Seven ways to grow the e-book business while helping libraries and readers: Ideas based on my two decades of writing about it

Growing the e-book businessE-book sales aren’t increasing as fast as before, at least not among big publishers.

The law of large numbers isn’t the only cause.

So much of the tech is downright hard to use, for example. And in some cases, libraries suffer even if e-loans are growing faster than sales on the retail side.

Based on more than two decades of writing about e-books–I founded TeleRead and have blogged in the past for Publisher’s Weekly–I’ll offer seven ways to boost growth. They are all library-and-consumer friendly.

  1. Get rid of most existing DRM, at least on the retail side. That bears endless repeating. Consumers may not articulate it, but inside they are sick and tired of not being able to possess books for real, especially when they move on to newer machines. Stop tying supposedly “owned” content to individual companies, which may or may not be around a decade from now. Let stores and others compete instead over such trifles as the quality, quantity, and prices of books–not on how successfully they can create techno-locks.

    A book for “sale” should be just a book, readable forever with common technology, as opposed to being tied to any company. Proprietary DRM especially gums up books distributed in the ePub format, intended as a standard. And it makes them unreadable on some of the best e-reading apps such as Moon+ Reader Pro, which cannot deal with DRM.

    Why care about DRM hassles for customers if you’re a publisher or a store? Well, you’re competing not just against rivals within the e-book business but also against other media such as video games. Americans spend only around $120 year on non-textbook reading materials of all kinds, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even with most book still being P rather than E, I wouldn’t be surprised if DRM was stealing $10 of that pathetic amount–beyond devaluing books as a serious medium. No scientific survey here. But methinks DRM is a major sales-killer.

    Simply put, I remain baffled why publishers insist on a nonexistent DRM security blanket, when pirates can take just a minute to unlock the typical “protected” e-book, or else do a quick scan of the paper copy. You want a light-handed deterrent against at least casual copying by consumers? Then if need be use social DRM, which still leaves books readable on a number of different kinds of machines but offers unique identifiers on individual copies. Traditional DRM has been correctly described as a loyalty program for Amazon. My favorite solution for retail books would be no DRM–to eliminate privacy issues that result when records exist of book ownership–but social DRM is a viable compromise. Hello, Sony? I’m especially talking about you. If you want to be in the DRM business, think “social DRM” as an option and push it hard. Perhaps even offer insurance policies for publishers worried about piracy if they drop traditional DRM.

    In a related vein, publishers also should work with libraries on the popularization of geo-based book access, in experimental use by the Massachusetts Library System. Live in Massachusetts? Check out a geo-accessed book without hassles. Oh, how I hate typing in library-card numbers to satisfy Adobe DRM requirements! What’s more, at least for now, Adobe DRM can be awkward for people like me who reading books on a bunch of different machines. I am pleased to see other states following Massachusetts’ lead. The related reading software is not running on all hardware platforms, but hopefully that can come in time.

    Let me add two caveats. I can understand the need for DRM in one form or another to enforce expiration dates on library books. Browser-based DRM schemes and other new wrinkles may not be as tough on library patrons as the usual Adobe set-up is, but we’re still talking DRM. That said, this is a still different issue from the right to own books.

    The other caveat is that I can see a place for DRM for books that the customer buys in anticipation of being able to resell them. These are not truly owned books. But they are still an interesting possibility for consumers, and Sony is right to experiment with this option. Ideally its technology will even be able to let booklovers convert their kinda-owned books (bought with “resale” in mind) to books with either social DRM or, better, no DRM.

  2. Stop blocking text to speech via DRM or otherwise. Commuters and exercisers, not just people with disabilities, will thank you for this. We’re talking about tens of millions of customers and potential customers. Of course, Amazon’s outrageous failure to include text to speech in recent E Ink machines does not help. The cost of TTS in hardware isn’t that high, and the same machines can even include navigational capabilities for the blind.

  3. Forge close ties with libraries. They can point to e-bookstores and publishers from their catalogs. Of course, if library catalogs also can link to buying opportunities at local physical stores, then terrific. But don’t look for miracles. See next item.

  4. Work with libraries to promote books in other ways. That’s especially true with so many physical bookstores having gone out of business. Publishing should be about words, not where and how they are sold. I love physical bookstores, and when I was promoting my most recent book, I took down an Amazon ad on the related Web site and replaced it with one for a near-by bookstore. No luck. The store is now out of business. And going by what the proprietor told me, e-books played a major role.

  5. Partner up with Netflix and other streaming services, with buying links. Let people conveniently snap up books on which movies are based.

  6. Speaking of Netflix, the business might experiment with more visual catalogs in the Netflix style–while still offering highlighting links to detailed descriptions, reader comments and ratings, and excerpts. Perhaps customers could even choose between visually oriented and text oriented catalogs.

  7. Advocate a national digital library endowmentgood for content providers, not just consumers. Libraries now can spend only around $4 per capita on books and other content. With endowment funding for more content and more librarians, we could increase this amount–not just through library purchases but by developing the market for books. I’m talking here about the U.S., but the same endowment concept could work in many other countries.

To the above, I would add one more suggestion–that the e-book business lobby even harder than it has to get rid of the European Union’s technophobic tax policies. They really do hurt customers, not just the industry. Thanks to concerns over the hassles of collecting VAT in the EU, AndroidPIT stopped selling such invaluable applications as Moon+, even to U.S. customers like me. I’m a lifelong progressive, the antithesis of an Ayn Rand type. But here’s what I’m thinking: If nothing else, maybe the EU’s idiocy toward e-books and the like will be good for the business in some cases–by way of increased sales of anti-government titles like Atlas Shrugged.

(CC-licensed image from GerminationX.)

Editor’s note: republished with permission of LibraryCity.

Posted in: E-Books, Libraries & Librarians, Library Marketing, Library Software & Technology, Mobile Technology