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Thoughts on Apple Books

25 January 2018

From Digital Book World:

The news of Apple rebranding the iBooks Store to Apple Books, and preparing a fresh new entry in the digital publishing landscape, is welcome.

Apple’s bookstore, much like many other parts of the company these days, has suffered from neglect. The store, as it is currently, evokes a vision of tumbleweed blowing through an empty desert: nobody’s home, nobody cares, and it’s quite clear there is no larger strategy present.

Apple did the right thing by going outside the company and hiring Kashif Zafar, by all appearances an accomplished publishing business mind, originating out of an engineering background. That is, frankly, exactly what Apple needs, as their digital book store needs to be re-engineered from the ground up.

. . . .

1) Deploy iBooks Author anew

Apple, believe it or not, comes right out of the gate with one strong competitive advantage: they have a relatively-easy-to-use, vertically-integrated, HTML5-based authoring tool that has grown an international user base since it was introduced in 2012.

When iBooks Author was first released, it was ahead of its time. And like everything that is ahead of its time, it was poorly understood and not nearly as well utilized as it should have been.

Fast forward six years later, and digital book readers are clamoring for new types of experiences.

The biggest problem with iBooks Author has always been the mediocrity of the iBooks Store. Publishers producing phenomenal content using iBooks Author have met poor sales, thanks to poor searchability and poor discoverability, over and over and over again.

. . . .

3) Apple Books needs to match Amazon on key criteria

The Apple Books Store needs to be as searchable as Amazon. Historically, the search function within the iBooks Store has been flat-out broken.

The Apple Books Store needs to be creative in how it makes books discoverable.  Undoubtedly, this will be a combination of algorithmic competency and human curation.

With both searchability and discoverability, Siri needs to play a role as Apple ramps up their voice-first computing efforts. Intelligent voice integration needs to be part of the fabric of the Apple Books experience.

The Apple Books Store needs to be author and publisher-friendly. This means giving authors and publishers deep flexibility with pricing (including bundling / discounting), deep flexibility in how their books are represented within the store (control over author-specific landing pages would be a good place to start), and deep flexibility in marketing (including ability to have hosted video book trailers, deep control over sample content, and more).

There is plenty of opportunity for Apple to compete here. Every single product page on Amazon.com looks precisely the same way, in exactly the same format. Amazon’s practical blandness can be bested by a highly-functional, colorful and vibrant, individualistic approach that holds serve in key areas while innovating beyond what Amazon offers in others.

. . . .

5) Go cross-platform anywhere and everywhere

Apple’s walled-garden approach is not compatible with the interests of readers, who want to be able to read their purchased books on whatever device they choose.

. . . .

The publishing industry – the ENTIRE publishing industry, which goes far, far beyond just traditional publishers obviously – desperately needs a viable competitor to Amazon.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

PG says competition is always good.

Apple used to be a fierce competitor and achieved dominant success in the iPhone/iPad markets.

Apple also did a phenomenal job of linking its products to a cool personal style/lifestyle image. You might be working a temp job for minimum wage and living in a sub-basement closet, but when you hit the street, your iPhone instantly improved your image so much you took a selfie.

Because of high product quality and that image thing, Apple managed to price its products higher than its competitors and still maintain a dominant sales position.

In some categories.

In personal computers, Apple had a 7% share worldwide in 2016 compared to Lenovo at 21%, HP at 20% and Dell at 16%. Apple makes great computer hardware, but it’s dominant only in some niche markets in a Windows world. iPhone and Windows desktop/laptop is a typical tech combination.

For a growing number of small web startups, Chromebooks are the thing for everybody who is not a programmer. Marketing doesn’t need Macs to run the blog, build a presence on Twitter and Instagram and check out what competitors are doing online.

Apple is really a phone company. It doesn’t dominate any other significant markets. (And Apple is definitely not dominant in major Asian phone markets.)

PG isn’t the only one who suspects that Steve Jobs was the head magician who made all the sub-magicians at Apple work right and not do ordinary things.

The most important post-Jobs product launch happened with the iPhoneX in September.

Apple-watchers more expert than PG think the Apple magic that usually accompanies a major iPhone launch just wasn’t there. Apple fanboys and fangirls all stood in line and jumped in right away, but the far bigger wave that usually follows may not have been so large. Apple’s first post-iPhoneX earnings report is anxiously awaited.

Back to the main point, PG thinks the ebookstore ship has sailed – from Seattle. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a good first impression and Apple blew that chance with its first store. From an author standpoint, PG marked it as undesirable right after its opening when it appeared that Apple hardware was necessary to prepare books for the store.

The Amazon bookstore is 100% platform agnostic and Amazon doesn’t care if you access it from an iPhone or a homebrew Linux computer. Amazon works hard to create a single great customer experience without spending any time or money on enhanced Apple-only features.

Plus Amazon has a huge cache of data about how to sell books and what the world’s largest collection of online customers buys – both inside and outside of the bookstore. In the US, in France, in Canada, in Scotland, in Chicago, in Dayton, in Boulder, in Bel Air, in Steamboat Springs, in Rocky Comfort and Rhyolite.

PG doesn’t see many people talk about the huge value for prospective customers that lives in Amazon’s product reviews, including the millions of book reviews it has collected.

It’s easy to make snide comments about the intelligence, education and motivation of some of the reviewers, but most book buyers have developed a pretty good filter to distinguish quality Amazon reviews from those that originated in a packed room in India.

PG suggests that large numbers of reviews and the metadata Amazon presents when a book has received a large number of reviews – Top Customer Reviews, Most Recent Customer Reviews, Also Boughts and Rated by Customers Interested In, which shows how the customers interested in specific topics rated the book PG is considering, are valuable assets for shoppers of all tastes.

Even if Apple copies all of Amazon’s bookstore features, the lack of this giant pile of data from previous buyers will produce an inferior experience.

As far as indie authors are concerned, the key indicator for PG will be whether Apple is willing to meet or beat Amazon royalty rates.

He noted that the latest (and last?) version of the Nook Store has a top indie royalty rate of 65%. That the big brains at Barnes & Noble couldn’t bring themselves to go all the way to 70% is one of the many reasons why the company is circling the drain.

When the big brains at Apple hit speed dial to call PG about their new bookstore, he’s going to say, “75%. 80% for bestsellers.”

Amazon, Apple, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

22 Comments to “Thoughts on Apple Books”

  1. Apple is the tech company that COULD compete with Amazon in the ebooks realm, and that’s one reason this news is welcome. (Google is another.) In the past few days we’ve seen Barnes & Noble revamp their author platform, Google announce they will sell audiobooks, and Apple announce they plan to care about selling ebooks again.

    Add Data Guy’s new service offering publishers a more accurate view of the market, and this is shaping up to be quite an interesting year in terms of competitive balance with Amazon and Everyone Else.

    • The problem is Apple doesn’t ‘want’ to have to compete, they want a sure and easy ‘win’. (Which is why they were playing with the qig5 – they wanted a favorite nation plan that would give them a leg up on all the other players – and Amazon.)

      Expect them to keep not bothering until/unless they can get some type of exclusive deal that they can get away with overcharging for. (Anyone here think going ‘exclusively Apple’ would improve their sales?)

  2. The question is…are they too late? Has the ship already sailed?

    I guess time will tell.

    What I really hope is they don’t just make their sites better functioning but add marketing support for indies– do things differently AND better than Amazon.

  3. “digital book readers are clamoring for new types of experiences.”

    We are? I had not noticed. I don’t want my ebooks to have audio, video, or olfactory functionality (not even if it’s “old book smell” :-)).

    The iBooks Store definitely does suck, though (as do the App Stores and the iTunes Store). No disagreement there.

  4. As of August 1, 2017, Apple had $261.5 billion in cash reserves. That number may be higher now.

    If Apply took as “little” as $1 billion of that and plowed it into revamping Apple Books in the right way (you can hire lots of great programmers with $1 billion), Apply might be able to offer things that Amazon doesn’t or may not be inclined to offer.

    Of course, there’s the question of recouping the investment: the new Apple Books would have to “work” well to earn back that $1 billion, and Apple would have to drop its propensity to force its customers live in an Apple-only world.

    Will Apple’s leadership have the vision? It seems to have made a step in the right direction, but a single step doesn’t get you very far.

    • I wonder if they (Apple) have the leadership to forgo their profit margin in order to reinvest as Amazon has, and still continues to do.

      • Terrence P OBrien

        When you have $250 billion, you don’t have to give up any margin to reinvest.

        • Nope.
          The notable fact about the Cash Stash is that Apple management let it grow that big. They saw no businesses opportunity with a bigger return than just letting it collect interest.

  5. Regarding B&N’s 65% rate, it also applies to prices > $9.99, and that IS a big deal.

    I have 2 bundles I’ll publish on B&N which I hesitate to do on Amazon, since they’re priced at $15.99 (vs $31 if bought separately).

  6. You can’t read Apple Books on an Android device unless you manually strip the DRM, etc, etc.

    You can, however, listen to Apple Music on Android – for $9.99 a month – using an Apple’s android app.

    I think that tells you where their priorities are, all around.

  7. Terrence P OBrien

    I see little indication Apple wants to compete with Amazon in consumer books. Their behavior for the last five years just doesn’t show that.

    However, iBooks Author is an excellent platform for textbooks and nonfiction using graphs, charts, maps, etc. There’s lots of potential there, and no big competitor. It also allows Apple to pursue its established pattern of shooting for the top end of the market while others fight it out below them.

    They can let Amazon have the novels and used books, while they meet an under served demand with premium priced* texts and nonfiction. Google Chrome would probably be their strongest competitor.

    I’d like Apple to compete with Amazon at the consumer level, but they don’t care what I want.

    *Premium priced textbooks are much lower than print textbooks, yet deliver a much higher margin than consumer books.

  8. Apple getting serious about ebooks may be too little, too late.

    Maybe they are going after Amazon, maybe they are going after textbooks (admittedly easier) but it’s not 2010 anymore.

    Things have happened and are happening that are going to be very challenging to catch up to. Things like:

    – Amazon isn’t isn’t just dominant in ebook sales, they are also dominant in ebook subscriptions (Kindle Unlimited). A million plus titles are earning an aggregate $20M-plus a month. And growing steadily. Those are locked-in titles and readers.

    – On the textbook side, the major players are deploying proprietary, hardware independent rental textbook systems that do not rely on discrete standalone files but are instead app-locked. These systems do not rely on retailers but rather rely on institutional contracts. Good luck getting a 30% vig out of those guys, especially since their platforms are web-based. More than a lock-in,that is a lock-out. Those folks are not about to let anybody get between them and their institutional deals.

    – Adding to the textbook fun, California and other states and private universities are finally getting serious about open textbooks. And the chosen platform for those efforts is also the web.

    – Back on the consumer side, Apple has to contend with their one-time partners’ print agenda. Until they stop pricing their ebooks higher than print the growth in the ebook reader base will remain steady but slow. And a good portion of the installed base seems pretty comfortable with the Kindle value equation and the rest are believers in interoperable epub.

    Now, there is one way Apple can get some ebook retail traction. They need to stop being Apple and get standards religion. Forget about tbeir proprietary iBook and Fairplay DRM game. Buy Adobe’s epub business. Waste a hundred million buying Nook. Or half a billion and buy all of B&N to get into pbooks. Start up a subscription service paying out full sale royalties at 10% and bleed a billion over a few years.

    Do that and they might claw back some market share.

    It can be done but one billion won’t do it.
    Thanks to Agency and the walled garden model, Amazon is really and truly dug in for the long haul.

  9. “the ebookstore ship has sailed – from Seattle”
    That might be true for the US, but remember that the rest of the world is not dominated by Amazon. There are many territories left to fight for, and Apple is ahead in some, Kobo is ahead in others.
    Nook isn’t even bothering, having shuttered their international sites years back.
    But the other companies stand more than a fighting chance in territories. IF they commit.

    • Those are territories where interoperable epub matters most, though. They are also fragmented and undeveloped.
      Apple *can* do it but it will take a lot of effort and time. And the return won’t be much in Apple terms.

      Apple is at a stage where even a billion dollar a year business is hardly worth their attention.
      eBooks aren’t strategic for Apple.
      They’re just a specsheet bullet.
      Heck, even the Mac isn’t strategic, which is why they’re practically starving it.

      Apple getting serious about ebooks and making a dent would be a good thing but I tend to agree with Nate, that Apple is just refreshing the app and store, throwing a few crumbs at a neglected project, rather than preparing for a serious foray.

      https://the-digital-reader.com/2018/01/25/bloomberg-apple-changing-name-ibooks-books-means-new-fight-ebook-market/

      Now, for people looking for hopeful signs of life among Amazon competitors, Kobo signing up with Walmart is more likely to move product than Apple’s refresh.

  10. ”With both searchability and discoverability, Siri needs to play a role as Apple ramps up their voice-first computing efforts. Intelligent voice integration needs to be part of the fabric of the Apple Books experience.”
    The searchabily with Siri is better today when searching You Tube in my new Apple TV. I think she can do the same work with ebooks, and pbooks, in a new Apple book store! More and better competition between Amazon and Apple even make them stronger in the future when they have to meet more competition from China. That is a importent question for me today when I’m reading a new book with the title ’Management in the Digital Age. Will China Surpass Silicon Valley?’ Author: Annika Steiber.
    Two years ago this article decribed almost the same question:
    http://www.ingenta.com/blog-article/five-trends-in-chinese-publishing-that-will-change-your-view-of-china-2/

  11. Slapping on a fresh coat of paint and changing the name sounds like a typical Hail Mary before they pull the plug on the whole thing.

    If iBooks isn’t profitable, it’s because their prices are too high, their selection stinks, or the interface is more annoying than the users are willing to put up with, or some combination of the above.

    Renaming it isn’t going to fix that.

  12. It was such a pain just attempting to get one of my books into iBooks I decided I had much better ways to spend my time, like write 10 more pages in the next work of genius. They resemble an e-version of trad publishers. Not interested in making things easy for the author or the customer. Lots of luck, but I don’t see it happening.

  13. Some perspective from a resident Apple fan.

    First, Apple is the biggest and most profitable tech company. Much of it’s growth came after Steve Jobs passed away. Despite constant predictions of “peak iPhone” etc, it continues to grow and shows no signs of stopping. Yes, Amazon has an interesting “we don’t care about profit” business strategy, but being huge and insanely profitable is generally the sign of a good business.

    Apple is just a phone company? If Microsoft, Dell, HP or just about any other tech company could pick one area to dominate, it would be smart phones. It is the future, and sets up dominance over mobile communications which also feeds into maps, email, messages, photos (Apple dominates photo capture) and many other categories. Google is forced to give Apple hundreds of millions every day in order to be the default search engine on Apple devices. So Apple makes a ton, not only selling iPhones, but controlling the connection to users. Apple also effectively gets AT&T and Verizon and the other telecoms to subsidize it’s sales with special discounts on it’s phones in order to reach Apple’s desirable (rich) customers. So those companies are in effect (with Google) subsidizing Apple’s research and industrial technology so it can maintain it’s lead.

    Apple dominates smart watches. Apple basically controls the market for smart watches over $100 (which means actual smart watches, rather than fitness gadgets and toys). No big deal? This is not only a multi-million dollar business, but it could be the only thing that threatens smart phones. Apple’s latest Apple Watch is a complete smartphone (it can make calls and access the internet on it’s on). So Apple not only controls the present, but the likely future of mobile.

    As for computers, overall, sails of Window systems are slowly declining and sales of Macs are (very slowly) increasing. No indication that that is stopping, and it’s quite possible it could accelerate suddenly. Expensive Apple systems are becoming more an more of an option to large business employees, because they are cheaper to maintain. But what about Chromebooks? Chromebooks are Microsoft’s problem. They eat Windows from the bottom while Apple keeps eating from the top, grabbing the most well heeled customers.

    Apple also completely dominates the upscale tablet market, to the extent no one talks about it anymore. Yes, Amazon does well with Kindle readers and there are plenty of cheap tablets, but Apple takes the lion’s share of all tablet profits. And they dominate web use on tablets (something like 80%). And despite doom and gloom predictions that iPad sales where doomed to continue to fall, they actually went up lately, and Apple is now selling even more expensive units. And look around as you go to restaurants and retail stores, more and more people are using iPads as replacements for cash registers. This is a billion dollar, highly profitable business.

    Apple has the ONLY profitable music subscription service, and the second largest. Spotify has more customers (in part because they offer free tiers and to .99 cent deals with telecoms) but is not profitable. It’s being propped up by the record companies because they are terrified Apple will have a monopoly on music. Again, this is another billion dollar, highly profitable business.

    Apple also leverages it’s walled garden to make billions selling services like iCloud storage, etc. It focuses on the richest and most influential customer base, which it can monetize in more and more ways as tech dominates our lives.

    So, back to self-publishing. In regard to self-publishing… Apple sucks.

    All my self-published books, non-fiction and fiction, are Apple related and they do well on Amazon Kindle and zero on iBooks.

    But this is not because Apple can’t figure out how to do better, it’s because it doesn’t care. Apple customers can use Kindle on iPads and smart phones, so Amazon’s advantage in self-publishing doesn’t really hurt Apple. In fact, it’s a little like Google paying Apple for search rights. The better the Kindle store is, the more it benefits Apple customers. And the profits from taking a small cut of self-publishing (and self-publishing services) isn’t enough for Apple to worry about. Amazon has a bigger strategy in protecting self-publishing because it also wants to control retail book sales, so it’s worth the extra effort even if profits aren’t so huge.

    So why does Apple even bother? Apple’s focus is on big publishers and big media. It is much more interested in making sure people have a chance to read Harry Potter on their devices in a native app than helping out the little indy. And the big publishers are grateful to have at least a tiny amount of competition to Amazon (and probably indirectly subsidize Apple’s efforts). Also, iBooks Author is used a lot in education, particularly in colleges as an alternative to expensive text books. So it helps Apple look good in that market while selling laptops to students.

    Could this change? Sure, if Apple decided there was some real strategic reason to help self-publishers, it could easily jump in with both feet. But I don’t think there’s likely to ever be a reason and it’s not likely to happen soon.

    • Terrence P OBrien

      Sure, if Apple decided there was some real strategic reason to help self-publishers, it could easily jump in with both feet. But I don’t think there’s likely to ever be a reason and it’s not likely to happen soon.

      I make a big mistake when I expect any business to change to help me. I make a bigger mistake when I tell them what they need without determining if my recommendation supports any of their objectives.

    • Expensive Apple systems are becoming more an more of an option to large business employees, because they are cheaper to maintain. But what about Chromebooks? Chromebooks are Microsoft’s problem. They eat Windows from the bottom while Apple keeps eating from the top, grabbing the most well heeled customers.

      This is not at all the case in the primary and secondary education fields. Chromebooks have (has?) been eating Apple alive in that market in the USA.

      As Chromebook sales soar in schools, Apple and Microsoft fight back

      Recent numbers from consulting firm Futuresource paint a similar picture, with Google commanding 58 percent of U.S. K-12 schools. Windows is in second with around 22 percent and the combined impact of MacOS and iOS are close behind at 19 percent. It’s a rapidly shifting landscape. Three years earlier, Apple’s products represented nearly half of devices being shipped to U.S. classrooms.

      Apple has literally gone from Number 1 to Number 3 (and falling) in this area in a very short time. FWIW, in my son’s school system there’s PCs in the office, a PC lab in the library and Chromebooks in most classrooms. Not an Apple product in sight.

      =========

      As an aside, so I’m not post-spamming…

      Apple is really a phone company. It doesn’t dominate any other significant markets. (And Apple is definitely not dominant in major Asian phone markets.)

      They’re still over 50% of the Japanese market, though I think they were as high as 75% a few years ago.

  14. I am skeptical of the future for Apple Books. Apple has always had good products, but they are all designed and produced by Apple.

    Writing an application to run on a Mac was always harder than building one for Windows because Apple always seemed to be suspicious of working with outside developers. They throw down the welcome mat and give you free Cokes and discounts at the company store in Redmond, not like that in Cupertino. Maybe Apple has changed, but I see no evidence.

    Authors are creators like developers and I expect Apple to treat authors in the same way.

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