An iTunes for eBooks?

MCMTuesday, January 20, 2009

This year is going to be full of new books from 1889 Labs, and part of that process involves getting them out through as many channels as possible. I've recently made a half-switch to Lightning Source for the actual printing process, which is working out great so far. But one angle that isn't fully developed is the notion of eBooks. I'm experimenting with formats and processes to turn most of my catalogue into digital bits, but it's not as seamless a process as I would like. But by far, the biggest issue is with delivery.

What I'm looking for is a central place for publishers to release their books in eBook formats, where users can browse and download them easily. Get the new John Grisham novel for $3.99, or Kipling for $1.99. Sync them to whatever device you like, and you're done. Transactions handled by the site maintainer, and a cut given to the publisher. Everyone is happy, and the world is a better place.

The closest I can find is a site like Fictionwise, which I love for many things, but in this regard they fall flat on their faces. Rather than taking the iTunes model and opening up the process for as many people as they can, they insist all publishers have at least 25 titles by 5 different "professional" authors.

(the question of what constitutes "professional" and how much it matters is a whole other post for some later date)

Even at the end of 2009, if all goes according to plan, 1889 will only have 17 books in its catalogue, which wouldn't meet the minimum requirements; nor will they be from five different authors. So what Fictionwise is doing is saying they're not interested in earning a cut of books we'd sell. It seems like a pretty silly stance, given the nature of their business. But I suppose I can see the reasoning (cost of setup vs potential returns). I just don't agree with their approach.

So the alternative is to sell the eBooks from 1889.ca itself. That's not a big issue... coding that kind of storefront wouldn't be too hard for me. But the trade off is that we maintain our obscurity through that method, and don't gain any new exposure. If you didn't know we existed before, you still won't. Not ideal. But I guess that's what we're left with, in the end.

The other issue (and the real issue I started on this rant) is that I was thinking the publishing world could benefit from the idea of "singles", the way the music industry (reluctantly) does. I'm polishing a short story right now (roughly 10K words), and I thought for a time it would be fun to release it as an eBook for $0.75 or something. There are tons of short stories written every year, and some of them are really great, and definitely worth the money. It might not be a massive windfall for the writers, but as a business model, I bet any aggregator/seller would make a killing selling mountains of short fiction.

Then again, it might be that short stories are best used as promotional tools, and selling them is counter-productive. In which case, the iTunes App Store would still be a great model to follow. Use some kind of web 2.0 social thingamabob to handle rating, ranking and recommendations, and let the marketplace decide the rest.

Really, there are competitors in this space, but nobody is doing it even half-right. Some laid-off tech worker should give it a go. How hard can it be?

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