So, What Happened to iBookstore?

Remember when Apple’s iBookstore was supposed to give Amazon a serious run for its money in the ebookstore business? What happened?

Two of the more obvious answers are the very same things that were lingering questions from the very beginning: price and book selection.

“The iBookstore six months after launch: One big failure” attributes the exclusion of Random House. If a person walks into a bookstore, and wants to buy the new bestseller — say, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — and doesn’t find it, they’ll take their business elsewhere. Same rule applies to iBookstore users —

“But what about the Larsson books, published by Alfred A. Knopf? Random House is a large publisher that owns many imprints, and Knopf happens to be one of them. Others include (get ready for a long list): Ballantine Books, Bantam, Delacorte, Dell, Del Rey, Del Rey / Lucas Books, The Dial Press, The Modern Library, One World, Presidio Press, Random House Trade Group, Random House Trade Paperbacks, Spectra Spiegel & Grau, Villard Books, Fodor’s Travel, Living Language, Prima Games, Princeton Review, RH Puzzles & Games, RH Reference Publishing, Sylvan Learning, Alfred A. Knopf, Anchor Books, Doubleday, Everyman’s Library, Nan A. Talese, Pantheon Books, Schocken Books and Vintage. None of these imprints are available in the iBookstore; so much for buying the Millenium Trilogy.

According to Random House CEO Markus Dohle, this hasn’t hurt Random House a bit. Currently e-book sales account for eight percent of total sales, and Dohle expects that number to jump to 10 percent next year. But it has hurt the iBookstore, and in a big way. Unless Apple and Random House can make nice, there are a ton of books that won’t be sold by Apple, and customer expectations of getting anything they want, when they want it, fade away.

Plus, although I haven’t seen this specific complaint mentioned much in many of the early reviews, the design is uncharacteristically lacking. Amazon has the online book buying experience down to a science, and iBookstore experience does not compare favorably: “unlike the Kindle Store, there is no recommendation system to discover new books, and the iBookstore is difficult to navigate. In fact, the only advantage that the iBookstore does have is that purchasing is easier than Amazon’s system, since buying is tied to your iTunes account.

Keep in mind that report came in October, 2010. Business Insider revisited that question, this month: “iBookstore Is Looking More And More Like One Of Apples’ Failures” and the narrative has not exactly changed.

(Well, except for the Random House part, finally. See, Huffington Post: “Random House Finally Sells eBooks In Apple’s iBookstore”): “Random House was the last of the big 6 in publishing to partner with Apple. When Apple’s iBooks launched last April, HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster all signed on from day one.”)

Per Business Insider, the numbers pretty much tell the story —

“Amazon’s share has been cut, less by Apple than by Barnes & Noble’s Nook, widely believed to have more than 20 percent of e-sales despite initially poor reviews. Amazon still has some 50 percent to 60 percent of the market, while Apple is generally believed to have from 10 percent to 15 percent. Publishers and analysts say the iBookstore is still relatively unknown to the general public, especially compared to all the other apps on an Apple screen. Apple was also slowed because Random House Inc., publisher of Stieg Larsson and John Grisham, did not initially sell through the iBookstore.”

Sure, in some ways, the iBookstore is like iTunes, at least in the superficial sense. But in more important ways, it’s very much not like iTunes. For one thing, iTunes became the way that people would buy music. But with books, there wasn’t that vacuum with Amazon and Kindle firmly entrenched. Moreover, something else I’ve been wondering about: how much do iPad users actually use the iPad for reading books?

“Our surveys have shown that only 49 percent of iPad owners read e-books on them, which suggests that although the iPad is a blockbuster device, it doesn’t necessarily lead to book reading for even a majority of its owners,” says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. “And even when it does, what we know about the success of the Kindle store and app suggests that more Kindle books are being read on iPads than iBookstore books. And why not? If you’re a book lover and are predisposed to reading e-books, you are almost guaranteed to already be an Amazon customer and you are likely to continue that Amazon relationship on your iPad.”

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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