Friday, August 28, 2009

Stanza and the Future of Ebooks

As of this writing, Stanza has been downloaded over two million times.

What's Stanza?

Stanza is an electronic reading application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It's free. And unlike the Kindle app, which is also available for iPhones, Stanza isn't dedicated to a single format.

Let's talk about formats for a moment, because they're one of the reasons ebooks haven't gone mainstream yet.

The history of media technology is all about formats. A format is the means in which a piece of media (books, movies, music) can be distributed, and, possibly, purchased.

The first form of media was writing. For a long time, the first format for this media was stone.

If you wanted to share your writing, you wrote it on a cave wall, or chiseled it into an obelisk or pyramid. This format had the advantage of being long-lasting, but lacked in portability, and ownership was unheard of. If you wanted to read something, you went to the writing.

Then came paper, and scrolls. Scrolls made it easier to write, and they were portable. But scrolls were labor-intensive, because each scroll had to be hand-written. This precluded ownership, except in the case of libraries, scholars, rulers, and the very rich.

Scrolls were the preferred format for writing for millennia. Then a guy named Gutenberg came along and invented the printing press, and the preferred format became printed books. These were cheap, reproducible, and have been the de facto format for sharing writing media.

Until now.

Now, writing, and publishing, has gone digital. Offset printing, with its costs, labor-intensive set-up, and distribution and shipping limitations (which requires time and travel) is no longer the best format.

The advent of the computer, and the Internet, has made writing easier than ever, and distribution free and unlimited. One monk could labor for years on one scroll, which might be seen by only a few dozen people. With books, a writer could reach millions, but was still limited by gatekeepers (publishers and agents) and distribution. It involved money, and a lot of people. Now a writer can save their words for eternity using an electronic format, for free, and reach unlimited numbers of readers.

But there's a problem. Which format should writers use?

Let's look back to Edison and the invention of the phonograph. Edison's invention used a tube. A competitor used a disk. For whatever reason, consumers bought more disks than tubes, and the record became the preferred format for music.

Other formats showed up. Reel to reel tape. Eight track tape. Cassettes. Digital tape. And CDs.

Of these formats, DT (digital tape) made the most sense. It allowed the consumer to record music digitally, which allowed for much faster and better recordings than analog. The first CDs didn't allow recording.

But eventually, CD burners came into vogue, and CDs became the preferred format for music. Up until mp3s came along.

Let's look back on the history of photography. Actually, let's skip to the part where no one buys film anymore, and everyone has a digital camera.

When movies first became popular, over a hundred years ago, ownership was unheard of. Films were seen, and only the rich could own them. Less-expensive 8mm films weren't a big hit with consumers. Video tape, when it first arrived, caused big controversy and a few lawsuits between the movie and TV producers and videotape manufacturers.

For those who remember, the very first movie ever released to the general public was Star Trek II, on VHS and Beta, for the own-it price of $59.99. This was revolutionary. If you had a $600 VCR or Betamax, you could actually own a movie.

VHS wound up winning the videotape war, even though Beta tapes were smaller and had a superior picture quality. But VHS was eventually usurped by DVD.

You can now buy new DVD players for $30, and new DVDs for $5.

BluRay has tried to replace DVDs as the preferred format (after winning the war against HD-DVD), but it hasn't happened yet. Downloading may be the culprit. Why go out and spend $40 on a BluRay disc when you can download a high def movie on cable, satellite, or on your computer? You can also download digital movies to your iPhone, iPod, PSP, PS3, XBOX 360, and many other gadgets.

Why have a physical copy, that requires manufacturing, travel, shipping, and distribution, and shelf space, when you can fit 300 movies on your hard drive and get them by pressing a button?

But even with downloading movies, there are different formats to deal with. Avi, m4v, mp4, rm, iso, img, and a dozen more.

Which brings us back to formats.

Formats can only be read using certain media or programs. Just like you couldn't play your Edison tube on your RCA 78 player, or your Beta tape on a VHS machine, you can't play your avi movie on your home DVD player (for those who aren't into the downloading scene, avi is about as universal a format as you can get for movies, and there are well over a million avi movies and shows available for free if you know where to look.)

Looking back on history, the best format didn't always win the media wars. VHS beat Beta (and laserdisks). CD beat DT. BluRay beat HD-DVD.

I have a theory about why.

When a company invents a media format, they want control over it. They license the format to others who want to release media on that technology.

This usually backfires, because someone comes along with a competing format that doesn't require a license (or has a cheaper license). No license means its easier for others to release media. The more media a format has available, the more likely it is to succeed.

In some cases, licenses don't matter. The ability for consumers to copy the media in a specific format (like the case of avi--no one has ever released consumer avi files for purchase) will make it the format of choice.

Which brings us back to writing, and to ebooks.

For all intents and purposes, ebooks are superior to print. If you grew up reading ebooks, would there be any advantage at all to inventing offset printing? No.

Ebooks, whether or not anyone wants to believe it, are the future. Because they're cheaper, easier, faster, more versatile, and can be copied.

So why haven't they taken off in a big way yet?


There are well over two dozen different ebook formats.

For consumers, this is a nightmare. It's not a question of choosing between VHS or Beta, or HD-DVD and BluRay. It's a question of choosing among a dozen different ebook readers, with more coming out every month. And each of these readers has a licensed format specific and exclusive to their device or program.

Remember when you dumped your VHS and had to buy all of your movies again on DVD? Think about buying the same book ten times, as ereaders come and go and none of their formats are compatible.

Right now, Kindle is the leader in ereader sales. Sony is very much in the game. Barnes & Noble is releasing an ereader too.

Let's set aside the functions, bells and whistles of these machines for a moment. Let's also set aside price. These gadgets will continue to become better, and cheaper, like all technology does.

What it will come down to, like it always does, is who has the biggest library of media available. That will be the format that wins.

Which means these companies have a choice. They can either try to license as many books as possible on their devices in order to get the largest library, or they can create readers that read many different formats, and let consumers decide (as in the case of avi and mp3) which format they prefer.

Now along comes Stanza. It isn't a $400 unitasking ereader that is bound to a single format. It's a free application that reads all of the major formats.

I've been playing around with Stanza for the past week, and I'm impressed. It has the biggest library of any ebook reader, both legally (buying ebooks in various formats) and illegally (downloading ebooks on file sharing sites.)

Don't think people are stealing ebooks? In a one hour stretch yesterday, I downloaded 700 books, all by popular and bestselling authors (including all of my own titles) for free. There are hundreds of thousands of free ebooks available on the Internet, many of them illegal.

Stanza can read all of these books, even though they're in different formats. This is revolutionary. It's also a big step closer to having a universal ereader.

"Universal" is the key here. In the past, Joe Consumer waited for the one format that was available everywhere--the one with staying power--before he committed to buying some new camera or video player or personal stereo.

But now, he doesn't have to wait. He can let the companies duke it out, get a Stanza for free, and read whatever he wants to, in whatever format he wants to. And with a bit of know-how, he'll never have to pay for a book again.

Stanza isn't without its flaws. Some formats don't read as smoothly as others. And getting books from your computer onto Stanza isn't as quick, easy, or elegant as it is with the Amazon Kindle.

But give it time.

Maybe it will be Stanza. Maybe it will be another ereader. But soon, you'll be able to get an app that allows you to instantly download any book you want, for free, on your gadget du jour.

Now, if the big boys want to compete with this, here are my suggestions.

1. Lose proprietary formats, and stop linking your devices to only one distribution network. A universal ebook reader will be able to read many formats, and get them easily from many sources.

2. You don't fight piracy with copy protection and licensing. You fight it with cost and convenience. That means NY print publishers need to wake the hell up and stop selling ebooks for full price. For those who don't know, Kindle and Sony lose money on ebook versions of hardcovers. Publishers insist on selling ebooks to them for 40% of the hardcover price. So when Kindle or Sony sell an ebook for $9.99 (which is still waaaaay too high) they are actually LOSING five bucks per book. How do any of the parties involved in this ridiculous model think it can be sustainable?

3. Become your own publisher. Then you control the content, and the price, and you don't have to share profits (or lose profits.) Kindle has allowed for authors to publish on their device (and Sony is doing the same) and since April I've made over eight thousand dollars selling my books there. But allowing authors to publish, and actively soliciting name authors, are two different things. They need to start soliciting.

4. Once you have the universal technology nailed down, share it. It's smart for Amazon to have a Kindle for iPhone. But if it really wants to be the universal reader, it should have Kindle apps freely available for all smart phones, computers, video game systems, cable and satellite TV, and pretty much everything consumers use or can use to read on. Then it should allow that reader to access books not only on Amazon, but on all places ebooks are available.

So how will they make money, if they give away the app for free, and link to sources that have free ebooks?

Stay tuned...

Coming This Monday: I'll share the answer. I'm also going to back up my words with actions, and begin a new, revolutionary ebook experiment that you can participate in. It's going to turn some heads, that's for sure.


Unknown said...

Great post! I agree with you that ebooks are the future. But the current model isn't going to work. If I have to pay $10 for an ebook and invest $400 in a reader when I can pick up a brand new hardcover at B&N for $17, or a bargen HC for $6 or a paperback for a buck, why am I going to invest in a reader that will probably be obsolete in a year or two? The big problem is control. Publishers and authors want control of the work and are afraid of people simply trading the file around and not paying for it. The music industry went through this painful process, but now everyone is out buying songs for $0.99. Why bother stealing a song if you can buy it legally for $0.99. Some will, but some of them have gone to jail, too. But as long as publishers are trying to lock up book formats and sell them for $10, ebooks are not going to be anything other than a novelty. That's not going to last, though. Sooner or later publishers will figure out that they can save a bundle of money by selling books only through ebooks or print-on-demand instead of having to pulp hundreds of thousands of books every year. One thing authors better be prepared for though - the days of the million-dollar advance are going to be coming to an end. Publishers are not going to be able to afford it with the market open to massive competition and people buying books for $3.00. As a reader and reviewer, it's exciting to think of all the books I'll be able to read electronically and the money (and space in my home) I'll save, but we are not quite there...yet. But I think you are right - we are going to get there pretty soon.

Anonymous said...

At least one of the "big boys" won't have to compete with Stanza, as they are in fact Stanza! Lexcycle, the creators of Stanza, were acquired by Amazon back in April:

Adrian said...

Nit picking:

You could actually buy Star Trek I on video disc (not laserdisc, these things actually played like a record) before it was available on videotape.

Your $30 DVD player is most likely an illegal one. Last time I read about it, it cost around $20 per unit to license the patents necessary to build a DVD player. At best, it's a loss-leader.

And let's not forget that media companies have ALWAYS resisted new technologies, formats, and distribution channels for their content. In the end, though, it always opens up and they always make more money.

JA Konrath said...

I had a videodisc player. But VCRs came first, and movies were released on VCRs first. They just cost well over $100 per videotape, and were for the rental market.

Star Trek II was the first budget-priced home video. It was released in 1983 and priced at $39.95.

RCA CEDs were priced at $20, or $30 for double disk sets.

As for cheap DVD players, you can get them all over now. Budget-priced no frills versions are oftne on sale for thirty bucks. Might be a loss lead, but it might also be the license cost went down.

When Star Trek went budget, other movies followed suit. The videodisk was at two disadvantages. First, more people had VCRs than disk players. Second, VCRs recorded television. So videodisks, and later laserdisks, were beaten by VHS until DVD came along.

Peter L. Winkler said...

The DAT (Digital Audio Tape) format failed because the record industry lobbyists got Congres to pass a law requiring DAT machines to have built-in copy protection that would prevent users from hooking up two DAT recorders and using the first as a master and second as a slave to run off multiple copies of the master tape.

I was a laserdisc early adopter and regretted it. Around 1980, the only laserdisc players were made by Pioneer after Magnavox bailed. My Pioneer LD-1100 cost $800, was huge, noisy and never played discs reliably. The early catalog of discs was small, the discs and video transfers were highly variable in quality and there was the infamous "disc rot" problem. These problems were gradually solved.

The real reason videodiscs failed was that practically no video stores except for a few specialty dealers in big cities, like Dave's Video in Studio City, rented discs.

That limited the appeal of the format to obsessive film buffs and videophiles.

Debbi said...

I just want to say thank you, Joe. Because of your posts about e-books, I made my (formerly) out-of-print first novel, IDENTITY CRISIS, available for download in June. Just got my first royalties payment from Amazon today. Small change compared to you, because I'm such a small name (at this point, anyway--hope springs eternal :)).

Even so, it's small change I wouldn't have if I hadn't read your posts and e-published my book back to life. So thanks again!

I continue to read your posts on this subject with great interest.

Stacey Cochran said...

On the tech front, I streamed my first video interview LIVE tonight over the internet with a panel of three authors from different parts of the country.

I'm using - which is kind'a like YouTube, except you can stream LIVE content, rather than saved files.

To really make this shit hum, I had my panelists on Blog Talk Radio simultaneously (also LIVE) and so callers were able to call in. We had callers from Texas, California, Maine, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

This was our first LIVE video webcast interview, and we had 52 viewers. Not a terrible first show.

I would love to have you and Blake on at some point to talk about e-readers and Amazon Kindle (our audience is largely Kindle enthusiasts)... we're doing the show LIVE on Friday nights at 11PM EST, and all you have to do, Joe, is be able to use a telephone.

Let me know the best way to reach you, Joe. Let's get you and Blake on together sometime in the next month or so. It'd be fun!

Adam Ehad said...

I haven't managed to get my hands on an ereader yet, but a big factor with me - and I'm surprised no one has mentioned it yet - will be readability...i.e. the extent to which the screen mimics plain paper and ink. That was meant to be the amazon kindnle's big selling point. I would be interested to hear more on this...

April L. Hamilton said...

Great post, and I agree ebooks are the future.

Thought you might like to know, though, Stanza isn't the first app of its type in terms of multi-format readers that work on multiple devices. I've used mewbook for many, many years on Palm PDAs, a Sony Clie PDA, a number of pocket PCs and a small, tablet computer that I've dedicated for use as an ebook reader.

Mewbook is free, it reads multiple formats and allows the reader to change the font face, size, color, and the "paper" color too (reading ebooks in color is one benefit of using a computer as your ebook reader). It even has search and bookmarking capabilities, and allows the user to change the page orientation (portrait to landscape and vice-versa). In fact, it's because I'm so happy with my current ebook reader that I haven't felt at all interested in the Kindle or Sony Reader. Either one would be a step (or two) backward for me at this point.

Now here's what I want to know: given that I have a full-color, lightweight, touchscreen-based, full-featured ebook reader already, why can't any e-reader manufacturer replicate this on a mass scale? What's so hard about tweaking a netbook or small tablet like mine to make it run as a dedicated ebook reader with an application like mewbook on it? I get that Amazon and Sony want to be the primary (or only) ebook vendor for their reader owners, but what's stopping Dell or Apple from cranking this one out?

Anonymous said...

Alright Joe, I'm sold. And yours will be the first ebook I read. I'll have to read on my laptop but that's okay until the iPad comes out next year. So I'll download Stanza - and which of your crime books should I start with and what is the best way to do download it? I live in Australia so I can't buy for the kindle. Cheers, Aussie

Stacey Cochran said...

Quick update. I did two bookstore events this weekend, drew about 50 folks at each event...

The cool thing, though, is that I brought my laptop and streamed both of these events LIVE over the internet while I was doing it.

Last night's event had a little over 50 viewers. Today's had 47. One of the viewers was on the other side of the country, and sent me an email afterward. Total stranger. And bought my book online.

The reason why I mention this here is that if you wanted to stream your bookstore and library events... it would be very easy to do. So that instead of reaching the 30-100 folks in the physical location of the event, you could reach an audience of several thousand viewers who can watch Live from home.

ustream is connected to twitter and facebook, so that you can tweet an event and link your facebook status to the fact that you're doing an event...

and then folks can watch.

If you've 5,000 twitter followers (or 20,000 myspace friends), a huge chunk of them would watch your event if it was Live.

I know everybody on this blog would. I would.

All you need is a laptop and wireless connection.

Stacey Cochran
Bestselling author of The Colorado Sequence

Douglas Glenn Clark said...

I like your marketing idea. I'd give it a try if I felt my book was right for your audience (or the other way around.) Your ideas are challenging and well worth considering.

A.J. Hartley said...

You're right. I know you're right, and I want to be happy about it. But as an author it scares the hell out of me. There's soemthing wonderfully democratic about anyone being able to produce and sell an e-book, but if the market is flooded with material which wouldn't otherwise have been published, how do the professionals avoid getting lost in the deluge? If authors can't make a living from their work, what happens to the quality of the books which are available? Or am I being paranoid and neurotic?

ipod touch bluetooth said...

Great post! I agree with you that ebooks are the future.

Stanza is great if you only want to read text from free books. But it will not allow any artwork and cannot read purchased eBooks. Most reviewers either omit these facts or simply overlook them.

Those are severe limitations if you want to read something besides Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Art of War or Robinson Crusoe. eReader is also free on the App site and has a much wider capability for accepting e-material. This includes artwork and paid eBooks.

Apple Ipod perfect Christmas gift

alphasun said...

An informative post Joe, but having long experience of online music publishing I echo AL Hartley. The door to actual release of a book is wide open but the downside is not only the danger of drowning in a sea of dross, not to mention good stuff, but having to take on a considerable burden of promotion.
Still, these factors may be ofset to some extent by the sheer size of the audience and the searchability of online content -- no need to trudge the streets to find a book.

dafaolta said...

Stanza is one of my fave ereaders (I currently have 6 on my iPod Touch) and I've had no trouble getting my Webscription books from Baen to load wherever the wi-fi works. I too started reading ebooks on my PalmIII, before any Palms had color screens or rechargeable batteries.

I agree that format has everything to do with getting ebooks into readers' hands. I was pleased, when I first found them, Baen had begun offering books in multiple formats so they could be read on anything you might have, or even printed out on your own printer. Heretical thought now, but they didn't care and they didn't use DRM, still don't.