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5 posts from June 2015

One day content will enrich itself

You’ve probably heard me say that we live in a print-under-glass world, one where we’re consuming dumb content on smart devices.­­ It’s true simply because, as Michael Bhaskar of Canelo Publishing stated it at BEA, “publishers treat ebooks as a secondary priority.”

It’s far too easy to quickly convert the print edition to a static e-edition and drive some incremental revenue. Meanwhile, more and more publishers are starting to report flattening ebook sales.

I believe part of the problem is due to the fact that many consumers who aren’t already buying ebooks are holding off because they’re satisfied with print and see no significant benefit of switching to e. The Bookseller recently reported that millennials are “least likely to buy ebooks.” We’re talking about a born-digital generation, one that has come to expect rich, immersive experiences in everything digital. It’s no wonder why they haven’t warmed up to today’s ebook experience.

Publishers and authors sometimes balk at the notion of creating anything beyond the static ebook. They question the ROI as well as the time and effort required. That’s a reasonable response, particularly given the various failed experiments with native apps and other digital platforms. Plus, some ebooks are perfect just the way they are; readers don’t want or need them to incorporate extra digital bells and whistles.

But there are plenty of other books and entire genres that would dramatically benefit from a deeper digital experience. Think reference and how-to content. Videos, photo galleries and any one of the various web widgets could add significant value.

So what’s a publisher to do when it’s hard enough just getting the manuscript from the author?

I think it’s reasonable to expect that in the next few years we’ll see content that self-enriches. The application or reading platform will handle the details and little, if any, human curator intervention will be required.

While it’s true that auto-enrichment might never match the quality of human enrichment, the former will be a huge step in the right direction, hopefully priming the pump for more of the latter to eventually take place.  

Here’s how reader analytics can help publishers

I recently asked what questions you’d like to see answered via reader analytics. I gathered feedback from a variety of publishers including trade, professional and educational.

The standard requests about reading sequence, how long it takes to finish a chapter, what devices are used, etc., were raised, of course. But there were a number of other suggestions I hadn’t anticipated, and reader data could definitely help answer these questions for authors, editors and publishers.

Here are a few of the more interesting questions publishers are hoping reader analytics will help answer:

What’s the conversion rate for samples/previews? This is another reason for publishers to develop and implement an ebook sampling program they totally own and promote aggressively. 

What time of day and what days of the week are most popular for reading? It would be interesting to compare titles across genres to see what patterns emerge.

What bonus features/links do readers click on? You’d finally be able to determine whether these additional elements make a difference.

How much time is spent on margin notes (e.g., sidebars and other elements outside the main text)? As one respondent asked, “do readers simply skip past everything in a box?” What a great question, although most of the boxes from the print edition probably disappear in the plain, generic reflow view. Still, it would be great to see if these are being read or skipped.

Related to the previous question, once someone clicks to an external link, how soon do they come back to the book? And, how often does the book reading session come to an end after clicking on those outbound links? It’s every online publisher’s biggest fear. They don’t want to lose the eyeballs for additional ad impressions. Does that same scenario matter in the ebook world?

How long is a single page left open? This one came from a cookbook publisher who is curious to see if they can determine what percentage of readers make the recipes with the ebook open.

Is the index being accessed? Terrific question but I think the cards are stacked against the index. First of all, most ebooks I read have no index. Second, the ones that do have an index typically don’t include links, so all you get is a bunch of page references with no meaning in reflow mode.

Is the table of contents being accessed? Similar to the previous question and largely dependent on whether that TOC includes links.

What content is copied-and-pasted most frequently? Maybe the answers to this terrific question, and the reader behavior it indicates, would help publishers become less squeamish about enabling copy-and-paste from their ebooks.

What are the sentences that are most frequently highlighted and commented on? Some ebook apps let readers see the most popular highlighted sentences but it would be better for publishers to have an aggregated view, including reader comments.

What’s being searched and, more importantly, what’s the conversion rate of readers clicking on a result vs. those who simply give up after the search? It seems like most of us are only asking the first part of that question but it would be wonderful to understand what happens after those search results are displayed. Also, are the most clicked-on results the ones at the top or do we need a better way of presenting and sorting the results?

I’m sure there are other interesting questions reader analytics can help answer but this list is a good start. Given that most publishers receive no reader data whatsoever, answering even a handful of these questions would represent a huge step in the right direction.

“What is code?” illustrates rich content potential

The painful reality is that we still live in a print-under-glass world, struggling to produce content that leverages our powerful phones and tablets. I was explaining this to a publisher recently and the phrase “escape velocity” came to mind.

In simple terms, escape velocity is what’s required for an object to break free from another object’s gravitational pull. For example, a rocket being launched from earth or, in this case, a publisher trying to create content that’s more deeply engaging than simply putting the print edition on a digital screen. In the latter case, everything from significant print revenues to industry indifference represent the gravitational pull that needs to be escaped.

The latest example proving we’re still in the print-under-glass era is a terrific Businessweek article called What is code?  The fact that rich and engaging pieces like this draw so much attention and are so few and far between proves we’re still only in the early innings of digital content innovation and evolution.

If you haven’t read the article I highly recommend you take the time and carefully go through it. If you’re not a programmer you’ll learn a lot. But even if you’re a coding master you’ll still learn a thing or two, including how content will eventually take baby steps away from today’s print-under-glass approach.

Here are the most takeaways I got from this Businessweek article: 

  • Measuring visits and reading time – I opened and closed it a few times before finally reading the entire piece. I found it interesting that a pop-up noted how many times I had opened it previously as well as how long I had already spent scanning it. This information may not be valuable for a magazine article but it would be very useful for tutorial content to see how long it takes to learn a subject. It would also be extremely valuable for publishers to discover where readers tend to spend the most time.
  • Dynamic visuals – Be sure to check out the circuitry animation that appears at the start of the second section. If you’re not familiar with the concept of logic gates, take a minute or two to read the callout and watch the animation. And have you ever wondered what happens when you press a key on your keyboard? There’s another animation for this and, as the callout notes, quite a few things happen behind the scenes before the key you pressed appears on your screen. Note that neither of these are “enrichment for enrichment’s sake”. Creating deeply engaging content like this requires a great deal of work, especially when it comes to figuring out exactly what type of dynamic visuals will add to the experience, not interfere with it.
  • Deeper dives, but only if you want them –Note the rounded rectangular numbered items interspersed throughout and how they’re used as pop-up notes. It’s not the best UI element but I love how they quickly provide more depth without taking the reader away from the current paragraph. A key here is to provide this additional depth unobtrusively. The best UI enables a smooth reading flow for readers who don’t care to read these pop-ups while ensuring the additional content is easily accessible for those who want it.
  • Annoying visuals – As good as this Businessweek article is, it would have been even better without the animated blue box character with the black hat and flower. The designer probably felt it added personality or maybe even gave the piece an attitude; in reality, it made the whole experience feel like a 1980’s experiment featuring a Walking Dead version of the Charlie Chaplin PC Jr. character. The lesson here is to focus on functional value rather than gimmicks.

If you read to the end you’ll discover another feature that combines something useful with yet another gimmick, which is unfortunate.

I applaud Businessweek and author Paul Ford for helping show the possibilities of a post-print-under-glass world. Here’s to hoping escape velocity is just around the corner and soon this sort of content will be considered standard, not edgy.

What questions do your reader analytics need to answer?

In my book publisher days I recall saying the following to our Amazon rep: “You guys are capturing a ton of reading data from our customers. When are you going to start charging us to access that information?”

She looked at me like I just arrived from another planet and declined to answer the question.

A few years have passed since that encounter but some things never change. Amazon is still the dominant ebook retailer and they continue hoarding reader data, sharing only bits and pieces from time to time. I’m still convinced once day they’ll offer a detailed reader analytics service to publishers…for a price. The data will be anonymized, of course, but it will benefit publishers by shedding valuable light on reading habits and preferences.

In the mean time, Olive Software, the company where I serve as director of strategy, is in the process of revamping its ebook reader app. We want to take our analytics to the next level and we’d like your input. You see, at Olive, we believe in providing publishers with every bit of data about their readers and we do so at no additional charge.

As a former publisher these are the types of questions I would want the data to answer:

  1. How many people opened the book they bought?
  2. Did the typical consumer read from beginning to end, in chronological order, or did they jump around a lot, reading out of sequence?
  3. When readers didn’t finish the book, at what point did they tend to abandon it?
  4. What are the most popular phrases searched for when reading the book?

I’m sure there are plenty of other questions publishers, editors, marketers, etc., would love to see answered with analytics. What are the questions you need data to help answer?

Click here to email me the reader behavior questions you’d like analytics to answer. I’ll gather all the input and will summarize it in a follow-up article. That’s probably yet another thing Amazon would never do for you. :-)

Observations from BEA 2015

The Javits Center must have some sort of time warp technology. I recently attended the BEA event there and I kept asking myself the same question: Is this 2015 or 2005? The digital vibe was almost nowhere to be found in the expo hall. For example, publishers are still handing out stacks of print galleys and samples. Is that really more effective than digital copies? Wouldn’t it be better to distribute e-versions and gather customer info along the way? All this talk of establishing direct relationships with readers and having access to the resulting data still seems to be the stuff of fiction.

There’s also still a big gap between the core industry and the startup community. The Startup Alley, an expo aisle featuring 15 or so up-and-comers, is a nice concept but doesn’t seem very effective for anyone. It also highlights a bigger problem in the publishing industry: there’s no platform or service that continuously evaluates new startups and helps match them with publishers who could benefit from their capabilities. Startups are generally relegated to an area off the beaten path with virtually no buzz to draw attention to them. That’s sad because, as Richard Nash pointed out during the IDPF conference, it’s clear the real innovation is going to come from the startup community.

The most painfully accurate statement I heard all week was from Michael Bhaskar of Canelo Publishing during his opening session at the IDPF event: “Publishers treat ebooks as a secondary priority.” This is partially understandable given the fact that print is still the largest revenue stream but I believe this mindset also prevents digital content from achieving its full potential. 

Bhaskar made another terrific point when he noted that the music industry is leveraging consumer curation in ways the book publishing industry hasn’t even dreamed of. I believe tomorrow’s e-content leaders will fully understand and encourage consumer curation. Whether you call it remixes, custom editions or something else, this is a concept that will help the industry achieve escape velocity from today’s print-under-glass model.

The IDPF conference highlight for me was Jane McGonigal’s session. I haven’t played a video game since PacMan in the early ‘80’s so I went into this one highly skeptical but she opened my eyes to the possibilities. It’s not that every book has to become a game. That’s not it at all. Rather, she challenged the audience to find ways of creating content that takes readers to a whole new level of enthusiasm. The images she showed of gamers completely engaged and immersed in the experience were inspiring.

Another valuable IDPF session was one where Jim Hanas of HarperCollins interviewed David Arabov of Elite Daily. Arabov described how Elite Daily organically builds audience and community and turns that into their finished product. Compare that to book publishing where a totally non-agile approach is used to build products behind closed doors with the hope that yesterday’s marketing models will generate buzz (e.g., buying promotions, shelf space on physical shelves, etc.). Wouldn’t it be cool if publishers engaged with readers during the idea conception and development process rather than waiting till the end after all the time and money have been invested? That sounds like Wattpad to me, which might explain why Allen Lau and his team always report such amazingly high traffic levels. Now they just need to figure out how that translates into revenue, of course…

I had the pleasure of serving as moderator on a couple of IDPF panel sessions. The Amazon panel included Molly Barton and she made an excellent point about the problems with today’s closed ebook ecosystem. As Molly described it, readers often want to socialize their reading experience and today’s model forces them to have those conversations away from the book. Why not integrate this functionality in the reading app? It can be completely unobtrusive, where the service only appears when the reader wants to access it rather than forcing readers off to other apps and platforms.

All-you-can-read subscriptions were, of course, a topic that came up many times throughout the week. Scribd’s Andrew Weinstein shared some observations including how this model affects the long tail. As Weinstein put it, with unlimited reading platforms consumers are more willing to abandon a book and move on to the next one if they lose interest, figuring there’s no additional cost to taste-test a lot of books every month. First of all, let’s hope that’s doesn’t turn out to be the most important benefit subscription platform have to offer. Second, what does that say about the industry’s inability to create a sampling model that actually works?

Finally, I wanted to mention an interesting quote from Sherisse Hawkins of Beneath the Ink. Sherisse has been a pioneer in pushing ebooks beyond the print-under-glass experience and she said that one of their readers recently sent a message saying, “thank you for helping me avoid getting lost in the ‘wiki holes’”. That reminded me of the new Wright Brothers book by David McCullough that I recently finished. It was a fantastic read but I can’t tell you how many times my curiosity led me away from the book to Google where I searched for locations, images and related content. Unlike Sherrise’s customer, I did get lost in a variety of “wiki holes”, but it once again proved to me that this industry needs to figure out how to provide consumers with something more than dumb content on smart devices.