Monday, January 22, 2007

Google plots e-books coup

Google plots e-books coup - Sunday Times - Times Online

Every seven years somebody resurrects the idea of eBooks. I was on the Microsoft Reader 1.0 team in 2000. They were some of the best days of my life. We had a saying: Every seven years the eBook comet comes back through earth’s solar system. We thought that we were the generation that was going to make the comet impact on earth, but we only got it to graze the planet. Now it looks like Google is going to take up the current rotation. I wish them a better ride than we had and thought I would share some of the lessons I learned.

Do NOT talk to the Publishers.

As a rule these guys are greedy and clueless. Just look at what the record producers are doing for media players and you get a sense of what these guys can do to eBooks. There are exceptions, but I still wouldn’t get into bed with them. These guys sucked 30 to 60% of the eBooks business development and marketing efforts away and we had very, very little to show for it. What little we did get wasn’t enough in the end. The book industry has been struggling for 30 years. Things are so confused that many authors are not sure who, if anybody, has the rights to publish their books in an electric format. Their book may not even exist any longer in electronic format. Anything easy you ask the publishers to do for you will be almost impossible for them. They can sure talk a good talk though. They had our guys going the whole time. Every time your business development person falls into the trap of thinking that all will be well if we get the publishers in our playground, slap him/her very hard.

Oh, and approaching authors directly was a lot of fun but ultimately just as frustrating.

Figure out a way to do both paper and screen layout.

Adobe Reader is all about paper page layout. If an author says that word “x” is the last word on page 1, then word “x” will always be the last word on page 1. It doesn’t matter if the document is being viewed on a 21 inch flat screen or a cell phone. This is necessary for business documents where you want to be able to say something like “Turn to page 24 of your document” and have it be meaningful.

Microsoft Reader went the opposite direction; we were all about the screen. We invented ClearType and gave it to the operating systems. A LIT file will always format itself as best as it can for the screen it’s being displayed upon. There isn’t even a concept of real paper. If you wanted to print out a passage from a book you need to copy and paste it into a different program. But the readably inside the Reader is to die for. No matter what your screen size, you can almost smell the scent of fine heavily clayed paper.

Both of these programs are correct. As an author sometimes I will want one and sometimes the other. Sometimes a document will only work one way and sometimes the mode I need is situational. I need the reader to do the right thing on every platform and screen size or give me an easy way to control this as an author.

Microsoft = readability and immersion. Adobe = business and collaboration. Put both of these together and the world will beat a path to your doorstep.

It *so* isn’t about DRM.

About 30% of the Microsoft Reader’s product team’s efforts went into DRM and it was a pretty big failure. Yes, some sites still use it, although it has been hacked a few times. Mostly you hear users that have over $100.00 worth of eBooks who can’t read their books any longer clamoring for Congress to do something. So to sum it up, Microsoft Reader DRM really made people angry and it didn’t work.

The thing that is saving the record industry is new artists and people ripping their old CD’s. The new artist angle can work for eBooks but not the CD ripping. So if your efforts to get current content will be mostly fruitless that leaves new content. That’s OK, there is a boom going on in the self publishing industry and it’s only going to get better. Everybody who has kept a blog for any length of time could easily create a book and already has an audience.

To avoid DRM, but to keep it simple, you have two kinds of eBooks; those with advertising and those without. Just like the Google Blogger model, it is up to the author which path they would like to go down. This way if somebody posts the eBook, that’s great! They email it to their friends, great! There is no genie to keep in the bottle because there isn’t a bottle.

I would also add the sub-case where a book can be sponsored, but that could probably wait for the second version. It would be nice if the advertising payback could be enough that best selling authors will still be able to make about the same amount of money or more. It would be nice if the authors could have some say over what ads go into their book. It would be nice if the author could choose to include more or less ads to change their monetary rates. It would be nice to do a bunch of other things, but all of them pale in comparison to the effort it takes to do a small DRM system.

Other Random Notes:

Don’t count Microsoft out. The number of LIT files that are sold each quarter steadily grows. It is sites like this and this and Powells that keep the train chugging along. Yes, the Reader program itself is getting a little long in the tooth, but the new stuff in Word is very cool. But the real core, the people that made up the heart and soul of the Reader team, still work together. They could suit up and be taking prisoners very quickly if Microsoft decides to really go down this road again.

I would try to keep eBooks as just one of my design criteria. For example, I read all the time, but only some of that is done in pBooks or eBooks. It would be nice if my RSS feeds were on my device every morning and I could go through during lunch them in a pretty way. Or perhaps any RSS post that was over 3000 characters would automatically switch to an easier to process format. A lot of people on the Reader team would create photo albums in LIT format because they were so beautiful on every device and also had the killer compression.

Be the king of the study guide. Everybody uses their computers to do research. I want to be able to bookmark content in blogs and web pages, office documents and PDFs, etc. I want to be able to do it by keyword. So if I’m writing an essay on something, I can bookmark anything that looks interesting and it all comes together in a Google eBook for me to study.

Join me and worship at the feet of Bill Hill and OSPREY. Not all the time, but whenever possible.
Empower anybody to create a document for your reader. Try to stay as far away as you can from creating authoring tools. I would look seriously into using Word’s new .DocX XML format as my native format. (It is now an open standard approved by ECMA and free to use.) It would rock if you could read PDF and LIT files.

Ok, this one is really cynical, but by law publishers need to offer handicapped people a reasonable product experience. Publishers may be more inclined to offer their books in your format if your reader is the absolute best for disabled people. I would also make sure the non-profits that might pursue this are well funded.

Give money to the University of Virginia Library. They rocked and Microsoft kind of left them high and dry when the Reader team was reorganized.

NIST used to be really into eBooks and were doing a great job driving reasonable standards but I don’t see anything current on their web site.

Automatically create the infrastructure so that every eBook has its own web community (social) on your servers. Capture the author's contact information and keywords and a summary, and of course an advertisement. Allow the author to customize these sites and sign up for a cut of the advertising revenue. Yes, 98% of these communities will languish, but they are still helpful just in their uniformity. The ones that take off will more than make up for any costs here. (Imagine if you got a penny for every web page ever written…)

Do *not* piss off librarians. They are very nice people and very, very smart. As much as the publisher’s don’t get it, librarians do. Also, nothing will happen in this space without them. Win them to your side early and court them constantly.

Expect some pretty bruised feelings from customers, vendors, ISVs, publishers and authors. We (the Microsoft Reader team) were so sure that this time was the time and it ended up we were wrong, the comet needs to make another pass. I wish Google the best.


Peter said...

Hey, this was really interesting. I hope the googlers read it. I would love to have some ebooks.

Has anyone talked to XM and Sirrius about doing books on the air?

Brandy Galos said...

Wikipedia ( lists a few British and Australian radio stations that you can get over the internet, but none of the books they play are exactly U.S. Best Sellers.

OneWord (, who is on the Wikipedia list no longer allows listeners from the U.S. According to their web site the Record Companies priced them out of the market. No big surprise there.

I couldn’t find anything on Sirius and XM that shows that they do this.

As far as I know there are really just two sources for Audible books.

There is which is basically a book of the month club for $14.95. They don’t work like a radio station. You buy these books just like paper, only you can listen to them on your iPod or Media Player device. They are a good company and other than being expensive, they are very good. (Disclaimer: I’ve worked with the CEO (sharp guy) and actually own something like 10 shares of stock. (Long story))

There are a few variations on this theme. I saw a book player in an airport once that was a little digital player that had ONE book in it and no way you could change that book. This is OK for the airport, where the idea of having somebody read to you for a few hours sounds pretty good. But in real life having to have a device for every book in your house is pretty extreme.

The second real option is buying books on CD and ripping them to your device yourself. This option is probably the cheapest, especially if you can find sales. And this way you don’t have to worry about DRM and you have a hard back up if something happens.