The clamour among authors and publishers for a mechanism that prevents ebooks from being pirated (illegally downloaded, copied and shared), particularly for DRM (Digital Rights Management, an umbrella term for technologies that prevent ‘piracy’), hasn’t quite disappeared. Before we get into a discussion around piracy and DRM, let us examine the types of customers that prompt this clamour for DRM technology.

There’s:
A. The customer who will only download free stuff, whether books or software
B. The customer who will download free books because he/she cannot afford to pay for a legal copy
C. The customer who will accidentally land upon a pirated book and download it because he’s found it for free, and is perhaps never going to read it anyway.

If you consider these three options, you have lost a sale only in case A. In cases B and C, they were never your customers anyway, rather, they would not pay for your book in any case.

Spending on DRM to prevent customer A seems a colossal waste of money. And time.

The case for DRM is widely considered a weak one: to begin with, it is expensive to implement and can easily be tampered with. In addition, in the absence of an industry-wide DRM standard, different platforms have adopted different locking mechanisms thus making it difficult for retailers and buyers to purchase solutions that are compatible across platforms without bearing a cost in each case. Moreover, we are of the opinion that e-books should be shared, much like printed books are, and that artificial barriers that prevent what is essentially a basic human instinct to share, must be avoided. DRM, being what it is, will only lead to a backlash from consumers by turning away buyers who legitimately purchase a book are seeking a good reading experience.

On the other hand there is the matter of indiscriminate pirating that is a legitimate concern of many authors. If books are simply distributed over the Internet, free of cost, surely it must impact sales and, consequently, rob authors of their royalties. Unfortunately, there is no study that proves that DRM actually prevents piracy. Moreover, these days a printed book can be easily scanned, then subjected to OCR software, thus making it easily available for sharing. Countering piracy therefore needs a different approach. But, as seen above, it does not make economic sense to spend money countering piracy.

Many reports like this one make the distinction between piracy (where the file is let loose and anyone, even those unrelated to the originator, can lay hands on the book) with casual sharing (where the book is shared between people who know each other. DRM might prevent casual sharing, and, consequently, a sale that might happen because the person it is shared with might actually like the book and buy herself a copy. Publishers understand this and are moving one by one to make their books available DRM-free.

So what might be a good way to prevent unbridled file sharing? Making the book easily accessible might be a good way to start. Most often, it is not the price, it is the fact that books are simply not available, that forces buyers to look elsewhere for books. E-commerce platforms coupled with easy-to-obtain applications on smartphones (on which reading is quite popular(requires a subscription)) can make for a seamless purchase-and-read experience.

While it is still not a good idea to implement hard DRM to counter piracy, one option that is finding much favour (and one that we have adopted on our e-commerce platform, dogearsetc.com, for our books) is digital watermarking (or social DRM). Digital watermarking involves adding an image or some software code that identifies the original purchaser of the book. In case of rampant piracy, the source can thus be traced. Thus, while sharing is not limited or made cumbersome, due to the absence of DRM, publishers are still enabled with the tools needed to identify the customer who purchased the book (and who may have then turned generous and made the book available to all and sundry).

Digital watermarking is not provided on every platform and there are still platforms which offer a choice only between hard DRM and no DRM. Social DRM seems like the best compromise and it is our hunch that it won’t be too long before it is accepted widely.

Okay, so you have purchased an e-book, paid for it and see it land in your inbox. What do you do next and how does one proceed to get the best out of this new beast?

Ebooks are read using one of two methods: a) using a dedicated e-reader and b)using reading software on your tab (like a Nexus or iPad).

An ebook reader is a convenient piece of technology designed to suit the needs of an avid reader- easy to use and carry. Ebook readers take up less space than paperback and one can easily download the new releases at the comfort of their house. But like all electronic devices, ebook readers have their set of drawbacks.

Each ebook reader is different from the other in at least two aspects:
a. There is no standard format in all the various readers available and hence an ebook will appear differently when viewed on different readers such as the Kindle, the iPad, the Kobo or any e-reading software on electronic tabs.
Web based readers also read differently when viewed on different systems. The difference in readability varies according to the Operating System on each of these devices.

image credit: dave.ceylon (flickr)

image credit: dave.ceylon (flickr)

This is because e-books are primarily developed in 3-4 formats i.e. the mobi format, which can be viewed only on the Amazon Kindle reader and on tabs using the Kindle app, the epub format, which can be viewed on many more readers including the Kobo, the Nook and the iPad, besides on many tabs, the HTML format which can be viewed in most browsers just like web pages and the PDF format which allows one to read on the computer screen comfortably. While purchasing an ebook, therefore, it is important to know which type (format) of ebook your reader will support. In most cases, readers will support only one format of e-books and not the others.
Publishers must keep this in mind while undertaking development of ebooks because the ebook developer may be qualified to develop in only one format.

b) Ebooks do not have the concept of a page because a page is as big as the screen of the device you use and how much you zoom in or zoom out while reading. This may seem harmless but it is important that you use the bookmarking feature available in most readers to enable you to go back and check something. When you zoom in or zoom out (increase or decrease font size) you will find that the number of lines or text on your screen change. Viewing the same ebook on a smaller screen (a small phone) will change the view yet again. This is because the text is free flowing in an ebook, which means the text will move on to the next page and so forth when the font size is changed. This irregularity can be tackled by having the text in a fixed layout. Fixed layout refers to setting up a page with a fixed set of text. In such a case the text will remain in place even after zooming it in or out. This option works best with epubs but not with the mobi format.

Ebook readers rarely accept all ebook formats. Similarly, navigation within a book is better aided in some readers and not so well in others. Not all readers offer wireless facility which makes downloading books a hassle. In many cases, the battery life is an added disadvantage. A crack on the screen or software malfunction can easily damage an ebook reader. Make sure that you consider the cost, compatibility and other software issues when purchasing a reader.

– Wileen Barretto

We had discussed e-book pricing earlier and it seems like months later, there isn’t much clarity on how to price e-books, or having priced them, whether to offer a discount. I recently came across this infographic which reflected one experiment in ebook pricing. So while it isn’t a snapshot of the industry it does offer valuable insights.

 

a. Publishers are selling for free: I am sure they are trying to achieve something here but what it is hard to tell. Meanwhile, customers aren’t complaining. I have always felt that it is better to lower your prices than increase them or, worse still, start charging after you have provided your products or services for free. I hope there is business model being contemplated here.

b. Low prices need not necessarily mean high sales: People will pay for products and services they perceive as being valuable. The price of an e-book thus becomes an important tool that the publisher and author could use to convey a sense of the value of the book. The challenge then lies in convincing the buyer that it is indeed a book to be bought at that price. The discussion around pricing has hitherto centred around whether e-books should be cheaper than printed books because of the production and warehousing costs involved. A brave publisher could turn this argument on its head and price books higher precisely because the format is digital. Like I said, it will need a brave publisher to pull off that argument.

c. People will pay for e-books: Not everyone seeks everything for free and there are people who will understand the worth of a product and pay for it. A book that is paid for will also be valued by the buyer and perhaps will not be passed around casually. In the end, the price of the book may itself be a good deterrent to piracy. For this, the book has to be easily accessible and well-packaged.

d. Free must go:  The habit of giving away e-books for free not only destroys the worth of the product, it gradually destroys the entire industry. People hope that other publishers too will give away books for free and postpone purchase decisions. In the end, the practice benefits no one as the industry isn’t considered lucrative anymore and talent and expertise flee the scene.

The development of e-books in Indian languages is a road fraught with challenges. These challenges include the usage of appropriate fonts and the ability of the reading device to accurately render the text legible. After working at it for some months now, we were able to develop an e-book in EPUB format that approximated the print version to a high degree.

The book shown below is an EPUB version of a book we published in late 2011. We chose this particular book so that we could illustrate how pictures and text can be both displayed in the EPUB format. The series of screencasts shown below depict how the book can be viewed through the epub3 compliant AZARDI viewer. Since the book is developed in an Indic script, it cannot (yet) be developed using the MOBI format or viewed on a Kindle.

[blaze cats=2]

Once in a while an entire community seems to be overrun by a buzzword or two. Such a time seems to be upon us and the buzzword these days is “innovation”. Without knowing what it really entails, every person wishes to be innovative and every company wishes to drive innovation.

Photo by Megan Trace via Flickr and used with Creative Commons license.

When one sees such ambitions actually manifest themselves, it makes for some exciting times. Case in point: the Amazon Whispercast. It is a tool that allows organizations to manage and deploy material that can be used for Kindle devices and Kindle apps for other devices through a central interface.

What that means is that organizations can develop material that can be used on Kindles and Kindle-supporting devices and make it available to all who wish to have or need that have that information at the click of a single button. Think of schools where the teacher develops course material and makes it available for all students or of organizations where training material is developed and made accessible to all trainees. If used smartly, this means that very little paperwork is necessary and the overheads of distributing physical copies are completely eliminated. Perhaps we will soon see Amazon push software manufacturers to integrate development of Kindle-compatible documents from the commonly used applications themselves. Just wondering if we are too far away from a “Save as Kindle content” menu item.

In India, such applications can prove very useful in places such as schools, where, thanks to the low costs of Android-compatible smartphones, learning material can be easily disseminated, government offices where information about new legislations and rules can circulated, even in healthcare where important information can be circulated immediately. With a little imagination, the technology can be applied in many other situations thus making operations more streamlined and paperless. Since Kindle apps are free for almost every platform, the need to actually buy a Kindle is absent and other, cheaper, devices such as the government-promoted Aakash can be used for this purpose.

Something to think about!

Having had several discussions with various publishers who wish to develop e-books, we have realised that there is much confusion over how one should proceed. The following is an attempt to answer some of the questions that are often raised.

Are there different kinds of e-books?

There are at least three widely used types of e-books. One is the ubiquitous PDF, which in a form called PDF/A has found widespread use especially for viewing on mobile devices  (such as e-readers, smartphones and on computer screens). Given the fact that this type (or “format” in e-book-speak) can be viewed on most devices, it makes sense to invest in at least this format if you have invested in the development of e-books.

Devices that can read e-books are lumped together under a not-so-imaginative term called the e-reader.

The other two widely used formats (types) are the EPUB and MOBI formats. Of these, the EPUB format can be used on most devices except on the Kindle, which is the Amazon e-book reader. This includes almost every other e-reader including the Kobo, the iPad, the Nook and most mobile devices. However, because many people buy their e-books from Amazon and use it on the Kindle, it sometimes becomes necessary for the book to be developed in the MOBI format as well (which the Kindle will “support” along with another lesser-used format called AZW)

pic credit: mashable.com

There is one other aspect of e-books publishers must bear in mind i.e. the development of e-books as software applications or “apps”. Put simply, in this context these apps are computer programs that add visuals and sounds to the text of  your book in a way that makes the final amalgamation appealing. Often you will hear of apps being developed, especially for children’s books and books where there is a need for “show and tell” like, for instance, in STM books.

A good chart of the various e-book formats and the e-readers that allow each of these formats to be viewed is given here. Please note that audio-books too fall under the purview of e-books. However, this discussion will not cover audio-books.

What kind of e-book must I develop?

This really depends on the list you have and the preferences of those reading your books. EPUB and PDF (or PDF/A) seem to be the more widely used formats, although one cannot discount the popularity of Amazon and the fact that they sell e-books only in the Kindle-compatible MOBI format.

If the appeal of your book can be enhanced with audio and animations, that book is best suited for viewing as an app. In all other cases, you will have to choose between developing the book in one or all of the PDF/A, EPUB and MOBI formats.

What are the costs involved?

This usually depends on the vendor (the e-book developer) and cannot be explained easily. However, this question is often raised as is the next question: is it worth the investment? It all actually depends on the publisher. Does the publisher see a demand for its books as e-books? Will it help the publisher reach markets that hitherto could not be served because of the restrictions that printed books pose? Will there be enough sales to justify the charges quoted by e-book developers?

Our vote goes for the EPUB format simply because they can be used on a wide variety of e-readers and because the format itself is constantly being developed to make the reading experience richer. It is also based on the same (HTML) technology that is used to develop websites and the tools used to develop it are available for free. Even a small publishing house having an in-house web developer can develop books in this format.

E-book developers are currently a dime a dozen (disclaimer: CinnamonTeal too provides e-book development services). While there isn’t a “best” one, a good development company would distinguish itself by working with the concerned publisher (or author, in case of self-publishing) and ensuring that the book in the electronic form looks as good or even better than that in the printed form. The aesthetic charm that a printed book has cannot and should not be lost during the process of conversion to the electronic form. So while the publisher may choose a developer that it is comfortable working with, care should be taken to ensure that the quality of the book, its readability and its appeal, is not compromised.

How much must I price my ebooks at?

The jury is out on this one. Many customers think that because the next e-book doesn’t cost anything to produce (it is an electronic file just like any document on your computer and a ctrl-C, ctrl-v sequence should give you a copy), it shouldn’t cost too much to purchase. Many customers discount the cost of production that must be incurred before an e-book can be offered for sale. That said, there is no conclusive study to say that book sales drop after prices are increased (or that they grow after prices are decreased).

Often, like any other product, it becomes incumbent on the publisher to “find” that price at which customers will buy its e-books. One approach could be to start with a price equivalent to that of its hardcover and lower that price if sales do not follow. Adding to the confusion over pricing is the fact that some platforms like Amazon charge publishers variable discount rates depending on the listed price of the e-book. What remains true is that the price of the e-book should not only reflect its production cost but also its perceived value.

There are many publishers and authors who give away their e-books for free hoping that this practice might translate into sales of the printed versions of those books.

Where do I sell my e-books?

The obvious choice should be the publisher’s own website. If a publisher has already invested in the development of a website and if that website already supports purchase of books, the next step should be to enable the purchase of e-books too.

If that is not possible, or if the publisher is looking at alternative channels, other options do exist. Platforms such as Amazon and aggregators such as Smashwords do a decent job of e-book sales. However, for publishers based in India, receiving payments from these service providers is often an arduous task. Among the Indian stores, Infibeam sells e-books. Our concern Dogears Etc. soon will.

What is DRM? Do I need to use it?

DRM (or Digital Rights Management) is essentially software that prevents sharing of e-book files between users, even between two e-Readers belonging to the same user. While many publishers have embraced the use of DRM as a way to prevent the piracy of their books, many others haven’t. This is primarily because many readers feel that they should not be told what to do with their purchases and DRM-like restrictions only increase their suspicions towards publishers. Secondly, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that piracy has indeed impacted the book business. Further, most DRM implementations can and are tampered with thus leading to a waste of money spent on it.

As is often the argument, publishers need to find a way for buyers to buy their book on account of the quality they offer. It will not do publishers any good to merely prevent the buyer from copying or sharing a book through the use of restrictive measures such as DRM. Through judicious use of the material they have developed, publishers need to enrich the user experience and make buyers keep coming. In website development terms, this is called “stickiness” and it is something publishers will have to train themselves to develop too.

There is a subtle form of DRM called “social DRM” that does not prevent buyers from sharing the books they have purchased or place any restrictions on how it is used. However, it does track the e-book file and can identify the buyer should the file be copied and shared on a large scale.

Do e-books work for Indian language scripts?

Among the three main e-book types, the MOBI format does not support Indic scripts. EPUB does, with some constraints on the type of fonts that can be used, while PDFs, of course, do support most fonts as long as they can be embedded. This is very important for publishers to know because if the book uses decorative fonts, chances are that those fonts cannot be used for the e-book. Publishers must therefore clarify this aspect before engaging e-book developers so as to not be disappointed with the outcome.

 

We hope we have answered some basic questions you might have about e-books. It will be the constant endeavour of this blog to clear the cobwebs over e-book development, an attempt we have already initiated. If you have more queries, we will be happy to answer them individually. Do contact us at ebook-helpdesk @dogearsetc.com with your queries.

Away from India, it seems like e-book development and sales are finally picking up. More publishers are investing in the development of e-books and many are seeing substantial returns on investment. The following infographic dwells on a study by Aptara and Publisher’s Weekly. A similar study in India would be of immense help and would in fact help those who have not yet invested in e-books make an informed decision on whether to invest.

Click on the image for a larger view.

 

This year, Publishing Next had just one panel discussion that purely concentrated on the technological aspects of publishing. Chaired by Brij Singh, co-founder of Fliplog, the panel sought to explore how new advancements in digital technologies could be incorporated to create a more involved experience for the reader. As such panels often do, this one too brought out the sharp differences between the “techie” (now almost used derisively) and the publisher communities. There emerged though a few important points:

L-R: Pratheek Thomas, Dilip Kumar, Jai Zende, Jagish Repaswal and Brij Singh

a. Publishers seek solutions that are unique to their needs. This holds an important lesson for companies that provide e-publishing services because very rarely does one size fit all. Packaged services that are attractively marketed using colourful brochures by people who shy away from answering the tough questions do not cut it with publishers, especially with those that understand a little about e-book development and need to know it can make their books look more attractive.

b. Publishers need to educate themselves on the details of e-book development. This actually follows from the earlier point because many companies that provide e-book development services, unfortunately, gloss over the details and it becomes incumbent upon the publishers to ask the tough questions. Questions like: which formats are available? Where can they be viewed? Which are the preferred formats? What will my illustrations and fonts look like in the e-version? How closely will the layout match that of the printed version? Where can they be sold? How do I store and protect them?

c. Communication needs to be in a language that publishers understand. This is for the techies. It is important that the understand the terminology of book making and speak to publishers in a language that they (the publishers) are comfortable with. Very often, e-book development companies fill their brochures and other forms of communication with technical terms that obfuscate the details and, more often than not, put off the publisher. Terms like HTML5, SGML and XML mean little to the publisher. Instead it might help e-book developers if they learnt about widows, orphans and flyleaf pages. Total disregard for the book and its content and a pitch just based on technical capabilities is sure to lose an e-book developer its clients.

d. The pricing of services needs to be revisited. For publishers, this is a new game and, understandably, they are shy about wading into these waters. Given that the whole world is breathing down their neck and that they are told to develop e-books or perish, they have to make sense of the investments because the returns are yet unheard of. Companies that develop e-books must be aware of this and price their services rationally. Maybe a model that allows publishers a free first book so they can see what are the benefits? Or a discounted rate on the first book? Or a payment model that is based on commissions off sales? Companies need to be imaginative here.

e. Not all technologies are for all books. For example, fiction that is purely text have no need for development as enhanced books or apps. Technology companies should understand a publisher’s list and pitch their products accordingly. It is necessary for them to explain to the publishers the limitations of current technologies so that the expectations of publishers remain realistic. In the case of books in Indian languages, the limitations of reproducing certain fonts must be clarified before production of e-books is undertaken.

f. E-book development companies need to stand by what they deliver. Here it might be better for them to under-promise and over-deliver. This follows from the earlier point. Many companies have promised publishers the moon and have fallen far short of expectations. In many cases, unfortunately, this has resulted in publishers swearing off e-books altogether.

g. There is no platform yet, that is purely Indian, that caters to the sale of books. This becomes important when dealing with publishers of books in Indian languages. While Amazon has entered the Indian market, neither its reader, the Kindle, nor its e-commerce platform support Indian language books. It is therefore important to make publishers aware of this lack of a platform that might render their investments useless unless, of course, the e-books can be sold from their own website.

Suffice to say that much ground needs to be covered before a robust and sustainable environment around the development and sale of e-books is implemented. The publisher and developer communities need to work together towards the conception of such an environment and not insist on working in isolation.