Chuck's Q Blog

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Shifting reading habits

New figures last week from Amazon.com suggest that the bookseller’s customers are ready and willing to make the move to digital.

In each of the last three months, Amazon reports that sales of books for its Kindle e-reader have outpaced the sale of hardcover books, and that growth is only accelerating, according to  Mashable.com.

E-book sales topped hardcover briefly last year, but these are sustained numbers over the course of a quarter.

Some of the increase — 163 percent in the month of May and 207 percent year-to-date through May — can be attributed to a price cut for the Kindle. But that’s not the whole story since Amazon makes its e-books available through apps on other devices.

It’s no coincidence that the uptick also coincides with the launch of the iPad, which sold 3 million units in its first three months, two of which are included in Amazon’s numbers.

The shift at Amazon is “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement.

Amazon doesn’t say how many digital books it sold during any of the periods it cites. As of early June, Apple said it had sold 5 million books and had already gained about a quarter of the digital book market.

Writing the new rules

Ask any newspaper editor where his company went wrong online and most will say, “We should have found a way to charge for the content.”

Though I’d argue that paper’s aren’t really “giving away” their online content (there is ad support, albeit not the kind that pays when compared to print ads), the new wave of delivery platforms may offer a chance for some news organizations to hit the reset button.

Each new platform will needs to find an audience. Once that happens, it’s up to content providers to decide how to package their product for that platform and what the traffic will bear in terms of pricing.

E-readers, like the Kindle and Nook, have found an audience (though the size of that group is a question). Both established that their products — mainly books, in this case — would be cheaper to buy in this format, but not free.

With the rules of the platform established, newspapers and magazines followed publishers to the e-reader market with subscription-based products. They already knew the people who owned these devices were willing to pay for content.

A single copy of the Columbus Dispatch will set you back $1 on the newsstand. It’s also a $1 on a Sony e-reader and  75 cents on a Kindle or Nook.

The same stories are free online and it’s iPhone app is free as well. (The rules for iPhone apps aren’t hard and fast, but free seems to be winning that fight.)

But when the paper develops an iPad app, how will it approach pricing? Read the rest of this entry »

Looking for a digital hero

Newspapers need a digital hero.

Last spring, I was at a journalism event and the discussion at the dinner table turned to the newly announced Kindle DX, which was due to begin shipping in a few weeks. People were excited about the DX because it offered a larger screen than the original Kindle, which might make it more suitable for presenting and reading electronic editions of a newspaper.

I was asked my opinion about it and I said that I would wait on buying a Kindle because there was a rumor that Apple was going to launch some kind of giant iPod Touch device, possibly as soon as that summer. If that were true, I said, I’d rather have something with a color screen and more capabilities than just an e-reader.

That June came and went with no announcement. But the rumors persisted and were finally confirmed in January with the announcement of the iPad.

Since its release in April, there have been a lot of side-by-side comparisons of these devices. The Kindle generally scores better when the weight of the units is concerned or the visibility of the screens are compared. But the iPad scores points for just about everything else.

While the Kindle is an excellent e-reader, is that enough to maintain its sales? Can it hold off the charge of the iPad when the low-end Apple device costs only $10 more than the DX, which is similar in size? Can the Kindle be the device the news industry needs now when it’s grayscale screen is stuck in the past and it doesn’t handle video or let users surf the Web when they’re done reading?

We know the iPad sold 2 million units in its first two months, but Amazon has never released sales numbers for the Kindle. That makes me suspect that they aren’t very impressive. After being on sale for nearly three years, it’s believed Kindle sales topped 3 million earlier this year.

On top of that, even Amazon must see the writing on the touchscreen since it has a Kindle app on the iPad and iPhone. (Oddly, one of the screenshots of the iPad app shows a color photo on one of the pages — something you can’t see on a real Kindle yet.)

The iPad option for news organizations isn’t without it’s problems, but as a potentially useful device, it begins to make the road ahead a little clearer. By rethinking and reinvigorating the tablet concept, it might pave the way for a print alternative in a way the Kindle — at least in its present form — can’t hope to achieve.

Face it: News on print is doomed

We’re witnessing the end of days for newspapers.

Most of us don’t want to admit it, but the day when printed newspapers will cease to exist is approaching. It’s not a rumble in the distance anymore, either. It’s bearing down on us like a summer storm.

There will be a tipping point where it no longer makes economic sense to produce printed papers. Newspaper owners eventually will turn to digital delivery models, even if they don’t wan to. This will be the only alternative for most of them.

In the early days of publishing, it only took a few people to write and produce a newspaper. In time, technological advances made it possible for publications to be produced more quickly and in greater numbers. But instead of a few people cranking out dozens of pages by hand, it took a small army to produce and distribute the product.

When computers began to make operations more efficient, newspapers didn’t need as many people anymore. More tasks began to return to the newsroom, which meant fewer and fewer production positions.

Those job reductions aren’t over.

Circumstances eventually will force publications to take the next step. It may be as simple as higher printing costs,  continued declines in circulation or the defections of the last advertisers. Or it could be the rise of a dominant device, like a tablet or e-reader, that sparks a shift in reader habits.

Taking that step will allow newspapers to eliminate printing and distribution of the product, as well as the cost of newsprint, ink and fuel for delivery vehicles. Think of the savings if all those expenses were wiped off the books.

All that would be needed to maintain operations are the people who collect and edit the news and a small technical support staff.

No one is pulling for people to lose their jobs, but the economic facts are tough to deny and this kind of change has been anticipated for a long time.

When the economy tanked over the last two years, lots of publications scrambled to find ways to stay in business. Many were already in trouble after years of declining circulation and lost advertising revenue.

Some papers didn’t make it. Some managed to hang on by cutting budgets and staff. Most were forced to start looking at online options and alternative methods of delivery, like the Kindle or another mobile device. They all hoped the economy would rebound and bring back the good old days.

If they’re honest, most newspaper executives already know that’s not going to happen. The golden age of newspapers is over. People’s tastes and habits are changing. The last generations to really embrace newspapers are fading away and younger readers are attracted to other options, if they’re interested at all.

Newspapers have to realize that their real product is the collection of news; the method of distribution isn’t important anymore. Clinging to the printed page spells doom for the industry; making the jump to digital offers a chance at renewal.

It’s not a question of “if” anymore, it’s a question of “when.”

Saving a few more trees

I had been meaning to buy my textbooks for #512DE this week and finally went on Amazon.com last night to put in my order. (I’d already checked the iTunes bookstore and didn’t see them listed.)

When I found them on Amazon, I noticed that both had Kindle editions. I also noticed the Kindle versions were about $10 less than the dead-tree editions. So, I bought them both.

I don’t own a Kindle. But I do have an iPad.

Early on, well before the iPad, Amazon developed a Kindle reader app or the iPhone. Now there’s a full version for the iPad as well. I downloaded that and figured I’d buy a few things to give it a shot.

I’m impressed enough with the results. But more importantly, I can carry those books — and hundreds more — all at one time in the iPad. And no trees were killed in their printing.

When I bought the iPad, I was hoping I’d be able to find some of my textbooks before I was done with the master’s program. Looks like I’m off to a pretty good start.

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