Cracks in the Dam: Publishers dabble in digital tales

The following appeared in the May 22 edition of Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper:

A pair of Canadian book publishers dipped their toes ever deeper into the online world this week by offering free digital downloads of entire books. House of Anansi Press and HarperCollins Canada have decided to make the full text of a single book available to readers for a limited time, hoping to attract new readers, raise the authors’ profiles and boost sales of traditional copies. Jon Evans’s mass-market paperback Invisible Armies can be read for free until June 30 through the HarperCollins read-only interface called Browse Inside, which normally allows readers access to excerpts of books. HarperCollins chose Evans because of his enthusiasm for the experiment and for his status as an established writer with a solid following that they hope to expand.

While it’s encouraging to see a publisher go out on a digital limb, one has to wonder whether they have thought through the best way to proceed in this Brave New World:

“We didn’t feel like we were going to risk anything in terms of the book’s sales,” Anansi president Sarah MacLachlan said. “I could be delusional in this, but I really don’t think the digital book has come of age, so I don’t think that people would prefer to read something digitally than they would to own the actual book.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080522.wbooks22/BNStory/Entertainment/?page=rss&id=RTGAM.20080522.wbooks22

Now there’s an example of innovative, cutting edge thinking: “We can give it away, because nobody really wants it anyway.” Not,  “How can we use this new medium to build market share and capture an audience that we couldn’t reach before?”  To show how ill-conceived their strategy is, when I went to their website, I was able to download the PDF file of the book without even registering! I then emailed it to my Kindle, where is is quite readable.

If the Anansi executive had discussed this approach with Leslie Hulse, Vice President of Digital Business Development at HarperCollins (parent of Anansi Press) who spoke at the International Digital Publishers Forum on MAy 14, she would have heard her say: “People will register for free content”. (For a look at a site that takes this premise to a higher level, check out www.wowio.com, where users are asked to complete a fairly detailed profile in order to download a free e-book daily.)   Harper Collins is arguably the furthest along in experimenting with digital content, with their “Browse Inside” feature, which looks a lot like Amazon’s “Search Inside” option. It actually lets you read quite a bit of the book online (in a few cases, all of it) (http://www.harpercollins.com/book/browseinsidemain.aspx) But I think they’ve still got some work to do on the pricing model. The books I looked at listed for $24.95 for the hardcover edition, and $19.95 for the e-book version (full DRM included at no extra charge). Not exactly a compelling enough discount to try out a new format. (“Let’s not risk those margins”)  They do however, require registration in order to download the occasional free e-book they offer. Maybe the Anansi folks should check it out.

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Freeloaders unite! YAFTOS is here(Yet another free textbook online site)

Readers of this blog have seen references in earlier posts to a couple of start-ups in the free e-book space, notably Flatworld Knowledge, (www.flatworldknowledge.com ) and Wowio (www.wowio.com) Well it turns out another company has been doing it for several years. Actually, it could be argued that this company originated the concept of free college textbooks. I’m referring to Freeload Press, which dates back to 2005, arguably the Middle Ages in terms of e-book evolution. The banners on their site read:

  • Students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks, We propose they spend $0
  • Books + Download + Free = Freeload Press
  • Liberating textbooks and study aids for students from all financial backgrounds

http://freeloadpress.com/booklist.aspx

The CEO of Freeload, Tom Doran, informed me today that beginning this August, all of Freeload’s Textbook Media e-books will be browser-based, which permits use of rich media for academic content and advertising. While Freeeload Press will continue to offer ad-supported e-books for free, other publishers using Textbook Media can set end-user prices for the ad-supported e-book version. In either case, students can choose to pay for an ad-free e-book version, or an ad-free paperback version. The texts are in use at over 250 colleges and universities.

But one needs to look at the bigger picture of free vs paid content. All sorts of approaches are being experimented with, including 1)”Freemium” (a small percentage of users choose to pay for a premium level of service; 2) Cross-subsidies: also known as “loss leaders”, in which something free or cheap leads the buyer to purchase another, more expensive item, 3) Data Aggregation: Collect enough data from a large enough community of users, and sell that to sponsors who desire that demographic; 4) Altruism and the gift economy: aka open source movement and user generated content [for more on this, see Chris Anderson’s insightful piece in the MArch issue of Wired: “Free, why $0.00 is the future of business”, from which the above paragraph borrows generously]

All of which points to more reason to short Pearson and Prentice Hall, et al.