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E-Book Publishing Idea

Background

Over the past 10-20 years there have been many e-book devices on the market and all of them have failed. There have been countless predictions of the e-book taking an increasingly larger part of the book market. But none of these predictions have fulfilled the optimism of the fortune-teller. Consider this quote from Forbes Magazine written in 2000:

A recent report by Andersen Consulting supports…optimism. It concluded that by 2005, 28 million people will be reading e-books, comprising a $2.3 billion market. That would be about one-tenth of the total market for books.

Most of the principal technology is in place for making e-books a success:

  • compact, solid-state, high-capacity data storage (eg, SD cards have a capacity of 8Gb now and it is doubling every few months);
  • lightweight, long-lasting batteries;
  • public domain and therefore cheap operating systems (eg, Linux).

The only component missing up till now has been an effective display screen. For e-books to succeed, display screens will need a resolution in the region of 200 dpi (similar to a good laser printer), provide good contrast, so they can be read in bright daylight, and not fluoresce or flicker, which causes eyestrain. In the past e-book device screens were just smaller version of LCD computer screens and while they were portable, they were uncomfortable to read for any length of time. With the development of e-ink technology, we have screens that largely meet the criteria.

DRM (Digital Rights Management)

However, another problem stands in the way of adoption of e-books: outdated marketing models. The key difference between a traditional paper book and an e-book is that the former, being a physical object, can be sold, lent, given away and ownership easily transferred to another person. Under the first-sale doctrine the copyright owner only has a right to royalties from sale of a new copy. It is permissible to transfer ownership to another person as long as a duplicate copy is not made.

With digital objects, like e-books, it is not possible to transfer ownership in the same, straightforward way that you can with a physical object. Essentially you make a duplicate copy when you transfer it to another person. This obviously has the potential for undermining the whole market in e-books as they produce even smaller files than audio mp3's and are consequently extremely easy to share without payment made to the copyright holder.

In order to obviate the problem of duplication of e-books the industry uses DRM (Digital Rights Management) which tries to artificially replicate the properties of a physical object. The e-book is encrypted in such a way that it can only be played on one specific device, or a limited number of devices, and if moved to a different device it must be deleted from the first. In this way, e-book publishers try to ensure that an e-book is only in one place at a time, just like a physical book.

The problem with this method of copyright protection is that it subjects the user to very irritating restrictions on their use of the book. For instance it is difficult or impossible to lend a book you have just read to another member of the family. It is also renders your book collection more vulnerable to loss than the books on your bookshelf at home. Your device has to have a unique ID so that the book can determine the legitimacy of you playing the book on that device. If you re-load the operating system at any time that ID will be lost and the ability to access your books, even if you have full backups of your collection. One way around this potential disaster is for the supplier to keep a record of your library on a central server so that you can re-load it after a system crash. However, this can tie you into one supplier, as if you were compelled to buy all your hard-copy books from Waterstones, and never allowed to buy them anywhere else. And what happens if your supplier goes bust and stops trading? Where is your library then? Many users also find the very fact that a supplier is keeping detailed records of their reading very irritating and intrusive.

In addition to access and transfer of e-books, price is yet another problem with the current marketing model. Most e-books are sold at a price only a little below that of their paper brother. Having paid out over 100 for a reading device you will have to buy a lot of ebooks to recoup that outlay.

Our suggestion is that an alternative method of marketing is required that does not involve the use of DRM and, in fact, actively encourages sharing of ebooks. Rather than looking to traditional book selling as a model we suggest that newspaper sales is a better model

Proposal

E-books will be either given away free or sold at very low cost. Using newspapers and magazines as a model we would want to keep the cost down to under 2 a book.

Revenue will largely come from advertising embedded in the book. Individual advertisers could sponsor specific books as they sponsor TV programmes. Some research is needed to establish the maximum amount of adverting you can insert in a book without irritating the reader. We would suggest ads at the beginning and the end of the book and perhaps others embedded in the book every 100 pages. These will be full-page ads so they do not interfere with reading of the text.

There is nothing new in the idea of placing ads in books. It was popular in the UK in the 19th century and you can still find ads in old Penguin paperbacks. In other parts of the world embedding adverts in paperbacks is still practised.

We will create the art work for the ads ourselves, thus providing an additional income stream for the site. Some ads might cleverly be integrated into illustrations related to the text or the style of the book. For example, in a Victorian novel we might insert ads with a Victorian theme so they are in tune with the book.

Placing ads in e-books is even more beneficial than placing them in paper books as you have no on-going production costs with an e-book and so the more downloads of a book, the more profit from advertising revenue you obtain. It is also possible to change ads so they are more timely than those in paper books.

As e-book technology develops we can provide more sophisticated ads, say, in full colour (there is no additional cost as with printing colour) and we could even develop animated ads! Books that are linked to the internet could have dynamically updated time-related, personal or context-related ads beamed to the user. If the book-reader is being used off-line then the book would display a default ad embedded in the book text.

All e-books must be DRM-free, thus allowing and even encouraging sharing. As we want the ads to be circulated there will be real benefit in people sharing their free e-books. It would also help if we had a way of tracking the sharing books as that would be a way of demonstrating increased advertising coverage to our clients.

Book text will be locked to prevent tampering with the contents, so the ads remain intact within the text, but nothing should restrict the duplicating and transfer of the books.

Initially we would start by producing books currently in the public domain and giving them away free. The USP of the site would be that there is a huge collection of books, all well-indexed and easy to locate and download. We would also provide books in ALL the current formats. At present there is no universal format and there are over 40 different proprietary systems. This will be the biggest technical challenge.

The master copy of the book will be stored in EPUB format. This is an open format defined by the Open eBook Forum of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), based on XML and XHTML. Translation into the target format required by the user will ideally be done on the fly by use of XSLT sheets or special scripts. Where it is difficult to perform the transformation on-line we may need to place some pre-formatted versions in the database.

Additional content will also be provided on the site such as reviews, guides and quizzes which can also be downloaded. Blogs and forums and other interactivity will help readers keep involved with us. The aim will be to become the premier site that people automatically come to when they want an e-book as they know that we will be able to provide consistently high quality content, easily accessed, in the format they need. Once we have generated high volume traffic to the site we will also be able to attract advertising on the site itself as well as in the books.

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