the potential for cracking it, I want to see programming supported by B&N). It struck me as odd that, for example, there was no Android B&N e-reader client for smartphones with which a Nook owner could share an e-book downloaded on the Android-based Nook.

B&N, again via Fleishman, said that an Android e-reader client will be introduced soon. No specific date was given.

Several readers excoriated me via email, and they are welcome to criticize but not to deploy abuse. The process of reporting a story, especially as an unpaid blogger, is somewhat different than having a budget to fly to New York to attend a press event. So, I must rely in doing analysis on breaking news on what is written by people who do attend. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and TeleRead all reported that Wi-Fi worked in the stores but not outside, based on comments made by B&N people at the event. You will have to forgive me if, in trying to find out the truth by treating FAQs with skepticism when they use very vague language that seem to create exception situations, I raise questions for which I do not currently have an answer. I tend to trust people who cover an event more than the company holding the event, because that is our job as customers, to question until the truth is perfectly clear. It wasn’t clear yesterday and it is more correct today.

Having gotten clarification, I believe what I wrote yesterday, that Nook enters the e-reader race in a dead heat with Kindle 2 for anyone not currently invested in a Kindle library. That’s pretty good for a first try, a triumph for Barnes & Noble. I don’t think it is a revolutionary device, particularly because an almost identical dual-screen Android-based device, from Spring Design, was announced the day before.

In addition to yesterday’s non-Wi-Fi related criticisms, I’ll add: Nook should allow books to be loaned more than once. It should be using the Web features of the Web-centric Android OS, it ought to open Nook to third-party development that could substantially enhance the reading experience. And, ultimately, all these hardware devices offered by booksellers are transient devices whose primary purpose is to get readers engaged with a bookseller’s library management services.

In the long run, this is not about selling hardware but all about selling books. The Nook and Kindle will not likely be what we use to read in five years. We will, though, still want and use access to the titles we buy on those devices today.

Cross-posted to my ZD Net blog, where a lot of discussion is going on.

B&N’s Nook: Weirdly unrevolutionary

In addition to this posting, please visit this clarifications posting to get the whole picture.

It would be nice to say, as Matt Miller has, that the e-book and e-reader market was revolutionized today. It simply got more interesting. A careful reading of the $259 Nook’s features, and the comparison offered by B&N to the $259 Amazon Kindle 2, reveals that, while it packs a lot of new ideas, Nook is a combination of innovation and the extraordinarily conventional.

Highlights:

  • Two screens, one 3.5-inch LCD for navigation and purchasing and a six-inch E-Ink display for reading;
  • Virtual keyboard via the LCD display
  • ePub and PDF formats supported;
  • Free 3G connectivity when shopping via BN.com;
  • Sharing of books, across Nook, smartphones and PCs;
  • Wi-Fi built in, but with strange limitations at launch(see below);
  • Synchronization of location, notes and annotation across multiple devices;
  • Audio is supported, though only MP3; Audible books not supported.

There is much I like about this device, but I am not at the announcement today, where I would be asking a lot of questions I have not seen answered in any coverage, so far. Here, with the apparent downsides first and foremost, is what is known to me at this moment.

An e-reader designed to get you into the physical Barnes & Noble store. This, and the question of how to get non-BN content onto the Nook, represent the most backward features of the Nook. When you visit a B&N retail store, you’ll receive offers and, soon, the ability to read some e-books in their entirety while in the store. Everything deleted below, while part of this critique has been clarified and extended in this posting.

There, however, is the rub.

I’d pointed out before that wireless services for browsing the 500,000+ titles available for free through Google Books, a notable feature of the Nook, probably wouldn’t be supported over the built-in 3G wireless service. It isn’t. You’ll need to download and synch the Nook with your PC, via a USB connection, to move any content not sold by BN.com onto the device. From there, it gets bizarre.

According to The New York Times’s Motoko Rich, the built-in Wi-Fi networking works only inside Barnes & Noble retail stores:

With the market for electronic readers and digital books heating up by the day, Barnes & Noble sought to differentiate itself with the wireless feature that consumers can access in any of the chain’s 1,300 stores. Outside of the stores, customers can download books on AT&T’s 3G cellular phone network. (emphasis added)

A review of the BN.com tech specs for Nook adds the caveat that free wireless service is available “from Barnes & Noble via AT&T.” Note that they are saying you get free wireless service when buying or browsing Barnes & Noble, not when accessing other sites or services. Put this and the quote from the Times together and you get: Free 3G service anywhere, when buying from BN.com. Free Wi-Fi in Barnes & Noble stores, but no Wi-Fi connectivity outside, where you can shop wirelessly on BN.com.

Comments from riffraffy in TalkBack point to this section of the Nook FAQ, which I read but still find very vague, since they refer only to travel and Wi-Fi:

Q. Can I use my nook while traveling abroad?

A.Yes, when you travel abroad, you can read any files that are already on your nook. You can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots that do not use proxy security settings, such those commonly used in hotels, and download eBooks and subscriptions already in your online digital library. You cannot, however, purchase additional eBooks and subscriptions.

Q. Will new issues of eNewspapers and eMagazines be downloaded to my nook while I’m traveling?

A. Yes, if you are traveling in the United States, or if you are abroad but connected to a supported Wi-Fi hotspot, new issues are delivered to your online digital library in both cases. When travelling abroad without Wi-Fi access, new issues are not downloaded to your nook (automatically or manually).

Two things:

In the first answer, they specifically say that you cannot purchase eBooks or subscriptions over an international Wi-Fi connection. That suggests it is not a fully functioning Wi-Fi connection. Maybe because you are connecting from overseas, maybe not. If you had full Wi-Fi access and a valid BN.com account, what should stop you?

What is a “supported hotspot” in the second answer? If they mean an AT&T hotspot, my concern remains.

I wrote that I hoped I was wrong. I think the language here and in the announcement is strangely vague (having seen a lot of strangely vague FAQs turn out to bear bad news) and would have liked to be present at the announcement to ask.

UPDATE: Paul Biba, who attended the event, added this to his report, which seems to answer clearly the question whether the Nook provides ad hoc Wi-Fi access:

Wifi can only be used in store for events and in store content. Plan to open up later on.

B&N should enable ad hoc Wi-Fi access at launch, or disclose more clearly that it will not be available in order to avoid disappointing all the people who are expecting to be able to use Wi-Fi at home or elsewhere not served by an AT&T Hotspot. To do otherwise would be doing damage to the credibility of a very impressive piece of engineering.

The rest of the content you want to put on the Nook will have to be downloaded via a PC and synched to the Nook. That’s a step back from what the promise of built-in Wi-Fi would lead a buyer to expect—particularly because Nook is advertised as providing access to 500,000 Google Books titles that, in fact, aren’t accessible through the device, but must be synched.

I hope I am reading this wrong or, that if this is correct, B&N changes the Nook to support ad hoc Wi-Fi access to Google Books. It would be a blunder, forcing readers into retail stores when we want to get away from them, into virtual stores with much broader inventories.

UPDATE: Google Books, per the updated posting here, can be downloaded free of charge over 3G and Wi-Fi connections.

Synching is cumbersome and, frankly, what keeps most people, the non-early adopting masses, from using dedicated e-readers. The popularity of smartphone e-reader Continue reading

Barnes & Noble prices book Nook

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Barnes & Noble e-reader, photos of which were leaked last week, will be called “Nook” and be priced at $259, the same price as Amazon’s Kindle 2. The New York Times has roughly the same details here. Both articles are based in part on ads placed in tomorrow’s edition of the newspapers.

Most interesting is the Nook’s ability to “lend” books to other readers via wireless connection. No details on how permissive the loan capability will be—presumably the owner of the book will not be able to access a loaned title.

There’s also no information about the cost of wireless service, which is expected to be bundled with books sold through the BN.com store, similar to Kindle. But unlike Kindle, the Nook promises access to the Google Books library, which are free; will users have to pay for wireless service to get that access?

We’ll know more tomorrow.

For now, we can only wonder about the naming process that produced “Nook.” Cute, but its rhyming with “book” will confuse people about whether they want a device called a “Nook” or to buy a “nook” version of a book. For digital natives it will be pretty clear. Think about the concept your grandmother would have to wrestle when asking for an e-book at a Barnes & Noble retail store.

Google Editions defies digital economics

Google today announced it will enter the e-book distribution business with a service, Google Editions, which will sell electronic copies of as many as 500,000 books offered by traditional publishing houses. The service is amazing, because the company has found a way to increase the retail distribution cost of e-books relative to paper books. Think about this—the zero cost copy of an e-book will be the basis for Google keeping substantially more, as a share of list price, to deliver a Google Editions e-book through a third-party retailer than buying directly from Google.

It may seem attractive to retail partners, which will purportedly include Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble, but even they’ve got to be scratching their heads about the added overhead Google built into its pricing scheme. An e-book purchased from Google Editions will list for the same price as the same book offered by a publisher through Amazon or Sony, for example, and Google will pay the publisher 63 percent of the list price. But, if the book is purchased in Amazon Editions format through Amazon or Sony, publishers will only get 45 percent of the list price.

Google said it will share the additional 18 percent with the retailer, though “most” of that 55 percent reportedly will go to the retailer. My guess is that by “most,” Google means the retailer will get 25 percent and Amazon 20 percent, or some approximation of that split. This seems a concession to make sure the Google Editions format books are carried by retailers.

Let’s break that down. For a bestseller, which the market has decided should be priced at $9.99, the publisher will earn $6.29 when Google Editions sells a copy. When that same Google Editions e-book is sold through a third party, the publisher will earn only $4.49. Intermediaries increase their share of revenue, even though they’ve taken on no inventory risk.

Publishers get 63 percent for selling directly and 45 percent for a Google Edition book sold through a third-party retail site. It defies all the economic logic of digital distribution. The likelihood that Google will really get more e-books from publishers on those terms compared to those offered by Amazon, Sony or Barnes & Noble to the same population of publishers strains credibility. But, we shall see.

More bad news: DRM

While the Google Editions e-books will be readable in a browser, they will not be unencrypted. Google makes clear that books will come with DRM, because they have created a way to let readers access files when not connected to the Net but without the ability to share those books with others. Books will be tied to a Google account, just as GMail, Google Docs and other services.

The retailers, all of whom have introduced proprietary e-readers and, except for Sony, which offers ePub formatted e-books, should be Continue reading

B&N’s double-duty e-reader

Gizmodo has photos of the new Barnes & Noble e-reader, which will be announced next week. Apparently after running a blurb on the B&N announcement, Gizmodo got the “scoop” direct from B&N PR, because they have a nice set of professional product shots to show you. The news is not news, but staged product release. Fast Company picked up the story and calls the unnamed gadget “more exciting” than most of the dedicated e-readers on the market, as it sports a touch LCD screen below the E-Ink display to facilitate greater interactivity, with color.

The B&N device is intriguing for several positives and an inadvertently negative reason. First, the positives:

The device will run Google’s Android OS, which implies it will have a variety of capabilities beyond simply displaying books. Fast Company suggests users will have “social chat” within books via the LCD screen. I think we like to concentrate when we read, so the kind of chat seen on Twitter or instant messaging would be interruptive. However, if the screen facilitates embedding of comments from friends, which could be entered on the LCD screen and conveyed to an insertion point in the text for later, non-interruptive access, that could be incredibly cool.

The LCD does offer a solution to the lack of interactivity in E-Ink-only devices, but it is much more likely to be useful for playing audio books, shopping for books (clearly a greatly enhanced experience with color and a refresh rate faster than ice melts), and non-book functionality. Here’s the negative side: It is just one of many solutions, though, and the dual-screen form factor seems to scream “this device isn’t big enough for our business model and your needs as a reader.”

The touch screen will make typing much easier than on a Kindle, but isn’t the stark similarity between the LCD portion of the B&N e-reader and an iPhone or iPod Touch underlining what an e-book reader doesn’t do? Should the device ship with Google’s Talk Voice over IP (VoIP) application and a combination of Wi-Fi and mobile data service, that would actually be revolutionary. But why, then, buy an e-reader and not a smartphone if the essential benefit of either is the LCD screen?

I’m actually eager to see this e-reader for myself. Until then, when we will know the price and its actual capabilities, we can only speculate about its ability to disrupt the market. Given the popular belief that e-readers must be cheaper than $100 to win a mass audience, it’s unlikely the B&N e-reader will do all the cool things it needs to to be really revolutionary.

Finally, let’s do remember that B&N is a retailer and discount publisher, not a hardware company. It’s entering a business it does not comprehend, because prevailing opinion says everyone needs to have their own e-reader hardware offering. Amazon’s Kindle, as I’ve written many times, is a temporary phenomenon tied to extending Amazon’s ability to retail books. Both the B&N and Amazon hardware businesses are kick-starting efforts designed to drive the providers’ e-book retailing business, and not likely to result in long-lived hardware products.

We don’t drive cars made by Chevron and Ford doesn’t build cars that burn only one brand of gas.

The Lost Symbol’s e-book sales to date: 100,000

Early evidence, in the form sales figures from The Lost Symbol publisher Doubleday, reported by Silicon Alley Insider, suggests that e-book sales, while explosive on the first day after the book was released, remain relatively small overall. Doubleday says that 100,000 of the two million copies sold so far are e-books. That’s five percent, which means people did not buy e-readers to buy the book, and that smartphone applications weren’t an extraordinary contributor to sales.

So, of the approximately 1.6 million dedicated e-book readers in the market, plus the approximately 3.1 million smartphones with e-reader applications, Dan Brown’s new book sold to two percent of the installed base. That may simply mean that the book isn’t the major hit that was expected. I still think that over time more e-copies will be sold than hardbacks, but paperbacks are the editions that will earn any profits Doubleday finally collects.

A book evolution, not revolution

We often hear arguments that the age of the book has passed or that, with the advent of e-books, the book is doomed. It makes good copy, just as populist-sounding charges that publishing is “corrupt” does, but none of these arguments recognizes the human cultural tradition that we build on rather than destroy. Is it true that no one listens to radio now that television has reached 50+ years of use? No, we remix our attention and what is valued. Books, both paper and digital, will live side by side.

I write this because of two Fast Company pieces of the last 24 hours, one of which I helped edit for my good friend, Marcia Conner, the other reporting on the possibility that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol could sell more copies in digital form than hardcover. I am sure The Lost Symbol will sell more e-copies than hardcovers over time, if readers don’t find they are disappointed by the book—it’s virtually assured, just as cheaper paperbacks outsell hardbacks. The important question is whether e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will cannibalize hardback sales or be additive. Only a few weeks time will answer this question, as the initial hype wears off and sales become more “normal.” Based on pre-orders, the book has been in Amazon’s best sellers list for 150 days; all those copies were delivered in the last 24 hours. Currently, The Lost Symbol is #1 in both Amazon’s book and Kindle stores. Shortcovers is reporting its biggest sales day in its short history, exceeding its previous one-day sales by 100 percent.

Fast Company‘s Kit Eaton dissects Stephen Windwalker’s claim that e-books will outsell hardbacks, based on day-one figures that are largely guesswork. Eaton suggests that while Kindle sales may be strong, it doesn’t mean that e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will outpace hardcovers. With one million copies sold after such an intense marketing Continue reading

The cold realism of a former publisher

Daniel Menaker, former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker writes in the Barnes & Noble Review about the realities of publishing, including the dynamic and paradoxical pressures of choosing books that will produce a market success. A must read for BooksAhead readers, as it strips away the mythos of publishing to reveal the true business. For example:

4. Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big bestseller. But the bestseller lists paint nothing even remotely like the full financial picture of any publication. Because that painting’s most important commerce color is the size of the advance. The second-most important color is the general level of book-buying. The volume of sales of the No. 6 book on the New York Times fiction bestseller list in 2009 is significantly lower than the volume of the No. 6 bestseller five years ago. Four and three and two years ago, too, almost certainly.

Highly recommended. Read it, think. Menaker describes a rapid tectonic shift to e-reading, over the next decade, which will catch a lot of attention in the e-book blogs, but this is not a column about e-books. It’s about the current limits on editorial investment and their potential to change.

UPDATE: Mike Shatzkin has a typically penetrating and thoughtful piece about Menaker’s article.