Selling E-books Direct to Readers: Options and Considerations

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October 2012
by David Wogahn

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As the rules of publishing continue to be rewritten, selling digital products directly to consumers can offer a chance to improve margins, generate additional revenue through upselling, and learn more about your customers. And depending on the type of e-books you sell, it may give you more control over pricing. I often see publishers recoil from the prospect of pricing a $40 reference or professional book at $9.99 just to qualify for a 65 or 70 percent royalty.

While you think about your sales and distribution strategies, remember that adhering to tradition or past practice is not a viable alternative today, and focus on these facts:

●  Sales through physical retail outlets continue to contract, not just sales in bookstores but also sales to specialty outlets such as Home Depot.

●  Online retail stores continue to attract shoppers. The upward trend in e-book adoption is only intensifying the trend toward buying online, with many readers now thinking digital-first when shopping for reading material.

●  Portable e-reading devices, once a missing link for mass e-book adoption, are now ubiquitous, given the fact that even a 3.5″-screen smartphone is a serviceable e-reader.

What does all this mean for small and midsized publishers? Can you—and should you—make your site a sales channel for e-books instead of funneling all your e-book sales through online retailers?

As some of you know from experience, the short answer to “Can you?” is “Yes,” and the options are expanding. The answer to “Should you?” is relatively complicated and requires understanding larger considerations that involve online retailing, digital rights management (DRM), and customer service.

Integration Issues

If you already sell your print books direct, you are part of the way there. You are likely have a merchant account for accepting payments online, a privacy policy, and other relevant policies and procedures. You also have some level of customer service.

But matters can get sticky when it comes to integrating digital media selling with physical selling and delivery. What is the user experience if someone wants to buy both the digital and physical product? Is that a single checkout process or two? Where does a customer go to download the e-book after paying for it? What if the download fails and has to be restarted? Which e-book formats do you offer, and how many times can a customer download them?

A look at the integration of J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore store with Barnes & Noble and Amazon illustrates the complexities to be confronted. Buyers are forced to go back and forth between those store sites to make and manage purchases. Contrast Pottermore with the O’Reilly Media bookstore, where buyers experience fully integrated print and e-book shopping and account management.

DRM Decisions

The O’Reilly store is also worth examining for other reasons, most notably that it does not sell DRM-protected e-books.

Without adding to the debate about the merits of DRM (see “DRM Decisions,” January 2012), I can point out that it is much easier and less costly to sell e-books DRM-free through your Web site. Without DRM, customers can download books in any of the popular e-reader file formats—PDF, EPUB, and Mobi—and use them on any device that can read the format they chose.

Publishers who insist on DRM protection have three ways to encrypt their books, two of which are locked to specific vendors: Amazon and Apple. The third option involves the use of Adobe Digital Editions, which is the protection scheme used by Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, and many others.

You can license and configure Adobe Content Server to sell direct with DRM. Or you can choose an option that is often more realistic, especially if you’re new to e-book e-tailing, and work with a vendor that licenses Adobe Content Server and builds custom stores for publishers.

For details, see Adobe Digital Publishing Solutions for e-Books (adobe.com/digitalpublishing/ebook).

Using the Adobe eBook platform, publishers pay a DRM licensing fee either directly to Adobe or as part of their business arrangement with a third-party reseller. In addition to covering this cost, you may need to invest in providing additional customer service support, depending on the technical skills of the people in your market.

Help Wanted

Customer service is the final element you need to plan for, because demand for it may increase. Selling direct to consumers is a different business than selling to businesses, and e-book retailing has its own set of challenges. Among other things, they involve reliable file delivery, compatibility with devices, and DRM (if implemented).

Many of these challenges can be handled by providing detailed Help pages and video tutorials, but creating those resources demands time and attention, and some customers may require personalized support.

One specific challenge worth noting arises when a consumer gets an e-book from a store that is not integrated with their device: getting the file on the device. Often called “side-loading,” this is a step many consumers won’t be familiar with unless they borrow e-books from libraries or have other relevant prior experience. It is one reason that the online bookstores for device makers (Amazon, Apple, B&N, and the rest) are so popular.

In time, I expect readers will become more accustomed to manually transferring e-book files to and from devices. For an example of how Overdrive educates library patrons about side-loading, see help.overdrive.com/?Sup=http://e-media.lapl.org/Support.htm.


David Wogahn is a digital media publishing consultant, speaker, and educator. His company provides e-book development, marketing, and conversion services and e-publishing strategy consulting. Over the past 20 years, he has managed five digital publishing ventures and co-founded the FANSonly Network (now part of CBS Sports) and Times Mirror Multimedia. To learn more: sellbox.com.

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