This week's ebook news continues with the announcement that Barnes & Noble has purchased ebook seller Fictionwise for $15.7 million in cash, plus undisclosed earn-out payments if the company meets certain objectives over the next two years.
Fictionwise, founded in 2000 by Steve and Scott Pendergrast, operates the eReader.com site as well as Fictionwise.com. Barnes & Noble says the founders will continue to operate the sites as a separate business unit within Barnes & Noble.
eReader.com sells books only for the eReader Pro software which is available for a wide range of mobile platforms (the notable exception being the Blackberry), as well Windows and OS X computers.
Fictionwise.com, on the other hand, covers a broad range of digital book formats, including audiobooks.
One of the challenges of selling ebooks (pre-Kindle) has been the plethora of formats available. Grabbing a random example off of Fictionwise.com, here's what we find under "available formats":
Available eBook Formats [MultiFormat]: Adobe Acrobat (PDF) [828 KB], eReader (PDB) [289 KB], Palm Doc (PDB) [284 KB], Rocket/REB1100 (RB) [252 KB], Microsoft Reader (LIT) [279 KB] - PocketPC 1.0+ Compatible, Franklin eBookMan (FUB) [280 KB], hiebook (KML) [659 KB], Sony Reader (LRF) [329 KB], iSilo (PDB) [235 KB], Mobipocket (PRC) [294 KB], Kindle Compatible (MOBI) [356 KB], OEBFF Format (IMP) [412 KB]
This strikes me as both a strength and a weakness of ebook sellers. If you've got any kind of device with a screen you can probably find an ebook reader that supports one of these formats. But as a new user hitting the site, the choices can seem overwhelming. Presumably this is the reason for the more focused eReader.com site: Step 1, download our reader software for your device. Step 2, Start buying books from us.
This is also why Amazon probably has the best shot of taking ebooks mainstream.
Barnes & Noble abandoned ebooks once, so why are they coming back to them now? Because the format is starting to take off. Why is that? What's popular on Fictionwise? Well, once again it seems like porn is blazing a path to a new media format. Of the top 10 bestsellers under the "Multiformat" category, nine are tagged "erotica" amd the last is "dark fantasy".
Hey, I'm not judging anyone (one of my dearest friends is an erotic romance author) and yes, I've used the most salacious Top 10 list on the site in my example, but this data backs up my anecdotal observations. People who read erotic romance and 'bodice rippers' love ebooks because of the privacy they offer, both during purchase and when reading.
One of my favorite geek thespians, Felicia Day, apparently agrees with me. Here're a few recent tweets from her:
My Dad got me a Kindle 2.0! Thx Dad! Buying all the trashy novels I'm too embarrassed to buy because of the cover art. Oiled up Chests FTW! BTW third trashy paranormal romance book read on my Kindle. Just told someone I am reading Dickens, LOL!!! I love this!
Let's take that last one with a grain of salt, shall we? But I do honestly believe that the success of the ebook is being fueled by the romance and erotic romance market. My aforementioned author friend, Samantha Lucas, sells almost all of her novels in ebook format for publishers like Cobblestone Press and Siren Publishing (google Ms. Lucas or the publishers if interested; links not really appropriate for ITWorld!) and tells me the market is growing in leaps and bounds.
It'd be fascinating to learn what percentage of Kindle book sales fall into this category, and I'm looking forward to seeing how much of the more explicit Fictionwise content makes it onto the Barnes & Noble site.
I've danced around this point but let me just say it: most of these erotic romance books are purchased by women (presumably) while most of the visual pornagraphy that drove the success of the VHS and arguably video on the web was consumed by men (again, presumably).
Separate but equal, indeed.