Sometimes it’s good to have your head in the clouds

Sometimes it’s good to have your head in the clouds

What is cloud hosting? Cloud hosting means storing content in a central location where multiple people can access it. When explained like this, it doesn’t quite live up to the rather exotic name (I’m envisaging tea parties with Mary Poppins, supping ambrosia with the Gods of Olympus and other exciting things you might do in a cloud) but it does present some very exciting prospects for the book publishing industry. Cloud hosting is nothing new for geeks, but thanks to improved broadband and mobile internet it is becoming mainstream and more likely than not, it will become an increasingly important part of the way we consume books. What does this means for publishers and how can the book industry stay on top of the trend?

Why cloud host?

Youtube and other video sharing sites are great examples of how cloud hosting can completely change the way we consume content. Before Youtube, to access a video you’d have to find it, wait ages for it to download, find the file on your computer, check you had the right software and then, if you could still find the energy, open the file. Now, you just click ‘play’. Much simpler.

Plus, there is no need to make backups or copy the content onto all your devices. If new versions of the content come out you don’t need to update all your files - you already have access to the latest version.

From a publisher perspective, keeping the consumer online when they are accessing the content offers the opportunity to make products more social, by giving customers the option to share and discuss the content from the word go.

And finally, cloud hosting enables publishers to dream up new and more flexible ways for their consumers to access and purchase content, such as rentals, subscriptions and graduated payments.

Digital books in the cloud

Spotify, a subscription-based music service, demonstrates how cloud hosting can be used as a way of enabling people to access music in a different way. Spotify users own the access to music, but not the music itself.

Digital books, on the other hand, though stored on the web, are consumed as eBooks which require downloading, much like the video and music sites of yesteryear. Even enhanced editions such as iPhone or Android applications still hinge on downloaded content – they are effectively downloading an entire website before you use it, which seems a strange path to take given the increasing focus on web enabled devices.

A cloud hosting service specifically designed for consumer books could present many exciting advantages. The most obvious benefit is the ability to distribute and sell books in new ways. Students could rent books for a week or month rather than borrowing them (e.g.
CourseSmart). Fiction fans could ‘pay as they go’ and effectively get an extended sample. Anyone could start reading surreptitiously on their work computer, continue on their iPhone while bussing to the station, and finish on their eReader on the train home. Even better, web users could read books from directly from widgets rather than having to go to a specific site or file.

Cloud hosting also means that it is easier to keep the consumer’s copy of the book up to date and contact them with new and relevant information such as an updated chapter, a new edition, or a new release from the author.

A huge bonus is that by keeping the customer connected to the web publishers can take advantage of the fact that it is very easy to instantly tell friends about the book or discuss it with other fans. It’s also a chance for publishers to get reader feedback.

Questions for publishers

To make the most of the cloud hosted book platforms of the future publishers need to think about how their digital strategy fits into the trend of internet streamed content. They need to consider how services like Spotify have the potential to create new revenues for the content creators by using alternative business models such as subscriptions. And to really make the  most of cloud hosting they should seriously consider how to monetise content further by tapping directly into the social graphs of the consumers.

Publishers also need to think ahead about rights. If people are paying for
access to a product rather than the ownership, what are the implications? Does this fall under the general electronic right that is covered in contracts, or is this something else? (Answers on a postcard please!)

There is also a question of looking beyond the industry standards for ‘packaging’ digital content such as ePub, which are essentially static file formats. There is greater flexibility in offering web standard formats which can evolve over time.

Moving forward

Services already offering cloud hosted book content come in a number of different guises: as online samples using tools such as Issuu, through Google books (displaying as much as has been allowed by the publisher), and through document sharing platforms such as Scribd which offer legal (and sometimes illegal) access to books online.  

But what about platforms which enable publishers to
sell their books? Scribd offer a store to US customers which enables publishers to charge for online content but is not focused on books. Some publishers and platforms offer access to cloud hosted journals, but this is generally through institutional subscriptions which lose the potential for individual consumer purchase. Google will throw down the gauntlet when they release Google Editions, offering cloud based access to a whole host of books. The launch looks set to be a classic Google strategy – keep it simple and get in early (although we are still waiting for them to release it to find out whether it is destined to be a game changer or a rather disappointing Google Wave). On this occasion, however, they already have the infrastructure needed and a whole heap of content too.

Issues with cloud hosting

The problem which immediately springs to mind is ‘What about when I’m on a plane, beach or anywhere else without internet access?’ There are a couple of solutions, both of which are immediately available.  Cloud hosted content doesn’t need to be independent from downloadable files. When the user is online they can access the online version, when they are offline they use the eBook, so the benefits of the cloud are coupled with the offline convenience of a download.  Secondly, an even simpler solution is on the horizon -  HTML5, the new standard for web pages supported by most modern web browsers, means web content can be downloaded and stored by the browser for later use offline - pretty neat.

At CompletelyNovel we’re particularly interested in this area as we are using our experience with web technology and publishing to create better, easier access to books on the web. As a website that aims to help writers to build a profile for themselves, whether they are self-publishing or published elsewhere, we have found that the more accessible the content, the easier it is to convince consumers to pay for it. We will be releasing a system designed to help publishers publish into the cloud and empower their readership to promote and sell books through their social networks.

As well as looking to extend our group of launch partners, we are keen to hear views from across the industry and its customer base on paying for access - what are the possibilities and limitations that you foresee?

Anna Lewis,