How Can Apple Improve iBooks Without Ruining Other eBook Stores?

Something very fishy is going on at Apple. It looks like they’re taking in-app purchasing very seriously, and are enforcing what has been rumored for months: eBookstores can no longer link to their respective stores in Safari in any way, even for account sign-ups. Kobo was forced to change over, as did NOOKkids; Google Books has gone entirely MIA from iOS. Plus, the Wall Street Journal has removed all links and in-app sales options. If book sales are not through Apple, they can’t offer anything in-app. Obviously this has negative implications for consumers, annoys developers and content partners, and for what? Why is Apple creating and enforcing these rules?

Let’s assume there’s two reasons; one is that Apple doesn’t want anyone making money off content except them, and they want a cut if anyone is. The other is that Apple is disappointed with their own content sales, namely iBooks, and has decided the answer is to punish the more successful parties. The two are not mutually exclusive, but let’s start with how Apple could prop up iBooks without breaking the competition’s proverbial knees.

Book Portability

When I buy a book from Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, I can open that book on multiple devices, since they have a presence on several major smartphone, tablet, and desktop systems. If I buy in iBooks, I can….read it on an iOS device. That’s it. If Apple wants a bigger slice of the eBook pie, they need to expand iBook’s boundaries.

There’s a few ways they could that. For starters, Apple clearly knows how to negotiate with publishers, and they could try fighting for more DRM-free titles. But that’s a bit unrealistic. More realistically, they could adopt Adobe Digital Editions DRM instead of their own proprietary system. Why do that? Because several eBook devices, from Sony to Kobo to the NOOK, support ADE. There have been many marketing surveys that indicate tablet users also own eBook readers, so why not sell them books that work with both? It also would let Apple position iTunes as even more of a content hub, which falls in line with their goals nicely, and it would probably gather them a handful of eBook reader owners who don’t yet own tablets.

No matter how Apple handled it, getting iBooks into more hands than just iOS is the fastest path to improving sales and gaining more readers.

Let’s Make A Deal

Amazon is very big on striking exclusive deals with authors and their estates. Even if Amazon is getting there first, the Apple name means something, and they could certainly attract a big name or two to iBooks. Imagine if Apple struck an exclusive deal to sell, say, the next James Patterson book for the first 30 days?

Or push more enhanced eBooks. Do a tie-in with a major movie adaptation of a book, or something similar. That’s an easy way to make iBooks sound flashy and fun, which is bound to capture more attention!

These have huge potential, are easy to do, and are a lock that Apple would at least drive sales of the exclusive title or enhanced book, plus a few more as people shopped around. Apple themselves killed loss-leading and other price-based promotions with the agency model, but these are a way to drive visitors to the iBookstore and downloads of the iBooks app.

Hire the Mad Men

When’s the last time you saw an iBooks ad? Apple shows iBooks in the montage of software, but a quick 30 second spot would raise a lot of awareness. Right now it’s just sort of there, but as the red-headed stepchild of the iTunes ecosystem. It doesn’t get the same attention or love from Apple that the other content gets. Movies and music have multiple areas, from Apple TV to iPods, and the App Store gets lots and lots of commercial love. iBooks feels very much like an afterthought, a “Oh yeah, we should deal with this”. Apple has claimed they want to be a digital newsstand, but they aren’t putting forth the effort.

All it would take is a good ad campaign to remind people iBooks exists, and sales would likely move up from curiosity if nothing else. And once consumers have a few titles in a store, they’re more likely to build a library. But they still need to be reminded to shop there first!

Totally Off Course

Of course, there’s always the chance that eBooks are a casualty and not the target. Apple might simply be seriously annoyed that other companies, any other company, is making money on Apple’s ecosystem. But unlike apps, where developers build in the 30% cost to Apple, content is a lot less flexible. Hulu and Netflix don’t have the margins to offer up 30% to Apple. And the Agency Model as designed by Apple leaves no margin room for any retailer to give a 30% cut to Apple and still make any money. [The Agency Model is very simple: 70% to the publisher, 30% to the retailer. If the retailer owes 30% to Apple, that’s their entire cut from the sale of the book.] Apple had to have known that throwing down this gauntlet would probably not lead to revenue, but just to contortions from their various software partners as they attempted to limbo in under the new rules.

In many ways Apple is behaving like a childhood friend of mine. When we played at her house, it was her rules. When she came to my house, she was the guest, and so we played by her rules. Apple wants everything to be theirs. If they can’t make money directly by selling content, they want to share in the profits of other content providers. It almost seems like Apple realized the outcome was going to be much like my childhood friendship; as soon as I grew up enough to voice displeasure, the friendship ended. If Apple pushes too hard, all the eBooks and magazines and streaming movies making the iPad a smash hit are going to be forced out. So Apple came up with this half-assed solution, which leaves everyone scratching their heads and no one happy.

What’s your take on why Apple is doing this? Do you use iBooks? Share your experiences and conjecture below!

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11 replies

  1. In my opinion, eBooks are part of a wider problem with the structure of Apps available through Apple’s App Store.

    The problem with this structure is that vendors can offer their iOS software for free and then use In-App purchasing structures outside of the fee structure that Apple has created to profit from iOS without giving due to Apple. While eBooks are a significant target in this regard, one can say the same for games like Gun Bros etc. that allow for In-App purchasing of items/virtual currency to be used in-game.

    While I don’t applaud Apple’s decision, I cannot necessarily criticize them either; developers have found a loophole around Apple’s App Store Fee policy and have been using it. If I took a risk to create a content vehicle such as iOS, I would object to people trying to make a profit off of my hard work without giving me anything in return. As far as “ruining” the eBook market on iOS, I think that’s a bit of a stretch. The Kindle App on iOS takes you to a Safari browser window anyway, so technically it is really only saving a few virtual button presses.

    The streaming content providers are another matter. However, I am confident that Apple will revise some of their policies to allow for these content providers to survive in the iOS architecture, though I am sure that it will not be nearly as profitable. I guess time will tell.

    • Hey David:

      You DO realize that *every* in-app purchase pays Apple 30%, right? So when you get Marathon for free then want the $4 hi-res textures and $1 cheats and mods menu that you buy in-app you have given Apple $1.50.

      THAT is the core of Apple’s decision – people *were* exploiting in-app communications to charge for things and not pay Apple a 30% cut. Then Apple put much better utilities in place, and now it is a great way to offer unified demos you can buy rather than the ‘Lite/Full’ game split … and to offer something for cheaper with add-ons for later.

      Thought you should know …

  2. I would add that buying iBooks is a pain in the tuckus. If you are in an iBook, and come across a reference to another book that sounds interesting–and in non-fiction, that happens *all the time*–it’s genuinely painful to have to quit out of your book, quit out of your entire *library*, search on the book, maybe grab a sample, go *back* to your library, and then go *back* to your original book. As much as it’s a bit of a pain to have to leave the Kindle app and open Safari, at least you’re entire reading experience isn’t put on hold thereby. Apple: make it better! Pop-up window; new window; something, I don’t care, but right now it’s painful.

    Also, Apple, the interface itself needs work. I highlight something and want to find it on Wikipedia or google it–why do I have to leave the entire app to do that? Why not show the results in-app? And if I *must* leave the app to see a Wikipedia result, why not have it go to wikipanion, or let me set the destination through an option. And if you *must* open a Safari window, please stop opening a *new* safari window *every time*; that’s simply stupid. If I do 5 wikipedia searches in a row, why would I want 5 windows open? Dumb.

    • I could go on, by the way, but I think the point is made: Carly is right in the app being a stepchild. It needs some attention. There is a *huge* amount of potential there–the dictionary is *very* nice, almost an encyclopedia instead of just a simple dictionary–but it’s not being used. Use it, you goofuses!

  3. Another thought to follow-on to Carly’s: If Apple took a few books and wanted to make them a great “demo” of what you can do with a book in electronic format, it would be a huge boost. Imagine something like “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll” as an iBook, with film clips, music clips, interview audio clips, links to places to buy the songs you’re reading about, and on and on. How awesome would *that* be? And what a great demonstration of the potential power of an eBook!

    Hey, Apple! Want more ideas? I’m hireable, been doing eBooks *for 20 years* (since SGML was the bleeding edge!), and you can read me at!

    Sometimes, Gear Diary readers, the lack of imagination of software designers when it comes to eBooks makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Want to see some possibilities of what *could* be done? Check out the apps “The Elements” and “Solar System”. (“Solar System” contains a full solar system orrery! And you can speed up or slow down the movement of all the planets in the system! How cool is *that*! Now *that* shows you some of the things you can do. Imagine the book “Cosmos” as an eBook! Use your imaginations, people! Jeez!)

  4. Douglas,

    I appreciate what you are saying about expanding eBooks beyond just being electronic versions of their physical counterparts. However, there are several distinct advantages to using that metaphor: first, everyone (hopefully!) already knows what a book is all about and creating a virtual book implies introducing a tried-and-true concept to the public. Second, by merely being a digital counterpart to the analog original, there is no additional cost with respect to production and in fact it represents a significant savings with respect to distribution.

    The creation of an eBook like you are describing would take a significant investment of time and programming far beyond what most publishing companies would risk investing, particularly when a lot of that stuff is already available online. I think back to the multimedia CD-ROM’s of yesteryear and point them out as failures of a similar model of “electronic book.”

    I agree that eBooks have so much more potential than what is currently being distributed, but I am not smart enough to figure out how to get the general public interested in such projects when the main thing that seems to drive the marketplace is price. I still think that the vast majority of what is going to drive the eBook marketplace are digital versions of the analog originals, with a few bells and whistles.

    • I disagree, David. I think there are levels to incorporating additional functionality to eBooks, and you don’t have to go whole-hog all at once. For example, it wouldn’t be all that hard to include links to external objects and/or pages. Consider “Lord of the Rings” or Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series: rather than including large-scale zoomable maps in the books themselves–which would be better for the reader, but possibly too difficult/expensive to do–why not create a web page with large-scale zoomable maps, and include a link from the book to that web page? How about links from authorial neologisms to their location back in the glossary of the book, or to a web page list of said neologisms?

      What about having two levels of eBooks available, like we have with hardcopy books (i.e. hardcover, and paperback): the cheap, easy, “we just slammed all the text into a file” version, and a more expensive, “enhanced” version that contains things like glossaries, zoomable maps, audio clips of songs, video clips, and what not? Or at least *links* to such things?

      I have many more examples, if you want me to weary you with them. This is a subject of high interest for me, and has been for some time, so I have a *lot* of thoughts about it.

      I contend–and I’ve been generating content for online consumption a *long* time, going on 20 years now–that there are some things that would be cheap and easy to do, that would utilize the unique capabilities of the online environment, *and* would help attract customers to eBooks.

      In short, it’s not binary–there are levels between “The Elements” and just a text listing of all the elements, and it drives me crazy these things aren’t being explored other than desultorily.

  5. I certainly agree with you that allowing for a higher-priced “deluxe” version of eBooks would be a way for publishers and authors to receive compensation for their additional work in providing features to eBooks that would otherwise be unavailable. Certainly, I tend to pay additional money for Blueray discs that have DVD and digital copies of the same movie as opposed to merely buying the cheapest version available.

    However, am I the typical consumer? I would venture to guess that anyone who would take the time to not only read this site/article, create a WordPress account and then post a comment would fall outside the bounds of the “typical” consumer. And really, “typical” bears all kinds of epistemological overtones that really are best left alone. Suffice it to say that while I agree that more advanced eBooks could be successful in principle, I will reserve judgement and eagerly await a publisher to produce such a book.

  6. There is another reason that Apple may be enforcing these rules: they think that consumers find it simpler to create an iTunes Store account and use only that to buy content. That may be true in some cases, but I’m afraid that there is a large population of people who have no problem creating purchasing accounts on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.


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