Imagining an iTunes eBook Store

Update: This post was published on 1/27/09 – exactly one year to the day before Apple announced the iBookstore. For an update on what was announced, see The Day Apple Didn’t Change the World.

Confession time. I was wrong about reading ebooks on the iPhone.

When I evaluated various ereading devices a few months back, I came to the conclusion that the iPhone was not suitable for long form reading. Months later, I’ve now read several books on the iPhone and I have to admit that the experience is growing on me. In fact, I frequently find myself looking at my bookshelf and thinking, “I wish I had that book on my iPhone”.

In most cases those wishes are an impossibility because there’s no (legal) way to get the book in question onto my iPhone — or any other reading device, for that matter. In some cases, where digital editions are available, they aren’t available in a format that would work with any of the current iPhone reader applications.

There’s hope that all of this may be changing soon, as publisher interest in the iPhone/iPod Touch seems to be growing by the day. Publishers are rushing to experiment with all manner of ebook releases targeted at the iPhone.

In part, publishers are turning to the Apple platform as a way to neutralize the momentum building behind Amazon’s proprietary Kindle platform. Ironically, not long ago record labels were headed in the opposite direction, offering up their catalogs to Amazon in hopes that Amazon’s MP3 Store might neutralize some of iTunes’s momentum.

The problem for publishers is that Apple isn’t returning the love. Apple has shown no indication that they have any interest at all in getting into the book selling business.

Publishers are still cringing over Steve Jobs’s remark that “people don’t read anymore,” and Apple didn’t even include a Books category in the iPhone App Store at launch. It was only after it became apparent that ebooks were swamping the “normal” applications in the App Store directory that Apple relented and created a standalone Books category.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Apple doesn’t consider books to be the same as other forms of media. If Apple did, you would be able to buy “Breaking Dawn” as easily as you can buy “Chinese Democracy”, and the purchase would be a fully integrated one-click solution that syncs with your main iTunes media library.

As it is, publishers are left to make do within the limitations of the current iPhone SDK. Those limitations seriously hamper the industry’s ability to build a seamless marketplace that might one day rival Amazon’s Kindle.

Meanwhile, iPhone owning ebook lovers are left asking, “why doesn’t Apple sell ebooks in the iTunes store?”

That’s a very good question.

What would have to happen for books to be considered a legitimate form of media in the iTunes store? We can’t know for sure until Apple actually embraces ebooks as “real” media. In the meantime, we can reverse engineer some of the requirements based on Apple’s previous moves.

Requirements for an Apple Marketplace for eBooks

  • A source of books. This almost goes without saying, but before Apple can begin selling ebooks, they’ll need a source of books. Apple can either negotiate with individual publishers to acquire a license to sell ebooks, or they might source the books from a third party like Overdrive. The same Overdrive that recently cut-off hundreds of thousands of titles in a dispute with Fictionwise earlier this month. That’s the sort of business practice that probably won’t inspire a lot of confidence on the part of Apple.It would appear that Apple will need to begin negotiating with at least some publishers to license content for digital distribution. That’s a process that could take quite a bit of time, and would likely be difficult to do under the radar. I’ve yet to hear rumors that any publishers are negotiating directly with Apple, but I’m always looking for tips from reliable sources (that’s a hint, by the way).

    Sourcing ebooks is complicated by the fact that many publishers are still in the early phases of the book digitization process. And that, ultimately, could be a reason why we’re not seeing much progress with ebooks in the iTunes store. Apple may have determined that the publishing industry is just too primitive to have a full seat at the digital media table.

  • An integrated media library. When you buy digital media from iTunes, it lives in iTunes. And when you consume digital media on an Apple device, that media is accessed through the iPod’s media library. I can’t see Apple making an exception for books. Why would they? Complete integration of the media consumption experience from marketplace, to desktop, to portable device, is The Apple Way. The consequences of this integration become apparent in the next requirement.
  • An integrated reading application. There is zero chance that Apple will allow official iTunes ebooks to be read on a third party reading application. If Apple ever does get into the book business it will undoubtedly develop its own reading application that will be integrated with the iPhone/iPod Touch OS. Given the fact that the iPhone app store currently has a ban on applications that replicate core functionality found in the iPhone OS (you can’t buy a third party media player, for example) this raises the question of what might happen to applications like Stanza if Apple ever embraces ebooks.It also raise some serious questions about format support and DRM. I would hope that an Apple ereader would support the standard epub format — that would be comparable to the iPod supporting the mp3 format. But that doesn’t mean that official iTunes ebooks would be sold in a standard format. It seems more likely that Apple would develop something like a FairPlay DRM for ebooks. Paranoid publishers will love it, the same way the recording industry loved Apple’s DRM back in 2003.
  • A larger reading device. Technically this isn’t a requirement for ebooks to make it into the iTunes media store, but it’s hard to imagine Apple launching an eBook campaign without a larger device that will appeal to mainstream readers. Despite my recent conversion, reading books on a phone is still only for the true believes (and Japanese commuters).We’ve been hearing rumors of a larger format iPod Touch for a while now and ebooks could be just the type of content that would make a device like that a must-have item for many consumers.
  • An indication of consumer demand. This may seem like another no-brainers, but there needs to be an indication that consumers are willing to purchase ebooks from iTunes in large numbers (as in LARGE numbers). Currently ebooks are a small fraction of the overall publishing market. While that number is growing, it’s still relatively small — especially when compared to the sales of other forms of digital media.This is one area where the standalone ebook applications currently being sold in the iTunes App Store might be doing some good, in that they allow publishers and Apple to gauge the level of demand for front list titles on the iPhone platform. Of course, given the pricing on some of those App Store books, this may not be the best example of market research.

All of this will take a while to play out, if it ever happens at all. And if Apple does embrace ebooks, then all of the applications that are being rolled out now will be rendered obsolete by the new and improved iTunes eBook Format ™.

That would be bad news for consumers, but not entirely unexpected. Digital media consumers have become something like lab test rats for DRM and proprietary media formats.

It’s worth noting that there are other alternatives, but they would require Apple to make substantial changes to iPhone SDK. I’ll talk about that possibility in more detail in another post as it would have a major impact on all forms of media, not just the publishing industry.

Event Alert: I’ll be discussing the future of publishing at the upcoming O’Reilly Media TOC conference. I’m participating on Kevin Smokler’s Universal Technology Standards in Publishing panel, as well as Mac Slocum’s Topics from the TOC Tag Cloud panel.

TOC is the most forward thinking event in publishing. If you have any interest at all in the future of books, TOC is the place to be. The conference starts on February 9th. Use the Medialoper discount code TOC09bsq to save 15% on your conference registration.

8 Responses to “Imagining an iTunes eBook Store”

  1. Mike Cane says:

    Apple already has tools it can easily extend for people (writer people!) to create eBooks easily: Pages and iWeb.

    Knowing Apple, their brains have probably looked at ePub with disdain (as I’ve been doing, wrestling with creating an ePub version of Jack London’s “The People of the Abyss”) and most likely think they can do better. And with inexpensive *human*-friendly tools.

    Given Apple’s penchant for stomping on eBooks due to images and “naughty” words, we’re probably better off relying on third parties who *understand* books.

  2. Rod Dixon says:

    You should check iTunes today. You’ll notice that Apple released hundreds, if not more, of e-books last night…perhaps in anticipation of today’s announcement.

  3. Thanks for the tip Rod. Note the date on this post. It was one year ago today. A lot has happened since then, but I’m still skeptical we’ll see ebooks in the iTunes Media store proper. I guess we’ll know for sure in a few hours.

    I’ve checked the main iTunes and don’t see ebooks. Are you referring to books in the App Store?

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