Random House Launches its First Interactive E-Book

Today I visited Winter Mill. It is a snowy, quaint little town with a population of 27,499. It looks a little Sim City and has a High School, a bookshop, a Mall and Mill, as well as residential buildings known as Matheson Cabin and Morrow Mansion. Since those buildings are yet to open, I had a wander over to the Police Station. The place was totally deserted so, to entertain myself, I riffled through some evidence left on a policeman’s desk and had a look at a police report detailing an unexplained death which had taken place in Winter Mill Forest Culvert.

Winter Mills Police Station in Random House's Mortal KissWinter Mill is the fictional town which is the backdrop to an interactive mystery story launched as Mortal Kiss. Mortal Kiss is the collaborative effort of Random House Children’s Books and Stardoll, an online community aimed at seven to seventeen year old girls. The network, which reportedly has over 100 million registered users worldwide, focuses on fashion and entertainment and celebrity news.

Mortal Kiss is Random House’s first attempt at an interactive e-book. As someone who has been a huge fan of crime fiction and mystery stories since childhood, I think that this particular interactive e-book has a lot to offer creatively, visually and recreationally.

The story starts with a prologue (yes, I am going to read this teenage fiction through to its conclusion) of a man running frantically through the snow. The prologue sets up the mysterious premise of the story: A “John Doe” who has been found lying face down in a clearing in the woods of Chaney Road. Following the prologue, readers are introduced to the main protagonist of the story, Faye McCarron. The chapters of the story are released progressively, as are the various locations in Winter Mill which readers are allowed to visit and interact with. As is the case with most mystery fiction, the reader is taken along on the journey with the protagonist – in this McCarron – as she and her friends seek to solve the mystery that has befallen Winter Mill.

Compared with other interactive narratives on the net, such as Choose Your Own Adventure and Unknown Tales, Mortal Kiss seems to present a very rich synthesis of narrative, visuals and web-enhanced interactivity. I will definitely be following the story as it develops to examine this very interesting interactive e-book.

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Kindle Digital Text Platform and its Royalty Options

Authors and publishers who use Amazon’s Kindle Digital Text Platform (DTP) will be entitled to a royalty option of 70% for every Kindle book sold. The royalty option will apply to any book sold from the Kindle Store, regardless of whether the e-book is to be read on a Kindle, Kindle DX or one of the Kindle apps used on Blackberry, PC, Mac, iPad or Android. Announced in January 2010, the option will be available in addition to the standard options, currently offered to authors and publishers.

The royalty option is subject to conditions, which would require:

  • The author or publisher-supplied list price to be between $2.99-9.99USD
  • The listed price must represent a 20% reduction on the lowest list price charged for the physical book
  • It must be available for sale in all geographies, subject to author and publisher rights
  • The book is subject to the added functionality features of the Kindle Store, including text-to-speech

As Amazon strives to make DTP a more attractive option for authors and publishers, it will also seek to improve DTP by creating a more “intuitive” ‘Bookshelf’ feature as well as a simplified two-step publishing process.

By offering such attractive royalty options to authors and publishers, Amazon seeks to increase the predominance of its Kindle DTP as a viable electronic vehicle for the delivery of e-books. If successfully taken up authors and publishers, the royalty option will also ensure that Kindle and its associated apps successfully become the platform of choice for readers as well.

(Amazon media release)

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Defining “Progress” in the Context of e-Books

While e-books currently hold approximately 3-5% per cent of the book market, e-books are expected to amass popularity (and sales) over the next fifteen years ultimately accounting for somewhere between 20-50% of all books sold. The projective figure of 20-50% quoted by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) (who obtained their estimate from the Australian Booksellers Association) seems to belie the fact that in “technology years” fifteen years amounts to an eon of both expected and unimaginable technological advancements and innovation. The projective figure stated by the ASA, along with its accompanying fifteen-year deadline, seems to advocate caution to authors and publishers on the basis that e-books are a “work in progress”. This implies that e-books are something incomplete, not fulsomely created and yet to reach fruition.

Claiming approximately 80% of e-book sales, online retailer Amazon is currently dominating the e-book market. According to the ASA, while Amazon lists books from publishers for between $12-25USD, its most common price for an e-book is $9.99USD. Indeed, as the ASA note, this deficit in costing is deliberate as Amazon is “prepared to lose money [in order] to dominate the market and sell their electronic reading device, the Kindle”. Yet the reality of this plan, which incorporates deliberate and calculated initial losses in order to sustain future gains and profit, should not warrant extreme caution from publishers merely because it involves a distribution channel which is relatively new. Amazon’s plan should be viewed in the context of the e-book marketplace. This marketplace is an emerging arena for online retail which has also seen the entry of Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo among others. Amazon’s business strategies should not be considered exceptional. It should invite the same degree of investigation and prudence as any other business strategy being employed in publishing today. The processes used by Amazon to generate business are no more threatening or deserving of caution merely because they relate to a product (the e-book) which is new, possibly unfamiliar to some and potentially transformative for the publishing industry. Instead Amazon’s strategies signify the kind of agency typical of any company seeking to establish a place in an emerging marketplace.

It is important that publishers recognise that e-books as a distributional channel are not a work in progress; rather, the e-book is a work of progress. While the e-book may be in its infancy in terms of the success of its reception by the public, its technological credentials and the scope of its functionality (and/or flexibility), the e-book nonetheless offers readers, authors and publishers new and exciting business and cultural opportunities.

The ASA’s report is titled E-books: Royalties and Contracts.

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