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A Publishing Seal of Approval, a step toward standarization

A Publishing Seal of Approval, a step toward standarization

qed-emblemA couple of days ago, I received an email with a press release announcing a joint venture of sorts to bring a Publishing Seal of Approval to digital books.   The seal will be called QED and it is owned by Digital Book World, a division of F&W Media.  Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Kobo have signed on to support the seal which I assume that means that they will be applying/featuring it in some way in their stores.

From the press release:

The QED is the first-ever independent, third-party assessment of an ebook’s basic production standards. QED stands for “Quality, Excellence, Design” in ebooks. To earn the QED standard for excellence, ebooks must pass muster in a multi-format, multi-platform 13-step quality assurance (QA) process. Ebook entries will be thoroughly and independently vetted on devices from mobile to eInk to tablet. The QED is a reader-centric award that lets ebook consumers know that their purchase will render correctly, no matter where or how they choose to read. For more on the QED, please visit http://publishinginnovationawards.com/the-qed

The idea is that a publisher, whether it is a corporation or individual author, will pay for the book to be checked against this service and then, if it passes, the book will be awarded this seal.  I have no idea how much this costs. (I probably should have asked but did not).   If a publisher pays for this service, the book will be entered into the publishing innovation awards.

The fact that we actually need a QED, which simply ensures that a product is viewable on all devices, is a crime.  The QED is checking that font display is consistent throughout the book, that the book doesn’t open on a blank page, that the hyperlinks work, that the section breaks start and stop in the appropriate places.  These checks are all rudimentary. So rudimentary that every publisher, regardless of whether it is a corporation or an author, should be checking for these things before the book is released for purchase.  We shouldn’t need this seal, but we do.

The QED is a great idea but it’s only the start.  For one thing, the QED seal only measures the mechanical function of the ebook.  It does not address content, even on the most basic of levels.

For instance, while it checks to make sure that the metadata is appropriate, there is no consistency required in the metadata.  Consistency in metadata is important because most ereading platforms, whether they be dedicated reading devices, mobile apps, or desktop programs, sort by author and title.  Even amongst the major publishers, there is no consistent use of the author and the title fields.  For instance, some use ALL CAPS WHICH I HATE.  Others will have the author first name, author last name whereas others will put it author last name, author first name.  This wreaks havoc with the sorting.

The QED will check to ensure that the table of contents is correct, but it does not require a table of contents.  I have heard some authors of fiction wonder why a table of contents is even necessary in fiction books.  Table of contents are vital, in my opinion, for aiding in navigation.  A reader cannot digitally flip through pages as quickly as a reader can page through a physical book.

The QED does not check for typos or formatting irregularities.  While I am thrilled that so many of the backlist titles are being digitized and sold through legitimate channels, the typos are rife.  Harlequin Treasury books have at least one typo, OCR error per chapter. Some readers have reported them on every page.  These OCRing errors are leading to some hilarious but embarrassing results. Witness Susan Andersen who was forced to post on her Facebook and send out a newsletter alert about the error in her book “Baby, I’m Yours.”

Hey, all.

I wanted to give you all a head’s up on a killer typo in my digital edition of Baby, I’m Yours and apologize for page 293, where it says:

He stiffened for a moment but then she felt his muscles loosen as he shitted on the ground.

Shifted–he SHIFTED! God, I am so appalled, not to mention horrified that anyone would think that’s what I wrote.

That is a very accommodating heroine, holding the hero whilst he defecates on the ground.  I have chortled over OCRing errors in the old Amanda Quick books released by Random House.  My favorite error, prior to Baby, I’m Yours, was in David Plouffe’s book The Audacity to Win which had the word “Funfortunately” in it.

FUnfortunately, you can’t just say you’re running and have everything fall into place.

There are some standards that are already in place. OSIS, for example, has four levels of OCR quality.  The fourth level, Trusted Quality, requires that  “Random spot-checks of at least 3% of the text must come up with no instances of more than 1 error per 5 pages (or 10,000 characters of content).”  That’s really low.  Think about it. 1 error per 5 pages is permitted.  However, there are many digitized versions of books that do not even meet this standard.

Distributed Proofreaders has an excellent set of documents that it has compiled from the proofreaders to spot “scannos”, the OCR’ed version of typos.   Readers may have come across words like Diere which should have been There.  Some of these errors can be corrected by a script.  Over at the BN Nook board, a reader reported that a YA author of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would be using a computer script to combat the most common scannos.

Author Diane Duane reported today that her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will be working to remove the OCR scan bugs in her “Young Wizards” e-books. What strikes me, though, is that they’re not going to use proofreaders. Instead, they’re going to create a computer script to look for the most common scan errors.

They figure this should only take them two months.

There are scripts that exist already to combat scannos and publishers (authors or companies) who want to put out a cleaner formatted version of their book can use the free program called HTML Tidy.  Problematically, publishers aren’t tech companies. I have no idea how the books go from print to digital at these corporations. I think (although this could be totally incorrect) that they are often outsourced.  (I.e., another company is hired to scan and produce an OCRed version).  Whatever the case may be, the quality control of digital books is very low.

Publishers and authors are bemoaning the $.99 and the $9.99 price points, but readers bemoan the quality. Perhaps if those that are putting out the work would put quality control at a higher priority, readers would be willing to pay higher prices but the more that low quality books are produced, the lower readers expectations will be about the value of a digital book. A QED is a start but the publishers goal (regardless of who the publisher is) should be to eliminate the need for the QED seal.

How Agency Pricing Helped Barnes and Noble Gain a Foothold in eBooks

How Agency Pricing Helped Barnes and Noble Gain a Foothold in...

BarnesNoble_logo

On June 21, 2011, BN happily announced $7 billion in sales due, in part, to a 50% increase in sales at BN.com.  The WSJ’s lead in the July 20, 2011, article is “Meet Barnes & Noble Inc., software company.”

The original nook was announced in October 2009 and released in November of 2009.  At that time, it was estimated that Amazon held 45% of the ereader market but sales wise, speculation was that Amazon comprised 70%-90% of the digital book market. The market of digital books was less than 2 % of overall publishing sales in 2009.  But Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was viewed as dooming the publishing industry.  In comes Apple. Steve Jobs famously told Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal that publishers were going to pull their books from Amazon unless Amazon sold the books at the price that was reflected in the iBookstore.

In March 2010, Macmillan opened the first salvo, refusing to allow Amazon to sell books at the price set by Amazon.  Instead, Macmillan wanted to set the prices.  Amazon responded by pulling the buy buttons for all Macmillan books.  But after the weekend was over, Macmillan prevailed and soon thereafter all of the Big 6 but Random House adopted what we now call Agency Pricing.

But it wasn’t Apple and the iBookstore that was the beneficiary of Agency pricing and it wasn’t small independent retailers like Books on Board or Kobo.  The major beneficiary was Barnes & Noble.  At the end of 2009, retail book sales were plummeting.  B&N had already started to replace some of its book inventory with Toys & Games. In previous quarters, B&N was reporting a consistent pattern of brick and mortar retail loss.  (-4.8% in 2010; -5% in 2009*; -5.4% in 2008)

On August 31, 2011, B&N announced it’s first quarter 2011 results.

Barnes and Noble retail sales went from 28.8 percent of the company’s gross margin to 29.5 percent. Barnes and Noble website sales went from 3.7 percent of the company’s gross margin up to 27.3 percent compared to the same period last year. Gross profit from Barnes and Noble’s website went from $5.3 million in the first quarter last year to $41.5 million.

Retail sales fell 3% but digital sales have gone through the roof.  According to B&N, the majority of those digital book sales are Agency priced books along with PubIt! revenue.

Currently, B&N claims 27% of the digital book market.  One investor said of B&N:

The Nook is “the only driver of long-term growth and they have to establish that niche,” said Souers, who recommends holding Barnes & Noble shares.

This was born out in the last quarterly results:

Sales through BN.com increased 37% ….  This increase was driven by strong demand for the NOOK product line, including the continued success of the Award Winning NOOK Color, the mid-quarter launch of the NOOK Simple Touch Reader and a quadrupling of digital content sales over last year’s first quarter.

Barnes & Noble store sales decreased 3%….  While traditional physical book sales declined during the quarter, the stores posted large increases in sales of the NOOK product line and Toys & Games.

The consolidated NOOK business across all of the company’s segments, including sales of digital content, device hardware and related accessories, increased 140% in the first quarter.

It’s capital investment to remake itself into a technological company is costly.  Despite record sales at the end of the fiscal year 2010 (ending April 2011), it also suffered net loss of $74 million due to nook R&D.  The 4 year trend doesn’t look good in terms of net results.  However, the sales at BN.com have gone from  $466 million in 2008 to $858 million in 2010.  Now BN.com sales are nearly a 1/3 of its overall revenue, matching that of the revenue pulled in by its retail stores.

The suppression of Amazon’s ability to use ebooks as a loss leader allowed B&N to enter the market in late 2009 and capitalize on Agency pricing. B&N did not have to compete on price of ebooks, a move that would have undoubtedly increased its losses exponentially.  Instead, B&N focused on providing the emerging ebook market with a touch screen color ereader. Amazon will meet that this year, but B&N has gained a strong market share while Amazon was satisfied with its eink offerings.

B&N didn’t exactly take market share away from Amazon. Instead, as the market grew (some say it doubles about every three months), B&N attracted new entrants by virtue of its brick & mortar retail advantages and its fancier digital readers: touch screen eink and color LCD reader.  Plus, its books were the same price as Amazon’s.  B&N didn’t have to cut its ebook prices, offer discounts, or even include digital books in its loyalty program.  Agency pricing helped B&N focus its precious capital on making a better device and advertising the Nook heavily instead of having to suffer a loss on every book sold, as Amazon was doing with its $9.99 loss leader strategy.

B&N still faces stiff competition.  Amazon has a market cap of $98 billion and B&N’s market cap is $1 billion.  B&N has suggested the capital expenditures may double in the next year.   Liberty Media’s investment into B&N is designed to respond to this need.  One of the largest problems B&N will have is its current geographic limitations.  Amazon is a worldwide company that is challenged by Sony and Kobo in the non US market.  B&N’s international moves haven’t full realized yet.

Even if Agency pricing disappears in 2-3 years because of lawsuits (which I expect that it will), B&N will have been given a window of opportunity to transform itself not only into a technology company, but a profitable technology company.  I submit it couldn’t have been done without Agency pricing.

 

*In 2009, BN bought College Booksellers and changed the fiscal year.