E-books, mobile apps and e-learning modules are hot. That's the conclusion from a quick survey of 18 content services vendors operating in India. The findings are not that surprising given the ubiquity of handheld devices and laptops around the world. "Publishers' commitment to ebooks is evident from the amount of investment in backlist conversion. The fact that ebooks consistently outsell their print version on Amazon.com is a sign of an impending tipping point," says Sriram Panchanathan, senior v-p, Digital Solutions, at Aptara, who used to be in charge of Kindle's content operations. "For sure, e-books are here to stay and perhaps on the way to becoming the dominant format."
E-book sales at 16 publishing houses, according to the Association of American Publishers, jumped 115.8% to $69.9 million during the first three months of 2011. But the variety of e-deliverables is proving to be a headache. For vendors, tweaking content to fit each and every one of the devices--whether it is intended for an ereader or smartphone--is time-consuming. For publishers, it is a costly practice. And noone dares to favor one format (or device) over the other.
Some publishers, however, are holding back because they can't be sure what to do given the proliferation of e-gadgets in the marketplace. But for how long? The difference between being a technology laggard and an early adopter is that of a flat line versus growth in this fast-changing economy.
As of now, iPad and iPhone are the clear winners in the device race. The plethora of Android-powered options with open-source operating systems has failed to erode Apple's dominance in the smartphone and tablet markets. The fact that Apple does not support Flash--which is primarily used to create elearning modules and multimedia ebooks--and yet manages to come out on top causes both consternation and amazement among publishers and vendors alike.
Naturally, all vendors surveyed wish that there was one format for all devices, saving them the hassle of tweaking content to suit Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony and so on. (Having said that, you can be sure that they love tabulating different costs for different formats and adding them up in the final bill for their publishing clients.)
"Investments from publishers in digital products will continue to grow in the foreseeable future," says Samudra Sen, CEO of elearning company LearningMate. "Even Pearson Education, with a balance sheet that already shows one third of their recent revenues coming from digital products, is predicting that the trend is going to continue at the company." LearningMate's revenues are set to grow at least 80% this year, "and given that small and mid-size publishers are eagerly jumping onto the digital bandwagon, the market has expanded quite significantly for us".
In mid March, Pearson and McGraw-Hill announced their investment in San Francisco-based Inkling, a company that creates interactive textbooks from the ground up for various ereaders, especially iPad. Redesigning textbooks and adding multimedia components is the way forward to attract the generation of students who grew up with smartphones and tablets. Three months ago, in city-state Singapore (where this correspondent is based), four schools handed out iPads to students and teachers in a pilot project to change the learning and teaching environment.
As for mobile apps, their fast and furious growth has prompted PW to launch a special column, The Week in Apps, last December. In total, the number of apps offered through Apple Apps Store has grown from two in May 2008 to 352,032 in February 2011, nearly 15% of which are games.
Revenues from mobile devices, meanwhile, are projected to hit a staggering $119 billion by 2015.
"There is no denying that mobile devices are going to be a huge part of our daily lives, whether it is for reading books, listening to music, watching movies, buying products, navigating an area or doing office tasks," says cofounder and chief technology officer of KiwiTech Gurvinder Batra, who is responsible for redesigning PW's app. "But publishers are cautious as they have yet to see big revenue dollars associated with apps." Experimentation, he adds, is crucial. "You need to test the platform using your top product lines. That said, bigger players have more resources to experiment with, whereas smaller ones have more at stake with each app project." (KiwiTech, like Aptara, is based in New York with production facilities in India; LearningMate is based in Mumbai.)
And in the frenzy to create e-books, apps and e-learning modules, the herd mentality is alive and well. Batra likens this to the launch of the Web. "Everyone wanted to have an online presence but had not a clue why they were doing it, how someone would find the website or why people would want to visit the site in the first place. The only justification for this was that 'everyone else is doing it, so we should too.' This is now happening to the mobile space."