Publishers move to split ebooks into pieces

Ever wondered what happened to the promise of the ebook?

In the ‘90s, when the Internet took hold in a big way, publishers half-heartedly looked to ebooks — electronic versions books as a way to boost sales.

The efforts generally failed, due to poor reading devices, customer reluctance to pay full retail prices for digital versions, and overly cumbersome DRM and competing document standards that restricted ebook portability from one reading device to another.

Even today, while annual ebook revenues are growing, at $54 million they account for only a miniscule two-tenths of one percent of overall publisher revenues according to estimates from the American Association of Publishers.

Some of the barriers to ebook adoption are slowly falling by the wayside, but improvements are still necessary for ebooks to go primetime. theiliad.pngNew ebook reading devices such as the Sony Reader or the ILiad (at left) from iRex Technologies are beginning to visually approximate the paper based reading experience, though they still fail to match the readability of paper.

Onerous copyright issues continues to hamper ebook growth. While there are signs that the music industry is beginning to relax their stance on strict digital rights management (DRM), the publishing industry has been slower.

Such questions were at the heart of the three-day O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in San Jose earlier this week — where 450 book publishing industry executives and technologists showed up.

The first news out of the conference came from O’Reilly Media itself, which announced it allows customers of over 700 titles of their computer reference books to buy individual chapters online for $3.99 each — reflecting a new strategy of atomization that is taking hold in the industry. O’Reilly is one of the first major publishers to offer book content free of DRM.

Whether or not digital books become the savior or the bane of the traditional publishing industry, one thing is for certain: The traditional book publishing industry has suffered from moribund sales over the last few years as it was forced to compete for consumers’ shortening attention spans amid a proliferation of new, alternative information and entertainment sources such as 500+ cable channels, user-generated Internet content (photos, videos, blogs) and video games.

The American Association of Publishers says the $24 billion book publishing industry said sales dropped last year.

As the overall market for computer books has stagnated, O’Reilly has seen sales of its own computer titles moderate as well. The changing market conditions prompted O’Reilly to begin experimenting with digital publishing in 2001.

Mark Coker is a contributing writer for VentureBeat. He’s founder of Dovetail Public Relations, a Silicon Valley technology marketing firm. He has no clients among the companies mentioned in the story, nor among their competitors. More on Mark at http://www.linkedin.com/in/markcoker