How “Send to Kindle” can help neutralize Amazon

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.52.39 AMPublishers who sell ebooks direct to consumers typically do so in EPUB format. That’s because most publishers are still wedded to the false sense of security DRM provides and EPUB offers a popular DRM solution. Contrast that with Amazon’s format, MOBI, where Amazon is the only company who can apply and manage MOBI’s DRM’d files and settings.

A former colleague of mine and I used to get a kick out of reading the many painful steps readers are forced to go through when buying DRM’d EPUB files direct from publisher websites. It’s not uncommon for the process to require more than a dozen steps to proceed from buying to reading. Most of the process has to be endured once again if the consumer decides to start reading the same book on another device.

Click here or here to see the many hoops one must jump through to install DRM’d EPUB ebooks on one device as well as read them across multiple devices. It’s no wonder when you search for help on the topic the most popular links aren’t how to manage the process but rather how to remove the DRM and eliminate the associated headaches.

More and more publishers are starting to realize that DRM is pointless but they’re still missing out on one of the biggest opportunities of all: Putting their DRM-free ebooks into a reader’s Kindle library.

It’s no secret that Amazon dominates the ebook marketplace. Most readers have built a substantial Kindle library and the last thing they want to do is create a new library outside the Kindle ecosystem. They simply want all their books in one place.

Amazon’s Send to Kindle functionality has been around for quite awhile and I believe it’s one of the most underutilized services available to publishers. The Send to Kindle email option lets publishers push non-DRM’d ebooks directly onto a consumer’s Kindle bookshelf. I’m sure it was originally designed for documents other than ebooks but I think it’s time for book publishers to take advantage of it for their ebooks as well.

In addition to simply selling EPUB or PDF ebooks, why not provide readers with the MOBI version and push them directly onto their Kindle devices and apps? All you have to do is ask the reader for their unique Kindle email address and then have them enable inbound emails from your domain. Once that’s in place you’re able to place the ebook on their shelf just like Amazon does.

Once you’ve established that direct relationship with the consumer and their Kindle account, why not ask them if they want to opt in to receiving future related ebook samples from you? They’ll no longer have to search for similar books from your list as you’ll be able to automatically push samples to the reader’s Kindle bookshelf as they’re published. Take it a step further and make your samples available via this service 30 days before they’re available anywhere else. Get even more creative and offer a random free ebook prize to some number of lucky winners every month. There are plenty of ways to make Send to Kindle work for you and your customers.

It’s all part of creating a compelling reason for readers to come to you, the publisher, rather than always relying on retailer partners. Used wisely, the Send to Kindle service can help neutralize Amazon’s dominance while also helping publishers establish a better direct relationship with their customers.


What’s your mobile, snackable content strategy?

Snacks-1025396_1920Last week I highlighted some of the more interesting findings reported in a document Google published called Micro-Moments: Your Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile. This week I want to focus on a couple of other important points in that document as well as provide an example of how publishers need to leverage the mobile opportunity that awaits them.

In my earlier article I mentioned Google’s stat about searches for video how-to content. The search giant said the year-over-year growth rate for how-to videos is 70%. So despite the fact that YouTube is hardly a new sensation it’s clear the momentum for how-to solutions is with video, not written content. After all, would anyone dare claim that how-to written content is growing by at least 70%?

Here are two other noteworthy stats in Google’s document:

  • On page 14 they state that 48% of smartphone users are more likely to buy from companies whose mobile sites or apps provide instructional video content.
  • On page 22 we learn that, when in stores, 82% of smartphone users turn to their devices to help them make a product decision.

Last week I asked you to consider how your brand performs on keywords searches that are vital to your business. Now let’s narrow that down and ask the same question specifically for an in-store mobile experience. My guess is your brand is nowhere near the top of the results and even if it is it probably doesn’t deliver a short, effective mobile-optimized solution.

In the publishing world we often focus on print vs. digital and how digital will one day replace print. Recent trends indicate that the digital shift has slowed and ebook momentum has plateaued, for example. I tend to agree with Bookshout CEO Jason Illian who points out that we’re actually on the same trajectory other technologies have experienced and that we’re currently sitting in what Gartner refers to as “the trough of disillusionment.

If so, what should the publishing industry do as we await the market’s advancement to the next stages on Gartner’s curve, “the slope of enlightenment” and “the plateau of productivity”? I suggest we stop framing print and digital as mutually exclusive and focus instead on how digital can complement print (and digital).

As an example let’s use the print edition of the best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (I picked this one simply because it’s currently #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list but the same model I’m about to describe could be applied to a wide variety of titles and genres.) According to Amazon, the author offers 200 pages of advice on how to “declutter homes into spaces of serenity and inspiration”. My loving wife has often referred to me as a hoarder, so I’m sure I could learn quite a bit from this one…

I’m not sure I could force myself to read 200 pages on decluttering. It would be a long and slow effort but here’s what could make it more interesting and engaging: a mobile companion that provides inspiration and bite-size nuggets of tips to guide me on my decluttering journey.

The publisher could offer a free mobile app that complements and also serves as a marketing and discovery tool for the book. First the reader sets a goal of how fast they want to read the book. Maybe it’s spread out over a four-week period. The app also asks the reader if they want to opt into either push messages in the app or text messages to their phone; either way, the goal is for the app to provide the reader with tips on how to act on what they’ve already read as well as provide a preview of what’s to come in the next section of the book.

The key is to focus on mobile presentation and consumption. That means short bursts of content, much of which is probably 20- to 30-second videos.

This model offers the following benefits:

  1. It enables the publisher to establish a direct relationship with all their otherwise anonymous readers. The publisher features the free companion app on page one of the book and the quick registration process enables publishers to make the direct connection with their readers.
  2. The app helps make the book more engaging for readers, likely leading to a higher rate of success as they declutter their world.
  3. It serves as a gateway to discovery of the book itself. Since the publisher gives the app away it helps market the book by providing tips and techniques, the details of which can only be found in the book itself. Think of this as the next generation of the book sample.

As I mentioned earlier, this solution works well for a book on decluttering but that’s just one example. And notice that I positioned the app as a companion to the print edition. It also complements the ebook, of course, but my point is to show how print and digital can work together.

Give some thought to the type of content you produce. Can you envision a model where a digital companion delivers the three benefits I outlined above?


Maximizing mobile micro-moments

Girl-925284_1920Google recently published a document entitled Micro-Moments: Your Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile. You can download the PDF here. It’s a quick read and worth a close look.

I’ve long felt the publishing industry is too focused on simply delivering the print experience on digital devices, something often referred to as “print under glass.” That strategy has created new revenue streams over the past 10 years but it’s not the end game. Mobile represents opportunities for new methods of engagement and discovery; that’s precisely what Google’s document outlines with plenty of interesting stats.

For example, the document notes that “we check our phones 150 times a day” and then reminds us that each session is barely a minute long. That might be an average length but I’ll bet the mean is even shorter. How often do you pull your phone out for only a quick, 10-20 second peek at your email inbox or news? That’s probably my typical session length and based on what I see around me I’m confident it’s the case for plenty of others as well.

So what about that oft-used scenario of pulling the phone out to read an ebook while standing in line at the grocery store? That’s clearly something publishers fantasize about but consumers rarely, if ever, do. It’s more info snacking and short, bite-sized pieces of content that are consumed in most of these mobile sessions.

That trend isn’t changing anytime soon. As the Google doc states, in the past year mobile sessions have increased 20% while session time has decreased 18%. We’re shifting from longer desktop sessions to shorter mobile sessions.

Google asks this very important question: How does your brand perform on keywords searches that are vital to your business? Don’t just focus on search results ranking, btw. You may appear at the top but does the resulting link take a visitor to a terrific mobile experience? Responsive design is part of that but the more important point is that the destination page is constructed with content or a call-to-action perfectly designed for those 10-20 second mobile session bursts.

What does a great, mobile-optimized destination page look like? For one thing, it’s probably a single screen requiring no scrolling on even the smallest of phones. If you can’t deliver on that promise you need to focus on giving the visitor a reason to provide their email address for more details. Again, everything should be designed for an extremely short user session.

On page 8 Google says that that video how-to searches are still on an extremely steep growth trajectory. They’re up 70% year-over-year and far from plateauing. Your business is probably built around written content, but if you’re in the how-to space you’ve got to think about how to remain relevant as more solutions are discovered via mobile searches and delivered in video, not written, format.

Take a few minutes to read and highlight elements of Google’s report. There’s a lot of terrific information here and I guarantee it will both inspire you as well as force you to think about the importance of reframing your brand around mobile. There’s so much here, in fact, that I want to revisit the document in next week’s article. So stay tuned for part two where I’ll highlight several other important points as well as share a use-case for how mobile can complement, not replace, print.


When will content truly become mobile?

Mobile-605422_1920After 7+ years of working remotely from my home office I recently started a new job with a daily commute. It’s actually quite an enjoyable ride and I originally planned to make it even better with a variety of mobile/audio content. Podcasts were at the top of my list but I also figured I could finally dive into audio books and a variety of text-to-speech solutions.

Mobile content has been a hot topic for years so I figured the options would be endless. Boy, was I surprised. My car has all the modern navigational bells and whistles but it seems the most cutting-edge mobile content feature is Sirius radio, a technology that’s now almost 15 years old.

Satellite radio is nice but is that as good as it gets? Since Sirius puts their receivers in most new cars I’m wondering if the publishing industry has missed an opportunity to create a new distribution channel. Why aren’t audio books and other digital content products available via satellite radio? Yes, I realize satellite focuses on broadcasting, not narrowcasting, but surely there’s bandwidth available to send individual packets of content like an audio book to an individual receiver. That content could then be stored locally and played back at the driver’s convenience.

You could argue that Bluetooth is the solution to this problem. After all, I can buy an audio book on my phone and listen to it in my car via Bluetooth. I’d rather see a service directly integrated with my car’s in-dash system though so I’m not fumbling around with both the dashboard display and a phone. Sirius could represent an entirely new distribution partner. (What’s more likely to happen is that Amazon will eventually make its way into your new car’s touchscreen and their dominance will be extended yet again.)

Audio books probably aren’t the right solution for me after all though. I’m still reeling from sticker shock after surveying the audio book landscape. You’d have to be pretty committed to the book and format to pay more for the audio edition than you’d pay for the print edition. I thought the unlimited monthly subscription platforms might be an alternative but they have too many restrictions. Scribd is a great example. I’m limited to one audio book per month so it’s really unlimited for ebooks but very limited for audio.

I get it that most audio books incur a high production cost, especially if they’re read by a celebrity author. But why does the author have to be the audio talent? In fact, do we really even need human voice talent to create the audio editions? If you haven’t recently explored the text-to-speech world you’ll be amazed at the current capabilities. We’re no longer limited to those tinny, lifeless monotone streams, so why not automate the text-to-speech conversion without the need for pricey audio talent?

Here’s a radical idea: Sell the all-in-one edition where my print purchase also includes the ebook and audio formats. We’re seeing the beginnings of this with alternate format add-ons like Amazon’s Audible narration and Kindle MatchBook; the former brings audio to the ebook and the latter provides a discounted Kindle edition if you’ve already bought the print version. Let’s make things simpler though and stop hoping consumers will discover these tiny add-on links on the Amazon product page. Publishers should sell the all-in-one edition directly, and perhaps exclusively, giving consumers a compelling reason to buy direct.

The untapped mobile opportunity goes beyond books. In fact, I think there’s an even bigger mobile opportunity for short-form content. For example, why don’t newspapers and magazines offer audio editions? They seem to think the “digital” version of their content is limited to website articles and print replica editions. Yes, some of the replica edition platforms offer text-to-speech but not a complete, mobile audio experience.

Periodical publishers should ask themselves this question: what would Steve Jobs do? I’m pretty sure for starters he’d offer a full audio edition, structured in playlist format enabling the consumer to simply say “next” or “listen” as the app reads each of the headlines to you. Today’s audio options are simply grafted onto the written edition and not offered in a mobile-optimized format.

Many of these periodical publishers continue losing brand relevance with the younger generation. I wonder if a better mobile audio solution could help them reverse that trend.

For now my commute is limited to a variety of podcasts and one-off audio feeds and I’m left asking this question: Can we really call it “mobile” content when there are still this many gaps?


Kindle Instant Preview reinforces Amazon’s dominance

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 3.51.46 PMEbook preview widgets have been around for quite awhile but when was the last time you saw one on a blog or website? I can’t recall the last one I saw but I’ll bet that’s about to change.

Amazon recently released their Kindle Instant Previews widget and it does what its name suggests. In short, this tool makes it incredibly easy to embed or share an ebook sample on a web page or via email. The fact that it’s offered by the biggest ebook platform on the planet means it’s well positioned for success.

The sample below showcases the Kindle Instant Preview widget with one of my favorite books, The Innovator’s Dilemma.

It’s simple yet quite powerful. Most authors want to push their sales towards Amazon to help boost rankings there. Now authors will be able to place samples directly on their site, encouraging visitors to explore their content without ever leaving the site. Kindle Instant Preview also lets you add your Amazon Associates ID so you’ll be able to earn income from purchases generated by the widget.

As simple and effective as this widget is, there’s at least one key feature that’s missing. Some website visitors will have the time to read an entire sample while they’re on your web page but many won’t. The widget offers a “Read in Kindle App” button that opens the sample in the Kindle app on your device. I don’t want that though as I’ll probably discover the sample while browsing on my laptop but I don’t have (or want) the Kindle app installed on my laptop. Amazon, the king of “one-click buy” should add a “one-click send” option to push the sample directly to my Kindle app or maybe even my email inbox where I can read it later.

Given the popularity of free titles, especially the first one in a series of other paid titles, I’m wondering how liberal Amazon is with their definition of “sample.” Since the book is free I could see where an author might want to offer the entire book as the sample. If so, they could then enable visitors to read the entire book on their website. Again, that’s only for visitors who have the time to read an entire book on a website, but perhaps a few creative authors will find ways to encourage this sort of behavior.

No matter how this service evolves, one thing is clear: It only helps Amazon further increase the reach and dominance they already enjoy in the book industry.


My 2016 ebook marketplace hopes and wishes

Sylvester-1097596_1920Rather than speculate on what might happen in the ebook sector this year I thought it would be wiser to simply list the developments I’d like to see. So although some, and perhaps all, of these are a long shot, here’s my short list of hopes and wishes for the ebook market in the New Year:

Less DRM – Publishers continue to be their own worst enemy with digital rights management. It’s part of what makes it so hard for publishers to create an effective direct channel and it provides nothing more than a false sense of security. As I’ve said before, if a reader really wants to unlock and share an ebook there are a number of freely available DRM-removal utilities that are just a few clicks away. Plus, most readers have no idea where their mobi and EPUB files are stored on their devices; those who do know the location probably already have a DRM-removal tool on their computer.

Better direct-to-consumer options – Once a publisher abandons DRM it suddenly gets much easier to create a frictionless direct-to-consumer (D2C) solution. And of course I’m not suggesting publishers should abandon retailers. But it’s time for publishers to diversify their channel strategy and focus more on the one channel they have 100% control over: their D2C channel. As I’ve said before, don’t assume “if you build it, they will come.” You need compelling reasons for consumers to buy direct (see here, here and here, for example).

New, sustainable unlimited ebook subscriptions – My Oyster subscription expired a few days ago, consistent with the sunset plans Oyster announced a few months ago. Oyster itself is about to expire soon, the victim of an unsustainable business model. The all-you-can-read subscription model is not dead though. I’m convinced the way forward is with topic verticals such as sports, religion, cooking, etc. They need to offer more than long-form book content and they need to focus on building community. Think “membership” and the old AMEX line, “membership has its privileges.”

Better notes and annotations, outside the book – I’ve read quite a few ebooks over the years and I’ve highlighted a lot of passages. I’ve also added notes to several, but not as many as I should have. The reason I haven’t annotated more is because I know those notes are stuck inside the book. I want a quick and easy way to export my highlights and annotations, collate them into other documents and make them fully searchable. For example, I’d love to see ebook applications embrace Evernote functionality, making it super easy to sync all my highlights and annotations to an Evernote folder.

I hope we see progress on all of these fronts in 2016 and I hope that the New Year is a wonderful one for you, your family and your organization.


The ebook value proposition problem

Money-256319_1920My youngest daughter asked for a Harry Potter boxed set for Christmas. As I wrapped the heavy, bulky package I kept wondering why she didn’t opt for the ebook collection instead. On Christmas morning I learned why: each title in the boxed set comes with a new cover. Actually, they were supposed to have new covers but we got the wrong box, so the heavy, bulky package is about to be returned.

My daughter reminded me that ebooks are often inferior to print books. In this case, she values the ability to showcase her collection, something you just can’t do with ebooks. When we finally get the right set I’m sure she’ll smile every time she looks at the box on her shelf.

Let’s compare that to the ebook experience. My collection is a library buried deep within my iPad. When I look at my iPad I don’t smile…I just wonder if it’s fully charged for the day ahead. And although services like Goodreads can fill the digital void and help you show off your print and ebook collection, I stopped logging books there years ago; Goodreads can never replace the serendipity and conversation-starter capabilities of a physical bookshelf.

DRM and publisher pricing models also often make print more attractive than e. DRM prevents me from sharing a book with a friend or passing it along to a family member when I’m finished with it. Also, the the new agency pricing model means that consumers often only see a small savings between the e price and the print price. In some cases publishers are asking consumers to pay almost the same price for the e edition which clearly has no COGs, comes with plenty of restrictions and offers nothing more than a print-under-glass experience.

In short, most ebooks suffer from a value proposition problem. To address this situation publishers need to rethink their digital value proposition and invest in innovation.

Regarding value prop, publishers need to understand who is buying their content and how it is being used. For example, if the ebook is simply a digital alternative to the print version, offering nothing more than a print-under-glass experience, they might want to consider employing the digital companion model I described last week.

Innovation is where the real future opportunity lies though, and I’d like to illustrate that with a product that seemed to reach the end of its innovative life long ago maps.

Remember when GPS devices became affordable several years back? They brought an end to wrestling with enormous maps that required an origami degree to fold back into their original state. Then smartphones hit the scene and their built-in sensors made dedicated GPS devices obsolete. Google Maps on your phone showed you where you were and gave you turn-by-turn advice on how to reach your destination. It seemed as if there were no more innovation opportunities for maps…and then Waze arrived.

Waze brings the power of community to mapping and navigation. Thanks to Waze I see real-time warnings for debris on the road, stalled vehicles on the shoulder or congestion to avoid. Before I hop on the interstate I make sure Waze is up and running. And because Waze is community-based I try to be a good community member by contributing as much information as I consume.

The next time you think about your digital content strategy, try to avoid looking at everything through the simple, restrictive lens of print-under-glass. If maps can continue to evolve I’m quite certain books will as well.


Using ebooks to connect with indirect customers

Colorful-791927_1920Low website traffic and a lack of existing customer engagement are some of the most common reasons book publishers aren’t pursuing a direct-to-consumer (D2C) model today. They’ll point out that almost nobody comes to their site, so they question the value of investing in a D2C solution.

That’s a great point and one that shouldn’t be ignored. But it’s also a problem that can be solved and it starts with leveraging the indirect business every publisher participates in today.

I’ve suggested before that each book a publisher sells, print and digital, should include a prominent message to consumers encouraging them to connect directly with the publisher. I’m not talking about those lame “register your purchase with us” pleas that offer no meaningful benefit to readers. Just as you have to offer consumers a compelling reason to buy direct instead of from Amazon, you also have to give them a compelling reason to stop by your website and start a dialog with you, the publisher.

One bold way to do that is to offer the free e-edition of the book a consumer just purchased from a retailer. Let’s say you just bought a print book from a retailer but you also like to read ebooks in the Kindle app. Would you be willing to give the publisher your email address in exchange for them giving you the Kindle edition of that same book for free? I would.

Here’s how it would work… When I open my print edition I see this message on the very first page: Thanks for buying this book. Please visit whatever.url.com to get details on the free Kindle edition awaiting you.

Readers go to that web address and are asked to scan and email the receipt from their print purchase. They’re also asked to provide two email addresses. One is for future promotional e-mailings from the publisher and the other is the unique email address Amazon provides every Kindle customer; there’s an opt-in process for both, of course, so publishers can only send messages and ebooks after consumers have agreed to receive them.

If you’re not familiar with the Amazon-generated email address it’s something you should familiarize yourself with. It’s a terrific way to quickly send files to your Kindle app/device for future reading. For example, the Kindle app on my iPad mini uses this email address: joewikert_49@kindle.com. I’m fine sharing that with the world because Amazon also offers a simple way of preventing spam being sent to that address: In order for emailed content to make it onto my device I first have to approve the sender’s email address. So the opt-in process from the publisher says something like, “Be sure to enable messages from whoever@url.com in your Kindle settings.” Once that’s in place the free content can be sent and will automatically appear on the customer’s device.

You’re probably wondering about the authentication process. How do you prove a consumer really bought the book before you send them a free e-edition? As I mentioned, you ask them to scan and send their receipt. That requires someone on the publisher’s end to verify, of course, although I could see a programmer creating a fairly simple app that automates most of this verification step. Till then it’s something an intern or other resource would need to handle. You’ll also want to filter out the scam artists who digitally modify one receipt after another to game the system. Perhaps a limit of X books per year per email address is built in till you’re comfortable with the volume and flow of redemptions.

As you process these requests you’re building your direct email list and opening countless new marketing doors. For example, why not turn this into a way of delivering future ebook samples directly to consumers? Let them select the topics, authors or genres they prefer and use the send-to-Kindle functionality to push samples of new books before they’re published. In fact, make it more special by providing the samples direct to consumers days or weeks before the sample are available anywhere else. Maybe this becomes part of a larger membership program consumers can join.

Finally, in order for this to work the ebook (mobi) files have to be sent in a DRM-free format. After all, the only way an ebook can be DRM’d in the Kindle ecosystem is for Amazon to lock it down. If that scares you, consider this: Anyone who wants to dig into their device’s Kindle folder to find and share unlocked mobi files is more likely to simply grab a tool like Calibre and break the DRM on their entire ebook library. DRM provides publishers with nothing more than a false sense of security so it shouldn’t be the reason to ignore this opportunity.

It’s time for publishers to start leveraging all those indirect sales and establishing a direct relationship with their customers. This is simply one way of accomplishing that goal and I hope it leads to more D2C experimentation in the industry.


Whatever happened to innovation in the publishing industry?

Creativity-819371_1920Remember the excitement surrounding the launch of Amazon’s Kindle eight years ago? It was a clunky device, even by 2007 standards, but it was revolutionary. One of the original Kindle’s breakthrough features was the ability to download books via cellular network. The eInk display and extremely long battery life also led to its popularity despite the device’s hefty $399 price tag.

That was eight years ago and it’s hard to name even two or three other innovations that have had as significant an impact as the first-gen Kindle. Sure, the iPad was noteworthy but it didn’t exactly reinvent reading. And while today’s devices are faster and cheaper than yesterday’s they feature incremental improvements, not groundbreaking innovations.

The same can be said for all aspects of the digital publishing ecosystem, not just devices. The most interesting development over the past few years is probably the all-you-can-read subscription model. But any momentum there has been halted as Oyster is about to disappear and Amazon’s offering has no Big Five content. FWIW, I still believe in all-you-can-read models but only if they’re focused around a topic/genre and they avoid the unsustainable business model that crushed Oyster.

Why has there been almost no innovation in the book publishing industry since the original Kindle?

As I meet with publishers I hear a lot of conservatism and anxiety in their voices. Many are just trying to survive revenue shortfalls and staff downsizings. They’re also afraid of doing anything that might be perceived as a threat to the key retailers.

I believe most publishers are relying too much on the industry leader, Amazon, to also serve as innovation leader. Given that books (print and e) represent less than 10% of Amazon’s overall revenue I’m not convinced they’re motivated to innovate. Amazon is more focused on building other areas of the business and not so much on the book industry they currently dominate. They want to protect and grow their book market share, of course, but I doubt they want to pour a lot of money into reinvention breakthroughs. Amazon didn’t invent the all-you-can-read model, for example; they simply launched a service in reaction to Oyster and Scribd.

This is why I’ve always been a huge fan of the startup community. But it seems as though there are fewer and fewer new, interesting startups in the publishing space. Perhaps it’s because techies see more upside in other industries or maybe they too are afraid of getting squashed by the dominant player. Whatever the reason, there seems to be less startup innovation focused on publishing than ever before.

One interesting development on this front is the Ingram Content Group’s 1440 accelerator program. It’s great seeing an industry leader like Ingram stepping in to help drive and encourage innovation. I plan to keep a close eye on the startups who make the 1440 cut and I hope other publishers and leaders in the publishing ecosystem will work to support and develop similar initiatives.


Solving discovery with better content marketing

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 9.39.30 AMAsk a publisher to tell you the biggest challenge they face today and you’ll get a variety of answers. I know because I’ve been asking publishers for quite awhile now. I also made sure I posed the same question to the 20+ publishers I met with at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair.

Although the answers vary there are a small number of popular responses. One of the most common ones is simply “discovery”. Publishers are concerned that their content will never rise above all the marketplace noise.

One of the keys to addressing discovery is to focus on where consumer eyeballs already are. Facebook is a terrific example. As the planet’s largest social media network it represents an enormous opportunity for content discovery and consumption.

But go to any publisher’s or author’s Facebook page and what do you see? Mostly timelines with tips, comments and observations. Many authors that I’ve spoken with tell me that they’re trying to quickly redirect Facebook visitors to their personal websites where they have more control over things like sharing content samples with prospective customers. These same authors tell me they realize they manage to get far less than 100% of those Facebook visitors to click through, so many visitors leave without ever sampling the author’s content.

Other publishers and authors tell me they love it that they have tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes, but they don’t see any way to engage more deeply with those fans. As one author put it, “most people probably simply like my page and never come back.”

I’m pleased to announce that the Olive Software team, where I’ve had the pleasure of working since 2013, has come up with a way to help publishers and authors make their Facebook pages more engaging. And while it’s not limited to Facebook, let’s start there…

For a live example of this, check out best-selling author Valorie Burton’s Facebook page. It looks like a lot of author Facebook pages, right? One key difference is the “Read FREE Sample” button in the page’s nav bar. Click it and you’ll be taken to this view of her page; there the timeline has been replaced by a sample of her blockbuster hit, Successful Women Think Differently.

Rather than asking visitors to jump to another site or go through a multi-step process to download her sample, Valorie now lets them experience it right there on her Facebook page. And thanks to Olive’s SmartLayers capabilities, we were able to quickly add a call-to-action at the end of the sample where readers can buy the book from their favorite retailer.

I mentioned this capability isn’t limited to Facebook. Olive’s platform presents content directly in the browser, so there’s no app to download and no plug-in to install. That means the same sample widget you see on Valorie’s Facebook page can also be docked on an author website, on a publisher’s catalog page and even right inside the message body of an email marketing campaign. That’s right, publishers can now embed their ebook samples in email messages and not force readers through a bunch of multi-click gymnastics before they can even experience the content.

This solution goes well beyond samples, btw. A couple of publishers I’ve shown it to noted how they could resurrect some of their older, long-tail titles by publishing them in a serial fashion on their website, Facebook page and elsewhere. Their plan is to put the first chapter up one week, then replace it with the second chapter the next week, etc. They see this as a way of encouraging readers to visit their website or Facebook pages regularly, not just clicking a like button and never coming back.

It’s time for publishers to revisit the discovery problem, this time, applying tools like Olive’s Dynamic Book (ODB) application where content can be placed directly inside the pages and platforms where prospective customers are spending all their time.


Why the “smiling curve” has publishers frowning

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.30.33 AMAre you familiar with the “smiling curve” phenomenon? The details are provided here, but the short explanation is that a smiling curve depicts the value-add potential for each stage of an industry. For example, in the publishing space, you have three stages of content: creation, delivery and discovery. Those three stages are illustrated with a smiling curve here as part of a terrific article from Ben Thompson of Stratechery.

Note the y-axis in that graph. It represents value, so the stages with points higher up the y-axis generally add more value to the overall ecosystem. That graph indicates two stages with high value-add (creation, discovery) and one with low value-add (delivery).

Creation and discovery rank high because they’re capabilities that are extremely hard to copy. Sure, the self-publishing movement has resulted in a glut of authors, but how many are actually making money? How many have created a brand name for themselves they can leverage every time they release a new book?

The graph indicates Google, Facebook and Twitter are some of the more well-known discovery players. Thompson’s article focuses mostly on the newspaper industry but if you add Amazon to the list of discovery players the piece applies just as well to book publishing.

The key point is this: Publishers have considerably less industry and market leverage today than they did 20 years ago. Once upon a time book publishing was built around a scarcity model and publishers thrived. Digital disruption generally eliminates (most) scarcity. The resulting abundance completely destroys yesterday’s business models and forces most players to reinvent themselves to remain relevant. Those at the bottom of the smiling curve are at the mercy of those who rank higher on the y-axis.

In his article Thompson suggests that AT&T is “trying to stave off their inevitable future as a dumb pipe between valuable content and valuable devices”. Sounds very similar to the position book publishers find themselves in today, doesn’t it?

So how does a publisher climb out of the trough of the smiling curve? It’s easier said than done but I believe it comes down to publishers placing significantly more emphasis on what they do best.

For example, has your organization truly distinguished itself by being the best at finding and nurturing new author talent in a particular topic area? What would have happened to those authors without your team’s discovery and development efforts? If you truly believe your organization was the game-changer for these authors then you need to emphasize that capability and make sure every new author in your space is aware of it.

That’s one approach for dealing with the left side of the curve but what about the right side? If you’re wildly successful dealing with the left side you might not have to worry about the right side. But let’s face it. Most publishers aren’t really that great at the left side so they need to pay attention to the discovery element.

Is it even possible for a publisher to play a significant role in discovery? Some publishers would suggest they rely on their channel partners (e.g., retailers) to take care of this. These same publishers have a marketing and PR team though. They all have websites and most of them tend to utilize social media and email marketing campaigns, so I’ve got to believe they want to play a role in discovery.

The problem is most publishers only apply a half-hearted approach to discovery. They might even offer a full e-commerce solution on their site but then they wonder why nobody comes to buy. The problem is they don’t offer consumers a compelling reason to change their buying habits. It can be done though and I offered some advice in a recent article here.

Most publishers desperately want to preserve yesterday’s scarcity-based business model but what they really need to do is acknowledge and embrace abundance, be willing to cannibalize yesterday’s revenue stream and focus on what really defines their brand for both authors and consumers. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to read The Innovator’s Dilemma and think about how it applies to your business and the discovery challenge.


How digital can complement print

Laptop-819285_1920The beauty of the web is that feedback for what I write here is spread across a variety of platforms. These days it seems most of those community discussions are happening on LinkedIn and that’s where some recent comments helped me see the common thread across a few different topics I’ve been writing about.

A couple of weeks ago I noted how Nielsen data indicates a large chunk (49%) of ebook readers are also still buying print. In other words, almost half the reading community surveyed by Nielsen is straddling the fence between print and digital.

Now think about the topic of last week’s article: Publishers are worried about whether or not they can change buyer behavior and attract consumers with a compelling D2C solution. As I mentioned in that piece, a successful D2C offering must include content and services a consumer can only find directly from the publisher, not via retailers.

Instead of looking at digital and print as separate initiatives and consumer bases, it’s time for publishers to invest in digital companions to print products.

What can you create digitally that makes the print reading experience more engaging? Think about companion apps for your most successful print products. More importantly, think about how you’ll deliver those apps directly to consumers.

Here’s an example: I’m currently reading the legendary Gordie Howe’s autobiography, Mr. Hockey. I bought the e-version but this applies to print readers as well. I’m still in the early part of the book, learning about Gordie’s youth and curious to learn more about where he grew up and what that part of Canada looks like. I’m sure my curiosity will continue through the book as I read about the various youth hockey programs he dominated as well as his many years in the NHL and WHA.

If I want to take a deeper dive into Gordie’s story most of it is only a few Google searches away. But why force readers to sift through piles of Google results in search of the most interesting nuggets? Why not have the editor or author provide their recommendations? Put those links in an app that I can open on my phone next to my tablet (or print edition of the book).

Next, make it social. How many people reading this book saw Gordie play in person? Quite a few, I’ll bet. Many of them probably also have photos from those days they could quickly and easily contribute to the app, making it even more valuable for everyone. I’d love to see some previously unpublished shots of Gordie from the 1950’s or even the early WHA days. The app then evolves into a community product and becomes richer as time goes on and more readers contribute their memories.

Next, and I realize Gordie isn’t in the best of health these days, but why not have the author make a cameo appearance in the app from time to time? Publicize a live chat with the author every so often and make sure that session is only accessible in the app. Record those sessions and maintain them in an archive area of the app.

The companion described above is probably a freebie for everyone but I can envision some models where the app might cost 99 cents or even a few dollars. It all depends on the added value it offers. It’s a terrific promotional vehicle for the publisher and a way to establish a strong, meaningful direct relationship with consumers.

Here’s the most important point: Make sure the digital companion is prominently featured in all versions of the book, including print and every flavor of e. It should be the first thing readers see when they open the book. A message like, “Thanks for buying this wonderful product. Be sure to visit our website to obtain the free companion we’ve created for it.” When they come, they register and are asked to opt into your marketing program(s).

A strategy like this not only increases the value of the original book, it also helps publishers create that compelling D2C solution and converts indirect customers into direct ones. It may not work for every book but I’m convinced it’s a model worth pursuing for most titles, especially your bestsellers. 


Direct-to-consumer: Can you change buyer behavior?

Shopping-cart-728408_1920I recently visited a mid-size publisher to discuss direct-to-consumer (D2C) strategies with their sales and marketing leaders. Towards the end of the session I was asked the most important question of the day and it’s something publishers pursuing a D2C solution need to carefully assess: Can we really change buyer behavior?

The point is that most consumers are trained to buy from Amazon. Further, those same consumers don’t want to bother with multiple bookshelves and accounts. Once you start buying from one ebook retailer you tend to stick with them.

I’m an Amazon Prime member and that means Amazon is the first place I look to buy just about everything. Heck, we even “subscribe” to dog food on Amazon for our three basset hounds, so I’m a textbook example of a consumer who’s been trained by Bezos & Co.

My answer to the question was simple: No, you can’t change buyer behavior…unless you can truly offer a compelling reason for consumers to buy direct.

Simply adding a shopping cart to your catalog pages won’t cut it. You’re also not going to make a dent trying to beat Amazon on pricing, so why create a race to the bottom?

In order to change buyer behavior you’ve got to think about how you can offer something consumers won’t find anywhere else.

I told this publisher’s sales and marketing leaders they need to envision a product assortment that showcases items not available on Amazon or any other retailer. I’m talking about short-form content that complements their books, video material that’s only offered on the publisher’s site, and yes, even some full-length ebooks that aren’t distributed through traditional retailer channels.

Samples are another way of creating a compelling D2C solution. Publishers should super-size the samples they offer on their site. Make them longer than the ones consumers can get elsewhere and, when possible, add elements to make them richer as well.

Timing of samples can also be leveraged. Why not make those samples available earlier and exclusively on the publisher’s website? One of the things that frustrates me about upcoming titles is how the sample isn’t available till the book publishes. Why? OK, I know the goal is to have a coordinated launch date so that title rankings will all benefit from a synchronized release. Fine, but let me grab the sample before publication and backorder the title so I don’t forget about it. Publishers, you should offer samples exclusively on your website a month or so before the book actually publishes. Attract consumers and train them to come to you for the sample, not the retailer.

For publishers willing to acknowledge that digital rights management (DRM) only provides a false sense of security, sell your ebooks without this annoying limitation. Also, provide all formats to consumers when they buy direct (e.g., EPUB, mobi and PDF). Leverage services like Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” to push your D2C books onto the consumer’s Kindle bookshelf.

Turn all these services into a club readers can join then focus on surprising and delighting them every step of the way.

I admit this isn’t a model for all publishers. If your title list is wide and shallow, offering only one or two titles each on a large number of topics, you’ll never make this work. But if you cater to a particular genre or subject and your title list has plenty of depth you’ve already got the foundation for a compelling D2C solution.

Also, don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to build and maintain D2C momentum. You need to plan a steady stream of exclusive content offerings and services, just as a magazine publisher creates an editorial calendar. Don’t assume you flip a switch, offer a few exclusive items and you’re done. This requires an ongoing commitment of dedicated resources.

If you’re one of those publishers with a deep foundational list you have two choices: You can either diversify your channel strategy by investing in a strong D2C model or you can sit back and let the big retailers determine your destiny. I strongly believe those who choose the former will be in a much better position to survive and thrive. 


U.S. book publishing industry stats from Nielsen

Business-925900_1920Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 is in the rearview mirror but there were a few noteworthy tidbits gleaned from the event. Some of the more important facts and figures were shared by Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper his state-of-the-U.S.-market presentation.

Although you can argue Nielsen’s data isn’t complete and it’s therefore far from perfect, it’s one of the few resources available for market trends and analysis. With that in mind, here are the most interesting points I saw in Jonathan’s presentation:

Self-publishing and the Big Five are crowding out everyone else – According to Nielsen’s data, from Q1 2014 to Q1 2015, self-published books have grown from 14% to 18% of the overall market. In that same period the Big Five’s share has grown from 28% to 37%. Meanwhile, the rest of the market, all the large, medium and tiny publishers, have seen their share decrease from 58% to 45%.

The print/e split is now roughly 74%/26% – Plenty of articles have been written about the plateauing ebook market. Most publishers report ebooks represent anywhere from 15% to 30% or so of total revenue. According to Nielsen, the current state of equilibrium is closer to a 74%/26% split. That ratio varies widely by genre, btw, but it’s worth looking at your own rate to see how it compares to the overall industry average.

Price drives ebook interest – According to Nielsen’s consumer survey, almost 60% of respondents said they’d choose e over p if the savings is at least $4 for the former. Additionally, approximately 50% said they’d do the same even if the ebook is only $2-3 cheaper than the print version. So as publishers wrestle back consumer pricing via the new agency model, driving ebook prices up, it’s clear they’re inadvertently (and sometimes deliberately) nudging consumers back to print.

Consumer prefer print and e, not or – 49% of consumers surveyed said they bought print and ebooks in the past 6 months vs. 42% who only bought print and a paltry 9% who only bought e. Just because a consumer buys ebooks doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned print. This is a huge opportunity most publishers are overlooking. Why aren’t there more digital products that complement print rather than assume the ebook is replacing the print one?

Amazon dominates subscriptions too – It’s been hard to find data on the all-you-can-read ebook subscription market but Nielsen is finally shining some light on the model. And just as they do pretty much everywhere else, Amazon is crushing it. First of all, according to Nielsen only 5% of consumers have signed up for any ebook subscription solution, so the market remains small. Kindle Unlimited led the way with the largest chunk of market share, jumping from approximately 40% in January 2015 to almost 60% in April. Scribd and Oyster were tiny players by comparison in that period, and they’re only getting smaller. Given their teensy share of a small segment, it’s no wonder Oyster is going away soon.

Btw, this was the first year for the Fair’s Business Club option and I hope it’s not the last. The Business Club was a terrific location for quiet meetings, away from the traffic and noise of the hall floors. It ranked high in serendipity value as well: I bumped into and met with at least a handful of other attendees I might not have crossed paths with otherwise. Highly recommended.


Why publishers should embrace the evolution of “fair use”

Scale-310471_1280When I meet with publishers I always ask them about the biggest problems they face in today’s market. One of the most popular answers is “discoverability.” Most publishers fret about getting lost in a sea of other books and promotional campaigns.

Life seemed much easier in the brick-and-mortar days. A publisher simply paid a retailer for premium placement, resulting in endcap promotions and books stacked in high-traffic areas of the store. Those options still exist, of course, but they’re less important now that one retailer dominates distribution and discovery.

That’s why I’m scratching my head about all the negative publisher and author reaction to the recent federal appeals court ruling on Google Books. If you’re not familiar with Google Books, it’s an extension of the search engine enabling discovery and sampling of digitized books. Many of those books are still protected by copyright, hence the delicate nature of the case.

If you’ve never explored Google Books you need to take a closer look before forming an opinion on the ruling. Here’s a quick search for “FDR” on Google Books. The first book link points to my favorite FDR biography, by Jean Edward Smith. Click that link and the first thing you’ll see is a frame with scanned pages from the book. Scroll down a bit and the following note is displayed:

This is a preview. The total pages displayed will be limited.

Every so often you’ll see more notes like this one:

Pages 2 to 9 are not shown in this preview.

In other words, what you’re seeing are merely snippets of the book. There’s no way you can read the entire work inside Google Books. What you can do, however, is search and discover more book content than you’ve ever been able to before.

For example, on page 10 of the FDR book I noticed the phrase “Richard Crowninshield of Boston”. Let’s say you’re a researcher working on a project about Mr. Crowninshield. A colleague said they read something about him in a book but they don’t recall which one. You need that source because you want to buy the book to understand the context and your research requires more than just a page or two where the reference was made.

I challenge you to find the book by searching that phrase on Amazon. I just did that and here are the search results. Smith’s book is nowhere to be found.

Now search the same phrase in Google Books and here’s what you get. One click takes me directly to that page and the left side of the screen tells me Smith’s book is what I need. Notice that Google also includes links to buy the book as well, in print or ebook format.

Publishers, wake up and realize that the largest search engine on the planet offers a powerful way for your content to be discovered and purchased. Rather than getting all litigious about this, why not embrace it and find a way to fully leverage it?

The simple truth is that as technology evolves, the notion of “fair use” is also evolving. I think this is a very good thing, and not just for Google. History is littered with marketplace incumbents who crashed and burned as they tried to protect yesterday’s model. Tomorrow’s publishing leaders will be the ones who take advantage of services like Google Books, not those trying to make it go away in a courtroom. 


How readers will become curators and resellers

Glasses-272401_1920It’s easy to think that today’s ebook is as good as it gets. Publishers are mostly satisfied with the current print-under-glass model and, unfortunately, flattening (or declining) ebook sales trends aren’t likely to drive investment in digital innovation.

What if readers could help drive some of that innovation in the future? Here’s why that’s a viable scenario…

When it comes to annotating ebooks today, consumers are typically stuck with some very basic options: highlights and comments. Those annotations are almost always limited to private view only. In fact, there was a startup a few years ago called Findings.com which tried to enable readers to share their highlights in Kindle books; they were quickly shut down by a rather large, powerful company in the northwest.

I think Findings was onto something and one day readers will not only be able to share and socialize highlights, but they’ll be able to add more content and value to the original ebook.

Consider the use-case of a student who’s mastered the art of note-taking and textbook highlighting. Back in my college days I loved it when I managed to buy a used textbook marked up by one of these students. It helped me hone in on the most important points in some pretty dull and dreary textbooks.

Now imagine that same use-case in a digital world where there are no barriers. Think of the textbook as one long web page the reader can manipulate and add to.  The original textbook content forms the foundation but the reader can add to it as they see fit.

So while Jane is studying chemistry she comes across a slick periodic table website that allows her to dive deeper into any given element. Today she merely bookmarks the site in her browser; tomorrow she drags the url into the textbook, perhaps configuring it as a pop-up element inside the ebook, thereby enriching the reading experience.

Maybe she also finds a few terrific videos online that explain some of the more complicated concepts in this chemistry course. Why not drag those into the book too?

At the end of the semester, Jane has managed to curate an entirely new product. The textbook is the foundation, but web elements and widgets curated by Jane help round it out. This has been useful for Jane, but what if she’s also able to sell her annotated edition to other students next semester? Maybe Jane’s edition sells for $5 more than the standard edition and Jane gets a cut of that price difference.

Are you getting hung up on all the IP and content rights issues this raises? It’s fair to point that out, but what if all these web elements are nothing more than pointers in Jane’s annotated edition? In other words, Jane isn’t actually embedding the videos and web pages in her ebook, she’s just inserting pointers to them. It’s the same as when the book suggests the reader “go to www.wherever.com”. In my model, the words are replaced with a link and the link might just open the widget as a pop-up or perhaps a new tab in the browser. In short, I’m convinced the legal issues can be completely avoided.

I’m also convinced this model will one day become a reality. Readers will become curators and resellers. Not every reader will be part of this movement, but enough of them will see the opportunity to leverage their passions and experience to make it a viable model. Publishers will also have an opportunity to promote the reader curators who create the most interesting, value-added annotated editions.


Here’s how search will evolve and become more powerful

Telescope-122960_1920You’re probably pretty happy with Google search today, right? It’s incredibly fast, extremely reliable and almost always delivers the desired results. What more could you ask for?

I think the problem with today’s search solutions is that we’ve limited them to what’s online. If the content has a web address and it’s been crawled by the major engines it’s properly analyzed and presented in search results.

But what about everything else? Once again, Evernote is a terrific example of what could be.

I’m a huge Evernote fan and I’ve configured it so that all my notes are exposed and retrievable in a Google search. Alongside the standard web, news, maps, images, etc., search results categories, Google also shows a frame with Evernote’s Web Clipper results. Simply put, a single Google search produces results from the web as well as my Evernote archive. Simple, yet powerful.

Why does it have to stop with the web and Evernote? Why can’t one search be configured to retrieve results from all my content streams?

Let’s start with the documents on my computer and in the cloud. They’re mostly Office applications, so a search needs to understand the structure of Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. I’m not talking about simply searching file names; this search functionality needs to know whether the phrase is buried in the document itself.

Don’t forget about Outlook and all the other email applications. Search needs to sift through everything in my inbox, folders and attachments.

How about all the digital books, newspapers and magazines I read or scan every week? My search tool needs to capture, index and report back on all that activity as well. I sometimes rate articles and books I read, so the search algorithm needs to understand those rankings and include them in its algorithm, pushing higher-rated results towards the top.

Let’s also not forget about websites I’ve visited. This search tool should understand which sites I frequently visit and which pages I’ve spent more time on, reflecting the fact that I’m reading rather than scanning. This too is critical information for the search algorithm.

Next, it needs to understand my social graph and factor that into the search results. I’m much more active on Twitter than Facebook, for example, so what are the most recent relevant tweets that belong in my search results?

I realize this starts to clutter the results page. That’s why it all has to be configurable by the user. Clicking on/off checkboxes in a list should allow me to show or hide the various sources in search results. 

I’m able to search each of these sources individually today, of course, but there’s no uber-search tool allowing me to consolidate and search across all sources with one query.

Finally, and here’s where it gets even more interesting, I want the ability to curate and share my search results. Today you can do this by sharing the url from the results page; for example, here’s a Google search for my employer, Olive Software. That’s a start, but now I want to insert links to other sources, including all the ones noted above (e.g., documents, emails, ebooks, etc.).

Yes, there are countless sharing, opt-in, privacy and copyright issues to navigate before this vision becomes a reality. But imagine how powerful the results will be when these capabilities become standard features in every search engine.


Using technology to boost bookstores

Bookstore-945090_1280Technology and innovation probably aren’t the words that come to mind when you think about your local grocery store. Bar code scanners in the 1970’s were probably the last recent advancement in the grocery store industry. As you’ll see in this article, however, at least one grocery chain is leveraging a new form of technology to improve the shopping experience and I believe it offers guidance for a terrific lesson for bookstores.

The smart shelf technology described in that article describes how Kroger plans to provide more information for shoppers with LED displays that display accurate prices and other product information. It’s not exactly rocket science but it’s a much-needed first step towards an improved and more efficient in-person shopping environment.

Imagine your local bookstore with this functionality. OK, accurate prices on the shelf edges on shelves aren’t exciting but take it a few steps further. What if the store knows who you are and what you tend to read? Once again, we find ourselves in an area that freaks out the privacy advocates, but keep in mind this would be a 100% opt-in model for consumers.

As you go through the store the shelves communicate with an app on your phone to surprise and delight, taking the shopping experience to a whole new level. You’re greeted with information about new releases that interest you and special deals offered exclusively to you and available only during your current visit. You prefer ebooks over print books? No problem. The app already knows that and offers similar information and focuses on ebook deals which are only available while you’re in the store.

This sounds a lot like what e-retailers are able to do with email blasts and “buy x, get y” campaigns, right? The missing piece online is serendipity.

When was the last time you went to an online bookstore to simply browse? If you’re like most consumers, impulse buys are far more likely to happen in a brick-and-mortar store than on a website. Yes, there are exceptions, but serendipity is more of an in-store experience than an online one.

It’s time for technology to boost serendipity in the brick-and-mortar environment. That mobile app needs to tell me about the book I just walked past and why it’s perfect for me. And the message needs to have a button for quick, one-tap sample downloads to my mobile device. Make it a more enticing sample than what I can find anywhere else though (e.g., longer, richer, etc.) And don’t forget to dangle the special discount in front of me to make buying an irresistible step.

In short, give me a reason to go the brick-and-mortar store. I’ve only visited two bookstores in all of 2015. I used to go every week but there are fewer reasons to go now. Ironically, just as technology contributed to the struggles brick-and-mortar stores currently face, technology could also be part of the solution to make them more relevant again. If bookstores offered this sort of in-store experience I’m quite certain I’d go out of my way to discover the new products and deals that await me. 


5 things we learned from the demise of Oyster Books

Oyster logoThe news from Oyster Books was disappointing but hardly surprising. They recently announced plans to “sunset” the service in the coming months, a fancy way of saying their all-you-can-read experiment is over. It’s unfortunate, as I believe there are both a market demand and a viable business model to be found for book subscriptions.

I’ve been an Oyster subscriber since early 2014 and have been quite pleased with the service. As both an Oyster customer and a member of the publishing industry community, I offer these five lessons from the Oyster experience:

  1. Unsustainable business models are, well, unsustainable – Oyster had to find a way to attract readers as well as publishers. To address the latter, they made the mistake of promising to pay publishers their portion of the full digital list price as soon as a subscriber read a certain percentage of the book. This percentage was set far too low, so publishers jumped at the opportunity and Oyster ended up losing money on subscribers who exceeded the threshold on two or more books in a month. Approximately 14 months ago I suggested Oyster (and competitor Scribd) were on borrowed time and that they had about 18 months to adjust or fade away. It appears at least one of them will disappear within that 18-month window.
  2. Adjusting business models is hard – Oyster tried to address the mounting financial pressure earlier this year when they announced plans to sell books as well as rent them. Even though Oyster was hardly a household brand name, the niche they carved out was clearly defined in the all-you-can-read space. It’s nice to think you can add buying to the rental model, especially when it creates one common bookshelf for the reader. The problem though is that one company already dominates the ebook selling business, so without a compelling advantage over existing models there was no reason for consumers to buy as well as rent from Oyster. 
  3. Content sampling remains broken – Everyone in the industry should applaud Oyster’s efforts to solve the content sampling problem. My wife and I share our Oyster subscription, btw. When I told her that Oyster is circling the drain her biggest disappointment is that she’ll no longer be able to explore so many new books and authors. Like many, she loved the fact that you could read part of an Oyster ebook, abandon it at any point and never feel guilty. The x% free sampling model that exists elsewhere, and sometimes barely gives you something to read beyond the frontmatter, is weak at best.
  4. Think depth, not breadth – Oyster wasn’t the first all-you-can-read ebook subscription and it won’t be the last. The ones that have thrived for years tend to focus on a particular genre or audience. They don’t try to lure customers in for the low, low price of $9.95 per month and they don’t pay publishers as though the book was sold. So in addition to working with a more viable business model, they tend to focus on a specific customer and offer enough depth to keep them engaged.
  5. All-you-can-read subscriptions devalue content – It’s true. When you’re only paying $9.95 per month to read as much as you want you start questioning the purchase price on $10 ebooks. If you’re a publisher and you already cringe when your ebooks are discounted to $9.95 or less you’ll feel even more uncomfortable participating in all-you-can-read platforms. Then again, re-read the previous point about depth and monthly pricing before you completely opt out of subscription services down the road.

It’s unclear when Oyster will disappear but I’m glad they at least warned us and didn’t abruptly shut down one morning. As I race to finish a couple of lengthy books I started a few weeks ago I’m hoping Oyster might grant a final wish to subscribers: Let us keep the books we’ve almost completed. Publishers have already been made whole on these so I’d like to think they would support the concept as well.


Why ad blockers will help content evolve

Man-791049_1280Ad blocking is one of the more controversial features of Apple’s new iOS release. Apple prefers to call it “content blocking”, but it’s mostly intended to block all those pesky website ads that nag us every day.

Publishers are, of course, totally freaked out at the prospect of their content being consumed without monetizing the accompanying ads. And although ad blockers have been around for quite awhile, they’ve become a front-page story because Apple now makes it so easy to eliminate ads in their Safari browser.

To assess the impact of ad blockers in web browsers I think it’s worth studying the evolution of a similar medium: Television. TV started with totally free, over-the-air broadcasts. Advertisers subsidized those shows and everyone was happy.

Then cable arrived and an interesting thing happened: Most of us were willing to actually pay for all those free channels. Why? Two reasons: Better reception and more channels, although not the hundreds of channels available today. I remember our family’s first cable connection back in the early 1970’s. We went from three fuzzy stations to approximately 12 crisp, clear ones. That wasn’t a huge increase but it was important enough for my parents to sign up for a monthly payment.

Today we have cable, satellite, etc., with ad-subsidized channels, pay channels and that wonderful technology known as the DVR; each of these have their own business models. But with website content the business models still appear to be stuck in the early cable TV era.

On the web we have access to both free, ad-subsidized content as well as content behind paywalls. As ad blockers become more mainstream it forces publishers to make a strategic choice with their free content. Some will continue what they’ve always done: offering free content and now accepting the fact that more reading is taking place without the benefit of ad impression income. Others will push more of their content behind a paywall, reducing consumption but enjoying a false sense of contentment knowing that they aren’t being gamed by the ad-blocking crowd.

Others will embrace something in between. Their content will still be free and ad-subsidized, but in order to access it readers will have to agree to view the accompanying ads. Call it the “ad blocker blocker”. Technology will be developed to display the content only if the ads are also displayed. In fact, you could argue certain mobile apps and video pre-roll ads without skip/fast-forward buttons are examples of how this is happening today; perhaps we’ll see more publishers push their free content off the web and into mobile apps where ad blocking isn’t quite as easy. Yes, solutions will be developed to override this model as well, taking the cat-and-mouse game to a whole new level. But for the free ride to continue, mechanisms like this will have to emerge to ensure content creators and publishers have the revenue stream to keep producing.

It’s an evolution and only the strong and efficient will survive. But it’s also an important step leading to what I believe will be a future with deeper content engagement. After all, if readers find your ads so irritating, doesn’t that say something about your website experience? The ad-blocking movement should be a wakeup call for publishers everywhere, forcing them to do something radical: make the advertising experience more engaging and less annoying for readers.