Check Out My Scars: Seven Lessons from the Failure of Ebooks in 2000, and What They Mean to the Future of Electronic Publishing

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The tech industry has a long history of celebrating its successes and forgetting its failures. We honor the IBM PC but forget the DEC Rainbow and Kaypro II. We put the iPhone and BlackBerry on a pedestal but sweep the Qualcomm PDQ and Ericsson R380 under the rug.

That selective memory is often helpful in the development of a new technology, as it prevents companies from being held back by other companies’ failures. But it also makes tech companies prone to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. So it’s useful to look back at previous efforts to make ebooks successful, both as standalone reader products and as software for other mobile devices.

When you do that, there are seven lessons that emerge for today’s e-publishers:

1. Beware the chicken and the egg. Purchasing a dedicated e-book reader is a major decision for most users. Even though reader devices aren’t all that expensive, they cost a lot more than a couple of books, and so the user needs to have a fairly high motivation before they’ll buy. But the most enthusiastic readers – the people most likely to pay for an ebook reader – are also the people who care the about having a wide selection of ebooks available before they buy the device.

Meanwhile, publishers look at the uncertainties and expenses of preparing an ebook edition, and are reluctant to convert their entire catalogs unless they’re convinced that a huge installed base of reader devices will be available.

This creates a classic chicken-and-egg situation in which the publishers won’t jump on board until there are a lot of reader devices, and users won’t buy the devices until there are a lot of books available. This was the root cause of the failure of ebook devices in 2000.

Amazon and Sony, to their credit, have been trying to power through the chicken and egg situation through very aggressive marketing and price subsidies. They have made progress, but the reader market is not yet self-supporting, in part because of issue #2:

2. Ebook customers are cheap. It would be much easier for book publishers to embrace the ebook market if they could charge more for an electronic edition than they get for a hardcover book. That way they wouldn’t worry about cannibalizing their traditional channels. The reality is just the opposite — consumers generally view an electronic edition as less valuable than a hardcover. Even though an ebook is easier to carry, it’s viewed as evanescent, without the seriousness and tactile quality of a hardcover. As a result, many people are reluctant to pay more than paperback prices for ebooks.

But the book enthusiasts who are likely to be interested in ebook devices are the sort of people who want to read the latest releases, rather than waiting for a paperback edition. They want hardcover content at paperback prices. So Amazon and Sony have been forced to subsidize the sales of ebooks, paying hardcover prices to publishers but collecting lower revenue from their customers.

This doesn’t bode well for the economics of the reader device market. Instead, a lot of people are hoping that other reader devices will emerge, like smartphones. That brings us to the third lesson…

3. Mobile usage patterns are hostile to most publishing. Most print publishing is built around the idea of an extended reading session – the customer settles down with a book or a newspaper and reads through it cover to cover. Mobile devices have a completely different usage pattern. People use them on the go – they pull out the device when they have a minute free, use it briefly, and then put it away.

The usage pattern is more like eating bon-bons than sitting down to a meal.

That means there are strong, natural limits on the amount of text content that many people will consume on a smartphone or other small mobile device. If you’re publishing a joke book, a mobile device may be the perfect distribution medium for you. But unless you are publishing in a country where most people commute by mass transit for long distances (Japan, Korea), extended reading on mobiles is likely to remain a niche for a long time.

4. Periodicals are promising. Combine points 2 and 3 and they indicate an interesting possibility for e-publishing: Magazines. Other than National Geographic, most magazines are viewed as disposable after they’re read. And many of them are read in short sessions rather than all at once. So there is not as much customer resistance to paying the full list price for an e-magazine, and the format is more compatible with a mobile device. Plus, an e-magazine can be delivered faster than a print version, giving the e-edition an advantage.

The challenge for magazines is that the ad-heavy format of a traditional print magazine does not translate well to an electronic device. On an electronic device, people expect to jump straight to content rather than thumbing past ads they way they do in a print magazine. That’s why software products that replicate a print magazine on screen haven’t taken off. The usage pattern is just different.

So the challenge for magazine publishers is to remake their business models, balancing much lower printing and distribution costs against reduced (or different) ad revenue. No one has perfected that balance yet.

5. How do you get a better experience than paper? Here are the first two sentences of Sony’s online pitch for its Pocket Reader: “Carry hundreds of books in your pocket. The Reader Pocket Edition lets you access up to 350 of your favorite books from anywhere.” The problem with this reasoning is that almost no one wants or needs to carry 350 books at once; you can only read one at a time. So Sony’s touting an advantage that’s not actually advantageous.

If they want to win over users, ebook companies need to offer a product that’s actually superior to paper. Amazon’s instant download of books is a good start, but another promising opportunity is the backlist. Even popular authors routinely go out of print on their less well-known titles, and once an author dies their work can virtually vanish from the marketplace.

For example, in science fiction the late Robert Heinlein is considered a giant in the field, but about half of his titles listed on are out of print.

The enthusiastic readers who make up the core market for ebook devices would respond very well to a device that made large numbers of out of print books available, but the process of getting them available has been very slow. This is another area where Amazon is making some progress through the application of money.

6. Beware the tipping point. For book publishers, there is an economic cliff lurking somewhere on the horizon. Once ebook reader devices do take off, there is a point where it will make economic success for a successful author to completely bypass print publishing and self-publish electronically.

The economics work like this: An author typically gets about 15% of revenue as royalties. But a self-published e-author could retain a much larger cut — up to 70% if e-book stores come to resemble the iPhone app store. At that royalty rate, an author would make more money as soon as about 20% of the book-buying public has e-readers.

The actual location of the tipping point will vary for different types of books, and the situation is quite different for new authors who can’t generate demand for themselves. But in general, e-publishing changes the economic balance between authors and publishers, and it would be healthy for publishers to get ahead of that transition rather than waiting for it the way the music business has done.

(In the session I’ll flesh out this analysis more, with pointers to help publishers identify where the tipping point is and what it’ll mean.)

7. Be careful what you wish for. Beyond the financial tipping point, there’s another trend that will likely affect publishing: the rise of free. In both music and consumer software, prices have been inexorably trending toward zero. On the Apple App Store, for example, ASPs are steadily declining. Authors and publishers both should be thinking now about how they’ll maintain the perceived value of written content, and what other models they might use to monetize it.

(In the session we’ll discuss what some of those models might be, based on what’s happening in other types of content.)

Michael Mace

Rubicon Consulting

Michael Mace is a principal at Rubicon Consulting, where he helps technology companies plan strategies and products. He’s a well-known tech industry speaker, blogger, and commentator, and has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, CNN, BusinessWeek, and numerous tech industry publications. He was a keynote speaker at the Apple WWDC, and has spoken and led panels at venues including CES and CTIA.

Prior to Rubicon, he was chief competitive officer of PalmSource. He and his team mapped the future of the mobile industry, including products, technology, market, and competitive trends; and worked closely with handset vendors and operators. During his tenure at Palm, Inc., Michael was vice president of product planning.

Prior to joining Palm, he served as vice president of marketing for Softbook Press, a leader in the creation of ebook devices and publishing systems; and director of worldwide marketing for Silicon Graphics’ Windows products division, which produced the company’s first Intel processor-based products.

Michael held a variety of leadership positions at Apple Computer, including director of Mac platform marketing, director of marketing for the Home and Education Division, and director of Market Intelligence. He also founded Century Software, which produced the world’s first downloadable PostScript type fonts, and has worked as a journalist. Michael holds a degree in international relations from UCLA.

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