Thoughts on Apple Books
Bradley Metrock produced the iBooks Author Conference from 2015 through 2017, before Score Publishing acquired Digital Book World, and has authored many articles on Apple's efforts with regards to books and publishing. This piece is in response to today's news from Mark Gurman at Bloomberg that Apple is readying Apple Books to compete anew in the digital book marketplace.
The news of Apple rebranding the iBooks Store to Apple Books, and preparing a fresh new entry in the digital publishing landscape, is welcome.
Apple's bookstore, much like many other parts of the company these days, has suffered from neglect. The store, as it is currently, evokes a vision of tumbleweed blowing through an empty desert: nobody's home, nobody cares, and it's quite clear there is no larger strategy present.
Apple did the right thing by going outside the company and hiring Kashif Zafar, by all appearances an accomplished publishing business mind, originating out of an engineering background. That is, frankly, exactly what Apple needs, as their digital book store needs to be re-engineered from the ground up.
Let's examine what Apple needs to do:
1) Deploy iBooks Author anew
Apple, believe it or not, comes right out of the gate with one strong competitive advantage: they have a relatively-easy-to-use, vertically-integrated, HTML5-based authoring tool that has grown an international user base since it was introduced in 2012.
When iBooks Author was first released, it was ahead of its time. And like everything that is ahead of its time, it was poorly understood and not nearly as well utilized as it should have been.
Fast forward six years later, and digital book readers are clamoring for new types of experiences.
The biggest problem with iBooks Author has always been the mediocrity of the iBooks Store. Publishers producing phenomenal content using iBooks Author have met poor sales, thanks to poor searchability and poor discoverability, over and over and over again.
Marrying iBooks Author to this new Apple Books Store would be such a potent combination, that any Apple Books effort that doesn't leverage iBooks Author can't really be taken seriously.
2) Leverage the success of Apple Podcasts
Apple has one other competitive advantage that it can bring to bear for Apple Books right away: the runaway success of Apple Podcasts, which is estimated to be where 60%-70% of podcast listeners consume audio content.
Apple Books author pages need to intelligently detect podcasts in which the author makes an appearance, and automatically provide links to those episodes. And the reverse should be true: Apple Podcasts featuring authors whose works are available in the Apple Books Store should provide links, intelligently and with no extra effort required by publishers, to purchase books from those authors right there within the Podcast app.
Synergy between the Books app and Podcast app should be a strategic goal. And it goes without saying that finding a way to integrate audiobooks into this mix would be even better.
3) Apple Books needs to match Amazon on key criteria
The Apple Books Store needs to be as searchable as Amazon. Historically, the search function within the iBooks Store has been flat-out broken.
The Apple Books Store needs to be creative in how it makes books discoverable. Undoubtedly, this will be a combination of algorithmic competency and human curation.
With both searchability and discoverability, Siri needs to play a role as Apple ramps up their voice-first computing efforts. Intelligent voice integration needs to be part of the fabric of the Apple Books experience.
The Apple Books Store needs to be author and publisher-friendly. This means giving authors and publishers deep flexibility with pricing (including bundling / discounting), deep flexibility in how their books are represented within the store (control over author-specific landing pages would be a good place to start), and deep flexibility in marketing (including ability to have hosted video book trailers, deep control over sample content, and more).
There is plenty of opportunity for Apple to compete here. Every single product page on Amazon.com looks precisely the same way, in exactly the same format. Amazon's practical blandness can be bested by a highly-functional, colorful and vibrant, individualistic approach that holds serve in key areas while innovating beyond what Amazon offers in others.
4) Apple Books needs the discipline to not politicize itself
Bookstores have a unique obligation, as the vessels of new thoughts and messages to the world, to try to not be overtly political and biased. Let free speech reign.
In the age of noisy and confused social media, Apple might be tempted to align the new Apple Books Store with liberal cause marketing like the Apple books team has done the past few years. This would be a great way to stunt the long-term growth of Apple Books, and ensure most readers stay at home within the profoundly and comfortably apolitical Amazon ecosystem.
5) Go cross-platform anywhere and everywhere
Apple's walled-garden approach is not compatible with the interests of readers, who want to be able to read their purchased books on whatever device they choose.
Apple Books should take the approach of assuming Apple devices will remain market leaders and popular, and bring that confidence to serving their customers. Trying to force Apple Books users to use Apple devices, exclusively, to read books is a great way to reduce the number of Apple Books users.
This is a no-brainer. It really shouldn't even have to be written. There needs to be an Apple Books app on Android, Windows, within Alexa-enabled devices, and everywhere else. Period.
6) Consider aligning with a print partner
Much has been made in publishing industry circles about the "return of print," which really isn't a return of print at all, but rather a realization that print books will never, ever go away.
Consequently, Apple Books needs to seriously consider how it can align itself with a print partner.
Buy a book on Apple Books, and print a physical copy for a low price at a participating retailer. Books A Million has the Espresso Book Machine which would be a perfect technology for something like this.
Without a foot in the print book world, there will be limitations to what Apple Books can accomplish vs Amazon. Perhaps Apple is comfortable with that, but it's important to realize nevertheless.
The publishing industry - the ENTIRE publishing industry, which goes far, far beyond just traditional publishers obviously - desperately needs a viable competitor to Amazon.
If Apple Books does some of these things, they'll be in position to be that competitor. And what we'll all be able to enjoy is a healthy, thriving, vibrant digital book world like we haven't seen before.