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“The iPod Moment for Books”: How Serious is the UK Publishing Industry?

Amid all the chat about Kindles, Iliads, SonyReaders and ebooks generally revivifying a “flat” books market, there is the latent hope/fear that Apple’s next iPhone (to be announced next Monday, keep up) will also have ebook capability.

Such a sexy, “converged” device would surely corral latent consumer desire to read books on a screen rather than a page – even if just through the force of Apple’s “halo effect” – surely?

eBook iPhone or not, my concern is (still) that most publishers haven’t yet got a range of ebooks to market in preparation for any such device. Devices are available (read Alex’s blog on reading nothing but ebooks for a year), but consumers have to work very, very hard to get copyrighted material onto them.

I don’t know if this is because publishers haven’t sufficiently sorted out their digitisation strategy and process yet – whether it’s a question of formats, DRM, or even the basics such as rights and royalty clearances. Or it’s the absence of a decent channel, or what. (Certainly most of the big houses have been making noises about expensive digitisation processes for at least a year if not two.)

If this is the case – that in the light of consumer demand, there is actually very little supply – then surely an “iPod for books” moment could actually be a disaster for the publishing industry, forcing keen and hungry consumers to find their electronic content from other (possibly illegal) sources – as with happened with the ipod moment for, um, music?

This of course is a sweeping generalisation, so I decided to actually look into it (a bit), and chose to compare last week’s Times bestsellers in the UK against which titles were (easily) available as ebooks. (Bearing in mind that neither Waterstones, Amazon, or Borders have a meaningful eBook inventory in the UK, and in the absence (cough) of a centralised eBook retailer, I turned to the respective publishers sites for this. Here are the results.

Top 10 Hardback Fiction

1 : The Front by Patricia Cornwell

Little, Brown site: No. (Search for “The Front in EBooks“. A search for “ebook” gets some results, but fails to pick up the “ebooks genre“. However they do have other Cornwell titles as ebooks, looking into it, so some points there.)

2 : This Charming Man by Marian Keyes
Penguin site: No. (Search for “This Charming Man ebook“) Whilst I was there, a Penguin search for “ebook” returns five books in different formats. And the ebook “Microsite” is broken in my browser/s).

3 : The Reapers by John Connolly
Hodder site: No site search at all.

4 : Flesh House by Stuart MacBride
HarperCollins site: No (Can’t link to HC search results, but a search for “ebook” only gives one result anyway)

5 : Revelation by CJ Sansom
Pan Macmillan Site: Yes!!! Sorry, No. (Search for “Revelation ebook” and indeed, just “ebook“) (I don’t think those links work to give you the results either).

6 : Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
Orion site: No. (Search for “Hold Tight eBook” throws an error and then gives this result)

7 Scream for Me by Karen Rose
Headline site: No (Site is a holding page)

8 : Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
Hodder, again, so that’s a no.

9 : Nothing to Lose by Lee Child
Bantam Site: No. (Search for “ebook” also returned no results)

10 : The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
Random House site: No (Search for “Lady Elizabeth eBook”; “ebook” just gives results like casebook, guidebook, notebook etc)

So, 0/10 on the Times bestsellers being available as ebooks in the UK. Because it’s been a newsy week, I also thought I’d try the fastest selling hardback novel in history – “Devil May Care ebook” on the Penguin site – nothing; and (Winner of the Orange Prize) Rose Tremain The Road Home ebook at Chatto: Nothing.

However, a search for all of the above on the (US) MobiPocket site shows that consumers can actually get 60% of these titles as ebooks by buying from a US etailer. Clearly the UK publishers are missing out on those sales. eBooks currently make a mockery of territoriality. If the US can create, market, and sustain an eBook store, why can’t the UK market?

What to take away from this: well, nothing that surprising. Maybe Apple will, despite Steve Jobs’ denials – themselves usually a great bit of doublespeak – , launch a brilliant ebook reader in the next iPhone, andsoup up iTunes, having successfully cleared rights, royalties, formats and DRM with the publishing industry without any leaks getting out. (And if he does do this, the industry is damned because they fail to get the spoils; if he doesn’t they’re damned because the spoils aren’t worth having).

Maybe Apple won’t develop it, but we’ll see some great third-party iPhone apps. (This will still keep the activity a marginal – both in terms of popularity and legality – exercise.)

Or maybe, both Apple and the publishing industry (like Microsoft) will hand the work to Google, who in their forthcoming, open-source Android mobile phone platform could not only include ebook software, but also integrate Google Books into the devices. In other words, Google could become the go-to store for ebooks rather than Apple, Amazon, Sony or anyone else.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Future of the book, Google print, Publishing, Web.

Apt’s links for June 5th // Apt’s links for June 6th

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