Here’s a better model for book search and discovery

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 3.49.38 PMHow are you helping consumers find the perfect book for their needs or interests? If you’re like most publishers, you offer a search function on your site. Visitors simply type in a topic and relevant titles from your catalog are displayed.

This is pretty similar to how search works on Amazon. In both cases, book metadata is used to determine the best matches. So if the search phrase happens to be in a book’s title, description, etc., that title is likely to float to the top of the results.

That’s great, but why not leverage the book contents, not simply its metadata, for the search process. Amazon’s Search Inside feature lets you do this, but only after you’ve selected a particular book. What if you’re a publisher with a deep catalog on religion and someone is looking for the book with the most in-depth coverage of Pope Francis? Metadata-only searches can help, but the full contents are the only way to truly measure topical depth, especially if you want to compare two similar titles to see which one has the most extensive coverage of the search phrase.

Google Book Search (GBS) offers this sort of visibility but most publishers have a cap on the percentage of content visible to GBS users. That’s primarily because publishers want to prevent someone from reading the entire book without buying it.

I believe the solution is to expose all the contents to a search tool and display results that only show snippets, not full pages. That’s exactly what we’re now offering on our bookstore website at Our Sunday Visitor. If you click on the Power Search link at the top of the page you’ll be taken to this new search tool.

If I search for “Pope Francis” I get these results. The top title has 203 hits, so if I click “view 203 results” I can then take a close look at every occurrence of my search phrase in the highest ranked title. Note that this platform takes proximity into consideration, so if you have a multi-word search you can limit the results to just those instances where the words are closest to each other. At any point the user can click on the cover image to read title details or buy the book.

Think about how powerful this tool is for publishers with deep lists on vertical topics (e.g., cooking, math, science, self-help, etc.). Instead of relying exclusively on the book description to make the sale, the contents are fully searchable and comparable across a list of related titles.

We’re in the early experimentation phase with this platform. We’re planning to use a variety of ads that say something like, “find your next great read”; users who click on those ads will be taken to the search landing page where they can explore the full contents of our entire ebook catalog.

This search platform is powered by the outstanding team at MarpX. If you’d like to experiment with this on your site, you’ll find contact info at the bottom of their home page. MarpX has been a wonderful partner for us and I highly recommend you explore their solution as well.

I hope you’ll join us in this effort to move content search and discovery to the next level.

Google experiments with book discovery…and fails

IMG_0008Even though you probably never stray from the Kindle reader app I’d like to encourage you to expand your horizons. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on Apple’s iBooks and Google Play, for example, to explore other platforms and keep Amazon honest. After all, Amazon’s need to innovate diminishes if ebook platform competition dries up.

When Google recently announced plans to add a Discover feature to their ebook reader app I was curious to learn more. Google is the king of search so I was hoping they could use their brawn and data to create a major breakthrough on the book discovery front.

I assumed Google would look at my Play ebook library and base some assumptions on what I’ve bought and read over the years. I figured they’d let me recalibrate their assumptions to better suit my interests; for example, they know I like hockey books but my Google purchases haven’t focused on my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lastly, since Google monitors my Gmail inbox and search requests, I also assumed they’d use that info to fine tune their book recommendations in their new Discover service.

My hopes were dashed and my assumptions proven wrong when I saw the results. Google Discover is nothing more than a dumping ground of all things books. They apparently assume that if you read books you’re interested in everything about books; that’s like assuming a 70’s rock enthusiast is interested in all types of music including disco, jazz, classical, rap, etc.

How could Google get it so wrong? Why did they simply mail it in and why did they even bother? I’ve got to believe usage of Google Discover is pathetically low. If so, I hope the poor performance doesn’t discourage Google from going back and doing it right the next time.

Google needs to leverage all that data they have about us, more than Amazon has, btw, go back to the drawing board and come back with a Discover 2.0 service that really works and is deeply engaging.

2016 Trend Report: What publishers need to know

Statistics-1020319_1920The Future Today Institute has created a terrific, free report summarizing key technology trends and what they mean for tomorrow. I’ve embedded the report below so you can quickly flip through it.

I read the whole report and highlighted the most noteworthy elements for publishers below. That leads me (once again) to the topic of curation, a very important (current and) future publishing trend. Curation is becoming as important as creation, especially as we’re bombarded with more information than we can possibly consume.

As you read through my curated list below, with slide numbers in parenthesis, be sure to look at each item through the lens of publishing. How will each one of these affect how your content is discovered, acquired and consumed in the future?

Bots (slide 15) – This type of automation will be combined with other emerging technologies, leading to things like highly customized audio learning platforms where the UI is totally voice-controlled (see SVPAs below).

Natural Language Generation (slide 17) – I’ve written before about Narrative Science and I’m confident we’ll see more and more algorithmically-generated content in the future.

Smart Virtual Personal Assistants, or SVPAs (slide 22) – Alexa is the one I use every day when interacting with my Amazon Tap device. Expect this one to evolve quickly as today’s functionality will be considered very primitive in a year or so.

Ambient Proximity (slide 23) – Beacons haven’t taken off yet but they represent such an interesting opportunity. Think of all the interesting things your local bookstore could do with beacons and promotional content.

Attention (slide 25) – Despite the lame name, this one will have a significant impact on the ongoing evolution of content presentation, especially when married to beacons and additional knowledge of the user’s current state.

Ownership (slide 36) – Up to now, creators of user-generated content seem more interested in visibility than compensation, but how long will that be the case?

One-to-few Publishing (slide 39) – Podcasts are dead, right? No, in fact there’s a significant opportunity in smaller, more tightly-focused audiences. This market concentration likely leads to higher subscription prices and/or advertising rates.

Intentional Rabbit Holes (slide 42) – Great concept that’s all about deeper engagement. What services can you add to your site or content to encourage readers to take a deeper dive and perhaps expose them to additional monetization opportunities?

Augmented Reality (slide 52) – It’s been around for a while but was only recently legitimized by Pokemon Go. Think of all the ways your content could be augmented via tools like Layar, for example.

Internet of X (slide 63) – Let’s say you’re a publisher of architecture books and other short-form content about design and construction. What’s preventing you from creating The Internet of Architecture?

Each of these are on different timelines, of course, and won’t affect content at the same moment. All of them, however, are likely to have a profound impact on just about every type of content in the next few years.

How are you connecting with your customers?

Figures-1607182_1920The people who actually buy and read books are still mostly nameless and faceless individuals from a publisher’s point of view. This, despite the fact that there are plenty of opportunities for publishers to establish a direct relationship with consumers. I’m not necessarily talking about selling direct; I’m referring to the opportunity to build a relationship with the people who open their wallets every day for your products.

This isn’t something that’s limited exclusively to ebooks, btw. In fact, the publisher-consumer relationship can be built via print books as well.

What’s the first thing consumers see when they open one of your books? Most of the time it’s the book’s title page. What a waste. If you just bought a book and are about to start reading it, do you really need to be reminded of the title? I’m sure this violates the core of The Chicago Manual of Style and a slew of other publishing references but what’s wrong with publishers offering a simple “thank you” message on that first page? Something like:

Thanks so much for your purchase. Be sure to register your book at for free membership in our reader club where you’ll get early access to new titles and opportunities to meet your favorite authors.

Step one is to convert that anonymous consumer into a real person. But don’t just make some lame request for them to hand over their email address. You’ve got to give them compelling reasons to connect or they’ll simply ignore you.

I mentioned “early access to new titles”. What does that mean? I’m suggesting that publishers offer samples of new publications exclusively on their website or via email through free membership programs. Amazon typically doesn’t offer the ebook or e-sample till the print book publishes. Why not take advantage of the period between when the sample is ready and the book is released to encourage consumers to join your membership program or visit your site? And if you do this, be sure to remove all DRM from those samples; after all, the goal is to encourage sharing of that content, not lock it down.

I also mentioned how a reader club could provide ways for consumers to meet authors. Author webinars are one option and you could make them available exclusively to members. Those tend to be one-way conversations though, so how about adding a few more intimate virtual events with no more than 10-12 attendees? Lucky winners would be randomly drawn from the membership base and earn the opportunity to interact with authors via Google Hangout or any of a number of other virtual platforms.

Exclusive content is another way to drive consumer engagement. Would your authors be willing to create short articles, videos, etc., that are shared via the membership program? I realize every author won’t be on board with this but the ones who will are the authors who understand the importance of connecting with their readers.

This sort of program could be used to drive more sales through all channels. If you’re interested in building a better direct channel though you could also offer a variety of discounts and other incentives to get consumers to buy from your site.

It’s amazing that in 2016 most publishers still act as if there’s no benefit in establishing a relationship with their readers. The reality is these same publishers are missing out on opportunities to expose more of their content to readers who already bought from them. And as the saying goes, maintaining an existing customer generally leads to a better economic outcome than trying to find and sell to a new customer.

Why shop at a brick-and-mortar bookstore?

Coke2Do you still shop at your local bookstore? I typically go once, maybe twice a year, and the last time for me was December 2015. I made a rare summer visit to my local B&N this weekend in search of books for my almost six-month-old grandson, Jasper. No matter how good Amazon makes their “Look Inside” feature, it will never replace the experience of flipping through a children’s book, especially those with pop-ups, pull-tabs and other fun elements you find in so many children’s titles.

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and there were at most 10-15 other shoppers in the entire store. That got me thinking: What are the compelling reasons to shop at a physical bookstore? The “buy local” movement is a nice feel-good for consumers but it’s not a viable long-term strategy for brick-and-mortar stores.

Despite my love/hate relationship with Amazon over the years, I admit that I currently buy almost all my books there. Thanks to Prime, my wife and I spend a lot on plenty of other Amazon products every month too. That’s the beast we consumers created and it simply replaced another beast that preceded it: the formerly powerful combo of B&N and Borders superstores.

It’s sad to watch B&N shift square footage from books to seemingly anything other than books. I get it that they need to find a new path forward but I’m amazed at the many book discovery and sales opportunities they’ve ignored or overlooked.

This particular B&N had been completely remodeled since I last visited it in 2015. Despite all the signage it took far too long for me to locate the two sections I wanted to visit after finding my Jasper books. Why isn’t there an in-store mobile app designed to quickly help me find my way, sort of a virtual replacement for all the in-store personnel that used to assist you at every turn? GPS and in-store sensors are more than good enough to help consumers navigate a superstore. Plus, there’s a data collection opportunity these stores are missing out on; publishers would likely pay big bucks for reports quantifying consumer time spent in front over various promotional campaign types (e.g., end-cap vs. front-of-store vs. free-standing displays).

Why stop there though? Since they know I’m in the store, why not allow me to opt in to exclusive deals, customized for my interests, delivered via this mobile app and which expire as soon as I walk out the front door? This could limit the showrooming practice where consumers sample in the physical store but end up buying, sometimes via their phone, while they’re still standing in the aisle.

While I was feeling bad for brick-and-mortars I felt even worse when I picked up a couple of recent publications from the blockbuster “For Dummies” series. I had the pleasure of spending a few years working at the publishing house where the series was created and expanded and I think what we said back then is still true today: Everyone is a dummy about something.

Branding was always such an important consideration for those yellow-and-black covers but you discovered the one-of-a-kind content personality when you flipped through any of the hundreds of successful titles. That’s no longer the case. The two I picked up had morphed into generic-looking covers and, surprisingly, plain vanilla interiors. The once playful heading fonts are gone and so too is that powerful message, “a reference for the rest of us.”

Like any publisher of a highly successful series, I’m sure the Dummies team felt the time was right for a refresh. I think they made a huge mistake with their new approach though. It would be like Coke switching to blue cans or McDonalds ditching their golden arches.

Once upon a time the Dummies books would be showcased, face out, in a four-foot-wide display at your local store. Those covers were so powerful individually but made an even stronger impression when 20 of them were aligned in a chain-wide promotional campaign.

The newer Dummies books mostly blend in with the rest of the white noise on the shelf. Given the scope of that series, I see that as yet another missed brick-and-mortar opportunity, particularly since impulse-buying seems to happen more in the physical store than online. Consumers will no longer be drawn to the bright yellow-and-black covers that once served as a foot traffic magnet within the local bookstore.

What can publishers learn from Pokemon Go?

Pokemon-go-logoLong considered nothing more than a gimmicky fad, it turns out that augmented reality (AR) is actually alive and well. At least that’s the case when it’s associated with a brand as large as Pokemon.

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard all the Pokemon Go stories and maybe you’ve even dodged a player or two, overly-focused on their phone while embarking on a virtual hunting expedition. On the surface it’s nothing more than another time-wasting game but I believe it offers some very important lessons for publishers.

Let’s start with the hybrid, print-plus-digital opportunity. Recent reports indicate ebook sales have plateaued and growth has shifted back to the print format. There are a number of underlying reasons for these trends including higher ebook prices as well as the adult coloring book phenomenon. But as I’ve said before, publishers need to stop thinking about print and digital as an either/or proposition. Some customers prefer print while others lean towards digital. Many readers are in both camps, switching between print and digital based on genre, pricing, convenience, etc.

Most publishers overlook the fact that digital can be used to complement and enhance print. Skeptical? Have a look at a few of the demos Layar offers on this page.

Stop and think about how something like Layar could be used to bring your static pages to life. Maybe you publish how-to guides, print is your dominant format and you’ve always wondered how you could integrate videos with the text. You’ve tried inserting urls but very few readers bother typing them in. QR codes are an option but they’re clunky and take up precious space on the page. Why not use AR to virtually overlay those videos on the page without having to dump in a bunch of cryptic-looking urls or QR codes?

Are you looking to engage your readers in the book’s/author’s social stream? Here’s your chance to integrate them virtually using a platform like Layar.

Better yet…have you always wanted to know who all those nameless, faceless consumers are who bought your print book from third-party retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble? Here’s an opportunity as a publisher or author to initiate a conversation directly with your readers. Add an Easter egg to the print edition where readers can receive a reward via an AR-powered offer; you will, of course, ask for each reader’s name and email address before handing out those rewards.

This approach to marrying digital to print is totally unobtrusive. Print readers who don’t want to bother with their phones can continue reading the book without interruption. Those customers interested in learning more, interacting with authors or uncovering special publisher offers will likely see the value of connecting their phones with the printed page.

The possibilities are endless. So the next time you see a Pokemon Go player wandering aimlessly be sure to thank them for helping identify new ways of distributing, promoting and enriching content.

The short-form content resurgence

Statistics-76198_1920I remember the first time I heard the phrase “info snacking” back in 2007. It was when the Kindle launched and Jeff Bezos said his newfangled device would slow the info snacking trend and enable deeper engagement with content.

The Kindle platform certainly launched the ebook revolution but it’s interesting that it didn’t halt short-form content momentum. In fact, I’d argue that info snacking is more popular than ever before and, ironically, that popularity is largely driven by Bezos’ own company, Amazon.

Remember the late 1990’s when it seemed like publishers could generate digital income by selling individual book chapters? Once upon a time I too thought that might be a viable model but in hindsight it’s clear books and chapters can’t be treated like albums and songs. Most books are written so that the individual chapters are too reliant on each other, thereby making them far less valuable individually.

We need to think about taking things in the opposite direction. Rather than tearing apart a book and trying to sell individual chapters, content needs to be developed in short, granular formats so that each piece can be sold on its own and can be remixed with other granular pieces. And while this is mostly true for non-fiction I can see where it also has potential for some fiction works as well.

Short-form content success is all around us. Amazon launched Kindle Singles several years ago and the program has grown to more than 2,000 titles today. A few days ago they announced a program called Singles Classics where they’re breathing new life into older short-form evergreen content from the pre-digital era. And earlier this month they launched a short-form initiative within one of their audio subsidiaries called Audible Channels.

All of this simply reflects the fact that we’re all pressed for time but we still want to consume content. Sure, there’s nothing quite like fully immersing yourself in a long book written by a wonderful storyteller. But these short-form services are simply addressing our craving to be hyper-efficient, aware of the latest trends in our jobs/careers and always up-to-the-date on worldly news.

The movement isn’t going away, so what is your organization doing to address it? As you think about that question be careful to look beyond written content. I finally decided to buy one of those Amazon Tap devices and it’s only reinforced my earlier belief that voice UI’s and audio content consumption will be important models in the future.

Agile publishing: Creating better books through transparency

MCTrade book publishing is not a complicated process. Publishers acquire the rights to publish new titles primarily through relationships with agents. Once the agreement has been signed, the process from manuscript to shipping is fairly predictable and more or less linear:

Acquisition => Manuscript => Editing => Prepress => Production => Marketing => Sales

Each step of this process can be clearly identified by the associated teams who work on each step (e.g., Editorial, Design, Marketing and Sales teams). This siloed approach to publishing has, for the most part, worked for more than a century, helping publishers effectively deliver a finished book to the marketplace within a reasonably well-projected window of time based on their capacities.

The problem with this approach is that while it focuses on the activity of bringing a group of titles to market, it neglects how publishers might improve their products through a more collaborative and transparent approach.

This is where I believe agile thinking can help.

What is agile?

Beyond the standard definition, in the software development space agile is known as a set of principles related to how projects and teams operate in producing “potentially shippable increments” to market.

You may be thinking “How could publishers benefit from agile, when their goal is usually to deliver a single, finished product to the marketplace instead of software that is released in continuous versions over time?” It’s a good question, so let’s consider how three specific agile practices within the Scrum framework could better help publishers to deliver higher quality new titles to market with each release cycle, known as a span, resulting in better per-title performance and quality as well as more collaborative cross-departmental teams.


One method for managing development throughput in software is know as Scrum. The term Scrum is taken from the game of Rugby (scrummage) when play is resumed after a stoppage. In technology, Scrum is best thought of as a framework for defining and prioritizing a set of tasks for small specialized teams to work on in intensive work sessions known as “sprints.” Sprints typically last two to four weeks in duration and are highly focused on accomplishing a prioritized set of tasks (the backlog) decided upon by the Scrum team at the Product Owner’s direction at the beginning of the sprint during a dedicated planning session.

It’s in this initial session when the team decides, based on their technical understanding of the requirements for a set of tasks, an estimation of how much time will be necessary to complete a particular sprint. If the estimation exceeds more than a few weeks, then the work may need to span more than one sprint. Completion of a sprint must always result in a “potentially shippable increment” of working software. The following three practices are a part of all successful Scrum teams’ workflows and if implemented within publishing teams, I believe they will also result in a similar outcome: a high quality “shippable” product and improved team dynamics based on a high level of transparency and communication.


Estimation is admittedly a guessing game, hence the name. However, a good scrum master (in the case of publishing this would be the Managing Editor) will rely upon daily Scrums and retrospectives (more on those in a minute) and reporting to help better estimate toward the future. One such report, known as the burn down chart, tracks the estimated amount of time needed to complete the work at the beginning of the sprint on the x-axis and then projects a downward line as work is completed throughout the sprint, with the line ideally resolving at zero on the y-axis at the end of the sprint.

This chart is the tool by which a team’s ability to estimate is measured. With this information gathered and analyzed over time a good Product Owner (think: publisher) will be able to better forecast the necessary investments to complete versions, or titles, in order to meet the goals for the overall business.

In my experience working on and with publishing teams, the process of estimation is, for the most part, one that relies strictly on financial forecasting at the acquisition phase instead of incremental evaluation and adaptation in the way that Scrum does. At the beginning of a book’s life cycle the “Pub Board” as it is affectionately termed, performs a financial estimation plugging in numbers such as cost of goods, marketing, advance and ongoing royalty percentages as well as other line items along with a “guesstimate” of first year sales and a unit projection for a set number of years beyond that know only as “lifetime” or “balance.”

The cost side of this process is typically estimated based on actual historical figures as publishers typically have a good handle on printing, obsolescence, freight and other expenses. However, the guessing game around how many units a title will sell is always  just that. And in that way, publishers typically don’t employ the same decision making process as software teams when making decisions about future releases. Sure, many publishers employ the use of report cards that track projected vs. actual numbers, however this data seldom makes its way back to the acquisitions team in future rounds of projections. Instead, teams typically look on these numbers strictly as an indicator of past performance.

Overall, the evaluation of a span’s performance is primarily sales oriented and after the fact. Seldom do publishers take the time to consider the effect the publishing process, including the teams involved, have on a book’s ultimate performance.

How it’s done

By employing agile estimations in publishing, the Publisher and Managing Editor should gather all teams together at the beginning of a cycle/span to go through each release in detail, outlining the requirements. This meeting will take a number of hours to complete, planning at least an hour for every three titles in a span. During this meeting, the Publisher will detail the overall goal for each title, including its hook, target audience and projected sales volume. The managing editor will then go through the logistics and technical aspects of the book: timeframes, trim size, binding, etc. This process will give each specialized team an opportunity to ask any questions relative to their work as well as giving everyone an overall understanding of the role they play in the books success or failure.

Finally, all teams must agree to what success looks like for a finished span. This must be stated up front in order that the process and products can be evaluated at the end in order maintain continuous improvement.

By investing this time up front, publishers will see teams that are more personally invested in the overall success of a span and also take in qualitative feedback from team members that will help to better inform the process, including which books they acquire, in the future.

Daily scrums/standups

Publishing teams are notoriously siloed. This isolationist mentality has, quite frankly, gotten a bad rap. I, for one, am a firm believer in silos. As you can tell from the agile definition above, specialized teams are a prerequisite for agile methods to work, and in that way publishing closely mirrors software development. The problem most people often have with silos in publishing organizations is the all too familiar lack of communication that exists between teams when a project is deep inside of another team’s process. This is where the idea for “standups” comes in.

In agile organizations, teams working in the Scrum framework meet daily for fifteen minutes to discuss what each member of the team is committing to for that day. In publishing, those who would be mandatory at this meeting would be all team members responsible for a title or group of titles and it would be up to the managing editor to facilitate these meetings as a servant leader. This meeting is not a check-in to make sure folks are doing their jobs. Instead this meeting consists of three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday to help us meet the goal for this span?
  2. What will you do today to help us meet the goal for this span?
  3. What impediments are standing in your way from helping to meet the goal for this span?

This process serves to clearly communicate how much work has been done and how much work remains. It also helps everyone to clearly understand any impediments that are stalling progress, which will have impacts further down the pipeline. It is then the managing editor’s job to work on removing the blockers so that work can continue.

This practice of daily standup meetings will further enhance communication within silos as well as bring transparency to a book’s development and help to alleviate any frustration before it begins for those further down the line.

Reviews and retrospectives

A sprint review is conducted at the end of a sprint and it involves not only the Scrum team (in this case the Publisher, Managing Editor and teams responsible for doing the work) but also any other stakeholders such as Marketing, Sales and other Executives who are invested in that span’s goals and performance.

A retrospective gives the Scrum team involved an opportunity to unpack what happened during the previous release cycle or sprint. In publishing, this is a process that should take place for the entire publishing team responsible for the work involved in producing a span’s titles. The purpose for a retrospective is to understand not only what happened, but how can we learn from it and make improvements going forward. This includes not only evaluating the products that were created, but also the processes used.

As in all things agile, this meeting is democratic and the team as a whole decides together how the meetings should be conducted. Of course, it is of paramount importance that trust be fostered in these meetings, so this is an opportunity for everyone to be reminded by the Managing Editor that we were all rowing toward the same finish line and everyone did the best job that they could. This should be laid out up front, which will ensure that no one casts aspersions at any other team member and everyone stays focused on the objective, which is to learn and improve both product and process.

Wash, rinse, repeat

Once you’ve implemented these agile methods into your publishing operation and gone through a complete cycle you will be amazed at the amount of communication that goes on. Of course, in publishing if there is one thing we bemoan it is the number of random meetings we’re required to attend on a daily basis. By implementing agile methodologies, namely Scrum tactics into your systems, the need for ad hoc meetings should diminish as the communication lines will be far more open and frequent through a systematic approach.

Through repeated use of title span planning meetings, daily standup reviews and retrospectives, your entire publishing team will be in-tune to the goals and performance of not only the finished products but the process itself. This discipline will, by its very nature force you to see where improvements need to be made and with a savvy Managing Editor and Publisher duo you should begin to see continuous improvements in your team and your products’ performance.


One final tactical tip for you. To aid in the daily interoffice communication, I would recommend you consider eliminating email and move to some type of enterprise IM tool such as Slack or Hipchat. These tools will allow you to group interoffice discussions into themed conversations, providing needed visibility to other team members where email does not. There is still the necessary direct messaging built in to provide for private conversations, as well as the ability (in Slack at least) to quickly call someone or start a conference call in a channel (the technical name for a themed conversation). This tool has become critical in the teams I lead and I believe it could be a huge help to your team as well.

1 DISCLAIMER: It’s important to state right up front that these ideas are only pieces of the Scrum puzzle. True Scrum adheres to a whole host of rules and principles that when not executed entirely results in something less than Scrum. Because publishing houses typically work on spans over a period of a few months (spans), true Scrum is not an option. To that end, the following practices, while derived from the official Scrum GuideTM, do not comprise all of Scrum. For more information on all things Scrum, jump over to

This article was written by Michael Covington. With a unique background combining more than 10 years in bookselling, 10 years in publishing and presently serving as a product manager for Disciplr, Michael has a one-of-a-kind perspective on the intersection of books, publishing and technology. Michael and his family live in Colorado Springs, CO where he invests his "spare" time helping publishers solve old problems with new solutions through his consultancy, FuturePub.

Amazon extends their dominance with Audible Channels

Screenshot_20160709-140715 (1)Even though they’re gaining momentum I’ve never been a big fan of audio books. Amazon, of course, owns the market with both Audible and Brilliance. Although it didn’t receive a lot fanfare last week, Audible introduced one of the most interesting and long overdue services that I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m talking about Audible Channels and it takes short-form listening to an entirely new level. Some have mistakenly written Channels off as nothing more than a glorified podcasting option but it’s much more than that.

First of all, thanks to Channels I’m finally able to listen to periodicals. Popular brands like The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Bezos’ own Washington Post are just a few of the feed options. Rather than having to find the time to read a few newspaper articles each day I can quickly zip through them with the combination of phone+Bluetooth+car radio during my morning commute.

Isn’t it amazing that the newspaper industry never bothered to jump on the convenience and popularity of audio before now? Newspapers have been struggling for years with flat or declining subscription levels and now Amazon steps in to fill the audio void.

Next, taking a page out of the Netflix playbook, Channels also offers a growing number of original content feeds. Amazon, the king of data, is uniquely positioned to quickly determine which topics and genres will likely be most successful, so even though original content could be viewed as an expensive venture the risk is probably quite low. And hey, Amazon is never one to shy away from losing a lot of money, so this is a no-brainer for them.

Now let’s go back to the podcast topic for a moment. Yes, Channels offers access to many of the same podcasts you can get for free via iTunes and other services. So why pay for them via Channels? One word: curation.

Over the past six months I’ve immersed myself in the podcast arena, not as a creator but as a listener. I’ve spent countless times trying to find the next great podcast and it’s like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I’ve really only found three that I listen to on a regular basis but I’ve tried at least 30+ others along the way. Part of my exploration involved working my way top to bottom through the popular lists while others hit my radar through recommendations from similar feeds. I’m convinced that neither approach is optimal and that there’s a huge opportunity to dramatically improve the inefficient discovery experience here.

Channels promises a curation process powered by editors who handpick only the best of the best. Will it improve podcast discovery? Only time will tell, but it’s got to be better than the discovery options we’ve dealt with up to now.

All of this comes to you for the low, low price of $4.95 per month. If you’re already an Audible subscriber, typically paying $14.95 per month, you now have access to Channels for no additional charge. Btw, if you’re looking for that pricing info and a quick way to sign up, just go to this rather hard-to-find page.

Audible Channels isn’t just for consumers interested in short-form audio content. It’s also an important lesson for publishers of all types of written content. Amazon is 20+ years old and they’re still disrupting. If Channels is successful every periodical publisher will soon discover they’ll need to make their content available on it, producing yet another new chapter in the story of Amazon’s marketplace dominance.

Subscription options are pretty limited today but I can see a future where I’ll be able to subscribe to audio versions of the sports sections from all the papers I care about, for example. When that happens, don’t you think newspaper publishers will deeply regret the fact that they didn’t build this platform themselves?

Here’s what book publishers can learn from the podcast model

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 1.38.08 PMDid you make the same mistake I did and assume podcasts are yesterday’s platform, that interest in them has plateaued (at best) and they’re not worth thinking about today? If so, here’s a short article that might help you re-think your stance. If you’re still not convinced have a look at the infographic in this article, paying close attention to the chart showing how podcast listening is on the rise.

What seemed like a fad that’s dying off is actually showing nice growth. I’m contributing to that growth as I now listen to a variety of podcasts during my daily work commute. As I leverage this medium I’m realizing it offers some very important lessons for book publishers:

Simple, easy subscriptions – When I discover a new podcast I’m interested in I literally click once to subscribe and the content stream comes to me. What could be easier? More importantly, what’s the analogy in the book publishing world? How do I “subscribe” to an author, series or topic? We all have our favorite authors. Wouldn’t it be terrific if a single click could initiate a subscription to everything they write in the future? That includes having samples of their new books delivered automatically to your preferred reading app/device.

Steady rhythm – Your favorite podcasts are usually delivered on a predictable schedule. Some are daily while others are weekly. This rhythm leads to anticipation, knowing that today’s edition will be loaded on your device at the usual time. This is another concept that’s totally foreign to book publishers. Books are released according to seemingly random schedules and some publishers are still even locked into the old “season” model. If you’re going to enable readers to subscribe to an author or topic as described above, be sure to produce a steady, engaging stream of valuable content for your audience.

Discovery – This remains one of the hot topics, always on the minds of book publishers. If you’re focused on discovery think about this question: How well do each of your products enable discovery of your other, related products? Some publishers still rely on back-of-book ads, even in ebooks. How about automatically delivering other, related content to your audience? A good example is how NPR promotes new podcasts. Yes, they advertise by plugging new ones in old, established podcasts. But recently I noticed they took the bold step of automatically downloading the first segment of a new podcast onto my device. I don’t recall opting in to that and it might irritate anyone keeping a close eye on their data plans but it’s a novel concept. I wasn’t going to seek that new podcast out and now all I have to do is click “play” to try it out, yet another example of one-click access and engagement.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the podcast marketplace it’s time to take a closer look. Subscribe to two or three that look interesting and see what other lessons can be learned.

Here’s how Siri, Alexa and other IPAs will revolutionize publishing

Information-1183331_1280For the past several years I’ve been writing about how containers such as books, newspapers and magazines are slowly fading away. They’ll certainly be around for many years but their relevance will slip into the background as personalized, digital content streams become more important.

The more I think about the future the more I believe two other trends will have an even more significant impact on reading, learning and engaging with content: voice user interfaces (VUI) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Today Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are mostly perceived as gimmicks. Tomorrow these intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) will become the gateway to a whole new way of consuming and interacting with content.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how these IPAs need to break free of their current apps and devices, becoming platforms to a broader set of content services. It’s great that Amazon’s Alexa can now be experimented with via the site, but how long will it take before these services realize their full potential, not simply serve as a way to ask whether or not it will rain tomorrow?

Ultimately, I’m convinced these IPAs will enable us to have conversations with the most knowledgeable experts we’ll never meet and who really don’t even exist. Think about that for a moment.

It’s one thing to ask Alexa questions like, “what was the score of last night’s Cubs game?” or “what was Muhammad Ali’s most famous quote?”. It’s entirely different when you treat the device like a trusted advisor or teacher by asking things like, “who was the best Cubs player of all time?”; in this case, the response can’t simply be retrieved from a reference guide as it requires a highly subjective answer based on gathering and interpretation of facts as well as a healthy dose of conjecture. That’s where AI comes into play.

The model I’m describing likely requires AI capabilities that are more powerful than today’s. In 2016 company like Narrative Science can take a baseball game box score and turn it into a two-paragraph newspaper summary; tomorrow these AI platforms will need to be able to tell more of the story as well as answer questions like, “how did Anthony Rizzo get to second base in the fourth inning?”.

Let’s apply this to a more interesting, lengthier use-case. Maybe I want to learn about electricity and electrical wiring for a home project I’m working on. I want to do this all via voice and audio during my daily commute to and from work. Today I could turn to a variety of YouTube videos, websites and books. Tomorrow I want to simply start with this request: Tell me the essentials of electricity.

The IPA then dives right into a tutorial, perhaps taken from one of those resources noted earlier (e.g., books, websites, etc.) The session is highly interactive though. Every so often I might ask a clarifying question like, “what’s the difference between the black wire and the white wire?” or “is a wire nut OK on its own or should I also wrap the connection in electrical tape?”, and the assistant provides the answers then returns to the lesson.

To contrast, in today’s world we’re used to thinking in terms of the document model and how search results are simply an intermediate step. That step might just be one of many the user has to proceed through to ultimately get their answer. In the IPA world of tomorrow the experience needs to feel more like a conversation with an old friend or instructor; the IPA selects the best path rather than relying on you to find the needle in the search results haystack.

All of this dialog presumably will go through the Amazon’s and Google’s of the world and the answers come back through those same gatekeepers as well. But ultimately consumers will insist on the dialog and answers coming from other trusted brands and sources. So one day I might start that electricity session by saying something like, “take me to the Home Depot channel” and then I can have my dialog within an ecosystem of more reliable, highly relevant content and responses.

In order to make this giant leap the content must either be richly tagged, thoroughly analyzed by a powerful AI platform or a little bit of both. Either way I’m excited about the new opportunities it represents.

Let’s take “Search Inside the Book” to a whole new level

Telescope-187472_1920Do you remember when Amazon introduced both “Look Inside” and “Search Inside” functionality for books? They were such simple yet revolutionary features at the time. Before Look/Search Inside it was impossible to do a simple flip test like you could at a brick-and-mortar store.

Fast-forward to today where we take Look/Search Inside features for granted, so much so that there’s been virtually no innovation on this front. I believe there’s a real opportunity here though to help consumers find what they’re looking for as well as significantly improve the overall content discovery and evaluation process.

Let’s start with a simple question: Why are Search and Look Inside both limited to individual books? What if my first problem is to figure out which book has the most in-depth coverage of topic xyz? Let’s say I want to do some research on the Pittsburgh Pirates, specifically looking for coverage of a former player named Dave Parker. How do I find the book with the most in-depth coverage of Parker?

The typical approach is to search on Amazon. The search results there are initially sorted by relevance and you might think that’s the end of the story. But all Amazon is really doing is searching the metadata associated with each book; they’re not searching the actual contents of the books to push titles with higher relevance to the top of the results. That means books with that name or phrase in the title often get pushed to the top.

Take a closer look at those search results and you’ll quickly appreciate just how ineffective the current Amazon solution is. You’ll need to skip past the first four results as they’re not books at all; I requested “books” only but the results reflect the challenges Amazon has with internal product types and definitions. Those are followed by a couple of titles that have nothing to do with Dave Parker the former baseball player but they happen to be authored by another guy named Dave Parker. This shows how much Amazon’s search prioritizes a book’s metadata; there are probably very few references to “Dave Parker” inside those books but these titles float toward the top of the results simply because of the author name. Next is a book about Dave Winfield, another former baseball player, which looks promising. The problem here is that it made it to the first page of results because the book’s co-author is Tom Parker, so when Amazon sees “Dave Winfield” and “Tom Parker” next to each other it thinks there’s a hit because of the former’s first name plus the latter’s last name. Ugh.

At this point you might think the solution is to go to Google Book Search. Take a look at Google's results and I think you’ll agree I’m no closer to finding the right book than I was at the start. To be fair, Google Book Search is a better solution than Amazon’s search but there are still some enormous holes. For example, although Google’s service is searching the book contents it’s still highly biased by the metadata. Just look at the author names of the first several titles in those search results and you’ll see what I mean. Also, Google is severely limited because their solution is tightly connected to their book preview service. That means Google will only show you some of the pages with hits, hiding many others and then completely cutting off your view once you reach a certain threshold.

What we really need is something like Google Book Search across an entire library, with full visibility into all the content, featuring an algorithm that’s smart enough to focus on true relevance and isn’t thrown off simply by metadata. The results would show two or three lines of the text surrounding each hit so the reader can appreciate the context throughout.

This uber-search would be powerful for some types of books and totally useless for others. For example, there’s absolutely no need for it in the fiction space but think about how useful it would be in non-fiction areas like business, science, technology, biography, cooking, etc. I see this as a service a publisher could place on their website, dramatically improving the current metadata-only search results you typically find.

In fact, this uber-search vision is a service my OSV colleagues and I are currently exploring with a third-party developer. Before we get too far along with it we wanted to describe it for the publishing community to see if anyone knows of a better solution that already exists. We haven’t found one yet but as we roll it out we’ll be sure to describe the process here so other publishers can learn from our experience and potentially embrace our solution as well.

Here’s how one question can improve creativity and problem solving

Idea-1289879_1280If you only listen to one podcast this week make sure it’s the one embedded below. It’s one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking talks I’ve ever heard. The speaker is Bernard Roth and the talk is from a series of entrepreneurial podcasts offered by Stanford.

What makes this one so special? It might be exactly what you need to help solve a thorny problem or get you or your team thinking differently about creativity. It all has to do with reframing the situation by asking why it’s a problem to begin with.

For example, one of the attendees who runs a startup said she’s struggling with the fact that many of her customers don’t want to pay their bills. Roth asks a series of “why” questions to help her rethink the original problem and come up with a totally different solution.

He shares an analogy that probably sounds silly but I’ll bet you’ve done something similar. It starts with a drunk walking along the sidewalk. He walks right into a lamppost then steps back and does it again. After the third time he stops and says, “I give up…they’ve got me surrounded.” How many times have you tried to force one solution over and over without stopping to think of all the other ways to approach the situation?

I know this all sounds so obvious but I’m convinced that our existing habits are generally our biggest creativity obstacle. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Asking the “why” questions Roth suggests might be just what it takes to reframe that difficult problem you’ve been wrestling with.

I plan to keep this in mind as I work through all the challenges I’ll undoubtedly face in the coming months and I encourage you to do the same.

This idea is both a consumer feature and a marketing opportunity

Imac-606765_1920We take it for granted that when we open our favorite ebook app it automatically jumps right into the last book we were reading. And while that’s handy, I’d like to see at least one other option when I open the app.

How about a reader-customized landing page? This page should be fully configurable, based exclusively on my particular interests. For example, we all have our favorite genres, topics and authors we like to follow. Let’s start off by allowing readers to place a widget on this landing page showing the top five bestsellers in their favorite category.

Another widget I’d love to see is a quick-and-easy way to grab samples of newly published (or upcoming) books in my preferred categories. So maybe a top five list again with a one-click-sample download button next to each cover.

Then there’s the social opportunity… I recently asked one of my good friends to tell me the best WWII books he’s read over the past few years. That was done through a combination of texting and email. How about adding a capability to this landing page so I can quickly find (or follow) my most trustworthy friends and answer that question right in the reader app? Both of us would have to opt in, of course, but what a great way to share and access highly relevant information, especially when it’s in such close proximity to the one-click sampling/buying process.

You’ve undoubtedly seen some of this functionality on your favorite retailer’s website or through their email marketing campaigns. That’s great, but sometimes I go to to buy dog food, not books, and my email inbox is already overflowing with other marketing messages. Frankly, I think I’ve become numb to all the sales pitches that hit my inbox every day. Now compare that to the time when I’m opening the Kindle or Google Play Books apps on my iPad; that’s when I’m focused on books, but not just reading…I’m often ready for book discovery when I launch those apps, so why not help me find what I might be interested in?

I also realize most of the time we might want to just leave well enough alone and continue jumping right back into that last book we were reading. Great, but how about placing a button in the app’s nav bar to quickly take me to this configurable landing page?

Another nice touch would be to let me customize the feeds by day and time. For example, if I’m opening it up during business hours I’m probably looking for work-related content. But let me also configure it to show sports and history lists and samples when it’s after 5PM or on the weekend.

You’d think that Amazon would already offer something like this in the Kindle app. All the other reader apps tend to follow their lead and since books now represent such a small slice of Amazon’s overall revenue it would be great to see some other ebook retailer step up and innovate with a service like this.

Here’s where innovative publishers need to focus

Idea-48100_1280There are a number of key attributes successful publishers will be known for in the future. These core capabilities will be very different from the ones that have led to the modern empires of the Big Five.

Some attributes will remain the same, of course. For example, it will always be crucial for publishers to acquire, develop and produce excellent content. But the services and capabilities that surround and complement the acquire/develop/produce core are what will matter most.

With that in mind, here’s my short list of what will separate tomorrow’s publishing leaders from all the rest:

Being data-driven – Remember the old days when Ingram data was the only source of industry-wide sell-through information? Then Bookscan hit the scene and it felt like we moved from the Stone Age to the Information Age. I’m not talking about this kind of data. Bookscan and other retailer sell-through numbers are lagging indicators. They represent what happened yesterday, last week or last month. The successful publisher of tomorrow wants to know what’s happening right now and where the trends are leading. Real-time website analytics, heat maps, email open/click-thru rates…that’s where the actionable data can be found today but most book publishers treat them as secondary information sources at best. A publisher who thinks they’re data-driven today might adjust plans for a book scheduled to publish six months from now based on sell-through data they studied from last month. Tomorrow’s data-driven publisher will alter the free content on their website this afternoon based on information they gathered this morning.

Breaking free of containers – Why are publishers focused on lagging indicators? Because they’re stuck in the era of containers. They’re producing books, magazines or newspapers and they measure everything based on those containers. It may not be obvious but the container model is slowly fading away. Please don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying books are going away. Print books will still be produced for a long, long time. But the way content is being consumed is shifting to a more digital, container-less model. Think about that last bit of content you read on your phone. Did you care whether it was originally produced for a newspaper, a magazine, a blog, a website or a newsletter? Probably not. What mattered most is that the content covered a topic that matters to you. Innovative publishers need to think more about highly relevant content streams rather than content containers.

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) – I vividly recall talking five years ago with a Big Six executive about the importance of creating a vibrant direct-to-consumer channel. She rolled her eyes and said they’d never do that because they prefer to let their retail partners handle the consumer connection. I feel somewhat validated now as I see that same publisher experimenting more and more with D2C. It’s not just about capturing all the revenue. The data and resulting opportunities to do some very powerful things with that data are what make D2C such an important model. That, and the fact that you become less reliant on middlemen who control your destiny, ought to be reason enough to focus on D2C.

Owning and leveraging the list – The most important piece of data every publisher should own is the customer name and email address. This is what makes D2C so special. Securing names and emails isn’t as easy as simply making a sale. You’ve got to earn the consumer’s trust by having them opt in to your future marketing campaigns. Too many publishers who have built a D2C channel simply become data hoarders, gathering names and emails but never doing much with them.

Building the funnel – One of the biggest reasons publishers don’t go direct is that they feel they’re unable to attract enough traffic to make it worthwhile. That’s because they’re not applying the funnel model. You start by offering plenty of outstanding free content on your site. Once visitors arrive and they like what they read you have the opportunity to connect with them via free newsletters, for example; rather than waiting and hoping they come back, offer to continue sending outstanding content right to their email inbox. Part of this step includes asking them to opt in for other offers and information from you. As the funnel narrows from top to bottom, you’re leading these consumers along a path loaded with all your terrific content, some of it free and some of it paid.

This isn’t for everyone. For example, the Big Five are simply too reliant on the existing ecosystem, unwilling to risk alienating certain channel partners and built upon a very rigid container-based creation and distribution model. The Big Five will remain large, just like B&N and Borders did for many years after Amazon arrived. But then Borders went away and in order to survive B&N evolved from a bookstore to a gift shop.

The smaller players though, the ones who focus on a particular topic, vertical or audience are the publishers who are best positioned to embrace the attributes described above. And as they do they’ll find themselves in a far better world with a direct connection to customers and the ability to serve those customers with more than just one or two types of container-driven content.

Why is text-to-speech only an afterthought?

Buttons-304219_1280I spend a lot of time commuting to and from work in my car and I try to use the time wisely. I cycle through a playlist of podcasts every week but I feel like I’m missing out on other types of content. Regardless of your daily commute, I’ll bet you’d feel the same way if you’d stop to consider the possibilities.

I’m thinking mostly about short-form content such as website articles, whitepapers and other documents. If someone sends me a link or I discover an interesting article online it’s highly likely I won’t have time to read it immediately. That’s why I typically save it in Instapaper or Evernote.

This approach has turned me into an article hoarder as I have countless unread articles in both Instapaper and Evernote. So while I thought my problem was a lack of time at that moment, the truth is I rarely have time to read many of these things later either.

To its credit, the Instapaper app for Android has a text-to-speech feature built in. But the way it’s implemented tells me it was added as an afterthought. Sure, I can tap the “Speak” button and sit back and listen, but how useful is that when you’ve got a bunch of 2-4 minute articles stacked up and you’re trying to go hands-free while driving along the highway (or taking a walk, or running on a treadmill, etc.)?

Publishers sometimes talk of engaging with the consumer who’s reading their content while standing in the proverbial grocery store check-out line. Next time you’re in line at the grocery store look around. Nobody reads like that. Some people have their phones out but they’re probably scanning Facebook or sending a text message. Rather than heads-down reading you’re more likely to see people with ear buds in, listening to music while they shop or wait in line. And let’s face it: nobody reads while they’re running or doing other strenuous activities.

So along with all those “send to” buttons for various social and “read later” services, why isn’t there one built exclusively for text-to-speech conversions that open up all sorts of new use-cases for content consumption?

The service has to do much more than just transform text to audio though. There’s an important UI component that needs to be considered. The entire platform has to be audio-based, including voice commands. Picture an app on your phone that has all the voice command capabilities of Siri or Alexa, for example. Whether you’re driving or running, all you’d have to do is say things like “skip”, “next article”, “archive”, “annotate”, etc. The user should be able to manually create playlists and the service should offer the option of automatically detecting topics and placing each article in a relevant folder (e.g., sports, business, DIY, etc.).

Don’t forget the social aspect and opportunities here. Using voice commands I should be able to quickly and easily share an interesting article via email, Twitter, etc. Let me also keep track of the most popular articles other users are listening to so I don’t miss anything that might be gaining momentum.

One business model option is probably quite obvious: insert short audio ads at the start of each article, similar to the plugs I’m hearing more frequently in podcasts. And since the article topic and keywords can be identified before streaming it’s easy to serve highly relevant ads that are closely aligned with the articles themselves; think Google AdSense for audio. Give publishers an incentive to feature new “send to audio” buttons on their articles by sharing that well-targeted ad income with them.

Doesn’t this seem like it’s right in Google’s wheelhouse? I suppose they’ve got bigger fish to fry but this looks like an existing marketplace gap that’s just waiting to be filled.

Here’s how indexing could evolve with ebooks

Telescope-122960_1920Last month I shared some thoughts about how indexes seems to be a thing of the past, at least when it comes to ebooks. I’ve given more consideration to the topic and would like to offer a possible vision for the future.

Long ago I learned the value an exceptional indexer can bring to a project. For example, there’s a huge difference between simply capturing all the keywords in a book and producing an index that’s richly filled with synonyms, cross-references and related topics. And while we may never be able to completely duplicate the human element in a computer-generated index I’d like to think value can be added via automated text analysis, algorithms and all the resulting tags.

Perhaps it’s time to think differently about indexes in ebooks. As I mentioned in that earlier article, I’m focused exclusively on non-fiction here. Rather than a static compilation of entries in the book I’m currently reading, I want something that’s more akin to a dynamic Google search.

Let me tap a phrase on my screen and definitely show me the other occurrences of that phrase in this book, but let’s also make sure those results can be sorted by relevance, not just the chronological order from the book. Why do the results have to be limited to the book I’m reading though? Maybe that author or publisher has a few other titles on that topic or closely related topics. Those references and excerpts should be accessible via this pop-up e-index as well. If I own those books I’m able to jump directly to the pages within them; if not, these entries serve as a discovery and marketing vehicle, encouraging me to purchase the other titles.

This approach lends itself to an automated process. Once the logic is established, a high-speed parsing tool would analyze the content and create the initial entries across all books. The tool would be built into the ebook reader application, tracking the phrases that are most commonly searched for and perhaps refining the results over time based on which entries get the most click-thru’s. Sounds a lot like one of the basic attributes of web search results, right?

Note that this could all be done without a traditional index. However, I also see where a human-generated index could serve as an additional input, providing an even richer experience.

How about leveraging the collective wisdom of the community as well? Provide a basic e-index as a foundation but let anyone contribute their own thoughts and additions to it. Don’t force the crowdsourced results on all readers. Rather, let each consumer decide which other members of the community add the most value and filter out all the others.

This gets back to a point I’ve made a number of times before. We’re stuck consuming dumb content on smart devices. As long as we keep looking at ebooks through a print book lens we’ll never fully experience all the potential a digital book has to offer.

Another way to monetize ebooks

Coins-948603_1920In today’s market there are typically two methods for ebook distribution: free or paid. I’ve said before that one day we’ll see an ad-subsidized model take hold. Purists generally reject that concept, saying they won’t let advertisements interfere with their reading experience. That’s fine. They can pay full price but I’ll sometimes opt for the cheaper (or free) ad-subsidized version.

There’s another option that could become popular one day and it will be almost as as frictionless as the free model.

Are you familiar with Google’s Opinion Rewards app? I learned about it a couple of years ago and now I use it to buy three or four ebooks per year. Once the app is installed on your mobile device you’ll get periodic notifications asking you to respond to a survey. These questions can feel kind of creepy as Google uses the geo service in your device to ask specifics about stores you recently visited, for example. It takes about 10 seconds to answer and each survey nets me anywhere from 10 to 50 cents, sometimes even more; I usually end up with $10-$12 in my Google account every two to three months and I always use it to buy an ebook in the Google Play store.

With that in mind, imagine a service where you can download all the ebooks you want, for no charge. The content is locked and it becomes accessible as you answer a survey question every few pages. Or maybe you answer a few survey questions at the start of each chapter. Either way, rather than cash or credit card, you’re paying for the ebook with your data and opinions.

Again, this model isn’t for everyone. Privacy freaks will definitely choose the traditional option, paying full price to avoid sharing more data or opinions.

In order to make this happen we’ll need an ebook application and platform that supports a survey-driven business model. Google would be the logical choice as they could easily integrate their Opinion Rewards service in their ebook app. I doubt that will happen though as Google has expressed almost zero interest in the ebook marketplace. Doesn’t it seem as though they only released an ebook application because Apple has one?

In order for any company to offer this option they’d have to place a high value on the survey data. That means they’d either use the results to improve their own business (unlikely) or sell the anonymized results to others (more likely).

The key difference with this model for publishers is that they’ll earn only as their content is read. So if most users download the book then lose interest after a chapter or two, that’s all the survey income the publisher will earn; this pay-as-you-go model scares the heck out of most publishers because they’d rather get full price up front and not worry about whether the content was engaging or if readers finished the book.

There’s a huge ecosystem of free ebooks today. Publishers and authors typically give these books away and hope some number of readers will buy the next title in the series or another book from that author. A pay-as-you-go model, which doesn’t really force the user to open their wallets, could become a more viable option, helping authors and publishers better understand how their content is being consumed.

What’s the missing ingredient for unlimited reading services?

Infinity-1179939_1280I’ve been a fan of unlimited e-reading services for at least a couple of years now. When Oyster Books went under I shifted to Kindle Unlimited. For short-form magazine content I use Texture, the offering formerly known as Next Issue.

Prices for these services are typically in the $10-15/month range and, for the most part, I think they’re worth it. Even though I refer to them as “unlimited” one key shortcoming is what’s not available in the all-you-can-read platforms. You’ll rarely find the bestselling books in an unlimited reading service, for example. Just because the catalog offered contains hundreds of thousands of titles doesn’t mean you’re likely to find the next great read there.

Lately I’m realizing that I’m not getting much use out of my Texture subscription. The issue isn’t so much that it lacks titles. In fact, now that Texture includes access to almost 200 magazines it’s hard to find ones that aren’t included, and that’s the problem.

The value proposition for these unlimited services has always been based up on overwhelming you with content. What I really want them to offer now is a curated experience.

Texture knows that I enjoy reading BusinessWeek and Sports Illustrated, for example. Why not let me configure my Texture subscription to ensure I never miss articles about my favorite teams and industries/companies I want to follow? Then use that information to help me continue expanding my horizons, presenting me with content on adjacent businesses, for example.

Put all that material together in a custom magazine, made just for me every week (or whatever frequency I prefer). Let me vote up/down on articles so the system can better determine what I really like (e.g., certain writers, themes, styles, etc.) How about letting me share my custom magazines with other Texture subscribers, and vice versa?

Curation of unlimited book subscriptions is a bit trickier. But how about starting by sending excerpts from newly added titles I might enjoy, based on my reading habits to date? It often feels like I’m searching for that needle in a haystack when I try to figure out what book I should read next. There have got to be ways to simplify and help me narrow things down as well as ensure I don’t overlook an obvious winner.

I’m not looking for a million books or hundreds of magazines. I want what most interests me and I’d like to see the subscription services figure that out. Don’t make me just come to you and open your app. Communicate with me via email and/or text messages if I prefer. Surprise and delight me rather than simply expecting me to be wowed by the overwhelming amount of content offered.

A new take on ebook windowing

Window-941625_1920Ebook windowing is a technique designed to prevent ebooks from cannibalizing print book sales. The original thinking went something like this: Release a new title in print format only, thereby preventing e-cannibalization.

The result? Frustrated consumers. If you’re an ebook reader there’s nothing worse than realizing a digital edition doesn’t exist for that new book you recently discovered and were ready to buy. These days it seems the lack of a digital edition isn’t the result of publisher windowing as much as publisher ebook indifference.

I think it’s time to reconsider the windowing model, but with a twist.

Rather than offering print without digital initially, why not offer that ebook exclusively on the publisher’s website? For the first 30 days, for example, the ebook is only available as a direct-to-consumer option from the publisher. Most ebooks are ready for download before the print book anyway, so this is a new way of taking advantage of the print manufacturing and distribution delays. When the final version is ready to send to the printer the publisher can make it available for purchase as an ebook on their site. The e-exclusivity period expires when the book is off the press and in stores a few weeks later.

Two of the big challenges with this approach are:

  1. Making sure consumers are aware of the initial exclusively direct availability
  2. Getting consumers to change their buying behavior

Neither of these is easily overcome but both are critical for a successful direct-to-consumer strategy. They also require a long-term commitment, so don’t expect game-changing results initially.

The awareness obstacle starts with creation and careful management of a customer list. Email newsletters are critical and they must contain valuable information and insights, not just one promotional message after another. This isn’t just about emails and list management though. A publisher needs to be committed to building community with their audience, giving them reasons to come to their site on a regular basis, etc. Many publishers have an allergic reaction to this approach; these publishers will never create a successful direct channel.

Raising and maintaining consumer awareness is hard enough, but changing consumer buying behavior has a much higher degree of difficulty. If you’re a Kindle reader and you’ve built a large e-library with Amazon you need a compelling reason to buy your next ebook from somewhere else.

The direct sales model eliminates the retailer and enables the publisher to keep a larger chunk of the revenue. In many cases this means the publisher nets 100% of the selling price vs. only about 50% when the ebook is sold through a retailer. So why not pass a portion of that difference along to consumers? A 40%-off deal during that initial direct-only stage might be a compelling enough reason for some of those Kindle loyalists to consider buying direct instead, especially if the Kindle price ends up being close to list.

I realize this strategy won’t put a dent in Amazon’s ebook dominance. But over time it can enable publishers to build a stronger direct-to-consumer business, the benefits of which include knowing who your customers are, being able to market directly to them and gathering analytics about their reading behavior.