Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paper books going the way of the dodo?

I had a great chat last week with Michael Serbinis, the CEO of Kobo, or the ebook store and device maker. Kobo, which is owned by a consortium of companies around the world including U.S. book chain Borders and led by Canada's Indigo Books, is aiming to compete with Amazon and its Kindle, as well as Apple and its fledgling ebook operation.

Earlier this year, when the Kobo e-reader launched, I wasn't sure how it would fare against such behemoths as Amazon and Apple, but at this point, the company seems to be doing okay simply because it appears to be doing everything right.

Amazon has been criticized for the copy protection it puts on its ebooks and for not allowing customers to move them between devices. The company has mitigated this somewhat by making Kindle apps that work on a variety of smartphones and devices, including Apple's iPad. I've blogged before about how this largely gets around the problem of copy protection. But still, Amazon's biggest fault is that its ebooks won't really work on other e-ink readers, such as Kobo, the Sony Reader or the Barnes & Noble Nook.

Apple, so far, is even more limited. Although you can move the books you buy from Apple's iBooks store around on your devices, the company doesn't look to be too well positioned as of yet to do much beyond its own little ecosystem. You can't get the iBooks app on anything but an Apple device, and the iPad - as a recent Kindle commercial - is not exactly the ideal choice for reading ebooks (especially in direct sunlight). Apple's reach is also limited; you can't buy its ebooks here in Canada, for example.

Kobo, on the other hand, is doing it all. Not only do its readers support the common ePub format, which means you can move ebooks around and read them on other e-ink readers, the Kobo app is also available on just about every device. Kobo is thus on its way to becoming ubiquitous, a claim that none of its other competitors can make.

The last time I spoke with Kobo's CEO was early this year, and I've grown increasingly impressed with him as many of his predictions have come true. One of those, which I've mentioned quite a few times, is how he believed that e-book readers would get down to $100 by the end of this year. Kobo's own reader is down to $129 in the U.S., so we're almost there.

At this rate, some of the A-list devices may actually go for less than $100 by Christmas. And at those kinds of prices, I share Serbinis's belief that the single-use e-ink reader will remain relevant in the face of multi-use tablet devices such as the iPad.

The whole interview is up on CBC, but the part that interested me the most was where we talked about the future of publishing. Serbinis suggested that publishers may soon opt to publish books in digital format first, then only print them if they sell well:

Will we see more people self-publish? Absolutely. Will we see publishers go to digital first instead of print first? Absolutely. There's nothing more disappointing than spending a million bucks on an author, then having 50 per cent of the books returned from retailers because they didn't sell. Is it better to put out a digital run first to test it and see if it gets any pickup, then do a print run? Yeah, for some authors it does.

That seems like a really good idea to me, for many reasons. As he said, it cuts the cost of producing the book dramatically. Certain books - like those about technology, for example - also probably lend themselves well to the format; in other words, the people who would be inclined to read them are probably the ones who would rather do so digitally.

I imagine this will start to happen a lot once ebooks start nearing the threshold where they make up the majority of total book sales. As mentioned in that previous post linked to above, it took digital music about 10 years to cross that 50-per-cent threshold, but it's happening much faster in ebooks. While ebooks have been around for about as long as digital music, it's probably more realistic to call the 2007 launch of the Kindle as their real coming-out party. So we've gone from zero to 10 per cent in about two and a half years.

As Serbinis said in our interview, ebooks could account for up to 15 per cent of total book sales by the end of the year so the 50-per-cent mark is going to come very quickly, which means this idea of publishing a good portion of books digitally first could also happen sooner rather than later.


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