iBooks Author: First Look

Apple yesterday introduced a new eBook creation app, appropriately called iBooks Author. I say appropriately named because, if you charge a fee for the eBook so created, you can only sell it on Apple’s iBookstore. In other words, iBooks Author is not, nor is it intended to be, a general purpose eBook creation tool.

iBooks Author license

After a quick tryout and eBook creation exercise, I also conclude that the tool is definitely scoped for textbooks, NOT general purpose eBooks like trade or mass market fiction.

This has much to do with the constraints of the templates, which impose a structure that a straightforward eBook can do without. A Chapter and Section layout is pretty much required. This fits well with textbooks, not so well with other types of content. And, in its current iteration, iBooks Author offers no flexibility here.

Chapter and Section Layout Grid

iBooks Author layout choices

For example, take a look at the two template choosers below. The first is from iBooks Author; the second is from Pages (which, by the way, seems to have served as the code base for iBooks Author). Pages has, well, a ton of templates; iBook Author has six. That’s not intended as a knock; rather, it’s offered as proof of the latter’s limited flexibility.

iBooks Author Template
Six templates. That’s it. Six beautiful templates, though.

iBooks Author templates

Pages Template
Multiple templates. Including the highly flexible “Blank Canvas.”

Pages template

Push Pop Press Lives

After downloading the free E.O. Wilson Life on Earth textbook, created with iBooks Author, I can see where Apple is headed. The Wilson textbook is cut from the same cloth as the Al Gore Our Choice opus, available exclusively on Apple’s iBookstore. They share a very similar navigation, structural and interaction model. I wonder if Apple hired some of the Push Pop Press devs responsible for the Al Gore work. If so, Facebook got the company but Apple got the better deal.

Bottom Line

This leads me to my conclusion: iBooks Author is but the latest installment in the battle between Apple and Amazon over the future of eBooks. Both are moving toward HTML5, albeit in proprietary or otherwise restricted ways. Amazon is offering publishing deals to lock in authors to exclusive contracts. Apple is using its (so far superior) toolset to the same end.

This is not a case where I feel comfortable saying “let the best bookstore win.” Of course, I recognize that the traditional publishing model is also based on exclusivity. But both Amazon and Apple blur the lines between publishers and distributors. It’s difficult at the moment to see how the “best of both worlds” can emerge in this model. Too many walled gardens, I fear.

Other Views

Pub Options & Tools

I just finished the first draft of a new book. More on that later… For now I want to concentrate on “next steps.” By which I mean the publishing process.

I have a literary agent so that’s taken care of. But, of course, the entire “digital vs. analog” question is before me. As I’ve said elsewhere, all options are in play; I prefer reach, which means both print and all (most?) eBook formats will be supported. That said, a recent piece on “the rise and fall of personal computing” by Horace Dediu caught my attention:

Horace Dediu the rise and fall of personal computing

The above graph essentially shows mobile platforms overtaking the PC. That has strong implications on how we access information going forward. We know, for example, that mobile platforms are ideal for media consumption. We also know that eBooks are the growth component in the publishing industry. That, along with speculation that Apple is coming out with a much-anticipated ebook creation app AND Amazon’s new-found commitment to HTML5, tells me one thing:

The real action is in the ebook space. And given the trend lines, that is not about to change anytime soon.

Which, naturally, makes me wonder what Apple’s new app will do to my creative workflow. Right now, I use Microsoft Word for book creation. It’s an old stand-by in the publishing industry and it’s got industrial-strength features. But it does virtually nothing for the creation of eBooks. And that, my friends, is a problem.

What if Apple brings out another tool that makes for a seamless transition between publishing and eBook formats? What if that same tool offers lots of features that support eBook interactivity? Oh, oh… Danger straight ahead…

Tablet Update: iPad, Kindle Fire, Win 8

I care a lot about the tablet category because, quite selfishly, I see them (and eBooks) as a way out of the book sales doldrums. According to the Association of American Publishers, eBooks sales grew by 202% in the past year, while the Trade Category declined by 34%. It ain’t rocket surgery to figure out which way the wind is blowing.

So it is with great interest that I find not one but two reports out today, one about tablet sales, the other about tablet projections. Two very different reports, one with a consumer focus, the other with a business focus. Maybe not so different…

THE FIRST is from Amazon, continuing their positive reports for Kindle sales through the holidays. Amazon are typically cagey in their report, saying only that “customers purchased well over 1 million Kindle devices per week.” Those numbers are being helpfully interpreted as 4 million Kindle units in December, most of them the new Fire, according to Casey Johnston at Arstechnica. That projects to about 6 million units sold since the new Kindle Fire became available in mid-November.

By contrast, Apple is projected to sell 13 million iPads through the last quarter of 2011, according to JP Morgan analyst Mark Moskowitz, in a note that adjusted iPad numbers down from 13.3 million because of strong Kindle sales.

THE SECOND report comes from market research firm NPD. They’ve had some dodgy reports in the recent past, including one that excluded iPad sales from its research estimates. Ok, bygones be bygones. Whatever. NPD are reporting now on tablet purchase considerations in the business sector over the next 12 months. Their findings?

Nearly 75% of U.S. small and medium businesses (SMB) plan to purchase tablets over the next twelve months. That number goes higher as business size grows; among larger firms, 89 percent plan to purchase new tablets in the next 12 months. Average spend ranges from a high of $39K to a low of $2K (the latter firms with under 50 employees). Most of those tablets will be the iPad.

“Businesses of all sizes appear to be determined to capitalize on the tablet phenomenon,” said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD. “The iPad, just as it is in the consumer market, is synonymous for ‘Tablet’ in the business market, leaving Apple poised to take advantage of the increased spending intentions of these SMBs. NPD’s research shows that iPad purchase preference is higher among larger firms than smaller ones, which is an important indicator that Apple is gaining traction far outside its typical consumer space.”

Given the “consumerization of IT,” we also expect a fair number of tablets to enter the business market through the hands of employees. We’ve seen it before. Which leaves us with a few questions.

  • Will the Kindle Fire Go Enterprise?
  • Too soon to tell, but if past is prologue, one will see employees bringing their Fire to work. The biggest near-term hurdle for the Fire is its lack of cellular (3G-4G) support, which in the past has enabled employees to get around corporate WiFi restrictions.
  • What about Windows 8 Tablets?
  • At least one analyst, Bernstein Research, is bullish on Windows 8 tablets. According to Todd Bishop, Bernstein believes Windows 8 tablets to be most attractive to business users, in part due to compatibility with existing line-of-business apps.
  • It’s not the big market chunk that the consumer opportunity represents, but it should give Microsoft a toe-hold where other competitors (Android, anyone?) have struggled failed. I am less optimistic that these tablets will come through the employee back door, however. I am predicting it’s an IT purchase all the way.

We shall see.

Google Responds

iSuppli reports that the Kindle Fire has vaulted into second place in the tablet market. At 3.9 million shipped units, Kindle Fire numbers are nearly triple its nearest competitor (Samsung, at 1.3 million). Add in the Barnes & Noble tablet, with shipment estimates also at 1.3 million, and “forked” Android devices ring in at a solid 19% of market share.

The RIM tablet, meanwhile, is headed in the other direction, with a high level of unsold PlayBook inventory. There is some irony here, as Amazon used the PlayBook as a reference design for the Fire.

We’re not surprised at how this has turned out. The end-to-end model, with hardware, software and a retail presence, is emerging as the best way to incentivize consumer tablet purchases. Up to now, however, we have focused on Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble — they have the strongest end-to-end presence.

One wonders how Goggle will respond to this competitive threat — threat because, while Amazon and Barnes & Noble use Google’s Android to power their devices, they substitute their own ecosystem for that of Google’s Android. That’s a willful avoidance of Google’s advertising model.

Wonder no more. Claire Cain Miller and Nick Bilton, writing for the New York Times, report that Google is working “on a delivery service that would let people order items from local stores on the Web and receive them at their homes or offices within a day.” Combined with Google Wallet and Google Offers, the services offer a proxy for the retail presence of Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Will it work? Well, there’s a chance. Google’s biggest enemy at times is itself, with a penchant for perpetual Beta’s that lead nowhere fast. This is not necessarily a knock; all successful tech companies have a backlog of failed products. This time out, the pieces for an end-to-end retail experience do appear to be coming together. The trick for Google is to integrate these three experiences (wallet, offers and delivery) into a seamless whole.

One thinks Google may well deliver — if only because they must. Once they build a retail experience into Android, it will become (nearly) ubiquitous. The bigger question is whether anyone will care. Preliminary surveys indicate consumers don’t trust Google Wallet for mobile payments. That’s a big hurdle to overcome.

Update: Although it may cause another set of problems, one wonders how long Google will sit on the Motorola acquisition before trying to leverage it as part of an end-to-end strategy.

Consume + Purchase

We have noted in these pages that Amazon’s big bet with the Kindle Fire is a device that links consumers directly to the purchase experience. A cynical characterization calls it a contemporary Sears catalog. Now comes research indicating that at least one segment of device owners are willing to take that idea one step further.

As proof, the Association of Magazine Media (MPA) just released a study examining the attitudes and behaviors of a select group of consumers: tablet and e-reader owners who read app-based magazines on those devices. It’s in part a testimony to how fast things are happening in this space: a year ago, they lacked the critical mass to even conduct such a study. There are a number of interesting findings, but the data on purchase behavior was striking:

Significant to both publishers and advertisers, mobile commerce is a key point of interest to digital magazine consumers:  59% want the ability to buy directly from ads, while 70% stated that they want to be able to purchase products and services directly from editorial features.  At this point, most of the respondents (73%) typically engage with digital magazine ads.

The Kindle Fire paradigm is direct purchase: search a product listing and then purchase an item. For the study participants, at least, the indirect purchase experience is also meaningful. Here they may be reading a magazine article and either want to purchase something mentioned there — or see an associated ad that drives them to a purchase decision.

If the now vexing customer data issue can be resolved, some electronic publishing models appear to have a clear path forward. After all, customers who actually buy things are the most valuable to advertisers. The MPA survey even points to some implementation details: Most respondents want more electronic newsstands (76%) as well as the ability to easily find specific titles to download (79%).

Seems straightforward. Some caution is warranted. The MPA study is focused on early adopters; their behaviors don’t always illuminate what occurs at mass-adoption. But the signs pointing to new revenue models are encouraging. I’ll state the obvious: this isn’t your grandmother’s Sears catalog. But, then, neither is the Sears catalog.

Pay to Play

Two seemingly unrelated stories caught my eye today. The first is news from Amazon that it forecasts a “far weaker-than-expected outlook for the crucial holiday season quarter.” The reason? Spending on ramped up production for new Kindle models, one in particular:

It has spent heavily on its new Kindle Fire tablet computer and despite the overwhelming response that it has received prompting an increase [in] its production, Amazon said it might lose as much as $200 million in the fourth quarter.

Then we read about the new Bloomberg TV app for the iPad. Assume for the moment that the pundits are right in predicting this is the future of TV. Here’s the money quote:

The app is currently available for iPad devices only. Okaro [global head of Bloomberg mobile] says an edition for Android will come “in due course” but the iPad “is where the audience is at the moment.”

You have read on these pages that we don’t see the Amazon Kindle as a direct competitor to the iPad or, for that matter, the (so far anemic) Android tablet category. We stick by that. What’s of interest is Amazon’s willingness to sustain losses to get onto the playing field. At this point, they’re sounding more and more like “the other guys” in the Android tablet market. Spend big bucks on a device. Sell at a loss. Lower your expectations if not outright cancel the project (as HP did with its WebOS tablets).

We still think Amazon has a “better way,” because it adds compelling content to the equation. That’s something (almost) everyone else in Android’s extended family has neglected, to their detriment. But once more, Amazon is asking its investors to be patient as it buys market share.

I don’t know that Bloomberg can anoint anyone. Yet I’m curious as hell to see which member of the extended Android clan gets Bloomberg TV first. My one dollar bet is that we’ll see it debut on the Kindle Fire before it hits the rest of the Android ecosystem’s siblings, cousins, half-cousins and bastard step-children. The Fire will sell in ways unheard of for its Android rivals and will benefit accordingly. Meanwhile, we’ll keep a close eye on whether Amazon’s business model gamble pays off. I’m guessing it will but, so far, it’s been a losing formula.

Amazon Makes the (Next) Move

Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal [David Streitfeld, The New York Times]

Yes, This is About Publishing

As a disrupter, Amazon wants to shift the way people purchase and consume things. Books have always been high on their agenda. In some respects, in fact, it has taken longer to get there than Amazon expected. We’ve been talking about Amazon’s goals here since the mid-90s. If anything, they have been exceptionally patient (as have their investors).

Over the years, they’ve built an end-to-end infrastructure and platform. They know how to fill the channel. They’ll fill it with books, software and the devices to get (and keep) you there. As part of their keeping-the-channel-full strategy, they think it makes sense to go the last mile. They’ll start with the author-as-entrepreneur. One assumes they will eventually get some very big names, with extensive back catalogs, to sign on. Their hope is that the rest will follow.

This is the sound of the next shoe dropping. It comes just as I was getting excited about more publishing options for authors, not fewer.

But there is at least one competitor that can outflank Amazon. Update: Maybe too much so.

In the iPad, Apple has a great general purpose Post-PC that also happens to be a reading device. Competing on this level is not Amazon’s forte nor, I would venture, a core goal of its device strategy. Apple, meanwhile, seems to have an interest in keeping the publishing market (or at least the App Store) vital and competitive. Like Amazon, they increasingly sell an ecosystem.

This ultimately means that Apple must will take steps to ensure that Amazon does not become dominant in areas where their interests overlap. This is where we have historically seen Apple make alliances with other industry players. I expect that to play out again, although many in the industry worry that Apple already has too much power and would very much like to see Amazon become a countervailing force. I lean that way myself.

At the moment, it’s still a game of big ships, maneuvering into position, cannons at the ready. Not just these two giants. The entire publishing industry is on the water here, guns in various states of readiness. I’m keeping my options open. Which, for the moment, I can.