The Lost Symbol will be a dollar sign

The Da Vinci Code sold more than 81 million copies worldwide. Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, will be released simultaneously in hardcover ($16.17 at Amazon, a 46 percent discount) and for Kindle ($9.99) on September 15th. Five million paper copies of the book will be printed, one digital copy will be encrypted several million times. Likewise, Sony is certain to offer the book at the same price or lower in its e-book store, taking its losses on The Lost Symbol to drive sales of its Reader devices.

What we will witness is a test of how far hardware vendors will go to increase unit sales of their respective devices. Since Random House will collect between $12 and $13 per copy from digital channels, the hit to Sony and Amazon’s top-lines will be substantial. Each will pay millions to keep The Lost Symbol at the top of their device’s bestseller list. The symbol lost in all this hoopla will certainly be a dollar sign, but it may result in greater uptake in e-book formats generally and, perhaps, a “winner” among the current dedicated e-book readers.

The Lost Symbol is the title that could make or break the current generation of e-reader devices, firming up reader’s investment in the platform and format in which they read digital books. I don’t think that Dan Brown’s latest will sell millions of Kindles on its own, but it will be the title that converts some readers to Kindle or Sony Reader. Both Sony and Amazon see royalties paid on this book as a sunk cost they expect to recoup from hardware sold. If the hardware revenues don’t follow, this book may convince one or both of them that dedicated e-readers aren’t the best business.

If there are approximately 3 million Kindle-compatible devices (Kindle hardware and iPhones running Kindle for iPhone) and some 500,000 other dedicated e-reader devices, as well as perhaps six million other software-only readers installed, electronic sales of The Lost Symbol could account for up to five million copies, matching the first print run. That will be a huge accomplishment.

However, because e-reader hardware is still too expensive for most consumers, e-book sales will likely be slower than print sales after the initial release, especially when paperback editions appear. The key market to watch then will be e-reader application installs on smartphones and computers. Since e-book applications that run on phones and PCs carry little migration cost, we can expect to see an explosion in sampling of reader apps if digital copies of The Lost Symbol are going to pace paperback sales. The only possible channel through which The Lost Symbol could continue to sell 50 percent of total copies sold in digital format is e-readers on phones and PCs.

In the long run, the economics of reading will drive adoption of common formats not incompatible e-reader hardware. I’d be very surprised if Dan Brown’s next book isn’t offered in a single digital format—most likely ePub—that can be read on any device or in any e-reader application. By then, Kindle will be compatible with ePub, because Amazon’s goal is to grow share of books sold, not just to be a e-reader hardware vendor.

ePub format wins critical victory—will it help Sony compete?

Sony Readers will offer only ePub-formatted books through its eBook online store and devices, dumping its BBeB proprietary format, according to The New York Times. This is an important step toward compatibility between e-reader devices, one that will challenge Amazon’s dominance in e-books to date, because Kindle will soon be markedly separate from Sony, Plastic Logic and other devices that support ePub. HarperCollins and Random House have signed on to the Sony ePub initiative. HarperCollins already offers ePub books.

ePub isn’t the ultimate solution to the question of an e-book standard, but it does solve the basic problem of making books readable across multiple devices. As Gartner analyst Allen Wiener told the Times: “If you see some Adobe executive up on stage with Steve Jobs when they announce the tablet, at that point Amazon has a lot to worry about.” Adobe Systems developed ePub as an “open” alternative to other e-book formats, however it is also pushing its PDF format as a solution for presenting formatted documents—Amazon promotes PDF formatted books for the Kindle DX. There’s no absence of a relationship between the two companies. ePub can still be made into a proprietary format by developers who add, for example, a proprietary DRM (in contrast to its built-in DRM) or display extensions to the basic text display capabilities of ePub.

Amazon can solve this problem by updating its existing Kindles and adding ePub support to new units, something I believe is already on the calendar. Jeff Bezos only has to make an announcement that Kindle supports ePub, which he has foreshadowed, to prevent a user migration. Amazon can retain its lead by adding ePub versions to its store, allowing buyers to download ePub versions.

So, while it is to Sony’s credit that it is leading the way toward document portability, the initiative still lies with Amazon.

Circa 1994: Making Book On PDAs

Another historical perspective on e-books, this from the August 8, 1994 edition of Digital Media: A Seybold Report. I’d published my first interactive book, in Voyager’s Expanded Book format, about a year earlier.

A market in hand for electronic publishers?

With so many industries focused on getting the interactivity into televisions and PCs, there’s not much interest anymore in delivering digitized information to handheld computers. Excitement has shifted from John Sculley’s prognostications about a $3 trillion market portended by the introduction of Newton to the similarly warm, fuzzy fantasies of the information superhighway. Nevertheless, there’s a world’s history worth of data that could find a very lucrative marketing on handheld devices—at bargain prices compared to the cost of interactive television programming.

Sooner or later, the bad feelings engendered by the poor reception for handheld computers, especially in the press, will pass. As handheld devices take off, someone’s going to cash in on the publishing opportunity in carry-along digital data. It’s tough to take a digital book along on the commuter train or into the park. A desktop PC or Mac’s got about five feet of leeway before it loses its connection to a power outlet, and portables don’t make good company during a quiet moment, or even a noisy one when a single bit of information is needed.

Unfulfilled promise

From the start, personal digital assistants (PDAs) have delivered more promise than palpable benefits. But the potential locked up in the Newton, General Magic’s Magic Cap and Microsoft’s upcoming WinPad operating system is immense. They tear off a large part of the functionality in a computer and fold it into the pocket. If used intelligently by publishers, handheld formats can enhance the experience of information.

Everyone’s familiar with the trail of tears traveled during the past two years by Apple’s Newton, AT&T’s foster child, the EO Personal Communicator, and the Tandy/Casio Zoomer. PDAs were pummeled by Time, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, with negative adjectives piling up faster than sales receipts.

Sales of Newton, which started out briskly, have slowed in recent months. Despite that, the average consumer electronics company would jump for joy over Newton’s numbers. About 100,000 units have sold through dealers. Tens of thousands more Newtons have been shipped direct from Apple to corporate buyers. EO took the big dirt nap after wracking up sales of only 9,000 units in a year. The Zoomer, which runs the GeoWorks operating system that will be shipped in several new handhelds in coming months, has earned about 40,000 users, according to the most optimistic reports.

Developing titles for this market is an unattractive prospect in almost anyone’s book. It’s tiny and fragmented. All told, there’s less than 2000,000 handheld devices out there using four incompatible operating systems. But that is today.

We expect a small but significant explosion in handheld sales Continue reading