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4 posts from December 2014

Anticipating change in the myopic publishing industry

Have you ever heard the quote, “everything that can be invented has been invented”? It was once believed that a U.S. Patent Office commissioner uttered those words but that claim has since been refuted. Regardless of whoever said (or didn’t say) it, I’m convinced it’s a view many in the publishing industry strongly believe in. 

Let me provide a few examples…

In 2006 the ebook marketplace mostly consisted of PDF files. There were a few other formats but none showed any signs of broad consumer adoption. The industry seemed to be growing weary of anticipating the ebook explosion that was always “just around the corner”.

I remember working at a large book publisher in those days. One of my former colleagues was very outspoken, noting that books aren’t like music (which had already made the shift from physical to digital), there’s no device that makes a digital version more interesting than a print version, consumers like holding and reading a print book, etc.

Then, in late 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle and everything changed.

Let’s fast-forward a few years for the second example… In 2011 I was co-chair of the Tools of Change publishing industry conference. One of the messages we communicated to attendees was the need for them to diversify their channel strategy and focus on the one channel they totally control: direct-to-consumer. Our pleas were met with rolling eyes, yawns, and responses like this one from a very high-level executive at one of the Big Six: “We don’t need to create a direct channel…that’s why we have retail partners like Amazon, for example.”

My how times have changed. Today we even see the big guys focusing more on direct-to-consumer strategies, particularly as Amazon becomes more dominant and pushes for an ever-bigger piece of the pie.

For my third and final example, let’s look back to 2013, when some were suggesting a “Netflix for books” model would emerge. Most scoffed at the idea, suggesting books aren’t like movies and an all-you-can-read option would never take hold.

Earlier this year we saw the launch of Oyster Books, featuring that all-you-can-read model. Some publishers opted to experiment while consumers (like me) flocked to the service. Even Amazon has copied the model with their Kindle Unlimited program. 

(Btw, as I’ve said before, the current all-you-can-read ebook models are unsustainable. How long can these providers keep paying publishers more than they’re earning from most subscribers in top-line revenue? Amazon is the only player with enough resources to pull that off, and based on their stock’s performance in 2014 it looks like Wall Street is becoming impatient with Amazon’s loss-leader philosophy.)

I mention these three examples because I believe we’re in the midst of yet another shortsighted moment. Ebook revenues have plateaued for many book publishers. Some believe the market has reached equilibrium and that a roughly 75/25 split between print and digital is the future.

These publishers are quite comfortable living in the “print under glass” world, where they drive incremental revenue from digital editions that are identical to the print editions. They don’t like it that consumers expect to pay less for the digital edition (vs. the print edition price), but they’re growing comfortable with the model. Many of them briefly experimented with native apps and enriched ebooks; for the most part, their expenses exceeded revenue on these failed projects.

This is largely why these publishers have an allergic reaction when someone mentions the phrases “enriched ebook” or “enhanced ebook”.

In the early days of television most shows were simply radio programs in front of a camera. There were probably quite a few executives back then who figured that was the future and radio-plus-camera was as good as it would get.

I firmly believe that quick-and-dirty digital editions of print books are not the endgame. Some consumers are and will be perfectly content to read digital replicas of print products, but many will crave something that’s much richer though, especially once they experience it.

We won’t be stuck eternally in today’s “print under glass” world. In the not-too-distant future I’m convinced at least one model will emerge to take us out of this rut. Publishers would be wise to continue experimenting with content enrichment and enhancement (yes, we need better a better term for this!) so they’re not caught flat-footed when the movement takes hold.

Lifelong learning looms large

You’re probably familiar with Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles every couple of years. I think there should be a similar law for the amount of information and expertise most workers have to acquire in each generation.

In my own career I’ve had to invest a lot of time keeping up on technology, business trends, etc. My generation has faced a bigger challenge with this than my parents’ generation faced. But the hill I’ve climbed, and continue to climb, is nothing compared to what my children and their generation will have to deal with throughout their careers.

Technology is largely to blame, or thank, depending on your point of view. But there’s simply no mistaking the fact that each successive generation will have to embrace lifelong learning more than the generations that preceded them.

This represents an enormous opportunity in the content creation and distribution space. Being a lifelong learner today means you’re staying up-to-date in a variety of ways. Most of that is likely self-paced and informally structured. I see that changing dramatically in the future. 

There’s no single leading brand or platform for lifelong learning but that will change. Think corporate continuing education, catering to individuals and organizations alike. Certifications will become more meaningful and extend well beyond the ones that are mostly limited to IT professionals today.

All of this will be built around a solid foundation of content. How-to and training content for every type of job will become even more valuable than it is today. But where will that content come from? Startups will provide some of it, as will those existing publishers and content creators who are willing to move beyond today’s container-based model…and that’s the key. 

If you’re in the business of publishing books, newspapers or magazines and you’re wedded to a particular container model you’ll miss out. The successful publishers will be the ones who are willing to think outside their current container(s), granulize and tag their content for reuse and offer it in new streams and formats.

As I’ve said before, containers are slowly fading away and they’ll be less important in the future. Now is the time for publishers to plan, acquire, develop and manage their content for the container-less opportunities, like the lifelong learning boom, that are just around the corner.

Evernote as a content distribution channel

I’m addicted to Evernote. I use it throughout the day to capture my meeting notes and other thoughts. I was recently joking with a fellow Evernote user and colleague about how the tool makes us smarter and dumber; smarter because we now have a record of everything but dumber because that record lives on a device, not in our heads. 

Evernote is an interesting platform to study from a content distribution point of view. There are plenty of users like me who rely on Evernote and interact with the tool a dozen or more times every day. Evernote realizes that and they’re creating an entirely new content discovery ecosystem to make the tool even more useful.

I’m talking about the Context service Evernote added to their Premium version. Buried deep in that announcement is a note about how Context integrates The Wall Street Journal with your notes. It’s a brilliant idea and a content discovery and reuse pattern we’ll see much more of in the future.

Let’s say you’re prospecting for new customers and doing some homework prepping for a meeting with one of them tomorrow. We’ll call them XYZ Corp. You do Google searches, review the XYZ Corp’s website and research new XYZ Corp. contacts on LinkedIn. As you’re doing this you’re gathering details and placing them in Evernote as a cheat sheet for tomorrow’s meeting. Evernote Premium now sees that you’re recording information about XYZ Corp. and pulls up relevant articles about them from The Wall Street Journal; all this takes place within Evernote turning the tool into a new content discovery and consumption resource.

This isn’t rocket science and it’s not anything new. Google’s Gmail scans your inbox and has been serving up related ads for years. But now we’re seeing tools like Evernote take it to a new level: Rather than simply serving links to random sites, Evernote feeds users content from a highly trusted source and brand, The Wall Street Journal.

The key, of course, is to serve this content in an unobtrusive manner. Evernote is a productivity tool and the last thing I want is to be faced with a bunch of popups and annoying interruptions, forcing me to click close buttons so I can focus on the work at hand. Privacy advocates will once again freak out, but over time they too will realize there are benefits to services like this.

This is just the start. Look for tools like Evernote to add more content streams to their Premium version; maybe they’ll even have vertical editions of the tool (e.g., Evernote for Investors, Evernote for Marketers, etc.). Publishers should jump at the opportunity to participate because it extends their reach and helps keep their brands in front of readers, both old and new.

Unlocking the hidden value of archives

The cost of scanning, converting and digitizing content seems to decline every year. As a result, we’re seeing all sorts of print archives being converted to digital products. The problem is that too many publishers are applying the “if you build it, they will come” approach to these archives.

Simply creating the digital archive might be good enough for a small market of professional researchers, but it will never attract the larger consumer audience; flipping virtually flipping through stacks of old content loses its appeal fairly quickly.

Curation is the important step required to make these archives interesting to the largest potential audience. It’s all about the many stories the archive content has to tell. Some of these stories will be interesting to one audience while another story appeals to other segments.

Let me give you a couple of examples. I grew up in Pittsburgh during the years when the Steelers and the Pirates were dominant teams in football and baseball, respectively. The Pirates last won the World Series in 1979 and the local papers featured coverage of every game in the regular season and postseason. I’d love to read the story of the season from spring training through the final game of the World Series.

Roberto Clemente was one of my childhood heroes. He played for the Pirates from 1955 through 1972 and was killed in a plane crash on December 31, 1972. The local papers had hundreds of pages of content about Clemente and his career between 1955 and early 1973. I’ve read a few books that were written long after his death and while they were generally quite good they’re not the same as reading the articles that were written as his career unfolded.

That’s an important point. Plenty of books have been written about historical events, global leaders, celebrities, etc. No matter how much research is done by the authors on those topics, there’s nothing that compares to reading the articles that were written when those events took place, when those leaders took action or when those celebrities did whatever celebrities do.

The curation opportunity exists in at least two formats. The first format is the collection. This is where the curator collects the relevant pieces of content and stitches them together to tell the story. The results can be put in front of the paywall to attract eyeballs or maybe serve as a teaser for a paid product. They can also be placed behind the paywall as part of a premium subscription option or as a separate paid product.

The other format involves ebooks. Those collections can be quickly converted into the popular formats and placed in ebook distribution channels. This represents a completely new distribution model for some publishers (e.g., newspapers and magazines); it’s an incremental revenue opportunity of remixed content for those already participating in the ebook channel.

One of the concerns I hear from publishers is that they simply don’t have the resources for curation. Their teams are already stretched too thin and they can’t justify adding to staff.

I have one word for publishers in that situation: crowdsourcing. Think of your most active users, fans, readers and subscribers. How many of them might want to help curate your content to create new products? Also, can you use the Wikipedia model, where the crowdsourcing work happens for free? If not, can you create an affiliate program for curators to earn some income from their efforts?

Finally, think outside the box and don’t limit yourself to just one type of content. For example, one of my favorite books is FDR, by Jean Edward Smith.  The author meticulously researched Roosevelt and provided an amazing story of his life.

But what if the ebook edition provided access to the newspaper accounts of the most noteworthy decisions Roosevelt made in his life? It would have been wonderful to veer away from the book every so often and read the accounts of the events that were written when they actually took place, from the point of view of the journalists in the midst of it all.

A hybrid product like this represents a new opportunity for book publishers and newspaper publishers. Properly curated, this sort of product could easily command a much higher price than the traditional ebook on its own. I’d like to see book publishers venture out of their comfort zone and start exploring new concepts like this. It’s a terrific way to unlock the hidden value of archives and give consumers more of what they want to read.