Lessons from one publisher’s aversion to ebooks
Here’s a dilemma every book publisher should hope to face

Debunking the discovery problem

Ever since ebooks gained traction the publishing industry has obsessed with what’s typically referred to as “the discovery problem.” The common wisdom is that discovery of the content will lead to fame and fortune.

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I believe digital content’s main challenge is more about efficiency, less about discovery, and my inspiration for this point of view comes from a totally unrelated business: the coffee industry.

A recent Businessweek article noted that single-serve pods (e.g., Keurig) have eliminated coffee’s biggest consumer: the kitchen sink. (Btw, Businessweek apparently doesn’t worry about content discovery as that article can’t be found on their website; it’s only in the print edition but I found a related version of it here.)

It turns out that with Mr. Coffee and other drip systems a great deal of product ends up going to waste. The net result is that as the single-serve devices gain momentum we’re creating a climate where total consumption is lower and excess inventories are leading to lower prices for coffee beans.

In short, the article notes that while Americans still drink a lot of coffee, they do it more efficiently. Each cup in the single-serve model is more expensive but in total we’re consuming and wasting far less coffee now.

What in the world does this have to do with digital content?

I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that we have an excessive amount digital content today. A great deal of it is being produced but in many cases nobody is reading it. This has led to an overabundance of free and cheap content which is being both professionally published as well as self-published.

Wasted coffee goes down the drain but wasted content simply goes unread. In some cases, hoarders like myself have moved the content from online to local devices, but much of that content is never actually consumed.

Here’s a parallel from yet another completely unrelated industry: service provider recommendations. My wife and I recently cancelled our Angie’s List subscription because we discovered the Nextdoor social network. As you may already know, Angie’s List is battling allegations of fraudulent and deceptive practices and its reviews are typically posted by complete strangers. Meanwhile, Nextdoor offers reviews and advice from people you know or could easily introduce yourself to: your next-door neighbors. I’ve found these local reviews on Nextdoor to be much more reliable. In fact, I’ve hired two service providers in the past week based on Nextdoor recommendations. Best of all, Nextdoor is totally free.

Compared to Angie’s List, Nextdoor feels like a more highly curated and relevant service. Discussions and recommendations come from people you might already know and everyone lives right there in your neighborhood. In fact, many of Nextdoor’s members are going through the same situations you are (e.g., hail storm, wind damage, down trees, etc.)

Nextdoor offers what I refer to as a better “content efficiency” experience than Angie’s List. It’s what I’m looking for and the content is presented when I need it.

Just as nobody walks into a bookstore asking for the latest book from Macmillan, nobody is sitting around saying, “gee, I wish I could discover more content.” What we really need is more efficient delivery of content that’s highly relevant to our specific needs and interests. 

We’ve mostly given up on RSS feeds and let’s face it…Twitter is yet another fire hose that’s next to impossible to effectively manage.

At some point content efficiency will improve. I’ve referred to this before as the need for a “content concierge”, resulting in much better recommendations, tailored content streams and, yes, it will come at a higher price, just like the single-serving coffee pods.

We may end up spending just as much time reading efficiently delivered content but it will be highly targeted and we’ll pay more for the privilege of others (human curators and well-tuned, automated algorithms) helping us find the precious needles in the overwhelming haystacks.

Comments

Michael W. Perry

Sorry, but NextDoor isn't getting visits from me. Their website insists on having my precise street address and will accept nothing else. That's a bit too close a tracking for me. I could give someone else's address, but that'd only mean they're be tracking my behavior thinking it was theirs. That wouldn't be fair to them.

Joe Wikert

Hi Michael. Yes, many services are starting to ask for more personal information these days. Since they're my cell carrier I figure AT&T knows infinitely more about me, my habits, my travels, etc., than NextDoor could ever figure out.

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