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E-books and Digital Marketing: How Publishers Are Using the Internet to Reach Readers

Ed McCoyd


An e-book is a book sold in digital form, for reading on a computerized device such as a desktop or laptop computer, a "personal digital assistant" such as a Palm handheld or Pocket PC, a handheld device dedicated for reading electronic content, a mobile product (such as a cell phone or Blackberry), or other digital platform.

While e-books still only account for a very small portion of total book industry sales, their sales numbers have been increasing steadily for the past several years, from an estimated $20 million in wholesale revenues in 2003, up to $30 million in 2004, $44 million in 2005, $54 million in 2006, $67 million in 2007, and more than $113 million in 2008. The number of e-books that are available has also grown since publishers began offering e-book products. Last month it was reported in Publishers Weekly that ninety percent of the top 50,000 trade (i.e., general interest fiction and nonfiction) book titles were available in both print and electronic editions.

E-books are also becoming increasingly available in the education market. The MBS textbook exchange, for example, offers e-books from many of the largest publishers of postsecondary instructional materials. Higher Ed publishers Pearson, Wiley, Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, and Bedford, Freeman & Worth have created CourseSmart, another e-textbook store, in an effort to spark student adoption of e-books by providing a critical mass of available titles at one site.

The e-book format even empowers educators to mix and match content from a wide variety of books into one electronic package. O'Reilly Media's SafariU lets professors create custom computer science course materials, from a selection of thousands of books and articles from O'Reilly, Pearson, and other publishers. Similar platforms include Primis from McGraw-Hill, and Cengage Learning's iChapters.

E-books are available in a wide range of formats for multiple devices. Adobe PDF-formatted e-books can be rendered on desktop and laptop PCs and a range of handheld devices. The Mobipocket format, which is optimized for handhelds, works on Palm OS, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry handheld devices, as well as on Symbian OS phones. Other popular reading formats include Sony, Kindle, Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader, and others.

There are also hardware devices dedicated for e-book reading. One is called eBookwise, a device from the e-book retailer Fictionwise.com (recently acquired by Barnes & Noble). Another that has captured people's imaginations is the Sony Reader. This device uses an innovative screen technology known as E-Ink electronic paper display, which consists of capsules that turn white or black based on an electric charge to configure the text. What makes E-Ink unique is that it when you read it, it's the light around you that enables you to read the text, rather than light projected from the screen. Consequently, you can read on the device on a beach, and generally it's contended that this technology creates less glare and eye strain. Furthermore, without backlighting, the need for battery power is reduced, enabling a lightweight device that can render up to 7,500 page turns without recharging. There approximately 45,000 titles available in this format on the Sony Connect bookstore. Sony and Borders have also teamed up to sell books in this format, and e-books formatted for the Sony Reader are also available on eBooks.com, a site with over 130,000 e-book titles available in a range of formats including Sony, Adobe, Mobipocket, and Microsoft Reader.

The E-Ink screen is also featured on the iLiad and the iLiad Book Edition available from the Dutch iRex Technologies. These devices display e-books in the popular Mobipocket format.

Amazon has made a huge splash with its Kindle e-book reading device, which also uses an E-Ink screen, and has a built-in wireless connection enabling device owners to access the Amazon bookstore anywhere, anytime. Customers grabbed up Amazon's entire inventory of the device within the first few months after it went on the market in November of 2007. In February of 2009 Amazon released the "Kindle 2," a new version of the device with improvements including a slimmer and more lightweight design, sharper screen display, and longer battery life, to name a few. The fact that more than 245,000 titles are now available for use on the Kindle is clear evidence that book publishers are also embracing the technology.

In May of 2008, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made the interesting announcement that sales of books for use on the Kindle were accounting for 6% of all Amazon sales of books available in both Kindle and print formats (125,000 books at the time). In August of 2008, Amazon executive Ian Freed said that owners of the Kindle more than doubled their overall number of book purchases after getting the device, and that they continued to buy as many printed books as they had prior to owning a Kindle. In February of this year, Bezos announced that e-books were accounting for 10% of all sales on Amazon. Today, the Kindle has the added cache of being known to have been acquired by many celebrities and public figures - as of February, Tiki Barber, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Warren Buffet, Dick Cheney, Martha Stewart, and Whoopi Goldberg were all reported to own Kindles.

Numerous platforms and applications for reading e-books on cell phones and mobile devices have recently been unveiled. Last month, Amazon began making e-books for the Kindle also available in a format that renders them on the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Stanza, an application from the company Lexcycle, also makes e-books available for these two devices. eReader Pro rendering software from Fictionwise works on Blackberrys and a wide range of other mobile devices, and e-books solutions for mobile are also being provided by Macmillan Publishing Solutions, Expanded Books, Incelligence, and ScrollMotion.

A relatively new format innovation is .EPUB, developed by the International Publishing Forum (IDPF). EPUB is a standard that enables publishers to create one reflowable file of an e-book, which retailers and wholesalers can then easily convert into formats for various consumer devices (Mobipocket, iLiad, etc.). Furthermore, an EPUB file can be rendered directly on many of the devices.

E-books are also available via libraries. The vendor Overdrive's Digital Library Reserve platform offers more than 80,000 e-book and downloadable audiobook titles to libraries. Libraries purchase the books outright, and the encryption attached to the book permits a one-patron-at-a-time lending model. The patron "checks out" the book and reads it on the device of his or her choosing. When the lending period expires, the book automatically "checks back in" and the next patron can access it. Netlibrary offers a comparable model for more than 160,000 e-book titles and a growing collection of audiobooks.

Digital Marketing

The Internet is accounting for an increasing amount of people's leisure time. Book publishers need to compete with the Internet by using the Internet. They are now pursuing a variety of online strategies to market and sell their products.

One approach is the distribution of book "widgets," which are copyable and transferable digital "objects" that resemble the books they promote. A widget typically is a replica of the book's cover. If you click on it, you may get access to portions of the work, such as the table of contents and a sample chapter, plus a link to buy the product. Widgets can be posted anywhere on the Internet, including on individuals' pages on community sites like MySpace and Facebook as a form of "viral" marketing, in online book reviews, and elsewhere.

Another form of widget is videos featuring authors discussing their books. While author videos are not new, what is new is the ability to distribute them through social networking and streaming video sites. Online video production companies currently providing services to publishers and authors include TurnHere, Vidlit, and BookShorts, to name a few.

Web sites developed by publishers may be built around a particular author, or even a specific book. Nowadays the sites contain features to make them "sticky," that is, to create a relationship with readers that makes them enthused about the site and causes them to keep returning. These features may include digitized elements of book covers that users can download as screen savers; community chat rooms; chats with the author; community games, such one in which users of the site can contribute sections to a collectively-written story; blogs; newsletters; and RSS feeds.

There are even social networking sites dedicated to users' book interests, including LibraryThing.com and Shelfari.com.

Marketing to customers via their mobile phones is also being employed. The romance novel publisher Harlequin sends out serialized stories in electronic format to readers' mobile phones, for example, to maintain a connection with customers.

It will be fascinating to see what the future holds as publishers, along with their authors and technology partners, continue exploring ways to employ the Internet and digital technologies generally to reach readers and distribute books to them.

Ed McCoyd is an attorney and director of digital policy at the Association of American Publishers, the leading trade organization of book publishers in the U.S. He works on issues including the use of digital technologies to market, sell, and distribute publishers' products; the prevention of electronic piracy of books; the provision of accessible instructional materials to postsecondary students with disabilities under applicable federal and state laws; and environmental issues associated with the procurement of book paper. He can be reached at emccoyd@publishers.org.

Prior to joining AAP's staff, Ed served as director of legal services at the Authors Guild, providing licensing and copyright advice to published writers and advocating for authors' rights. Ed is also the author of the book To Live and Dream: The Incredible Story of George Foreman, as well as the song "Besame," featured in the major motion pictures "16 Blocks" (starring Bruce Willis) and "Cleaner" (starring Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, and Ed Harris).

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