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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  • Bryan Eisenberg


    I think you captured many of the issues that readers have in relation to e-book devices. One question I have for you as a publisher though, doesn’t the involvement of publishers require that the distribution fit in their workflow. From my limited research, doesn’t the Kindle require special formatting that is not the normal flow of lay out for current books? They aren’t using regular PDFs or anything like that, correct?


  • Scott Winter

    More great thoughts, Mike.

    As I said in my comment on your previous post, I don’t think the device will ever be perfect. I would love to hear your opinion on consumer reluctance. Several people have commented here that no matter what the device is they won’t give up on the experience of books. Is this a chicken/egg scenario? What will turn the tide – the device, or consumer adoption of eBook technology in general? Or will they have to meet somewhere in the middle?

    Whatever your answer, I agree that it has to start with the publishers, authors, and agents. Until the people that control the content ease up, then the technology will never evolve. The only reason we have devices like the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle is because some publishers realized that many people were reading on PDA’s, and there was a legitimate market out there, and started making more content available. That drove the demand for a compelling device. Like you said, we need to hammer out the DRM issue and then all publishers need to take the risk to adopt new technology so that we aren’t the reason eBooks don’t succeed.

  • Ty Zucker

    Good points. My wife and I have started reading books on our Palm handhelds and by and large like the experience mostly for its portability. Getting books and getting them on to the Palm is somewhat of a kludgy experience however.

    The major problem with the Kindle as I see it is that when you first look at it, you think “Eesh, that’s ugly”. It has absolutely no “sex appeal” which is what the Ipod Touch and some other mp3 players have. Why has the Motorola Razr been so popular? Cool factor. The Kindle might have a great buying and reading experience, but until the device has more of a coolness – it won’t be a hit.

  • Drew Haninger

    These are excellent points. The Buying Experience, Social Networking and “gift-it” could be done leveraging the iPhone and PDA/cell phones without any special “eBook hardware”. The challenge might be getting all the content available, so one can see a large online store like Amazon coordinating this. Note that Amazon now has the eBook hardware and owns Mobi to cover the PDA’s.
    I agree that too restrictive DRM is hurting the existing eBook experience.

    Drew Haninger

  • Timothy Fish

    From a publisher’s point of view, I think there are a couple of things that might be helpful, related to these mentioned. A publisher should be able to gift or loan as many copies of the book as it desires, for the purpose of seeding the market. Along with users being able to loan out a book to five people, there should be an incentive for people to do so. Perhaps that $9.99 book only costs $8.99 if they use all of their slots by loaning it to friends. It wouldn’t help bad books much, but for those books that are worth reading it would probably help sales.

  • Michael Hyatt

    Personally, I don’t think the iPhone will do. The screen is not big enough. A larger tablet device (say, 6″ x 9″), using the same technology, would be perfect.

  • Tom Moucka


    Your social networking insight is right on the money – and I mean just that. The marketing potential for publishing (and reading) is incredible! Thanks for stimulating thought.

  • Tiffany Colter

    These are great points you’ve made. What is most exciting to me is the idea of Authors having the “Amazon Affiliate” capabilities on their website to instantly sell their own books.

    You combine that with a “sneak peek” chapter and Author’s insight and there is a huge marketing opportunity here.

    Thanks for your insightful analysis of this product. What an exciting time to be an author.

  • Christopher Coulter

    I think the ‘social aspect’ of it, will find a very limited geeky market, reading is a solitary experience, not a communicational gift-transfer device. The Zune went “social”, and I don’t see that feature having any impact whatsoever. And how many remaining Palm users still actually ‘beam’? Even in the best-case use scenario, overcoming all the nearly-impossible DRM hassles and such, not many will even use. Most people don’t even use half of the features on their cell-phones.

    And if I am going to take the time and effort to sync up some book, I don’t want to be automatically pressured into stopping everything else, and reading it right away, on account of some countdown clock. It will have to be a gift total, as I am not going to bother with disappearing content.

    Here’s my 4 — not really in any sort of order, as all are needed.

    1. Immersive reading, you have to feel like it’s the real thing, no flicker, no ghosting, no slow refresh rates. You need to forget that it’s even a device. The ‘iPodization’ is fine for quick-takes or short web browsing, but for long reading, it headache wears on you. The slick iPod experience has yet to translate into something E-Ink’ish.

    2. Battery life and price points, it must last nearly forever, and still be consumer priced. Monile devices aren’t that mobile, as the Tablet PC has shown.

    3. Access to standardized content AND market-leading formats — this is where Amazon royally dropped the ball, per lack of .epub and .pdf support. Format wars are the least thing you need, we need standards. Amazon dropped the ball here too, locking out old Mobipocket format purchasers. Sigh.

    4. Device itself – look, feel, UI, sex-appeal, ease-of-sync. Amazon failed tremendously here, creating a time-machine device that would have been state-of-art circa 1988. Reminds me of that old ‘Speak and Spell’ kids toy.

  • colleen Coble

    Call me behind the times, but I played with an iPod for the first time this week–one I bought my daughter for her birthday last April. it was the most darling bit of technology I’ve ever seen. I instantly wanted one. When an ebook reader comes out that is on a par with the iPod, I might actually be talked into one for research books.

  • Dean

    Michael, I think your 4 points are very good.

    I think one of the things that Amazon has done so well is to break down the barriers between online booksellers and brick and mortar booksellers. Here are 4 barriers that Amazon has eliminated to get the book buying public to buy online instead of a brick and mortar bookstore and maybe get more people to buy books:

    1) While it was easy for Amazon to have a lower price than the brick and mortar stores, the shipping cost added onto the order sometimes made the price closer to your local book store. Amazon brilliantly, in my opinion, came up with Amazon Prime which, for a yearly fee, gave customers free shipping on 2nd day delivery and only $3.99 for next day delivery. Investors hated this because they felt Amazon was going to take a bath on the shipping charge. After a year of doing this Amazon has proven investors wrong and has more than offset the free shipping with more loyal customers that are buying more books than ever.

    2) Another barrier Amazon was able to jump was the inability of the online customers to preview a book online before they bought it, as they could in a local bookstore. Amazon introduced the feature “Search Inside”. This allowed the online customer to read the first chapter, view the table of contents, randomly view other parts of the book (called surprise me!) and view the front and back cover and their flaps. I’ve bought many a book I wouldn’t have otherwise because of this feature. I can’t understand why all publishers wouldn’t allow this feature for their books. They are missing lots of sales.

    3) Inventory. Amazon carries many more books than a local bookstore could ever hope to carry and most of them in stock.

    4) The one thing that Amazon hasn’t been able to do is same day sales. Have you ever wanted a book so bad, you just couldn’t wait and rushed down to the local bookstore to get it? I know I have, even if I had to pay full price. Again, Amazon knocks away this final barrier with the Kindle. I think this is the revolutionary breakthrough of the Kindle. A no hassle, no wires, no computer, no sign ups, no middle man hassles, just a click of a button and presto, in seconds your book is downloaded. Talk about instant gratification…this is it.

    Sure, the design could look sexier and the screen needs to be in color. This list is endless. You’ve got to start somewhere, but this is a gigantic leap forward,

    I think the ball is now in the book publisher’s court.

  • Timothy Fish

    Reading a Social Experience

    Suppose you had a device that would allow you to interact with other readers and even the author of a book, while you are reading. Suppose you could highlight a paragraph

  • Chris

    Hi Mike —

    I liked your post here.

    The only thing I’d say here is that Amazon can’t come out of the gate with everything under the sun. This would not only be more expensive (just driving up development costs before they’ve achieved any scale in production), but it would probably negatively affect consumer adoption. For a device like this to take hold, it can’t just appeal to a narrow base of consumers — you need a mass market if you want the publishers to take notice (as you have) but also embrace this path. If you add everything that would be cool, you’re likely to turn off a significant portion of the population who will view this as too complicated.

    The second generation of eBook readers (i.e., the Kindle) fixes a lot of the problems that people had with previous readers. To your point, who was buying the Sony eBook? NOBODY. Why? Because while it was cool, it doesn’t have enough of a catalog (to your point), and it such a jump from the experience of reading a book — hav eyou played with it? It’s really thin, and still feels like you’re holding a mini-computer.

    Much like what has made the iPod successul, Kindle needs to get the device into as many hands as possible at first, and then they can educate this population as time goes on as to what the possibilities are. People will need to be comfortable with reading books on a device before they are ready to explore all the new things. To look back at iPod, the first generation iPods were basic — if Apple had introduced something like the iPod touch as the first generation, consumers would probably balk. “Looks really cool, but probably too complicated.”

    Just my two cents — haven’t got my hands on a Kindle yet.

    On a realted topic, Amazon really needs to have this out in the market for consumers to look at, touch, feel, experience. It sold out on the first day, but to super early adopters. This would likely be hard for Amazon to pull off because they don’t have these resources, but it would be great if they had kiosks at malls or even set something up with their partner Borders (who might not like this, and currently has the Sony reader on display in many locations). So many ways to go with the Kindle.

    Just the thoughts of an idealist business student.

  • Rodney Hatfield


    This was an interesting read. I think the points you raise are the right ones looking at the technology available. I do feel although this is a cool toy at first glance, it would be hard to carry with the size it is conformed too.

    My question is how do you keep the value of the branded books from being reduced to the lower rates the Kindle will dictate everything too. So for example if they have all their ebooks priced at $9.99 but you still plan on selling hard covers at regular $19.99-$24.99 then if the Kindle took off, aren’t you potentially asking for returns? Once the digital ebooks get carried by more than one carrier there isn’t any overhead and couldn’t books potentially be reduced to 99 cent downloads? This would seem to parallel the music industry.

    What are your thoughts as a publisher and trying to protect the overall value of your brand? This is of course assuming the Kindle or some other device would catch on like the iPod. I still don’t think it will.


  • Mike Morrell

    Very thought-provoking! I’d say someone has a real shot at beating Kindle with some kind of ‘universal device’ that is operable with Kindle and with other services, not to mention existing books/documents we might have lying around on our hard drives. I understand what you’ve said about “Futz[ing] around with some kludgy Web site or dedicated software…manually transfer[ing] your book from your computer to your eBook reader” being “too much work for mere mortals.” At the same time, I can get a lot of public domain books for free in PDF (from and many, many other places) plus I work in publishing so I get full-length manuscripts all the time. I don’t want to own two devices, one that’s universal (and would easily allow me to transfer files via a USB cable) and one that is proprietary and limited to paid Amazon offerings. I’m going to purchase the first device that allows me to have it all.

  • Mark


    For me a hybrid system would be nice. If I bought the hard copy of a book it would be nice if I went to pay for the book at the check out and they asked if I would like to upgrade my book. For $5 more I could get a code printed on my receipt and go to the publisher’s web site and download an audio copy for my ipod and a e-copy for my laptop. You would not want this for every book, but as a minister I may want to listen to the book while running or reading off of my laptop while traveling, but also I mark several of them up for using illustrations. I realize I am a nich market, but it would be nice to have options.

    Also publishers could make out of print books available as mp3’s or e-books it would help. I know that you are a business that has to make money – no problem there, but some books I still referece people to that are out of print – example is Ron Dunn’s “When Heaven Is Silent”- Amazon becomes your friend.

  • Scott H

    Until I can be assured that I will be able to read 20 years from now the ebooks I buy today (just like I can read my grandparents’ 100-year old books today), this will all be a non-starter for me. Ironically, I had been buying ebooks (in pdf format) from Amazon for years — with DRM, of course. Everything was hunky dorey until Amazon decided to change their business model. They stopped selling pdf ebooks (I believe after they bought Mobipocket or Mobibook, or whatever it’s called) and eliminated customers’ “digital lockers.” Poof! Gone. No warning. No nothing. Just gone. I had back up copies of my ebooks, so no problem there. But then, Adobe released a new version of it’s pdf Reader software that was no longer compatible with the DRM on my existing pdf ebooks. Their solution was to re-download the ebooks from the seller (in my case, Amazon) and try to re-activate them.

    Oops. Big problem: Amazon no longer allowed previously purchased ebooks to be downloaded.

    So, dependence on a single seller and/or proprietary DRM will always be a deal killer for me. Above and beyond the fact that I’d have to pay nearly $400 before I could even purchase and read my first ebook.

    And, someone thinks this is a viable plan?

  • Chad

    The analogy to the music industry is interesting, but unlikely to happen quickly unless Amazon offers more than 35% to the small publishers. (I’m guessing that large publishers already involved have better deals in place, though would be interested in hearing if it’s otherwise.) Given that most consumers expect an ebook to be less expensive than a hardcopy, it gets a little tricky for a small publisher when you know the annual sales for a niche title may be pretty low. (“Long Tail” profitability really only applies to the aggregator, not the small producer.)

  • Andrew

    Mike, in Europe a new ebook reader has been launched, the Iliad from Irex Technologies. This device does not have the limitations described in point three and four of the review. It might have a problem with point one though.

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