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First Choose Your Format: Guidelines for an All-important E-book Decision

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Are e-books on the upswing? You bet, and I believe we’re still on the shallow end of an explosive growth curve. When e-book sales achieve critical mass in just a few years, publishers who’ve developed and honed their own e-book publishing strategies will ride the wave to the top.

Used strategically, e-books offer the little wins that can boost marginally unsuccessful print titles into the black. They can be a real help with author relations when sales are skidding toward the vanishing point because it costs next to nothing to keep e-book titles on the virtual shelf. And you can use e-books to stretch your promotion budget by sending electronic galleys out for reviews and distributing free promotional copies of your titles with oodles of hyperlinks back to your Web site.

Regrettably, the prevailing equation for many print-book publishers is: e-books = enigmatic, thanks to incompatible formats. Multiformat e-book publishing can be expensive, because R.R. Bowker requires a unique ISBN for each format or electronic binding (have they got a sweet deal or what?). Therefore the first strategic decision must be which format or formats to use. The strategic tips that follow will help you position yourself for immediate and long-term success using one of the four that are most popular.

Adobe E-book

If you want to publish in only one e-book format, make it Adobe E-book (PDF). Here’s why:

Excellent platform support: Adobe readers are supported on a wide range of desktop PC and PDA (personal digital assistant) devices.

Largest available audience: More potential comook buyers already have Adobe readers installed on their desktops, laptops, or tablet PCs than any other reader. This is a huge advantage if you are publishing without DRM (digital rights management; see “DRM Tips,” below).

Distribution channel support: Major e-book distribution channels like Lightning Source and Content Reserve support Adobe e-books.

With the recent introduction of the Adobe Reader 6, Adobe has eliminated the schism between the Adobe Reader 5 and the Adobe E-book Reader. The new Adobe Reader 6 combines the functionality of the previous two applications, but sacrifices some of the dedicated E-book Reader’s elegance and ease of use.

Microsoft E-book

If you’re game to spring for the price of two ISBNs, then you definitely want to consider the Microsoft E-book (LIT) format. Its pluses are:

Best user experience: As a publisher and as a reader, I love the LIT format. It requires the least amount of effort to create truly beautiful LIT e-books, and the reader application is as easy on the eyes as it is to use. When I buy e-books, LIT is my personal format of choice.

Economical file size: If you publish your e-books in Adobe PDF and Microsoft LIT, expect your LIT files to be 35 to 50 percent smaller than your PDF files. This can make a difference for people buying e-books over a 56K dial-up connection.

Distribution channel support: Major e-book distribution channels like Lightning Source and Content Reserve support Microsoft E-books as well as Adobe E-books.

As much as I love the LIT format, it does have its downsides.

Weak support for PDAs: Unlike the phenomenal cross-platform support offered by companies like Mobipocket, Microsoft supports only personal computers and devices running some variant of its Windows operating system. LIT is not supported on 75 percent of the installed PDA base.

Passport requirement: To download LIT e-books using DRM technology, the user must have a Microsoft Passport account. If your audience is sensitive to Big Brother issues, this will be a red flag.

Overseas Linux competition: Microsoft has been very successful at throttling the growth of the Linux OS on desktop computers in the United States. However, it faces real growth challenges overseas, so if overseas readers are going to be a major audience for your title, check to see which types of computers they are using. If a substantial number are using (or seem to be moving towards) Linux, then use Adobe and Mobipocket.

Palm E-book

Large e-book titles (75,000 to 100,000 words or more) are best read with a desktop PC. Show me someone who wants to read Adam Smith’s 1,200 page tome The Wealth of Nations on any PDA, and I’ll show you a masochist. However, if that someone is determined, the best choice is the Palm E-book reader. It is fully optimized for PDAs running the Palm OS, such as my own beloved Palm Tungsten T3 with its 320—480 DPI resolution display–the biggest PDA of all.

But bear in mind that e-book sales are growing by roughly 30 percent a year, while PDA sales are in a significant slump. The PDA downturn is largely due to three factors: the absence of compelling new technology, upward competitive pressures from cellular phones with ever-increasing numbers of PDA-like features, and downward competitive pressures from table PCs.

Publishers have been supporting this format for a long time, and it has a phenomenal offering of titles, so it is a good choice for the short term for relatively short books. However, the fate of this reader is largely wedded to the future of PDAs, so the crystal ball is a bit foggy.

Mobipocket E-book

Hats off to Mobipocket. They offer the first e-book reader that fully supports the OeB (Open e-book) 1.1 standard. To Mobipocket’s credit, they’ve broken from the proprietary king-of-the-hill syndrome we find with Adobe, Microsoft, and Palm.

If you have complex e-books that require oversized images, horizontally scrolling tables, and more, then you must publish in the Mobipocket (PRC) format if you want the best results.

While Adobe, Microsoft, and Palm offer more distribution channels and sales potential for your titles in the short term, I see Mobipocket as a real long-term winner because of its corporate vision. The company adapts to new platforms and open standards more quickly and more completely than any of its competitors.

If you are publishing content for the handheld market and want to future-proof your catalog, think seriously about Mobipocket.

Final Thought

Remember, remember, remember–there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for success with e-books. Pick and price the formats that are right for your target audiences on a title-by-title basis. You’ll learn most and make most in the long run.

Copyright 2004, Marshall Masters

Marshall Masters is the president of Your Own World Books, an e-publishing solutions provider specializing in multiformat e-book conversions and distribution. A computer consultant with more than 25 years of experience, he is also an author and Web publisher. His technical documentation clients include AT&T, HP, and Oracle. For more information, visit www.yowbooks.com.

 

DRM Tips

One purpose of digital rights management is helping prevent unauthorized copying and pirating by locking your e-book files to a numbered e-book reader (notice that I use the word helping–no security system is foolproof, DRM included).

If you are selling expensive technical e-books or works by a notable author and/or if you are using an e-book distributor, you need DRM. However, if your e-books are by an unknown or you simply want to sell them from your own Web site, you may want to live with a piracy rate that should be about the same as the pass-along rate for print-on-paper books.

Here are three key points to remember about DRM:

    • E-book distributors (which generally get a 50 to 55 percent discount) have their own definitions of DRM-ready, and when you deliver your titles to them the files need to meet their specifications, not yours. If you will be using an e-book distributor, do a test upload at its Web site and see what options are available. Then plan your e-book titles accordingly.
    • Some major imprints are now co-publishing popular backlist titles with specialized e-book publishers, which handle DRM along with the e-book conversion, distribution and maintenance costs in exchange for an e-book exclusive on the titles and a share of the net.
    • DRM options usually include letting the purchaser copy text from your e-book, play it with a text-to-speech audio plug-in, etc. Because DRM feature sets vary from format to format, the best approach is to match options and formats to the needs of your audience. As a rule, I enable handicapped access and text-to-speech DRM options and then disable everything else.

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