Four Essentials for eBook Success

The Amazon Kindle has sparked (pun intended) a great deal of debate. It seems that people either love it or hate it. Me? I’m probably somewhere in the middle. Despite its obvious shortcomings, I think it’s a giant step forward, and I want to see it succeed.

four pieces of a puzzle

But I think the device has a ways to go before it creates the kind of seismic shift that the iPod created in the music world. In order for an eBook to succeed, it must incorporate four essential components. I have listed these in priority order.

  1. Access to Content. Consumers must have access to an enormous and growing book catalog. This was what eventually made iTunes and the iPod successful. I could buy virtually any artist or album I wanted without wondering if it was available via iTunes. With the exception of the Beatles, I can get just about any album I want.

    The Amazon Kindle launched last week with access to almost 90,000 titles. That’s a huge improvement over, for example, the Sony Reader, which only has access to 20,000 titles (according to the Sony Web site). But that’s still only the tip of the iceberg. More than 200,000 new titles are published each year. And that doesn’t even include the millions of backlist titles already in print.

    Still, if anyone is going to be a serious competitor to Amazon, they will have to get access to the content first. In my opinion, this is the most important component, as Amazon clearly understands. They already have a great start, and I expect this number will increase exponentially.

  2. Buying Experience. The problem with every eBook reader prior to the Kindle is that it was cumbersome to get content on the device. You had to futz around with some kludgy Web site or dedicated software and manually transfer your book from your computer to your eBook reader. This is simply too much work for mere mortals (i.e., everyone but the geeks).

    Once again, Amazon has gotten this part of the equation right. The company that invented “one-click” buying has extended the experience to the eBook reader. You just click the “Buy” button and a few seconds later, the book magically appears on your device.

    Apple has done this, too, with their iPhone and new iPod Touch software. You can download songs directly to your device without having to sync up with your computer. However, it requires a WIFI connection. Amazon has gone one step further by using Sprint’s 3G network, so that a wireless connection is almost always available. Again, Amazon has got this right.

  3. Device Itself. This is where Amazon has some work to do. The device is okay but not great. I did find that, for the most part, the device “disappeared,” and I got lost in the book. But there are some annoying things that need to be fixed.

    By and large, people are not comparing this to previous eBook readers. (Do you really know anyone who has bought one? Me neither.) Instead, they are comparing it to the iPhone and the iPod Touch. They want elegant devices that inspire the kind of “childlike wonder” that Apple is so good at creating. As I noted in a previous post, the Kindle reminds me of an old HP calculator.

    I think there is vast room for improvement here. I would be especially grateful if Amazon could fix the page forward and backward keys in the next iteration of the product, so that they are not so easily pressed by accident. Robert Scoble has a great rant about this on his video blog, so I won’t repeat it here.

    The highlighting and annotation features of the Kindle also need serious overall. With extended use, I have found them all but unusable. I mark up my books heavily, and this is just too cumbersome for serious book readers.

  4. Social Networking. Amazon hasn’t even begun to exploit this. They certainly understand social networking—just look at all the SN features on their Web site. I think it’s only a matter of time before they incorporate this in a major way.

    But before they can do this, publishers have to be willing to cooperate. For starters the digital rights management (DRM) system is way too restrictive. As a publisher, I take responsibility for this. We have to loosen up. In my opinion, publishers are too paranoid. They are shooting themselves—and their authors—in the foot.

    Consumers need to be able to share snippets and, indeed, whole chapters with friends. Publishers have already granted Amazon this right to some extent; witness Search Inside! Adding some version of “sharing” will only stimulate book sales.

    Imagine if I could send a friend two or three chapters of a new book I am excited about. If he likes what he reads, he could conveniently click on a “buy now” button at the end of the section.

    We should also be able to loan books to friends. This is where it gets tricky. Obviously, we want to protect authors and publishers from illegal downloads. But rather than thinking about why it won’t work, we need to step into the domain of “possibility” and think how it could work.

    What if I could loan a copy of my eBook to one friend at a time. (The analog for this is the physical book.) At the end of, say, two weeks, the eBook would disappear from my friend’s device. If he wants to buy his own copy, he can. Since the device is always online, it could connect back to Amazon’s central server and insure that no more than two people (me and my friend) have access to the book at any one time.

    Heck, as a publisher, I’d be willing to let users “loan” the book out to up to five users at a time. (iTunes employs a similar system where you can authorize up to five people to access your purchased music.) This is where I think we can surpass the limitations of physical books and actually stimulate lots and lots of book sales.

    Finally, as Scoble points out in his video, I should be able to buy the print edition or an eBook edition and “gift it” to a friend, I should also be able to see what my friends are reading. Again, I think this will happen sooner rather than later. Amazon is too good a retailer to leave money on the table for long.

So again, to summarize, Amazon has nailed two of the four essentials for eBook success. This is a good start. Even the device is a big step in the right direction. This is especially true if you think of it as more of a portable bookstore rather than an eBook reader. And, they obviously have work to do on the social networking side.

It’s not too late for another competitor to enter the marketplace. Apple would be the most likely contender. But just creating a great device—which they could no doubt do—won’t be enough. In my opinion, that is only one component out of four. The first and most important component is the eBook catalog.

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