Apple is missing the boat on e-books.
And there’s billions of dollars at stake.
PWC estimates the 2018 US e-book market at $9B, FutureBook estimates the UK market at £381.5m. Apple gets 10%. That’s abysmal, considering the ubiquity of Apple devices. The Amazon/Hachette fiasco revealed that many in the book world don’t really like Amazon.
This is an opportunity for Apple.
If you’re buying an e-book, there’s only one place to go: Amazon. It’s not because of discovery; it’s mindshare. Most books aren’t discovered on Amazon - just bought there. Opportunity.
But it’s easy to forget how deeply Amazon has burrowed into the online book world. Most Facebook shares or book reviews link to Amazon. Amazon results dominate bookish web searches. Goodreads is the online books community.
Conversely, iBooks is little more than a reader app and a buy link, with no community to speak of. Consider Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (one of my favorites): Amazon/Goodreads have 2,600 reviews of the book, Apple has seven. A Google Search for “Gates of Fire” has Amazon 1st, Goodreads 4th, and Apple on page four – essentially invisible! The iBooks web experience is an ugly mess.
It’s instructive to look at Apple’s response when threatened by Spotify. Apple launched a major initiative, Apple Music. It was a “Manhattan Project” with internal and external components: Apple acquired Beats for $3B and re-invented its music experience as Subscription + Curation + Beats 1 Radio. Connect, a centralised artist blog platform, was another unique addition. The result generates at least $1B annually.
If I ran iBooks, I’d launch a major initiative - Apple Books - with the goal to make Apple Books the destination of choice for book lovers (the app and website). By following Apple Music’s lead and focusing on Content, Curation and Community, Apple Books can become more than just a store. It can become an essential resource for book lovers, where books are discovered and discussed, and their authors are celebrated.
Apple Books should:
• Become a deeply personalised content experience
• Provide proactive alerts about great books and content
• Provide a subscription-based reading product with unique content.
Apple Books must become a destination - not just a store. A lavish content experience centered on books and authors - filled with curated book reviews, blog posts and author interviews. I might only read a book every other week, but I’m always interested in tidbits about my favorite authors or books.
Author content is under-utilised. Perhaps 1% of Game of Thrones readers know George R R Martin writes a fascinating blog. Apple Books is the perfect place to surface that content. Authors would LOVE it, and readers would get an enriched reading experience.
Alerts would increase mindshare. I carry an Apple device 24x7. Why doesn’t Apple Books alert me when George R R Martin writes a new post? When a new book is released or goes on sale? When I’m at the airport and need a book for my flight? Why can’t Siri be a chatbot, helping me find my next book with a bookish game of 20 Questions?
Apple should offer a subscription product like Amazon Unlimited. Not because it’s great business, but to acquire customers.
Apple Books should:
• Recruit authors, celebrities and curators
• Provide personally relevant book recommendations and content
• Own the “Discovery” problem.
People love lists. Apple should enlist authors, celebrities and experts to build curated lists of great books and content. (Librarians and indie bookstores would be fantastic curators!). People love celebrity book clubs (Emma Watson’s new club - on Goodreads - has 100,000+ members). I might not want to read George R R Martin’s blog posts. I do want to know he recommends Druon’s The Iron King, an inspiration for Game of Thrones. Author recommendations are catnip to readers.
But you may hate Game of Thrones, and love Gone Girl. Without personalisation, this content will simply be noise. Apple should build/acquire a recommendation engine providing books tailored to my tastes and interests - iBooks has none. The best way to sell books is to bring readers books they’ll love.
Amazon is Demand Fulfillment; Apple must become Demand Generation.
Apple Books should:
• Engage users via ratings, reviews, and LISTS!
• Become the home for bookish communities of interest
• Embrace the web
• Become best friends with indie bookstores and librarians.
Apple Books must develop a strong community to win. I’ve argued previously that ratings and reviews aren’t great for discovery, but encouraging reviews is a start. Book lists are a clear opportunity - no brand owns book “playlists”.
Goodreads adopted a flawed social graph - “Friends”. I like my friends but they don’t read what I read. I want recommendations from people who love le Carré or Steven Pressfield (two of my favorites). Apple could build bookish communities of interest - a social graph - based on interests, not friendship.
Apple Books must fully embrace the web, with a user experience as delightful as iOS, rather than being a jumping off point for an app. And it must rank well in search results.
We've learned that e-books and physical books aren't on a collision course. Apple and the book industry shouldn't be either. Indie bookstores HATE Amazon, but could learn to love Apple. Donate Macs to every one of them. Offer bookstores a home inside Apple Books where they can market themselves and their books. Offer them commissions when their customers buy e-books in-store. Sponsor Expresso book-printing machines in bookstores.
Competition is good.
I love Amazon, but Amazon’s near-monopoly on e-book sales is bad for readers. I’d love a startup to close the gap, but Apple has the brand, resources and device reach to compete with Amazon; startups don’t. Consumers will benefit from the choice. An industry that fears Amazon could gain a partner.
Apple: deliver on Content, Curation and Community. Hire authors and celebrities as ambassadors. Become top of mind for book lovers, and not just on their phones. Launch a rebranding campaign that proclaims if you love books, Apple Books is the place to be.
Books change lives. Let’s think big.
Mark Watkins is the founder of The Hawaii Project, a book discovery engine.