With Apple deal, GPO a step closer to 'where we are going'

The Government Printing Office is expanding its slow but steady move into electronic publications with an agreement with Apple Inc. to sell federal e-books.

The deal adds the Apple iBookstore to existing channels that include Google’s eBookstore, OverDrive, Ingram, Zinio and other vendors. Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader was added earlier this year.2013 Federal Budget on iTunes

“It’s very important for the GPO to be in as many channels as possible,” said Herbert Jackson, GPO’s managing director of business products and services. “Our customer agencies have been coming to us and asking us for e-books.”

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GPO has been the government’s printer for 150 years and in that time has seen technology shift from cold type and ink-on-paper to digital media and electronic documents. It began producing e-books in 2010 as the format began becoming popular with readers. It has more than 30 titles available now in a variety of electronic formats, including “Ponzimonium: How Scam Artists are Ripping Off America,” “On Course to Desert Storm,” and the “Appendix, Budget of the United States FY 2013.” Each of the publications in the electronic catalog also is available in print.

The Apple deal extends its e-books to the iPad and to eReaders, as well as to PCs and Macs running the iTunes Store app. The additional channels come with minimum cost and effort on the part of agency authors and GPO, Jackson said. Regardless of the end product, GPO usually receives material in electronic format, either PDF or InDesign. The files are then formatted for the specific outlet. Because different readers use different proprietary formats, each title has to be formatted for each reader.

“It’s a matter of doing the formatting on our end,” and sending it to Apple, he said. “It’s seamless. We have the capability to do it in-house.”

GPO also makes many of its products, such as the federal budget and legislation, available for download in PDF format at the Federal Digital System,  verifying the authenticity of these online documents with digital signatures.

Although sales of electronic books are growing, they so far represent a minuscule fragment of GPO’s business. Last year at this time GPO had sold about 250 e-books, Jackson said. That figure has risen to 700. By comparison, the fiscal 2013 federal budget received more than 50,000 views in the first 24 hours of its availability.

But e-book publishing is important, Jackson said. “We think it’s significant because it leads us to where we are going.”

Although e-books are making inroads in the publishing and bookselling businesses, Apple remains a relatively small player. Before Apple’s introduction of the iPad in 2010, Amazon’s Kindle reader held a 90 percent share of the e-book market, according to analyst estimates. Since then Amazon’s share has shrunk, but it still dominates with an estimated 60 percent, followed by the Barnes & Noble Nook with about 25 percent. That leaves 10 to 15 percent for Apple, for whom e-book sales is a very small part of its business.

Jackson said he sees the greatest opportunity for e-books in technical information that professionals will need to have with them in the field. “I think technical reference books are what people will be looking for,” he said. “It is easier to carry around than a 1,200-page book.”

Current bestsellers at GPO’s U.S. Government Bookstore illustrate the wide variety of materials in demand. They include:

  • "Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors 2011," a 190-page handbook for $5.
  • "Civics Flash Cards for the Naturalization Test" (December 2009), a set of 102 cards for $14.
  • "Government Auditing Standards: 2011 Revision," the Government Accountability Office’s 241-page Yellow Book for $16.
  • "International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis as Approved by the World Health Organization," from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in packages of 100 for $53.50 and 25 for $24.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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