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The insider view on e-books: Emmanuel Benoit tells all

E-books used to be the “final frontier” – a Star Trekky sort of thing that only a few techno geeks got into. But e-books are no longer futuristic alien technology – they’re a very real part of our present world here on Earth. Everyone reads e-books, from your aging mother to your giggling toddler, your boss to your plumber. They have become truly a part of this industry. People are now reading and publishing e-books all over the world, in many different languages, on many different devices. Even the Frankfurt Academy is an e-book publisher now! We’ve published four e-books on key industry themes: Rights & Licences, Markets & Trends, Innovation & Technology, and New Business Models. We co-operated with the talented people at Jouve, a leading e-book solution company, and realised that Emmanuel Benoit, their President and CEO for North America, has a lot to say on the e-book subject – some of which you won’t have heard before. Enjoy!

Tablets are taking over the eBook market. How does that change production?

We’ve seen a huge growth in the numbers of people using tablets to consume ebook content. Previously the expectation was that dedicated ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle would completely dominate the market, but this has been challenged by the growth of tablets. For instance, sales figures for the iPad (all models) are expected to reach roughly 60 million units by the end of 2012 (Source – PC Mag). Lots of people are using these tablets to access ebook content. Of course, the penetration of tablets and ebooks depends totally on the market and the content. Len Vlahos, director of the Book Industry Study Group, told us at Jouve’s ‘April in Paris’ global media summit earlier this year, that between August 2011 and February 2012 the number of people reading ebooks on Android tablets (including the Kindle fire) grew by fivefold. However it’s not just Apple and Amazon who will decide things. Google are a huge player across content and technology, but it’s only this year that they have really thrown their weight into the ring with the new Nexus 7 Android tablet, and the Google Play store which is selling Google Books. Barnes & Noble are another big player, and in France, Kobo and Fnac (France’s largest entertainment retailer) are also working together.

First and foremost, having really good content is the key to success. Nonetheless, it’s clear that these growing numbers of tablet users are going to change the ways in which books are produced. Tablets are useful devices for multitasking, but unlike traditional e-reading devices, they quickly can draw readers into non-reading activities. There are a few things that publishers are doing to increase the attractiveness of tablet based ebooks, and add value to digital versions of their existing print products.

First, they are building more and more Social features into and around their products. In particular, online communities and additional apps are being used to engage with a book’s audience. As Eileen Gittins, CEO of Blurb also said at April in Paris 2012 “books are becoming conversations, not just speeches”. Her feeling is that “inside every 21st century book should be a book group”, so publishers can really exploit the buzz built around a book for the good of all. Previously we had no way of knowing what the most popular chapters or sentences in a book were, but now with, for instance, Kindle’s ‘most highlighted’ feature, publishers can quite accurately track what it is that readers are enjoying.

Publishers will also be producing more and more enhanced ebook content. Videos, graphs, photos, and games are all being integrated into nonfiction titles. Yet, this is also a phenomenon of so called ‘serious’ fiction too: Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for a novel which includes a whole chapter created in PowerPoint. Writers across the cultural spectrum are challenging standard forms (as they always have), and new digital technologies are helping them to expand these possibilities.

How do new multimedia-products change the workflow at publishing companies? 

Above all, these products are changing the people. In order to drive these new processes and workflows, publishers will be increasingly looking for expertise from outside of the industry. For instance, at HarperCollins the new chief marketing officer Angela Tribelli has a magazine media background while the new chief digital officer Chanal Restivo-Alessi moved over from banking. These products also require new areas of expertise throughout the publishing chain, from creation of multimedia content with which to enrich ebooks, to awareness of the new marketing methods used to sell them.  In terms of production, new technologies are helping to simplify the workflow. The Jouve Fast Track Publishing solution, for instance, outputs multiple delivery formats from a single production chain. Using XML as a building block, publishers can deliver files in whatever formats are needed, optimizing the editorial cycle and reducing turnaround time.

Which differences do you see in products and production in international markets?

The US is moving much faster than most markets, and Jouve is able to provide a full-service package for customers there. This offers publishers help with everything from project management, author relationships, correction cycles, rights and permissions, typesetting and composition to creating enhanced multimedia content. In our experience, Europe is not yet as developed. Full services will be coming in UK and Germany, but the rest of the continent is taking a bit longer to develop. There are obvious linguistic and cultural hurdles to overcome. In France, for example, the government still maintains fixed book prices. This is very good for smaller booksellers (there are still over 3,000 independent book stores in the country), but it has meant that the ebook market has been slower to take off. Different markets and different technologies grow in different ways, at different speeds and in different directions. Digital products are very different in trade and education. There are a lot of important educational investments in digital (especially in higher education) but there is very little EPUB.

What are the biggest technical challenges at the moment in eBook production? 

The current generation of students uses computers, tablets, dedicated e-readers, and smartphones more than any previous student group—and arguably more than the general population. Nonetheless, although they spend a great deal of time using the latest digital devices, 75% of college students surveyed still prefer the traditional printed textbook over a digital counterpart. Future developments including adaptive learning designs based on powerful algorithms will make it possible for learning solutions to analyze and support the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. These products will be delivered via apps or web interfaces which will also offer dynamic content and continuous assessment. At the moment, the European market, especially France, is more traditional, and paper textbooks will continue to be far more popular with students, at least until the added value of digital solutions can be fully shown.

Different formats are not such a large issue in the Trade market. Most new novels and mainstream non-fiction books are being sold for Kindle and the iBookstore. As Len Vlahos says, in the United States, a new Stephen King novel will sell maybe 60% in digital form now. A major challenge is the wide scale integration of enriched learning content into educational materials. Pupils are more than ready, but teachers and school systems are taking time to adapt. The next big technical challenge, when publishers are faced with a range of different formats and devices, is to create products that work seamlessly across a range of different platforms, so that readers can switch seamlessly between paper, web browser, e-reader/tablet, and mobile, all in the blink of an eye.

Essentially, the next step is to allow customers to use the ebook like the paper book. For example when I buy an ebook I want to be able to lend it to family members, or to borrow a book from someone else for a set period. Both user behavior and the products will have to adapt, and this has a strong impact on DRM (Digital Rights Management). The idea of the ‘paperback’ will have to exist in digital form. In any case, these changes will have to develop to meet market needs. The fact is that, despite the heavy media coverage, worldwide, ebooks currently make up less than 10% of most publishers’ total revenues. There’s enormous potential for growth in digital markets around the globe.