What’s Apple Planning for the Future of Books?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

With services like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and Apple’s iBooks taking off, it’s becoming a more and more interesting question: How will the future of books look? As Mike Murphy reports for Quartz, the future of books is more books — books on Kindles, iPads, and laptops, books made of paper, and books as podcasts, apps, and blogs. But the changing way that we consume digital media — streaming instead of downloading, essentially borrowing instead of owning — will increasingly inform the way that we consume books, as well, and everyone from indie book publishers to big players like Apple and Amazon is counting on it.

Last July, Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, a program that charges subscribers $10 per month to access 700,000 books available for Kindle. Murphy reports that Kindle executive Russ Grandinetti told an audience at the recent Digital Book World conference that the service is healthy while sales of “à la carte” books have remained strong compared to online sales of music singles and television shows.

Companies from Amazon to Oyster to Scribd are working on applying the Spotify and Netflix method to books. Scribe told Quartz that the number of subscribers to its unlimited e-book service has grown an average of 31% per month since the company introduced the plan in October 2013. Grandinetti says, “Subscription is a model that succeeds at some level. I don’t think books will be immune to this.”

Murphy reports that many other not-new ideas were brought up at Digital Book World. The expo reaffirmed that it’s getting easier to self-publish books, with Brady Kroupa, the product director at Blurb, reporting that novel financing options now available to authors, like Kickstarter, negate the need for a publishing house to shoulder the costs of a book upfront. Companies like Blurb, Ingram, Manipal Digital, and Ixxus have built a business turning niche, often crowd-funded book proposals into a reality.

However, the majority of even the independent e-book business involves the same big media players as most other media. Many book-building sites like Blurb sell the books that they help authors to produce on Amazon or on Apple’s sites. Amazon remains the largest retailer of e-books in the U.S., and as Murphy says, Apple is closing in on second place. Both take at least a 30% cut of the e-books sold in the Kindle and iBooks stores.

While Amazon refuses to disclose the number of Kindle Unlimited subscribers, its Prime service is believed to have up to 50 million paying customers. It’s possible that Amazon could roll the two subscription services into one in the future. It’s also been hypothesized that Apple will soon offer its own book subscription service. Murphy notes that while the book-borrowing model may not be new, it’s one on which both tech giants and indie publishers are planning the near future of books.

MacRumors reports that Apple’s iBooks platform is now seeing an average of a million new users per week, attributed to the company’s decision to ship iOS 8 with the app pre-installed, according to Apple’s director of iBooks Keith Moerer, who also spoke at the Digital Book World conference. While the decision to pre-install several new apps, including iBooks and Podcasts, was somewhat controversial because it prevents the apps from being uninstalled, the apps introduce the content to a wide range of users who might not otherwise have discovered it through the App Store. Usage of iBooks is also up thanks to the larger screens of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

Moerer noted that indie publishing is a major area of growth for iBooks, and foreign-language publishing is also expanding. Spanish-language publishing is becoming a larger part of Apple’s business in the United States, while publishing in Japan is also seeing significant growth. Just as the major app stores benefit by attracting app developers, e-book marketplaces need to attract authors to provide content for the users of their platforms. Apple has pointed out that it doesn’t charge publishers to promote books, unlike other e-book marketplaces such as Amazon.

As Gigaom reports, Moerer emphasized that Apple is focused on supporting creative professionals, big and small. While neither Moerer nor interviewer Michael Cader, the founder of Publishers Lunch and co-chair of the conference, mentioned Amazon by name, Moerer pointed to some differences between Apple and Amazon:

Whether an author chooses to self-publish or work with a small or large publisher, I’m very proud that our business terms are the same. The same 30/70 split applies to a self-published author as well as an author published by the very biggest house. Because we’re not a publisher ourselves, we work very closely with publishers and we view them as partners. We view what we do as an expansion of our support of print professionals on the hardware and software side and the way we run our other media businesses.

Apple sees particularly strong potential in areas such as movie tie-ins, where it can attract customers who go to iTunes to buy movies or music. The company intends to promote movie tie-ins before the theatrical release, during the theatrical window, and when the movie is released on iTunes. As MacRumors states, iBooks has remained a major focus for Apple despite its troubles. The app is not only a default in iOS 8, but Apple also introduced a Mac-based iBooks app with OS X Mavericks, which enables users to read books on their Macs.

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