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An Introduction to the Future of Books

Amazon's Kindle has become one of the most popular e-readers.

The book world is facing a systemic reorganization. The electronic-book’s climb into public acceptance has forced nearly every publishing company to consider an e-book future, and two distributors — Amazon and Apple — (possibly three including Google Books) are currently vying for dominance in this emerging market. The implications for one of man’s oldest media traditions are massive, and to a large extent, the outcome remains speculative. However, examining contemporary power struggles between e-book publishers and retailers and recent market innovations provides a glimpse of what the e-book market may someday become.

Conventional book production has become a well-known formula: publishers sponsor and collaborate with writers before passing on the finished product to retailers, who ensure they reach customers. However, as with nearly all innovations, e-books have disrupted the status quo.

E-books and e-readers (devices that display e-books) eliminate many of the costs associated with distributing books, such as shipping, printing and storing. Similar to news media’s current transition to online content, in theory e-books remove the need for massive retailers and thus empower publishers.

Paradoxically, however, e-book retailers have shown they still exert plenty of power over publishers—though publishers have begun to fight back.

The recent pricing battle battle between Macmillan and Amazon last January illustrates this relationship perfectly. Since beginning to distribute them, Amazon has reserved the right to price e-books, typically at $9.99. Many publishers have pressured Amazon to raise the price in order to increase profit margins and avoid devaluing physical books; however, Amazon’s massive market power enabled it to resist. In addition, publishers themselves relied too heavily on Amazon for book sales to risk damaging their lucrative relationship.

Macmillan Kindle
Macmillan’s victory over retail giant Amazon could start a trend of publishers fighting back.

Finally, Macmillan CEO John Sargent saw a leveraging point. Shortly after announcing it would enter the e-book market with its new iBooks store for the iPad, Apple met with publishers to discuss a new pricing model now called the “agency model.” This model affords publishers much more power by enabling them to set the price of a book. In exchange, the retailer, i.e. Apple, takes a cut of this price for sales much like an agency would get a cut of commissions. Sargent saw the new model would give his company the power it needed and approached Amazon with an ultimatum: either Amazon follows Apple’s lead and adopts the agency model or Macmillan would restrict the publications of its e-books.

Macmillan CEO  John Sargent
Macmillan CEO John Sargent

The agency model would allow Amazon to make more money selling our books, not less. We would make less money in our dealings with Amazon under the new model. Our disagreement is not about short term profitability but rather about the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market.” — John Sargent, Macmillan CEO.

Amazon refused, ceasing all sales of Macmillan books. Two days later, however, Amazon caved after rumors spread that several other big publishers —  Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin, and Hachette — were planning to follow Sargent’s example. The retail giant could not afford to lose so many titles and had no choice but to capitulate.

Apple's iPad

Apple released the iPad primarily as a media-consumption device.

While certainly dramatic, the Amazon-Macmillan battle is most likely a harbinger of bigger struggles to come. Since then, Apple has taken more steps to erode Amazon’s market dominance, including releasing the iPad primarily as an e-reading device.

Here, critics will disagree, but its functionality suggests the iPad was conceived of primarily as a media-consumption device, which fits right into the e-reader market. Up for debate is whether the iPad’s other functions will give it an edge on competing e-readers. Its higher price could also serve to fracture the market into tiers in much the same way as laptop computers — separate sub-markets for cheep, low-end readers and high-powered expensive readers.

Jobs announces iAd
Steve Jobs annouces iAd, an app-based advertising service.

Perhaps even more exciting for true media geeks was Apple’s announcement of iAd, an app-based advertisement service that could revolutionize the e-book revenue model. Some bloggers have already discussed the implications embedded advertisements could have in e-books — and not all are bad. In fact, this new revenue source could open up more flexibility and innovation. For example, ads could allow authors without an expansive infrastructure to finance a book through ad revenue. It could also lead to multi-version e-books  — ad supported versus consumer supported — displacing or decreasing the price readers are currently required to pay.

These revolutions in both corporate power structure and media functionality have far-reaching implications for the future of media consumption. However, current day-by-day advances and struggles are plowing the ground for that future today.

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'the people formerly known as the audience…'

If you are even remotely plugged into the digital media debates of our time, you’ve probably encountered Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do and a persistent openness extremist. Despite my description of Jarvis’ views, I happen to find much of what he says compelling, and I particularly liked the way he recently expressed his dissatisfaction over the iPad.

An overreaction? Probably. But I can certainly get behind his rationale. Jarvis believes the iPad’s limited ability to create content is a deal-breaker. I agree. The new Web is all about creating and sharing, not passively consuming. In particular, I like the way Jarvis’ expresses this sentiment in his resent talk at re:publica 2010 in Berlin (about 37:00 on the timeline):

“The problem with the iPad is I couldn’t see a use for it…That scares me: that we move back from a world where we, the people formerly known as the audience, become an audience again.”

Also, check out his comments on why the media loves the iPad (read: because it gives them back the control that the Internet has democratized).

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Jarvis fanboy in every respect. However, I do think he forces us to consider our preconceived notions about digital media, and his arguments, if not compelling, at least serve a provoking pedagogical function.

It's finally here…

It’s finally here. After all the hype and anticipation, after months of collectively holding our breaths, the future of e-reading has arrived, and this blog just wouldn’t be worth its salt if I didn’t cover it. I am, of course, referring to the recent debut of the Kobo e-reader!

What? It’s not like anything else came out this weekend?

But regardless of my interminable love for all things Kibo, all this weekend’s iPad noise hasn’t gone unnoticed. The initial reactions seem positive, though I’d say at least 30% less fan-boy crazy than with previous Apple releases. I — and probably most people — am a bit wary of the iPad, staying home on opening day to lurk on geeky tech-review websites and determine what Apple’s new product is really about.

For myself, iPad aesthetics were a given. I was more concerned with the pad’s functionality. Can you blog from it? (via Mashable: apparently so.) What apps will be available? How will this fit into, or improve, my life?

Less helpful though sometimes comical, I even succumbed to the ubiquitous man-on-the-street interviews.

Your mileage may vary, but after a quick tour of the tech-geek blogosphere, I’m still firmly on the fence. Sure, the iPad looks sexy. The thought of consuming media from the sleek tablet while relaxing in a sphere chair is appealing. But that seems to miss much of the power of web devices: the ability to create in-depth web content, not just consume it. For my current needs — always away from home, all the computing power I can get, quick reliable word/media processing, able to run Adobe products, never a spare moment — this device just doesn’t fit.

But then, I may be atypical. The reviews are far from over.

NYTimes & iPad: A conflict of interest?

From the beginning, the relationship between The New York Times and Apple’s iPad could be characterized as cozy. However, looking back on the nuances of both Apple’s iPad marketing and the Times’ Apple coverage, one has to ask: What’s really going on here? At the very least, both companies seems to afford a number of favorable-coverage coincidences. At most, it could be a case of outright cooperation — just short of quid pro quo.

The following images were captured from www.apple.com:

On the homepage of apple.com.

Among all the rotating slides, The New York Times seems to be the only content displayed that isn’t an Apple application. Similarly, listen to this glowing review of The New York Times iPad application:

Apple seems to have been struck by Times fever, but then, Apple is a company. Companies regularly strike promotion agreements with each other. The more concerning question is: How will a purportedly independent news company deal with all this promotion?

New York Times coverage of iPad.

New York Times coverage of iPad.

Catching any bias in The Times’ coverage of the iPad takes more subtlety, and it’s difficult to tell if and when coverage might have been affected. However, there does seems to be a dearth of negativity surrounding the iPad, and surprisingly little coverage of Apple’s recent censorship of a German photographer’s website. One would think a media company looking to start a substantial distribution deal with Apple would be more concerned with the company’s stance toward censorship.