booklampChris covered BookLamp last year, and he wasn’t impressed. Last month, the news broke that Apple had bought BookLamp in April. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to the story because, although my books are available there, I don’t really think of Apple as having a credible ebook store. Although, right now, it’s probably more credible than B&N.

Then I read this article by author William Richards, and it made me think differently about the BookLamp purchase. Here was Richards’ view:

BookLamp figured out a way to model a book in order to quantify how the book reads. They look at keywords used, genre, grammar structure, style of writing, the kind of action that occurs in a book, how emotional or technical a book is. Once it has this model, it then looks for other books that have similar model scores.

It’s very deep data mining to create a heuristic model of a book’s style and uses that model to generate recommendations for a reader. Very accurately.

He makes the point that Amazon’s recommendations are based on which books are selling well, which is great for authors who already have lots of sales but isn’t as good for new authors who are still finding their market. He believes the BookLamp algorithm would suggest books in a way which could be a boon for new authors.

It makes sense to me, assuming BookLamp is as good at making recommendations as Richards says it is. That does lead to the potential of Apple being a better books discovery site than Amazon, and, if true, I like that. I’m perfectly happy with my relationship with Amazon, both as consumer and as author, but competition is good, and if Apple becomes a true competitor to Amazon, that’s good for everyone.

However, Apple has one big hurdle to overcome: platform portability. If you buy a book from iBooks, that’s it. No reading on an eInk device or Android tablet. Kindle readers aren’t likely to buy a book from Apple, no matter how good the recommendation. In fact, if Apple implements the recommendation engine well, they might end up being a showroom for Amazon.

Yes, you can strip DRM from Apple books, but it uses a different tool than the one for all other bookstores, and I doubt many people will want to learn a second method. I’ve never tested the method of stripping DRM from Apple books, and I’m rigorous about stripping DRM from books I buy. As you can guess, I just never buy from Apple.

So the BookLamp purchase may have potential. As an author, I love the possibilities for book discovery, but I’m dubious it will make Apple a true competitor to Amazon as long as the books are locked into the Apple platform.


  1. “However, Apple has one big hurdle to overcome: platform portability.”

    You’re not the first pundit to point that out, Juli, but I think you’re all wrong.

    Apple is already a bigger seller of ebooks than B&N, and their platform limitations may actually have helped them get there. iOS gives Apple a decided advantage over everyone else that Apple will not have on other platforms.

    • @Nate, I agree with you that Apple doesn’t necessarily want to expand off their platform. That wasn’t quite my point. I do think, however, to truly challenge Amazon, a company has to be available on more platforms and have the potential to take business away from Amazon. The legions of Kindle users are not likely to suddenly sell their Kindles to buy iPads, no matter how awesome Apple’s recommendation engine might be. Which is why I pointed out the irony that Apple could become a showroom for Amazon. I’d use them that way if the recommendations were good enough.

      Apple can make tons of money on their own platform. That doesn’t mean they will be able to challenge Amazon enough to keep the Zon honest, which is what I want to see happen and would be phenomenal for consumers. I’m not sure Apple sees that as their role, and I respect them for the decision while wishing they’d make a different one.

  2. Apple could take advantage of the fact that it’s not now nor ever will be in the business of selling print books. BookLamp could offer an excellent storefront for Apple’s digital books–something that as you note has more to offer that the iBookstore. But it could also link to print versions from other sources in a way that lets customers do what Amazon customers can already do, buy both print and digital at the same time and at a discount. It could:

    * Let author/publisher decide which print source to link. Authors desperately need a high-quality site where they can send interested readers. This would have them sending people to an Apple site.

    * Link to numerous print book retailers automatically and based on where a visitor is coming from.

    * Link to every retailer but Amazon. After all, if they go to Amazon, they’ll have the chance to get the Kindle version. The last would help Apple in its competition with Amazon.

    And Juli, I agree that I’d like to see Apple release versions of iBooks for Windows and Android devices. But it is possible that’s a deliberate policy decision being made by Apple. If a price war ever develops between Amazon and Apple, having books in the iBookstore that are only readable on Apple devices is a big plus for the company.

    Loss-leading ebooks on the iBookstore can be justified as selling more iPads and Macs. The same would not be true if Amazon gets in a price war with Apple. Amazon is, I suspect, using its large profits from ebook sales to subsidize Kindle devices. In a lose-on-every-ebook-sale price war with Apple, Amazon would be losing on ebooks, losing on Kindles and losing when people get an iPad to read those below-cost ebooks from Amazon. Even Amazon can’t afford that sort of price war.

    Personally, I’m hoping that Apple would get more aggressively behind their iBookstore, if for no other reason than to stick it to Amazon for contriving that DOJ lawsuit. The law firm that persuaded the DOJ to sue Apple is literally a ten-minute walk from Amazon’s corporate headquarters. Suspicious? You bet it is!

    One approach would be to include an iBookstore coupon with the sale of each new Mac or iDevice. That’d sell more ebooks and encourage buyers to get into the habit of buying from the iBookstore and using the iBooks app.

    It’d also delight writers like me. Apple pays the best writer royalties of all the major ebook retailers. I’d rather steer sales there than anywhere else.

  3. Juli, even if Apple went multi-platform I don’t see them as being up to the task of challenging Amazon – not in the way you mean it.

    Amazon got to where they are by being the best ebook retailer. Anyone who wants to replace Amazon would have to be better at selling ebooks than Amazon.

    I just don’t see Apple pulling that off. Instead, I think Apple’s efforts are better spent working to keep its second place position and fight off challengers of its own.

  4. BookLamp may be a start but after polling family members, I agree with Nate’s comment. Someone has to find a way to sell books better than Amazon to make a dent in their market share and I don’t think BookLamp or platform portability will assist Apple with current digital readers. Maybe new readers?

    Small sample size, blah, blah, blah but out seven siblings and two parents-

    One sibling and their spouse are big time Apple fans. They have never purchased books from Apple. All the kids have basic kindles and primarily use their county library for reading material. The parents use the kindle app on their iPads. Sister says she has never even looked for books on Apple and BIL says he has browsed the store only a couple of times.

    One sibling has a spouse that is a big time Apple fan. They have purchased one book from Apple. They use the library or purchase from Amazon and they use either kindles or the kindle app on their iPads. I suspect when their little ones are ready for chapter books, it’s going to be digital all the way for them.

    Two siblings aren’t really readers and when they’re reading, it’s in paper. One nephew is a used bookstore junkie and has pretty much given up reading digitally because of cost.

    Two parents, three siblings and their spouses and kids use Amazon exclusively for digital books and prefer eink to any app though I can sometimes get my mom to try non-fiction on a tablet. None of the adults read recreationally in paper anymore.

    After all these years, I’m the only one using other retailers in addition to Amazon excluding Apple. I also prefer any eink reader over a backlit screen though I do put short stories on my phone and use that when I’m out and about.

    I don’t know how many digital books my family has purchased in total but it’s definitely in the hundreds, maybe the low thousands and only one has been purchased from Apple despite all but three of us having Apple devices. Many have given Kobo, BN and Sony a try but those stores are/were pretty frustrating to navigate. As concerned as some are about Amazon’s dominance and my “nagging” that there are options, they say it’s not worth dealing with another store and they’re training their kids to go the same way.

  5. @Anna, now I’m curious. I don’t buy from Apple because of platform lock-in, but you seem to think that’s not the case for your family. For the ones who are Apple fans, is it because they don’t think of Apple as a book seller? Or another reason?

    Seems there’s a bigger issue for Apple than just portability, which, honestly, I hadn’t considered. Most of the people I interact with cite portability as the main reason, often because of principle or because they don’t like iBooks as an app.

  6. @Julie- For the Apple fans in the family, I’m going with they don’t think of Apple as a bookseller and that they were most likely listening to my mom. Or maybe it was all timing.

    I purchased a Kindle 2 for my mom in early 2009 to see if it would allow her to enjoy reading again. It was a big hit and she did not hesitate to let all know that the kindle was greater than sliced bread. My dad and I had our own a couple of months later and we became fans as well. The siblings then joined us in eink fandom and most of that happened prior to the release of the iPad in January 2010. The big Apple fans in the family were essentially already reading on eink devices and if they were happy with their retailer of choice, there was no incentive to try Apple’s store because they had apps if they wanted to dump eink.

    Other thoughts-
    1. Apple’s part in the price fixing scheme left even the Apple fans disgusted.
    2. The basic kindle allows us to easily share libraries between family members and coworkers even across borders. There are books in the Amazon store that are not available to Canadian residents and vice versa.
    3. Portability does bug one of the fans but I don’t think it plays any part in their decision to skip the Apple store.

    I think my family is firmly entrenched into the kindle system and we’re talking about three generations in just over five years. Another retailer is not only going to have to figure out how to improve upon the Amazon experience, they’re going have to figure out how to convert those already in the system or how to get the kids that aren’t yet reading digitally. If their parents are in the Amazon system, well, good luck with that.

    I hate that this sounds like a love letter to Amazon. I’m happy to sideload or convert or do whatever I need to do to get something on whichever device I want but not even the geeks in the family want to bother with that. They just want to read.

    • @Anne, thanks. That’s good information. Now if someone was just paying attention…

      Apple actually disgusted me earlier than the price fixing scheme. The whole crippling the Kindle app so you couldn’t shop directly from it did it for me. The pundits were proclaiming “the end of Kindle books (and other stores’ books also) on iPhones” so loudly that it finally motivated me to figure out how to strip DRM. Before that, I was perfectly happy doing all my reading in either the Kindle app or Stanza, for the books I purchased from Fictionwise. When I thought the Kindle app might be going away, I decided to figure out how to back up my purchases.

      While I love my iPhone and iPad, I buy as little content from Apple as possible

  7. @Julie- My mom told me last night that we’re actually up to four generations. Apparently the great niece has been reading Dr. Suess books to my mom over the phone. She was using the kindle app on her mom’s android tablet.

    My family might be the outliers in the amount of digital reading we do but I think it indicates that those other stores need to be looking at getting those new to digital reading. If people are happy with Amazon, they’re not going to be easy to pry away. I don’t think BookLamp is going to even start the conversation with most.

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