Thursday, June 09, 2011

An Infant with Great Potential

Yesterday's post explored that, despite the hype, e-books are still in their infancy.

But everyone has high hopes for them.  Some of those hopes are admittedly hype.  But some are based on actual data and experience. Here are three cases:

  • A partner approach to online and print
  • Signs of life in the nonfiction market for e-books
  • New online course packs

Case 1. A Partner Approach to Online and Print

Some publishers are discovering that the path to e-books takes a journey through hybrid approaches, much like the route to e-learning involved a journey through blended learning.

The conversion of much workplace and university learning programs to electronic formats ended up involving blended formats, in which parts of programs were presented online and other parts remained in the classroom. This allowed all stakeholders to become comfortable with learning online. It reduced (but did not eliminate) instructor and learner resistance, and provided skeptical executives with an opportunity to try e-learning before making a full-fledged commitment to it.

Some evidence is arising that print media might be re-thinking their options along the same lines. The New York Times recently published a profile of the re-worked Hollywood Reporter. Until recently, the Reporter published a daily newspaper. Much of its news became redundant with the increasing myriad of Hollywood news sites. And it lost its focus on its core readers--Hollywood insiders--rather than Hollywood obsessed fans (OK, me).

To shift the focus back--while acknowledging the current realities of the entertainment news industry--new editor Janice Min reconceived the Hollywood Reporter as a combination of online and print contents:

  • Online news outlet, where breaking news was published on an ongoing basis
  • Glossy, weekly print publication, which publishes feature articles of interst to the traditional core audience of the Hollywood Reporter

The initial results after a year or so of publication suggest the transition has succeeded. Ad revenues--a key metric of performance in publishing--and which had fallen prior to the makeover, have--is up by 50 percent over the old daily version.

Min believes that only an outsider could have remade this publication (she came from US Weekly). Perhaps insiders could not have conceived of it; perhaps entrenched interests would have prevented an insider from implementing this vision.

So many visions of online publications approach them as clones of their print versions. Perhaps more publications will explore this partner approach.

Case 2. Signs of Life in the Nonfiction Market for e-Books

Industry figures suggest that early adopters of e-books primarily use them to read fiction.

But I always though that the real benefit would be in non-fiction.

Update-ability. Non-fiction titles feature time-sensitive information and electronic formats allow for easier updating of content.

  • Quantity. To keep up, many professionals and academics need to read many books and, ideally, have access to many of them simultaneously. e-Book devices provide readers with relatively easy access to several books on a single device.
  • Price. Because non-fiction titles are often highly specialized and intended for small slices of business and academic markets, the market potential for these books is limited, print runs are limited and--most significantly for consumers--prices are high. (An early article about e-books mentioned that one medical book that costs $US 3,600).

Now comes the first evidence that, perhaps, my hunch has some steam. e-Books seem to be waking the sleepy academic publishing market. Academic publishers specialize in research-based books that receive reviews similar to those of peer-review journals. Most of these books have small market potential, although a few become hits--at least, wihtin the disciplines they represent.

For the most part, print runs of these books are small and, once they're sold out, the books become rare books, difficult to find through book sellers and, sometimes, libraries.

Well, in a report on recent sales figures in the academic publishing industry (mostly represented by university presses) for the website Inside Higher Ed, Steve Kolowich reported that, although sales of print books are down, sales of electronic books have substantially risen since the first of the year.

For some presses, the rise has been as high as 1000 percent (from about 1.6 to nearly 11 percent of sales). Others have seen more modest gains.

The growth in e-book sales has two unqiue characteristics:

  • Most of the sales are for back-titles. Backtitles are books that are no longer available in print.

  • Most of the sales have occurred despite next to no marketing. In other words, readers are finding these books on their own.

Kolowich speculates that these results have implications for the marketing of e-books, which probably involve substantially different marketing schemes that used for printed books. As Kolowich notes, big displays of cardboard cut-out characters probably have no place in the marketing of e-books.

Case 3: New Online Course Packs

Two University of Chicago students realized that they were paying for something they had already bought--the readings in their course packs.

Students essentially pay three times for those readings. They pay twice for the readings in the course pack:

  • A per-page royalty for each reading, which goes to the publisher (at my university, they cited $C .21 per page)
  • A copying fee of about $C .05 pe page
    (plus Markup)

In addition, the student fees that students pay with their tuition also entitles them to an online copy of the same content through their university libraries.

Put in practical terms, students might spend as much as $C 6.00 for a 20-page article in print through a coursepack, when they could download it themselves from their university library (no additional cost) and print it on their own printers (let's say it's $.03/page) for a total cost of $C .60 for the same 20-page article (a savings of 90 percent).

That's one of the reasons I no longer provide course packs and just indicate to students that the article is available in the library and point them in the right direction. The other reason I do that is to help students become familiar and comfortable with the online library resources. Most of the students in one of my courses are first-time graduate students and, by directing them to the library weekly, I hope that the online journals become their first source of content and that the students become equally comfortable with peer-reviewed journals as a key, trusted source of information.

But I digress. The two University of Chicago students came to the same realization. But they also recognized that many students like the conveninece of a course pack.

So they devised an alternative--an online course pack, which Ben Weider describes in a recent posting on the Wired Campus blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education online.
The two students compile the readings for a course into a single online source.

And, in an innovation that could have positive impacts on education, the students who run the service also let professors who teach similar courses see one anothers' course packs so they can compare readings and, ideally, share the ideas.

The two students wondered whether their idea was legal and consulted a number of attorneys. The attorneys seem to believe that the students have not broken any laws.

Right now, the idea has received some funding and its business potential is being explored. Assuming that it succeeds, the coursepack could be reinvented for the electronic age.

Some Thoughts on What this Means

As both of these cases suggest, e-books show promise in non-fiction categories, both for periodicals and books.

But both cases also suggest that publishers need to do more work in re-conceiving of the ways in which people kinteract with print and electronic publications, and the means of marketing to potential readers.

These human processes take time--perhaps more time than was needed to develop the e-book readers.

And these are just two cases. I believe they signal something, but time might suggest otherwise.

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