eBooks.com celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Founder and CEO Stephen Cole discusses some of the hurdles he jumped in order to bring eBooks.com to where it is today, and some that lie ahead – like competing with Amazon and Google:
eBooks.com grew out of an idea I had on 1st January, 1997. My wife and I had spent the previous fifteen years running our own bookshop in Australia. The proposition was simple: books are just text and images, much the same as I was seeing on my web browser. There must be a way to get books onto the web and deliver them at low cost to consumers.
Getting publishers onside
Obtaining permissions from publishers remains one of the biggest challenges for an aspiring ebook company. While most publishers are open to innovative ideas, they are famously, chronically under-resourced and over-stretched. Just getting an audience with the right person can be difficult. Convincing a publisher to trust you with their crown jewels – unencrypted digital versions of their books – is an order of magnitude tougher.
I found a friend in the visionary Clive Newman, at Fremantle Arts Centre Press. Together, we refined the business model and digitized our first books. An agreement with Allen & Unwin soon followed (and some investment cash), and our third agreement was with OUP in the UK. With the backing of Australia’s leading independent publisher and endorsement from OUP, the task of recruiting publishers became a lot easier.
Ebook conversion for beginners
In the foyer of our head office in Perth, there are wooden bookshelves creaking with books that were shipped to us in the late 90s by our first publisher partners. Printed books, I mean. The books arrived in boxes and were on-shipped to India where they were re-keyed, word-by-word, into PDFs. This was a production workflow with serious scalability issues; even on our most optimistic projections, it was unlikely we’d turn a profit until 3001.
But we had faith that, if we kept nagging them, sooner or later publishers would reach into their own workflow and start pulling out functional PDFs, and pass them to us without the need for data-entry. And so they did.
Fast-forward thirteen years and we now receive (or “ingest”) thousands of new titles every month in PDF and EPUB, and routinely convert them to several specialist ebook formats. Our customers are reading ebooks on computers, tablets and phones. And we now work with 990 publishers, including all leading English language trade and scholarly presses.
Dealing with the competition
I’m often asked what we’re doing in response to Google’s and Amazon’s initiatives. Here’s how we compete ...
Google and Amazon are forces of nature, and we don’t argue with the elements. Instead, our strategy is (and always has been) to innovate, to keep building assets, to please our customers, and to carry our eggs in more than one basket.
Because we’ve been innovating around ebooks since 1997, we’ve assembled a formidable asset base of content, technologies and expertise. These assets give us an important leg-up when facing competitors. Publishers are very supportive of companies like ours. They have an interest in fostering diversity. For this reason, we find a ready audience for our new ideas.
Our company is made up of experts with diverse backgrounds and skills. Our executive team has been with the company since 2001 or longer. As a group, we’re excited about the future, and we take pride our contribution to the re-shaping of reading.
At the outset, we decided to spread the risk by developing products and services at different points in the ebook supply chain. While eBooks.com sells ebooks direct to consumers, our renowned academic library service, EBL, is a leading supplier of scholarly ebooks to tertiary and research institutions around the world.
We also provide ancillary ebook services to publishers via a new platform, ebookservices.com. EBS enables publishers to sell subject-specific collections of ebooks direct to libraries; and to send sample ebooks to instructors and reviewers.
So, we have strong IP assets, solid publisher relationships and three exciting business units, only one of which is directly competitive in the consumer space.
Changing the game
Game-changing innovation almost always comes from left field. What are the new, killer differentiators that will define tomorrow’s ebook leaders?
People are asking questions like, “Why can’t I lend ebooks to my friends?” They are genuinely puzzled by territory and DRM restraints. They’re annoyed that there’s no second-hand market for their ebooks. Elegant solutions are in the wings for problems like these, but solving them really just amounts to restoring the print paradigm in a digital age.
The future of books is rich, open and collaborative. Each time an ebook is opened, value can be added. The added value can take many forms like reviews, ratings, videos, new stories, interpretations, notes, bookmarks. I suspect that the true game changer will not be any of these particular enrichments, but something like them. Or it might be the sum of them, and how well they’re done and fit together.
We’re attempting to rethink every little detail of what a book is for, and what it means to the person reading it. We’re cracking open the current paradigm of a book to see what good things shine out.
AmigoReader.com is a shot at blue sky, an experiment in social reading. It’s in beta now, and provides members with tools that support and enhance their reading experience. AR is utilitarian, in the sense that you can use it to organize your book collections, keep track of notes and create reading lists.
It also offers a very lively social experience. You can read your books simultaneously with others, via any web browser. You can share notes and chat. You can access supplementary content streamed from youtube, twitter, news feeds, blogs, anywhere.
We’ll soon be launching an ebook mobile platform which is OS-agnostic. That is, our ebooks will be readable on any device at all, provided it has access to the internet. Nothing to download. No app to install. Just start reading. Called eb20 (ebooks 2.0) the reader incorporates the social and rich media capabilities of Amigo Reader. You can see the desktop version of eb20 here: www.amigoreader.com/moonstone.
We have a bright future alongside esteemed competitors. With a pipeline full of great apps and business models, we’re creating a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience for readers, publishers and authors. This flows into an ever-growing, loyal user base, which is our future.
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