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Subscription and stand-alone models for e-books

Told in a series of tweets (and two long blockquotes, with my emphases):

Safari Books Online is an online book and video subscription service, launched in partnership with the Pearson Technology Group in 2001. It contains more than 10,000 technical and business books and videos from more than 40 publishers. It has more than 15 million users (including the number of concurrent seats available through libraries and universities); it is now the second largest reseller of O’Reilly books, exceeded only by, and its revenue dwarfs our sales of downloadable ebooks. It’s also the most affordable of our ebook offerings for those who are regular consumers of technical content. The average Safari Books Online subscriber uses at least seven books a month, and many use dozens (or even more), yet the monthly price (depending on the subscription plan) ranges from little more than the price of a single downloadable ebook to no greater than that of two or three.

Here’s the rub: most people thinking about ebooks are focused on creating an electronic recreation of print books, complete with downloadable files and devices that look and feel like books. This is a bit like pointing a camera at a stage play and concluding that was the essence of filmmaking!

At O’Reilly, we’ve tried to focus not on the form of the book but on the job that it does for our customers. It teaches, it informs, it entertains. How might electronic publishing help us to advance those aims? How might we create a more effective tool that would help our customers get their job done?

It was by asking ourselves those questions that we realized the advantages of an online library available by subscription. One of the best things about online technical books is the ability to search the full text of a book. How much better would it be to be able to search across thousands of books? Safari Books Online was our answer.

  • @tcarmody: Good essay by Tim O’Reilly on Safari, e-publishing, subscriptions, etc. via @eoinpurcell
    about 3 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: That O’Reilly essay makes me think about other spheres where a subscription model for ebooks would be best. University presses, for example.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: Uni presses already sell subscription access to journals for institutions and individuals. And some are already experimenting with books.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: Subscriptions don’t work with new creative writing and popular nonfiction. Essentially: everything that’s doing WELL on the Kindle.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: It might work well for backlist titles. I’d subscribe to Penguin Classics, or Oxford, etc.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: I also think subscriptions won’t be optimal for “e-books 2.0,” the multimedia objects specifically created for digital reading.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: Those books will be like illuminated manuscripts: highly individualized, rich aesthetic objects, more like apps than ebooks today.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: There will still be serialized objects that fill that space, especially comics and magazines, but books won’t fit subscriptions right away.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie
  • @tcarmody: More likely than subscriptions will be multivolume sets: the complete Shakespeare, or Harry Potter, or reference sets.
    about 2 hours ago from Tweetie

I banged this out on my iPhone this morning. But there’s one thing I wanted to comment on but didn’t. Here’s O’Reilly again:

What Job Do Your Books Do?

In order to understand how to succeed with ebooks, it helps to ask the right questions. As I mentioned earlier, the first question is this: what job does a book do? This is not the same for all publishers. If you publish bird identification guides, shows how much more easily you can do your job online, and how you can do it even better on an iPhone. If you publish maps and atlases, Google Maps clearly does the same job, and does it better, than a print book.

Most publishers exploring the ebook market think of so called ludic reading, that feeling of getting lost in a good book. Jeff Bezos explicitly called this out as one of the goals of the Kindle.

“The key feature of a book is that it disappears.”

But this isn’t the only reason we read. Years ago, I heard Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christenson explain how different products do different jobs for different customers at different times. He gave an example of a Harvard study done of McDonalds’ milkshakes. Peak sales in the morning were to solitary commuters, whiling away a long commute. Peak sales in the afternoon were to soccer moms hurrying up a pack of kids who’d gotten a visit to McDonalds for a treat after practice. Two different jobs, perhaps two different products: In the morning, thick and slow is good; in the afternoon, a bit quicker to drink might make mom a bit happier.

I’ve applied this kind of thinking to our publishing strategy, both in print and online. Our books are used to learn about new technology, to search for task-relevant information, and to a much lesser extent, for entertainment As a result, you’ll see a clear bifurcation in our publishing program between books that are primarily used for reference, like the Cookbook series, versus those that are used for learning, like the Head First series, or those that are read for fun, like Make: magazine. And in online publishing, we built Safari Books Online for reference and just-in-time learning, and the O’Reilly School of Technology for structured online learning with live instructors.

This is hugely important, and totally sympathetic to everything that we’ve been writing about here for as long as I can remember, plus what Jason wrote recently, and too many other folks to count.

  • We read more than just books;
  • The book is more than just text;
  • Books are read and used in a wide variety of contexts for an even wider variety of reasons;
  • Just as books are produced and sold in a wide variety of sizes and formats and materials in many different kinds of stores according to many different sales models, we should not be surprised that e-books require a similar variety;
  • The broader world of reading material in print presents even more variety, but books alone are deeply heterogeneous;
  • In other words, books are more than just books!

We think that we know, that everyone agrees, what we mean when we think of a book, a reader, reading, a bookstore. But we don’t. Otherwise Jeff Bezos could never say, “The key feature of a book is that it disappears” – as if it were an intrinsic function of the technology, as if it could be solved through technological means alone.

Absorption/immersion in reading is only a key feature of a certain kind of book in a certain setting under very specific conditions of success or failure. This is an outcome you may want when you’re reading on a plane, at the beach, or maybe sleeping at night. And these are the primal scenes that the Kindle peddles as fantasies.

Other kinds of books do not and should not disappear. Their beauty, their shape, their resistance — in short, their physicality — matter. I’m thinking above all of children’s books, art books, magazines, comics, illustrated manuals, and yes, old-fashioned de luxe books, whether fine print or manuscript. You might get absorbed in the content of these books, in your experience of their content — but that is not because the book itself disappears. In fact, exactly the opposite.

Now, if you’re trying to sell digital books to avid readers of print books, you may have good reason to avoid playing up physicality. But we ought not, for that reason, ignore the fact that digital reading is a physical experience — visual, tactile, and increasingly, auditory. (True purists can tape a piece of paper on the back of their iPods for smelling and licking.) We can’t wish the physical away, even if we wanted to.

Now, O’Reilly quite rightly emphasizes the functional aspect of electronic books. But, precisely because of the business he’s in, he doesn’t emphasize the aesthetic aspects of such books. We’ve got to get over these oppositions — that only print books have a physical, formal aesthetics, that the text is nevertheless entirely separable from that, and that technology can only at best interfere with the text. We don’t think that about our computers, televisions, video game systems, or phones (at least anymore) — why would we think it about our reading machines?

I mean, if you really think that current e-books are “like pointing a camera at a stage play and concluding that was the essence of filmmaking,” then you’ve got to be at least a little concerned about the next aesthetic leap forward. (Creating a searchable online database isn’t exactly the equivalent of “the essence of filmmaking” either.)

This is why I’m so excited for the next-gen integrated media books, and the devices we’ll use to read them. I think we’re about to blow this whole thing wide open.

P.S.: The following is a self-disclosure to my good Snarkfriends; if interested, please see here.

November 1, 2009 / Uncategorized

One comment

I agree. As a daily Kindle user since February, I can honestly say that attention to design and layout on the Kindle is more than disappointing. Sure, for reading novels it’s fine. Text is text. But for other media, e-ink (despite being quite an impressive technology) is sort of anachronistic.

Reading The New York Times or The New Yorker on a Kindle (while convenient on the subway) comes at great sacrifice in terms of aesthetics. But it need not always be this way.

I suspect whatever gadget Apple has brewing (whenever they get around to releasing it) may very well be more closely aligned with our modern digital sensibilities. Colorful, dynamic, social, multimodal, etc. The Nook already appears to be a step in the right direction.

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