An illustrated publisher turns online retailer: a case study for a collaborative future?

An illustrated book publisher in search of growth has to look for new outlets and new opportunities. Back in early 2011 – in what might be termed the Paleozoic era of digital publishing – an ad-hoc meeting at the London Book Fair resulting from a daily Bookseller interview proved the catalyst for Amber Books to enter the world of online digital retailing. 

Working with VizEbooks to adapt the ebookstore app they created for their own highly illustrated art titles, we launched the Military Books ebookstore iOS app.

From the outset this was intended to be a store for all illustrated military publishers. The aim was to keep barriers to entry to the store low for publishers and allow them to digitize their backlist rapidly while preserving the value of the design work in the original printed page layouts. 

The app’s solution was (and remains) to use the pdfs all print publishers prepare for their printers. With minimal modification these files can be quickly adapted for sale in the app. Our software developers have created sophisticated bespoke reader software that gives a superior reading experience for illustrated books of this type. 

So for the illustrated military book enthusiast – an admittedly niche but in global terms a not insignificant market – Military Books offers the chance to download a visually stunning and ever-growing selection of titles on all iOS devices. The free-to-download app is simple to use: browse the bookshelves the way you would in a store. Tap on a title to see a preview with sample pages. Once you have bought a title using the in-app purchase mechanism, you can zoom in to the page and see the illustrations in great detail, or simply read the title in a conventional manner. 

Fast forward to today. Although still effectively in beta, the app has been downloaded by almost 15,000 people at the time of writing, and titles have been sold in far-flung territories where the printed copies have never been available. The History Press came on board in time for the soft launch and we are now in discussion with other military specialist publishers to have their content available in time for the launch of the revamped and upgraded store later this year. 

The long-term vision is for a truly international store, eventually open to illustrated military content from around the globe, and in other languages as well as English. More immediately, the web version of Military Books currently in development will allow Amber and its partners to sell their military content on PCs and other non-iOS mobile devices. 

The benefits to both publishers and readers are clear. For publishers, highly illustrated frontlist and backlist titles are selling without incurring expensive conversion to epub formats.  Readers gain both a superior reading experience for illustrated titles than other ebook formats can currently offer, and access to titles that may otherwise not yet be available in their territory, either in print or digital formats. 

For a minimal outlay, the app has opened up a direct B2C channel for military publishers and other specialist content creators and grown our audience reach exponentially.  It has not been a completely smooth process – our inhouse accounting system has had to become far more complex, for example, there have been various technical issues and we are still experimenting with pricing models – but the potential to open a direct conversation with a digitally-engaged global audience for the military history niche is a phenomenal opportunity.




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