Is Calibre creating the foundation for a world free of Book Gatekeepers?

The eBook revolution, happening all around us thanks to the rise of eReaders and eBooks and Tablets, faces a few dangers –

  1. It might get stopped in its tracks because most readers and most authors are not willing to let go of their past attitudes towards books. An attitude of serfdom and ‘I have no control’ that they seem to not realize they can let go of without negative consequences.
  2. Publishers are still trying hard to use all sorts of tactics to stall ebooks and/or position ebooks as ‘just as valuable’ as physical hardcovers.
  3. There are new Gatekeepers trying to create an environment in which people and authors go back to where they were – We don’t control anything. Eternal gratitude for publishing us. Eternal gratitude for getting us books.
  4. Legislation that would lock in a monopoly for the Old Gatekeepers or for the New Gatekeepers. Lots of monopolies are created due to Government passed laws and we might see that happen (perhaps even happening) due to ‘well intentioned’ (or well lobbied) regulations passed in ebooks.
  5. The eBook revolution not getting platforms that combine all the benefits of the new world of ebooks. This would lead to readers going back to the known devil of Publishers and New Gatekeepers rather than contend with the new devil of randomness and an ever-expanding slushpile.

There are some more dangers. However, these are the ones that we’ll discuss in this post.

First, let’s look at how readers and authors could nullify all these dangers. Then let’s look at the role Calibre could play.

How do we readers and authors nullify the Dangers that threaten to derail the Revolution in eBooks?

Well, here are some ways –

  1. Gaining Knowledge and Embracing Reality. The single biggest danger is that readers and authors aren’t really willing to accept that they control EVERYTHING now. Perhaps it is so many decades of being dictated to. Perhaps it’s the reluctance to change. Perhaps it’s fear of the unknown. Perhaps it’s just laziness.
  2. Take a realistic view of ‘The Value of Books’. It’s easy to fall into the trap Publishers set for us and believe eBooks are worth the same as Hardcovers. It’s easier to fall into the trap our own greed and/or lack of balance lead us into and think ‘We should get everything for free. The eBook Fairy will pay on our behalf.’. Neither makes sense in the long-term. I’m not sure what the answer is here but we have to figure it out.
  3. Avoid letting the new Gatekeepers control everything. It’s easy to go back to being sheep led by a shepherd we hope won’t switch from leading us to fleecing us or turning us into sheep kebabs. In the long-term we need to create something where the Gatekeepers are controlled by readers and authors and not vica versa.
  4. Be very wary of Government intervention. Sometimes it is lobbying. Sometimes it is genuine incompetence. Government ‘help’ often creates monopolies that are worse than an actual free market would be.
  5. Platforms. This is the single biggest thing. We need platforms that let readers and authors connect without meddling middlemen. Platforms that won’t encourage the association of cheap books with lack of quality. Platforms that won’t drown out the authors that are bypassing old and new gatekeepers and coming straight to readers.

My contention would be that Platforms are the single most important defence against a regression to a Books World controlled by Gatekeepers.

Why Platforms are the ONLY solution

There are a few particularly important reasons we need huge ebook platforms that are not controlled by Publishers or New Gatekeepers –

  1. Platforms overcome natural human laziness. Readers aren’t willing to go to individual author websites to buy. Authors aren’t willing to handle setting up their own shops. Most people want ‘easy’ and are willing to pay for easy. This leads to Gatekeepers getting a lot of power by providing ‘easy’. Platforms can provide ‘easy’ and take back control from Gatekeepers.
  2. Platforms allow authors and readers to communicate without external influences and without controls and checks.
  3. Platforms can grow big enough to rival and surpass ebook stores and bookstores. This means they can influence trends and behavior on a huge scale.
  4. Platforms allow crowd intelligence on a grand scale. If the Platforms allow people to share intelligence about quality, value for money, formatting, nature of writing, genres and sub-genres, then the platform can replace the current information sources. This is a great thing because most ‘current information sources’ are either controlled by Old and New Gatekeepers OR are hopelessly trapped in the old mindsets.
  5. Platforms can break pricing monopolies and subliminal and psychological influence tactics. Walk into a store and you see a stack of Book X. You automatically assume it must be selling well. Go online and see a book listed as ‘Deal of the Day’ and you automatically assume it’s a great deal. There’s a lot of very powerful marketing and psychology stuff being utilized to ‘create’ bestsellers and trends. A truly free platform would destroy a LOT of that.
  6. Platforms are self-sustaining. Network effects, the social touch, crowd intelligence, ease of use, etc. lead to platforms growing bigger and bigger and bigger.
  7. Platforms cannot be stopped. A small retailer can be stopped. A few authors banding together can be stopped. Indie authors can be slowed down. Readers wanting a better deal or more rights can be scared with copyright laws and such. However, when you achieve scale then you become unstoppable. A publisher or a new Gatekeeper would go after a small group. If it’s 10 million people then there’s too much risk.

Basically, what the eBook Revolution needs is a TRUE Platform and one that is focused on What’s Best for Books and Readers and Authors. Not on ‘How to Monetize Readers and Authors and Use them Efficiently and make them Powerless again’.

Calibre – The Makings of a Platform

What is Calibre?

Well, Calibre is a ‘complete’ ebook management solution. It provides –

  1. eBook Library Management.
  2. eBook Conversion.
  3. Syncing to eReaders and Tablets.
  4. Downloading News and converting to eBook Form.
  5. eBook Viewer.
  6. Content Server for Online Access to your eBook Library.

Notice that this is just the foundation parts. There isn’t any real network or social pipeline here yet.

However, there are 12 million+ unique PCs with Calibre. That means 5 to 10 million readers are using Calibre. More importantly, Calibre is already doing a lot of the things we need done to sustain the eBook Revolution – spread the reality that readers own the future, more control for readers, more ease of use for readers.

Calibre as the lynchpin of a New Foundation for eBooks

If Calibre and GoodReads and Smashwords and a few other large book related services and sites were to group together. Or if Calibre by itself decided to take the route of becoming an eBook Platform.

We would get something very interesting –

  1. A Platform that wasn’t focused on creating a Gated/Closed Ecosystem and becoming a Gatekeeper.
  2. A Focus on What’s Best for Readers and Authors.
  3. Huge Scale. We’re talking millions to begin with and as improvements happen and network effects take hold, we would easily reach 20 to 40 million users in a year or two.

Calibre could say – Let’s connect all these people together. Let’s have them share information on quality, formatting, book covers, book series, etc. Let’s have them help each other regarding what to buy. Let’s have indie authors approach readers directly.

Why not create a pure Authors+Readers marketplace?

Instead of exploiting authors and readers like Old Gatekeepers, let’s empower them.

All the ingredients are in place. Plus Calibre already has a lot of the readers who UNDERSTAND that they control EVERYTHING now. Who are being freed from their decades of training of kowtowing to Gatekeepers.

If not Calibre, then something inspired by the same ideals that inspire Calibre

If you think about it, it’s rather amazing that there are 5 to 10 million readers using Calibre.

It shows that people don’t want Gatekeepers to control their reading lives. It’s just one of the signs among many –

  1. The rise of indie authors.
  2. The rise of $1 books (until they were unceremoniously weighted/handicapped out of the top spots).
  3. The rise of readers with AWARENESS of the power they wield.
  4. The rise of new platforms that aren’t focused on money and barrier/gate creation as their main motivations.
  5. The expansion of who reads and who can afford books.

There are lots and lots of signs that people (both readers and authors) want a better deal. What’s missing is something that can connect everyone together. A True Platform focused on readers and authors. Perhaps even a handful of True Platforms focused on making things better for readers and authors.

We are at a crossroads. We have Old Gatekeepers to the left. We have New Gatekeepers to the right. The Road in front of us, which all of us want to take, is marked ‘The True Path Forward for Readers and Authors’ – But, the road itself is missing. There’s nothing there. Authors and Readers that UNDERSTAND that readers and authors have ALL THE POWER want to walk along this road. But who’s going to build the Road for them?

Amazon wants casual + hardcore readers on Kindle platform

Consider what Amazon are building out –

  1. Kindle and Kindle DX for hardcore readers.
  2. Kindle Apps on various platforms for casual readers. These apps also help hardcore readers – However, they are primarily aimed at casual readers.
  3. Kindle Editions with video and audio for ultra-casual readers. Amazon want to get even the ‘Read 1 Book a Year and wish they had Videos in them’ readers.

The Kindle Platform has gone from a device and platform focused almost exclusively on hardcore readers to one that’s trying to get both casual and hardcore readers and also making plans to round-up ultra-casual readers.

Is this even possible?

Could Amazon pull off the unthinkable and get both casual and hardcore readers on the same platform?

So far it seems they might be able to.

Amazon have an interesting concept of 2-pizza teams where each internal team at Amazon is quite small – at most 8 or so people. It’s quite likely this is what’s going on with the Kindle Team at Lab 126 –

  1. A 2-Pizza Team for Kindle software.
  2. Another team for Kindle Apps. There might even be a separate Satan’s Little Helper team devoted to Apps for Apple products.
  3. Teams for Kindle and Kindle DX product lines.
  4. A procurement team that’s signing Kindle book deals in the US.
  5. Another procurement team that handles International Contracts.
  6. The Kindle Encore Team.
  7. A team in charge of attracting all the people who want video and audio in books.  
  8. A team that is in charge of the Kindle Store.
  9. The Kindle Cloud Team that takes care of the Cloud infrastructure.
  10. The Kindle Services Team that keeps adding features like Popular Highlights.
  11. A special Kindle team devoted to coming up with the most confusing names (Kindle Previewer for HTML 5 and CSS 3, Kindle X 3G version, Free Y, Lots of Z, Generation B).

This makes even more sense when you consider that in the last few weeks we’ve had the Kindle 2.5 upgrade with some vastly differing features, release of the Kindle DX, Kindle for Android, Kindle Previewer and Kindle Web Widgets, and the introduction of Kindle Books with Video and Audio.

There’s no way to do all these releases in parallel unless you have entirely separate teams. When Jeff Bezos says Kindle Books and Kindle Hardware are entirely separate businesses he might be actually downplaying just how independent the teams within Lab 126 are.

Branch Off and Conquer

It’s probably due to this strategy of branching-off and creating small teams devoted to very precise goals that Amazon is able to release features aimed at ultra-casual readers (Kindle Editions with Video and Audio) in parallel with features aimed at Casual readers (Kindle for Android, Twitter+Facebook for Kindle) and features aimed at hardcore readers (Kindle Folders and Sharper Fonts).

The common thread is that they’re all connected to the Kindle platform and all of them channel users to the Kindle store.

This branch-off and conquer strategy brings up an important question – Why are Amazon trying to get both casual and hardcore readers?

Are Books 80-20 or Long Tail?

There are only two possibilities for why Amazon are trying to get hardcore, casual, and ultra-casual readers –

  1. The 80-20 Principle applies, Amazon have most of the 20% readers that account for 80% of profits, and they still want to wrap up the other 80% of people who account for the remaining 20% of profits.
  2. Books follow the Long Tail and 50% or more of sales come from people gifting books or buying books once a year.

Amazon has been behaving as if it’s the latter. Again there are two possibilities why Amazon is behaving in this manner –

  1. The different teams with different priorities are distracting Amazon and it is losing its focus on the top 20% of readers. 
  2. Amazon has found (or believes) that the long tail is where the future of books is.

It’s probably the latter. We have lots of Kindle Apps being added and things like Books with Video and Audio. These are features for casual and ultra-casual readers.

Meanwhile the only hardware change for the Kindle DX 2 is a better screen (albeit at a cheaper price). If it weren’t for the Kindle 2.5 upgrade you’d have to wonder whether Amazon feel they have rounded up all the hardcore readers already.

What percentage of Kindle ebook sales are through Kindle Apps?

We can roughly partition out Kindle into 4 pieces –

  1. Kindle Store that applies to all channels.
  2. Kindle Platform that also applies to all channels. This includes WhisperNet and the Cloud Archive. 
  3. Kindle and Kindle DX.
  4. Kindle Apps.

Looking at Amazon’s behavior it seems that Kindle Apps have become a sizeable percentage of ebook sales and might be growing faster than ebook sales through Kindles.

There’s actually some logic to this – Buying a Kindle (even a $189 Kindle 2) takes a lot of committment and it’s safe to say only the top 20% of readers are open to this. Take out the ones who love paper books or have chosen a Nook or Sony Reader and you’re left with perhaps half.

At the same time the next 20% of readers – the casual readers who read a book every month or two – probably prefer using a Kindle App that costs them nothing. The remaining 60% ultra-casual readers definitely prefer using a Kindle App whenever they mistakenly end up reading a book.

Coming back to our top 20% readers – Only half (10%) are open to buying a Kindle (or already have one). Even if the top 20% account for 80% of book sales Amazon only has access to 40% of ebook sales through them. Worse, if the top 20% only account for 40% of book sales then Amazon only has access to 20% of ebook sales.

Amazon is thus left with no access to the remaining 60 to 80% of ebook sales. This is where Kindle Apps come in.  

Kindle Apps are the zero-committment, zero-cost option

Amazon can now reach non-Kindle owners and offer them the option to access the Kindle Store without committing (well, it doesn’t feel like it though the Kindle format guarantees committment) and without spending anything specifically on an eReader.

Even better – most app stores and platforms allow for very cheap customer acquisition. Users can find out about Kindle Apps from and from iPhone App Ads and other really cheap channels. The customer acquisition cost is probably recovered in the first 1 or 2 ebook purchases.

So it makes a ton of sense for Amazon to pursue this.

Normally, this would just mean that Amazon is trying to gather up as many users as possible and expand beyond the Top 20%. However, the way Amazon is doing it (expanding on to almost every platform, adding Kindle books that have audio and video, adding Kindle online including online previews) suggests very strongly that book and ebook purchases constitute a long tail distribution.

The Kindle Platform is growing in a way that makes you feel Kindle Apps will end up accounting for 60% or more of ebook purchases and the Kindle and Kindle DX will make up the rest. The subtle shift started right after Kindle for PC was launched. At that time it was mostly a competitive reaction to Nook – However, something happened, perhaps on Christmas day, that made Amazon re-think its strategy. Perhaps the iPad added to that, perhaps it didn’t. What we’re left with is a Kindle world where casual and ultra-casual readers are suddenly being treated just as well as the hardcore readers.

This creates a pretty huge opportunity for any company willing to sacrifice all the casual readers and commit 100% to hardcore readers. There’s perhaps a warning for Amazon in there too – In the pursuit of the casuals and ultra-casuals you might lose the people who made the Kindle and the Kindle Store viable.

Amazon ramps up Kindle for PC adoption with an Asus deal

Amazon seems to have really taken the platform approach to heart. The latest move towards making the Kindle platform dominate every possible reading channel is Amazon’s partnership with Asus – starting today select Asus laptops and netbooks will come preloaded with Kindle for PC.

Gizmodo report on the Asus-Amazon Kindle tie-up and even like it –

Frankly, we’re not the biggest fans of pre-installed software cluttering up fresh screens, but this sort of partnership surely makes sense with certain devices — in particular, convertible tablets that you’d use to read.

You know what would also make sense? ASUS preloading some sort of Amazon application on its Eee Pad.

Asus sells millions of netbooks and millions of laptops and if the partnership goes well we might see Kindle for PC pre-installed on all of them.

What does Asus get out of this?

Companies usually pay good money to get pre-installed on machines. Some examples include –

  1. Anti-virus companies paying $40 to $50 per Anti-Virus subscription purchased (after the free trial).
  2. Toolbar companies paying $1 or more per toolbar install.  
  3. Companies paying extra to get featured – For example via a page during the Install Process or via an icon on the Desktop.

Amazon are probably paying one of –

  1. 25 cents to $1 per laptop on which Kindle for PC goes out.
  2. $5 to $10 per Kindle for PC install on which user buys a book. 

In addition to this nice bonus from Amazon Asus need to have Kindle for PC on their soon-to-be launched Eee Pad tablet. There are a non-trivial number of people buying the iPad for its reading abilities and most of that stems from Kindle for iPad. If the Eee Pad comes with Kindle for PC in-built, and perhaps even some bonuses, Asus balance out that iPad advantage.

Asus and Amazon’s take on the deal

The Press Release (at the Gizmodo link) has the usual Mutual Admiration Society membership pledge –


Kindle is something our customers have been asking for and by p copre-installing Kindle for PC on select long battery life products, we believe we are providing our customers an even richer PC experience.

Actually, Amazon don’t really praise Asus in the Press Release which is rather surprising. You’d think they’d mention that Asus started the whole netbook threat and scared the living daylights out of every laptop manufacturer in the world. The reason why every laptop company is now selling $1000 laptops in the $500 to $700 range.

The Asus models that will include Kindle for PC are –

  1. Asus Seashell Netbook 1005PE-U27 in Black, White, and 2 other colors. This retails for $372 and promises up to 14 hours of battery life.
  2. Asus ultra thin and light notebooks – Asus UL-30A-X5K and Asus UL30VT-X1K. The first retails for $649 and has up to 12 hours of battery life and a 13.3″ HD display. The second is $749 and includes a NVidia G210M graphics card with 512 MB graphics memory.

Asus and Amazon say that there will be more laptops and netbooks added to the list.

What impact could this have on Amazon?

There’s actually a huge difference in the use of software that is pre-installed and software that has to be downloaded separately. Anti-Virus companies are not stupid to be paying manufacturers like HP $50 per activation.

The power of the default dictates that people usually choose the default option. If Kindle for PC is the default ebook reading software on Asus computers then Asus laptop/netbook owners who want to read an ebook get to choose between two options –

  1. Spend 10 minutes to find a good reading software, another 5 minutes to install it, and if everything goes according to plan they have an eReader software on their PC. It’s a lot of time and uncertainty and making decisions and quite a bit of effort.
  2. Start off Kindle for PC and start reading in 15 seconds.

It doesn’t matter how much prettier another ebook reading software is or how well animated the page turns are – 15 seconds is going to beat 15 minutes every single time.

What moves might the Amazon-Asus deal trigger?

Well, actually this is a reactive move and not exactly a proactive one.

  1. Sony and Google have been in bed so long they’re beginning to find each other’s lovable quirks annoying. Google supplies Sony with free books. Sony promises laptops with Google Chrome. Google Editions is definitely going to be on Sony laptops.
  2. HP and Barnes & Noble signed up a deal where B&N now have a store on the HP site and it wouldn’t be a surprise if HP computers soon came pre-installed with B&N eReader software.
  3. Apple obviously has its various offerings which it can use to promote iBooks. iPhone actually gets iBooks very soon – in iPhone OS 4.0. Mac may get it soon after that.

What this move will do is get all these partnerships and Apple to move faster on their plans.

Is PC reading of ebooks finally becoming important?

It certainly seems so. There are a few very good reasons for ebook companies to take note of the PC –

  1. eReader software for the PC is the gateway drug to the eReader+eBook eco-system. Whether a user buys their first ebook to read on Kindle for PC or on B&N eReader is likely to determine whether that user buys a Kindle or Nook.
  2. Every ebook sale is an ebook sale.
  3. Apple’s arrival means soon Macs will come with iBooks preloaded making it imperative for Kindle and Nook to make inroads into PCs and offset that Apple advantage.
  4. Google’s arrival in ebooks will mean Google diverts as much book related traffic as they can to Google Editions.
  5. It’s possible that Kindle for PC is seeing lots of usage and Amazon wants to build on that.

Basically, the first eReading software that captures a reader has the best chance of locking that reader into its ecosystem and capturing all of that reader’s book purchases for the rest of her/his life.

It might seem like dramatization – However, the power of the default and early mover advantage are hard to overcome. Take even the biggest companies – Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple. The areas they’ve struck an early lead in and dominated are mostly out of reach for everyone else (including other behemoths).  

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the War is on and that it’s for the entire future of Publishing and Books.