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7 posts from July 2013

Let Chromecast spark your imagination

Everyone is gaga over Chromecast, the new device from Google that connects your mobile device to your TV. I agree that it's cool but I think today's excitement is overlooking tomorrow's possibilities.

Yes, Chromecast lets you wirelessly stream video from your phone or tablet onto your TV. By doing so, it also turns your mobile device into your TV's remote control. The most interesting aspect of Chromecast though, IMHO, is the fact that it opens the door for more interctive, engaging activities on the bigger screen.

Today we generally sit back and watch as our TV entertains us through network broadcasts, movies, DVR playbacks and services like Netflix. But it's definitely a lean-back model. Our smaller devices are where more of the lean-forward activities take place, such as browsing the web, reading articles and creating content. There's been talk for years now about a hybrid model on the big screen, where both lean-forward and lean-back activities will take place but we haven't seen that materialize yet.

Take a look at this side-by-side feature comparison of Google's Chromecast to Apple's Airplay. What's the most important line on that comparison table? Some would argue the battle is won by whoever supports the most third-party apps (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, etc.) If that's true, Apple has the advantage.

I think that's short-term thinking. To me, the long-term winner is determined by the "third-party API" element. As you can see, both of these services support third-party APIs. The difference is that Apple's is all about their closed ecosystem, so forget about using Android devices, for example. Google's, on the other hand, supports all popular platforms, including Apple devices. Apple still has a phenomenal platform and they sell a lot of devices. But at $35 Google Chromecast is pretty much irresistible.

So what happens when developers see huge sales of Chromecast devices? They become more interested in writing apps for the platform. In fact, they start coming up with apps that leverage the platform in ways Google probably never imagined, and that's where the real game-changing ideas are hatched.

Here are the critical questions you need to ask: How can your content be enhanced on the big screen? What features, services and elements could be added to your products that don't make sense on the smaller screen?

Chromecast is red hot and currently on backorder. I'm not convinced it, or Google's platform, is predestined to be the ultimate winner. Someone could easily come along with an even better mousetrap.

What Chromecast is teaching us though, is that we need to put aside all our biases and open our minds to imagining (and inventing!) all the new ways content will be consumed in the future.


Newspapers as disruptors

That seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? After all, newspapers are the ones that have been disrupted the past several years. True, but Matt Sokoloff recently wrote a very interesting article suggesting that newspapers are about to disrupt local TV. Yeah, I laughed too when I first considered it. But do yourself a favor and read Sokoloff's piece. It's one of the insightful pieces on the newspaper that I've read.

He paints a picture of local TV being fat and happy while the newspapers are desperate for survival. And, true to The Innovator's Dilemma, which Sokoloff references in the article, the TV industry is likely to be caught completely off-guard by an unexpected competitor.

The disrupted becomes the disruptor. How cool is that?


My ideal news service

I get my daily news from a variety of sources. I have a Google News account configured with all the topics and keywords I'm interested in. I use other sites like Techmeme to keep a finger on the tech industry's pulse. I do my best to stay up with a bunch of RSS feeds (via Feedly) and several groups/keywords on Twitter. Then there's my local paper. I get it each morning and have digital access to it while I'm on the road.

It's all quite exhausting...and inefficient. I'll bet you feel the same way. I'm amazed that with today's technologies our attention is spread across so many sites and services. You'd think someone would come up with a way to marry some of them together to create a more effective solution.

Here's what I propose:

Start with Google News. It's already trolling the web, is quite configurable and has many of the features I like. It's not enough though. Why can't Google News be like Zite and learn from my reading habits? Feed me more of what I tend to read without putting me completely in an echo chamber and eliminating serendipity. Google News just seems to mindlessly find pages with the right keywords and send them my way with no logic applied.

Next, I want this service to let me pick certain times of the day where it uses the logic noted above to send me a custom document with all the news I care about. For example, I'd tell it to make this happen at 7:00 each morning and put the result both in my email inbox (as a PDF) and into a service that's better than Instapaper.

What Instapaper enhancements do I need for this? Each time the news-gathering component feeds my email inbox with a PDF it would also send the same content to an Instapaper-like service that creates a new folder for it using that day/time in the folder's name. I'd also want that to automatically be sent to my mobile device(s) so that I don't have to retrieve it. IOW, if I've got an early flight one morning I'll know my customized news will automatically be on both my phone and tablet without having to retrieve it myself. Yes, I realize my devices will have to be connected (Wifi or 4G) and I'll have to manage their connections so I won't get hit with extra fees. That's fine. Just automate the delivery so I don't have to remember to download it myself.

Lastly, this new, enhanched Instapaper-like element absolutely must have text-to-speech functionality built in. I'm not talking about some lousy robotic voice with no other capabilities. I want a very human-sounding service that also acts on my voice commands, so I can fast forward 10 seconds, skip an article, etc., just by telling it to do so. This is critical for listening while driving or working out. 

This combination of services is something I would gladly pay for, maybe as much as $10 or $15 per month. Does it already exist and I've somehow missed it?


A Band-Aid for B&N's gunshot wound

JIIt's been a rough week for Barnes & Noble. And month. And year. And it may get worse before (if) it gets better. For those of you who have been in cryogenic sleep the last few weeks, here is a brief recap:

Barnes & Noble reported a fiscal fourth quarter loss of $188.6 million, over double what it was the same quarter a year ago, a feat accomplished by only a few other greats like MySpace, Enron, and the MC Hammer farewell tour. The Nook tablet was asked what it would like for its last meal, and William Lynch "voluntarily" removed himself from both the CEO post and the B&N Christmas Card list. Oh, and they are still planning on closing at least a third of their stores over the next decade. (Place your bets in Vegas on the over/under on the timing and number of stores.)

That's what happened. But what's even more troubling is what is buried in the fine print. William Lynch is being replaced by Michael Huseby, who was the company's CFO and who will report directly to Len Riggio, the B&N executive chairman and largest stockholder. I'm sure Mr. Huseby is great with numbers and has a solid golf game, but CFO's are not traditionally known for having strategic minds. And B&N desperately needs a plan.

If we surveyed multiple astronomers on planet alignment, they may concur that B&N is preparing itself not to try and save the Nook Media, but to spin-in off, sell it, prepare for crash landing, etc. This speculation is supported when you take into account that the Nook tablets are going to be put to rest, and despite what the public is being told, these devices had to bring in a significant portion of the declining revenue stream. Underneath all of this, there has been a quiet exodus of talent from B&N over the last few months which is a huge red flag.

The biggest problem that Barnes & Noble has right now is time. Time is not its friend. It has a gunshot wound and the band-aids that have been applied will not save it, but will only slow its death. It is bleeding cash and without a decisive plan and talented people, even more things will begin to unravel.

So, now what? There is value in the Nook Media infrastructure, but transformative, strategic decisions will have to be made to turn this around. Here are a few ideas for Barnes & Noble (or whoever owns the Nook Media assets in the near future):

  1. Stop Trying to be Amazon - The "us too" and "strong number two" approach has to be ditched and replaced with a new strategic vision. In a street fight, don't ever go blow-for-blow with a bigger, stronger opponent in their own backyard. B&N needs to do what Amazon won't do, and most of it is related to their closed ecosystem. B&N needs to create an open ecosystem, which allows independent bookstores and anyone who wants to sell books to build into their infrastructure, via APIs, iframes, and other tools. Instead of asking publishers for money, build closer partnerships with them to help them build audiences, capture metadata, and establish new sales channels like corporate and special sales. Imagine IBM having an internal ebook library which leverages B&N books, a white-labeled reader and app, and community aspects. What if every author could leverage their own networks to drive sales and then gather data and users on their sales? In other words, B&N has to be willing to shoot any sacred cows and approach the digital world with a vision of supporting authors, partnering with publishers, and doing things Amazon is unwilling to do.
  2. Be Radical and Transparent - Anyone who is not playing in oncoming traffic on a daily basis knows that B&N is in trouble. Yes, there are those pot-smoking optimists who can't fathom B&N going the way of horse-drawn carriages, 8-track tapes, and VCRs, but the transition is already happening. Atari used to be a powerhouse. MCI Worldcom a behemoth. Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns were household names. Barnes & Noble doesn't have to have its brand disappear, but they do have to start making some radical changes and being transparent about them. As good strength coaches will tell you, go two steps beyond what is comfortable. Instead of closing one third of the stores in ten years, close them this year. Tactically sift through your staff, cut all B and C level players, which may be half the company, and empower your A-level team to be decision makers. Anything that is dead-weight needs to be discarded, sold, or ignored. By making radical changes upfront, the market will adjust to all the news at one time, and new optimism can be injected with a fresh vision and leadership.
  3. Look Outside for Innovation - All great executives and entrepreneurs I know have adopted the mantra of "not invented here." Instead of trying to come up with every great idea and plan, they are constantly looking for talented individuals, great technology, and new ideas that can be mapped into their company. With all of the changes in publishing, there is more unencumbered strategic and technical talent floating around than ever before. Stealing a page from the Google playbook, they need to do acqui-hires, plan joint ventures, recruit entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs), and seed book ecosystems. They have been staring at the trees for too long and need to take a step back and look at the forest. Other companies and individuals who envision the same type of book future can help.

Nearly everyone I know in publishing is cheering for Barnes & Noble. But the clock is ticking. As a publishing and reading community, we need to realize that Barnes & Noble is not the answer for the future of books, but they can be a catalyst and significant player if their next steps are decisive and well played. Let's hope they are.

This article was written by contributor Jason Illian and was previously published by Publishers Weekly. It has been re-published here with the author's and PW's permission.

Jason is the Founder and CEO of BookShout!, an innovative reading platform that empowers publishers/authors and builds community around books.  BookShout! is working closely with publishers and authors to re-imagine the future of books.


Bundled vs. a la carte content

Once upon a time when you liked a song and wanted to own it you had to buy the entire album it appeared on. It didn't matter if the other 11 tracks were terrible. You were forced to buy them all.

That all changed in the digital era, of course, and now we can buy tracks individually. Consider that a victory for the a la carte model.

Spotify and a number of other all-you-can-listen-to music streaming services then arrived on the scene, further disrupting the music industry. There was a time when I insisted on owning my music, not renting it. I guess I've evolved though since I can't tell you the last time I bought a track but I know I've listened to Spotify several times in the past week. Advantage, bundled content...or is that just a new, even more liberating way to enjoy a la carte music?

Let's shift the focus to books. Many publishers, myself included, made the mistake of thinking books are like music and we should make them available by the chapter. Oops. That hasn't worked yet and I'm not sure it ever will. It's more accurate for me to say that I don't think it will ever work on a wide variety of genres; some, like cookbooks, lend themselves to it, but the typical book doesn't. Looks like bundled content wins here.

A more appropriate example in the book world would be one of the many all-you-can-read ebook subscription services. They've been moderately successful so far and I think there's a great deal of genre-specific upside here (e.g., broad ebooks subscriptions for sports, history, etc.) Again, bundled content looks like a winner.

How about shorter-form written content, like newspapers and magazines? Up to now we've been forced to subscribe to the whole paper or issue. Publishers haven't been willing to let us pick and choose the topics, writers, etc., that we want. I think that will change in the not-too-distant future. I'd love to be able to select my favorite columnists, sports, locations, etc., and create my own custom product. In this space, bundling is the only option today but a la carte looks very promising.

I mention all this because of an article I read recently about how cable TV's pricing model is supposedly unfair. The article's author notes we're forced to pay for a lot of channels we never watch. True, but what happens when that content is unbundled? If ESPN costs every cable customer $5/month does it really remain $5/month if only half the households in an a la carte world sign up for it? Highly unlikely. So in many respects, non-sports fans are helping subsidize my ESPN habit while I'm helping subsidize their Travel and Lifetime channel habits.

You don't have to look any further than Comcast's "triple play" model to see how bundles are often a better financial option than a la carte services.

My point here is that bundling and a la carte shouldn't be considered mutually exclusive. We've seen some areas where both work well while other segments tend to favor one over the other. So why not offer both and let the customer decide? But as a consumer, don't fall into the trap the author of that cable TV pricing article did and assume that adding one magically leads to lower prices.


Why are you surprised by Amazon's pricing fluctuations?

There were a couple of articles in the NY Times last week that made me scratch my head. You'll find them here and here. If you haven't already read them, they can be summarized as follows:

Authors and publishers can't understand why Amazon sometimes increases book prices.

Really? This surprises you?

Amazon is the original data-driven retailer. When their consumer prices go up or down you can bet there's data to support the change. So what sort of data leads to price changes?

First, even though they generally don't take on very much inventory, Amazon sometimes finds themselves with too many copies of a title. I saw this a number of times when I was a book publisher. When they have too much they'll typically offer a discount to see how many copies they can dispose of. They don't do this with a lot of fanfare; you might see that book go from 34% off to 50% off, then back to 34% off a few days later.

The complaint noted in the Times articles was about prices going up though, not down. That, my friends, is something we can expect to see much more of from Amazon going forward. After all, Borders is gone and B&N is struggling. The simple truth is that Amazon's slice of the sales pie for most titles has probably never been larger. So if they've got such a significant share, why not take the prices up? As their most recent quarterly SEC filing showed, Amazon's net sales continue rising but their profit declined significantly. At some point they'll have to stop selling so many items at a loss or at such deep discounts.

Given my earlier point about Amazon being so data-driven, think about how important a tool like Bookscan is for them. If they're looking at total industry sales and they determine 95% of the sales of a particular book are through their own channel why would they feel compelled to continue offering it at a deep discount?


When will ebook covers evolve?

I suppose that's a silly question, especially since ebooks themselves really haven't evolved yet. They're still basically "print under glass", quick-and-dirty conversions from print, so it's no surprise that the covers are still as static as the print books they're based on.

The current book cover was designed for the physical world, of course. It serves as a billboard on the shelf for those rare instances when the book is face-out in a store. Covers are intended to be as unique and memorable as possible, selling the key features of the product. But they're also designed to be a lot larger than ebook covers ever appear on screen. So what happens when a print book cover that's 6 X 9" is reduced to the size of a postage stamp? Details are lost, the selling impact is diminished and the branding impression is compromised.

As I scroll through the various category pages on Amazon I can read most of the titles, but almost all of the subtitles are unreadable. A better solution would be to automatically pop up a larger image of the cover as I mouse over each one. Btw, do you want to see a publisher who understands the challenges of branding with smaller cover images? Look at all the Lonely Planet product icons in iTunes. You'll see they use the same template across the entire library and each title is distinguished from the others with three large letters: The location's airport code. Brilliant. Yes, I know that's a very unique vertical market. My point is to show that you can create something unique and memorable, even when the real estate available is as small as an icon.

There's plenty of innovation yet to happen with the content of the book and I hope the same proves true for the cover. Why do covers have to remain static? As I mentioned above, why not have them auto-magnify when I hover over them? Maybe have that pop-up show not only a larger cover image but also a few more details (e.g., short description, quick breakdown of 5-star vs. 1-star reviews, etc.)? How about making those cover images flippable? Touch it and the cover flips to show that info I want in the magnified version, just like the back of a baseball card? Then make sure I can drag that object off the page and drop it onto my own website, with my review and/or affiliate code built into the resulting link.

There's so much more we can do with covers but, again, we need to stop looking at them as simply static, digital renderings of the print cover.