How Apple iBooks could compete with Amazon's Kindle in the ebook space (Updated)
Update: The original version of this post cited a $99 fee to set up publishing for books via the iBookstore, which was incorrect; while the developer program $99 fee applies to books-as-apps, it does not apply to iBooks themselves. TUAW was contacted by Apple's media team, and they told us that "anyone can submit books to sell on iBookstore easily, and for free at itunes.com/sellyourbooks." We apologize for the error.
Apple's iBooks app and the iBookstore have been available since March of last year, but don't appear to have made as much of an impact as the much older Kindle platform from Amazon. Just last week, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos announced that the company is now selling slightly more electronic books than the dead-tree versions. Last October, one of our bloggers noted that the iBookstore was "one big failure," citing the lack of titles as his main concern.
I feel the same way. Although it seems as if things are slowly getting better, I still find myself searching for electronic books in both the iBookstore and Kindle Store, and the majority of the time I buy them from Amazon. Personally, I do like the look of iBooks a lot more than I do Kindle books, and I find incredible numbers of typos in Kindle books. But I still go to the Kindle Store for most of my ebooks simply because I can find what I want to read.
During a discussion with several of my fellow bloggers yesterday, it occurred to me that there are a few things that the Kindle electronic publishing platform does much better than the iBookstore. Read more to see some suggestions on what Apple could do to better compete with Amazon's Kindle ebookstore and dominate the ebook market the way that the iPod and iTunes have come to rule the music business.
Release an iBook reader app for Mac and Windows
One of the things that Amazon has done right is to release a Kindle reader app for just about every computing platform on the planet, in addition to having its own reader device (of course). At this point, Kindle books are readable on Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, and Windows Phone 7.
iBooks? They're only available for iPad and iPhone -- that's it. While iPhones and iPads are quite popular, the total number of Windows PCs and Macs out there is staggeringly large. Pre-installing an iBook app on every Mac being sold could help sales of iBooks, and making the software available on Windows PCs wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Sell iBooks through iTunes
I don't get it. You can buy all sorts of apps, TV shows, movies, music, and other content through iTunes, but you can only purchase iBooks through the iBooks app.
Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, sell iBooks through iTunes as well as the iBooks app. It makes no sense to single out ebooks as a different kind of digital content. One-stop shopping is the name of the game for iTunes, so Apple should add iBooks.
Allow lending and "giving away" of iBooks
Some Kindle books have lending enabled. What that means is that once you're done reading an ebook, you can lend it to a friend for a 14-day period. My wife and I have used this capability so that we can share books that we've enjoyed, and it works very well. If you want to try out book lending, check out the free Lendle service.
However, iBooks cannot be lent to anyone for any period of time. I suppose you could just hand your iPad or iPhone over to a friend or relative to let them read an iBook, but that defeats the purpose of a personal device.
Apple should consider going beyond Amazon's Kindle ebook lending model by working with publishers to make ebook lending available on all iBooks. In fact, perhaps Apple could make ebook lending similar to the dead-tree model by allowing iBook readers to give rights to a purchased book to another person. Right now, if I buy a book at a bookstore, read it, and decide that I don't want to keep it, I can just pass it along to another friend. By doing so, I'm revoking my ownership of the book. Why not give me that capability for iBooks?
Since Amazon doesn't currently allow this, allowing iBook readers to assign ownership rights to another person would give Apple an edge in the ebook wars. In fact, why not just get rid of Digital Rights Management (DRM) altogether? Just as with music in iTunes, making DRM-free books available for a slightly higher price would give the publishers their due, while giving iBookstore customers the ownership rights that they get with traditional books. Want to lend an iBook to a friend for a couple of months? No problem. Want to give the iBook to a friend? Go ahead. That's what I can do with my paper books, and I should be able to do the same with iBooks.
While we're at it, Apple needs to make an arrangement like the one that Amazon is working on for libraries. This agreement will make it possible for libraries to lend ebooks to patrons.
Open up iBooks to more ebook file formats and third-party bookstores
At this point, Apple's iBookstore has nowhere near the total amount of content that is available in the Kindle bookstore. Kindle's success is tied to the amazing number of books that are available, and it's going to be virtually impossible for the iBookstore to catch up.
While part of this is due to continuing disagreements between Apple and publishers that are making it impossible to get certain books into the iBookstore, Apple could try something else to increase the amount of books in the store. Why not make the iBookstore a gateway to content in many other ebookstores? There have been a number of stores that have been around for years, many much older than the Kindle bookstore. Fictionwise, for example, has been around since the days of the original Palm devices, and as different devices became available they made ebooks available in a huge variety of formats -- PDB, EPUB, RB, PDF, LIT, FUB, KML, LRF, PRC, MOBI, and IMP.
By making the iBooks app compatible with more ebook file formats and then somehow turning the iBookstore into a gateway to other bookstores, Apple could dramatically increase the number of books available to iBooks readers. If Apple is really in the iBook business to make a profit, perhaps they could spend a few billion of their incredible stash to entice big ebook operators like Barnes and Noble, Borders, and ebooks.com to play along with the iBookstore.
One more thing Apple might consider to increase the number of books and gain new readers is to add digital comics to iBooks. Right now, you need to use other apps to get digital comics and manga (Viz, Dark Horse, ComiXology, etc...). There's a great opportunity to bring more readers into the iBooks sphere of influence by adding the comics genre to the store.
Release an inexpensive iBook reader
OK. We know that Steve Jobs once said that Apple would never release a standalone ebook reader, and that's the reason that iBooks has been developed for iOS devices. But my personal observation is that people like the idea of a standalone ebook reader.
On my recent vacation, I saw a lot of the inexpensive (US$114-189) third-generation Kindle ebook readers. That's not a very scientific observation, but there were a lot more of those devices around than iPads, and a lot of people were doing their best to mimic the Kindle ads by reading ebooks next to the pool. I asked several of the Kindle owners if they also had iPads, and sure enough, a majority of them did. When asked why they weren't reading on their iPads, the owners gave me several responses -- "I'm outside, and it's easier to read on the Kindle," "I don't care if I break a $140 Kindle, but I don't want to drop my $600 iPad outside," and "It's lighter than my iPad."
So, Apple, if you really are in the content business and want to fire up the sales of iBooks, why not develop and sell an "insanely great" iBook reader? You've got the design skills to compete, and you can buy state-of-the-art display technology in quantities so large that nobody else can get close in terms of low production costs.
What could be less expensive and more portable than a Kindle? A touchscreen reader that does nothing but run iBooks. It doesn't need to be a shining, wafer-thin piece of aluminum to attract the masses -- a device with built-in Wi-Fi and/or 3G, a hybrid E-ink touchscreen display, and a well-designed featherweight plastic case available in a spectrum of colors would attract a lot of buyers. Make it available in Apple Stores for less than $99, and you've suddenly undercut Amazon's Kindle pricing. Price it at less than $50 and you have a product that could dominate the ebook reader market for years to come.
Streamline publishing to the iBookstore
and make it free
[Section corrected based on Apple's feedback; there is no $99 publishing fee. –Ed.]
I've been doing some research into what it takes to publish in both the Kindle bookstore and the iBookstore. At this point, the two stores are fairly similar. Before you can sell a book in either virtual store, you need to have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) for the ebook and set up a way to receive payments. In both stores, publishers get a 70% cut of the sales of the ebook. However, the process required to actually get the ebook into the store differs.
With Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), the process is pretty straightforward -- write a book in .doc format, save as a filtered HTML file, run that document through MobiPocket Creator to create a .prc file, and then upload that to KDP. Yes, that sounds like quite a few steps, but all of the software to perform these tasks is free and there's no cost to sign up with KDP.
For the iBookstore, things are a bit different.
First, there is an "entry fee" to publish -- $99. After that point, The process is actually much more simple, especially if you use Pages ($19.99). Write your book in Pages, export it as an EPUB file, check the file with the free EpubCheck validation tool, and upload it.
Apple could make it more attractive for independent authors and publishers to submit their content to the iBookstore
by dropping the $99 fee and then adding a few features to Pages. Take the rather simple Export to EPUB feature in Pages, build in EpubCheck, a way to see exactly what the ebook will look like when published, and a way to upload directly from Pages, and you've literally come up with a one-click publishing solution.
Note that if you're not interested in getting your own tax ID and ISBNs for your books, Apple recommends several aggregators; these companies act as ebook service bureaus and get your books on the store for a cut of the revenue.
Of course, all of this is assuming that Apple really wants to be a leader in electronic book publishing. To this point, nothing about the iBookstore has really shown that Apple has the desire to own the ebook market.
I'm sure that TUAW readers have a bunch of ideas on what else Apple could do to take the lead in ebook publishing. Leave your comments below.
Update: The original version of this post cited a $99 fee to set up publishing for books via the iBookstore, which was incorrect;...