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4 posts from July 2015

What is a "book-plus" and who are tomorrow's readers?

Amy July 2014Some people think the book is dead, much as Joe referred to obsolete single-use devices like the GPS while discussing the potential for peer-to-peer content distribution. The truth is, we're living in a world that's going to want and need not necessarily more books in general, but more great books. These books won't be plain-text as so many are today. They'll be book-plus, not book-minus.

One of the biggest lessons of self-publishing and the e-book explosion is that form and function are inextricably intertwined. What goes between the covers of a book (or on an e-reader or tablet) matters. We have tools and technology right now (EPUB3) to make books that are visually exciting, and which present imagery, type design and interactive elements in ways that work together to delight readers.

Form is one aspect of innovation. Content, i.e. writing, art, and design: these things also need to be made better in order to meet the expectations and needs of readers.

Let's take writing itself, for example. For some reason, even among publishing veterans, many people think that writing a good book that delivers value to the reader is some sort of accident – or they think it's something that is best-done under extreme adverse conditions (such as working in a hostile environment for free for years). Writing is may also be assumed to be a simple skill anyone can learn quickly from reading a couple of books or taking a $99 "Masterclass" provided by video instruction.

Of the over 2 million books published each year, fewer than 20 sell more than 250,000 copies – and of those, some are multiple editions of the same book/author (i.e. paperback and movie tie-in versions). Those same crazy big numbers also tell us that a lot of people desire to communicate with others via the written word.  We have more books than ever before, but we don't have better ones. We also don't have books that meet the needs of all of today's potential readers, much less the readers of tomorrow.

Book innovation isn't about quantity of product or "discoverability." It's not about devices or technology. Today's innovators in other industries aren't making new tools, they're inventing new ways to use the tools we already have. Take Slack for example. Slack is taking the working world by storm, revolutionizing how teams work together. The company took marketing and development inspiration from Michael Schrage's 2012 book (yes, book – published by the Harvard Business Review) Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?

According to Schrage, "innovation is an investment in your customer’s future — a human capital investment in who your customers really want or need to become."

Currently, about 20 percent of North Americans regularly buy and read books (about 70 million people). This percentage hasn't shifted much in recent years. Although book quantity has increased exponentially, book quality in physical and objective content measures hasn't. Almost 80 percent of North Americans have read at least one book in the prior year, far more than have listened to all genres of music, used Facebook, bought a movie ticket or watched the Super Bowl. The highest rate of readership is found among a group that media sometimes portrays as non-readers: African-Americans. Media also portrays millennials as online consumers, not readers. The truth is, young people ages 18 to 30 read more, and more often than any other age group. They prefer paper books to e-books for reasons of quality, user experience, and personal benefit from reading. You can see these facts reflected in the 2014 PW sales figures.

These facts are all opportunities for innovation.

Despite the technology that has enabled a large number of people to self-publish books – the publishing industry and nearly all of its elements and operational systems hasn't changed much since Jack London's day. The only difference is that now, self-published writers can directly reach readers. They still have to perform all the other tasks that go into making, publishing and selling a book in any format.

Books are still made and sold with the same attitude and approach as they were during a time in which a much smaller number of "elites" were literate and had time and money to buy and read books. In those days, Henry Ford famously said, "If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse."

Ford inspired Apple's Steve Jobs (who equally famously - and wrongly - declared "No one reads any longer" – ironically, the iPad is the best delivery system for enhanced e-books today, far superior to the Amazon Kindle, a product that Jobs was criticizing at the time).

"We build products that really turn us on," Jobs told Fortune in 2008. "It's not about pop culture and it's not about fooling people, and it's not about convincing people that they want something they don't. We figure out what they want."

We can feel what today's young readers want in their aspirations, hopes and idealism. We can see their openness to change, their embracing of diversity. Our young people are encouraged to participate equally in school, learn as part of collaborative teams, and express their thoughts openly. They graduate to a world of one-sentence pitches, arrogant agents, elitism, aggression, "fan communities," social media "platforms," and false market-driven conformity that assumes they are stupid herd beasts.

As one young reader recently said at San Diego's Comic-Con: "I like paper books because they're not like my tech. Their batteries don't run out." He said he enjoyed reading something that made his heart beat faster and put his mind in a better place. He spent about an hour reading Is SHE Available? "It's not like other books," he said. "It's a lot more. I have to go slow. It's overwhelming."

Is SHE Available? has blown everyone involved in making it away, and everyone who's bought and read it. Making it managed to bring the best out of everyone involved, from the author to the book designer to each of the 26 artists involved, the animators, and the musical artist/recording director.

The current sub-set of regular e-book readers are fine with e-book text dumped on a screen, but the majority of people don't just want text dumped on a screen and aren't interested in the same stories re-told with slight variations. This is one of the reasons why younger readers prefer paper books. If art, video, and music are included, it should serve the book well, not be tacked on as an afterthought. The writer has to be involved at all steps, not left behind at the production gate. Books, ideally, should be designed with readers in mind, not dumped into flat, HTML-based formats or crammed onto the smallest number of printed pages possible to save a few nickels.

Is SHE Available? is Chameleon's showpiece and first major publication. It won't be our last.

Thank you to Joe for giving us this opportunity to present our vision. It's about product, process, and value to the reader. Henry Ford loved cars and manufacturing and money: he created drivers. Steve Jobs loved tech and user interfaces, accessing data and other people and communicating and working: he created users.

We love words, ideas and books. Not for yesterday and not even for today. We want to create readers and writers for our world of 8 billion, not 70 million.

This article was written by Amy Sterling Casil. Amy is Founder and President of Chameleon Publishing, Inc., the visionary publishers of "Is SHE Available?". 

3 content pricing models from the future

Euro-447214_1280The year is 2020 and I’m about to make a digital content purchase. It’s amazing how much the industry has evolved in the past five years. For example, pricing is no longer a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it component. I now have multiple pricing models to choose from: 

Social bulk discounts – That digital newspaper subscription I’m considering offers a 50% discount if I can get at least 30 of my social network friends to subscribe as well. Yes, the Groupon model is still alive but with a twist. In order to take advantage of the deal I first need to rally commitments from my friends. If successful, all the participants are also committing to broadcast their purchase via Facebook, Twitter or whatever other social network they opted in with.

Advertising-subsidies – It finally happened and publishing purists are still complaining about it. Meanwhile, the rest of us are thrilled to choose from two different options and price-points when we buy ebooks. Those who prefer the traditional ad-free approach pay full price while others pay less and are presented with ads as they read the book. Even deeper discounts are offered to consumers who agree to share their name and email address with sponsors and advertisers. I’ve completely embraced the ad-subsidized approach and find the same as reading a magazine or newspaper.

Clubs – Ever wonder what happened to the old record and book clubs of yesteryear? They’re back in the digital world. I get to choose from 3 deeply discounted ebooks to open my account and then I commit to paying full price for at least 10 additional ebooks over the next 12 months. If I fall short of that commitment my credit card gets hit with a penalty charge at the end of the term, so better to just buy all the books I want rather than pay a fine with nothing to show for it.

I hope you agree that tomorrow’s pricing models are terrific for consumers. The data and buying commitments ought to be good for publishers and retailers too, right?

You probably quickly surmised that Amazon isn’t a fan of any of these, mostly because they want to own all the data and sell it to publishers. That’s OK though because all the other retailers recognized the benefits and now offer all three models. Publishers are also using them in their direct-to-consumer efforts on their websites. As a result, the retailer playing field has been leveled a bit, benefiting both consumers and publishers.

Rest assured, the future is bright (but the Cubs still haven’t managed to win a World Series).

Peer-to-peer content distribution

Human-668298_1280The smartwatch movement inspired me recently, which is surprising because I haven’t worn a watch since I started carrying a smartphone many years ago. I’m about as far as you can get from being a fashionista and I liken a watch to other obsolete single-use devices like the GPS. I doubt I’ll buy one anytime soon but I believe the device synchronization model used by smartwatches lends itself to content distribution as well.

You’re probably aware of how most smartwatches get paired with your smartphone. Although they don’t have all the capabilities of a smartphone, things like text messages and phone calls can be redirected from your phone to your watch, thanks in large part to Bluetooth technology. Your phone communicates with your watch the same way your phone connects with a wireless headset or desktop Bluetooth speaker, for example.

Let’s fast-forward to the day when we’ve all become peer-to-peer content distributors. Rather than relying on centrally-managed and hosted sites and services that handle everything from reviews to downloads, this peer-to-peer model means we’re doing all that for each other using Bluetooth or some other simple networking protocols. For example, your phone or computer can easily be turned into a wifi server, allowing you to connect multiple devices to it; that's a capability that exists today and I'm suggesting it could be extended for new uses in the future.

The Kindle introduced a whole new level of reading privacy. Once upon a time on a crowded bus you could see the cover of the book being read by the person across the aisle. Now we’re all masking our reading habits with tablets and phones. No, I’m not suggesting we embrace an overly intrusive model that has privacy advocates screaming in the streets. Rather, I believe a peer-to-peer model could be used to improve discovery and consumption at the hyperlocal level.

Think of the hundreds of riders on a commuter train each morning. Maybe they’re traveling from the northern suburbs into Manhattan. Some of them are neighbors. Many of them are businesspeople. All of them probably follow and read some type of news. Instead of just knowing the top global trends on Google, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what news stories your fellow commuters are reading?

The same concept can be applied to passengers on a plane or even homeowners in a neighborhood. Just as has disrupted Angie’s List and brought communication and recommendations to the local level, I suggest a peer-to-peer model could do the same for content.

The peer-to-peer aspect really shines when you consider how the content gets from my device to yours. That news story I just read on still lives in my browser’s cache. If enough of my fellow commuters read the same article, it floats to the top of the popular news list for our little commuter community. You click the link to it in our peer-to-peer content app and the article is pulled from my cache to your device.

In short, we’re distributing content to each other, without having to go up and down, to and from a central server. Wouldn’t this be terrific on a 4-hour flight with no wifi? Each of our devices acts as a mini-server, hosting content for everyone else.

Publishers would freak out over this model, at least initially. They’ll no longer control distribution and it will create holes in their analytics. I’m sure most, if not all, publishers have something buried in their terms and conditions preventing this sort of thing, but those who want to embrace broader distribution and consumption will eventually warm up to it.

Btw, the model isn’t limited to web pages. Think about the benefits this offers the book publishing sector. What if you could see a list of the popular ebooks in your neighborhood or among your fellow commuters? And what if you could pull a sample of one of those popular titles from someone else’s device, again, a particularly useful solution when you’re outside wifi and cellular range? If you decide you like that sample and you end up buying the ebook your peer-to-peer commuter friend gets credit for the sale with an affiliate cut of the resulting transaction.

We place way too much emphasis on the ability to measure global trends. You see it every day on Google, Twitter, etc. While we all care about these global trends, we’re also keenly interested in local and hyper-local trends. This peer-to-peer model addresses that point while also providing some relief for data plan limits and spotty wifi coverage.

Blinkist and the “read less, learn more” movement

Remember the “info snacking” phrase that was somewhat buzzworthy several years ago? The thinking was that everyone was too focused on reading short bursts of content and soon no one would have the attention span to read an entire book. In fact, info snacking was one of the terms Jeff Bezos mentioned when the Kindle launched; he suggested that the Kindle would encourage more deeply engaging, long-form reading.

And now we have Blinkist. Think of Blinkist as info snacking for books. Blinkist summaries are so short they make Cliffs Notes seem like long and boring tomes.

Let’s leave fiction off the table for a moment and talk about books on business strategy, investing, management, marketing, etc. How may of those 300-page books have you finished and immediately realized the author could have conveyed the critical points in about 5 pages?

You can almost see the editor telling the author, “this is great stuff, but we need you to double/triple/quadruple the length.” That (sort of) made sense in the brick-and-mortar days when a shelf presence drove discovery but now these books feel like they’re artificially inflated.

I’ve only read a few book summaries on Blinkist but I think they’re onto something. Yes, I remember (and once subscribed to) other summary services including getAbstract and Executive Book Summaries. I always found those to be nothing more than glorified tipsheets. If you really wanted to learn the key elements of the book you still had to read the whole thing. Blinkist’s summaries are definitely superior to others that I’ve read before.

10-15 minutes is all it takes to read one of the many well-written Blinkist summaries. Have you always wanted to read The Lean Startup? Why spend hours reading 300+ pages when you can get the gist in about 10 minutes? How about Business Adventures, that classic book Bill Gates recommends every business leader read? You can knock out that summary in less than 15 minutes.

I think we can all agree that every book doesn’t lend itself to a good summary format experience. Some authors, even non-fiction authors, are wonderful storytellers. Bill Bryson is a great example. I read his A Short History of Nearly Everything several years ago and found it to be an amazing journey from start to finish. When I saw Blinkist offers a summary of that one I have to admit I cringed. That’s a book you should read in its entirety and there are, of course, countless others that should never be read only in summary format. So while there are exceptions to the summaries formula I tend to believe most non-fiction books are excellent candidates for an abbreviated alternative.

The big question I have is why aren’t publishers taking control of this model? Why rely on a third-party to write and distribute these summaries? Who is better qualified to do the job than the original author or editor? I could see publishers selling these summaries, standalone or as a subscription, direct on their websites.

We all know why publishers won’t do this though. Most publishers view this as cannibalization and replacing a higher-priced sale with a lower-priced one. That’s unfortunate but far from surprising. Smarter publishers will consider bundling the summary with the full ebook at a slightly higher price than the ebook alone. Others might find opportunities to actually charge more for the summary figuring it’s a time-saver and some readers will be willing to pay a premium for a faster read. Still others will use the summary as an upsell to the full ebook: When consumers buy the summary they also get a special, limited-time discounted offer for the full ebook.

Most will just sit and watch though. It’s a textbook example of The Innovator’s Dilemma, which, I might add, is also available as a summary on Blinkist. :-)