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4 posts from April 2016

Why is text-to-speech only an afterthought?

Buttons-304219_1280I spend a lot of time commuting to and from work in my car and I try to use the time wisely. I cycle through a playlist of podcasts every week but I feel like I’m missing out on other types of content. Regardless of your daily commute, I’ll bet you’d feel the same way if you’d stop to consider the possibilities.

I’m thinking mostly about short-form content such as website articles, whitepapers and other documents. If someone sends me a link or I discover an interesting article online it’s highly likely I won’t have time to read it immediately. That’s why I typically save it in Instapaper or Evernote.

This approach has turned me into an article hoarder as I have countless unread articles in both Instapaper and Evernote. So while I thought my problem was a lack of time at that moment, the truth is I rarely have time to read many of these things later either.

To its credit, the Instapaper app for Android has a text-to-speech feature built in. But the way it’s implemented tells me it was added as an afterthought. Sure, I can tap the “Speak” button and sit back and listen, but how useful is that when you’ve got a bunch of 2-4 minute articles stacked up and you’re trying to go hands-free while driving along the highway (or taking a walk, or running on a treadmill, etc.)?

Publishers sometimes talk of engaging with the consumer who’s reading their content while standing in the proverbial grocery store check-out line. Next time you’re in line at the grocery store look around. Nobody reads like that. Some people have their phones out but they’re probably scanning Facebook or sending a text message. Rather than heads-down reading you’re more likely to see people with ear buds in, listening to music while they shop or wait in line. And let’s face it: nobody reads while they’re running or doing other strenuous activities.

So along with all those “send to” buttons for various social and “read later” services, why isn’t there one built exclusively for text-to-speech conversions that open up all sorts of new use-cases for content consumption?

The service has to do much more than just transform text to audio though. There’s an important UI component that needs to be considered. The entire platform has to be audio-based, including voice commands. Picture an app on your phone that has all the voice command capabilities of Siri or Alexa, for example. Whether you’re driving or running, all you’d have to do is say things like “skip”, “next article”, “archive”, “annotate”, etc. The user should be able to manually create playlists and the service should offer the option of automatically detecting topics and placing each article in a relevant folder (e.g., sports, business, DIY, etc.).

Don’t forget the social aspect and opportunities here. Using voice commands I should be able to quickly and easily share an interesting article via email, Twitter, etc. Let me also keep track of the most popular articles other users are listening to so I don’t miss anything that might be gaining momentum.

One business model option is probably quite obvious: insert short audio ads at the start of each article, similar to the plugs I’m hearing more frequently in podcasts. And since the article topic and keywords can be identified before streaming it’s easy to serve highly relevant ads that are closely aligned with the articles themselves; think Google AdSense for audio. Give publishers an incentive to feature new “send to audio” buttons on their articles by sharing that well-targeted ad income with them.

Doesn’t this seem like it’s right in Google’s wheelhouse? I suppose they’ve got bigger fish to fry but this looks like an existing marketplace gap that’s just waiting to be filled.

Here’s how indexing could evolve with ebooks

Telescope-122960_1920Last month I shared some thoughts about how indexes seems to be a thing of the past, at least when it comes to ebooks. I’ve given more consideration to the topic and would like to offer a possible vision for the future.

Long ago I learned the value an exceptional indexer can bring to a project. For example, there’s a huge difference between simply capturing all the keywords in a book and producing an index that’s richly filled with synonyms, cross-references and related topics. And while we may never be able to completely duplicate the human element in a computer-generated index I’d like to think value can be added via automated text analysis, algorithms and all the resulting tags.

Perhaps it’s time to think differently about indexes in ebooks. As I mentioned in that earlier article, I’m focused exclusively on non-fiction here. Rather than a static compilation of entries in the book I’m currently reading, I want something that’s more akin to a dynamic Google search.

Let me tap a phrase on my screen and definitely show me the other occurrences of that phrase in this book, but let’s also make sure those results can be sorted by relevance, not just the chronological order from the book. Why do the results have to be limited to the book I’m reading though? Maybe that author or publisher has a few other titles on that topic or closely related topics. Those references and excerpts should be accessible via this pop-up e-index as well. If I own those books I’m able to jump directly to the pages within them; if not, these entries serve as a discovery and marketing vehicle, encouraging me to purchase the other titles.

This approach lends itself to an automated process. Once the logic is established, a high-speed parsing tool would analyze the content and create the initial entries across all books. The tool would be built into the ebook reader application, tracking the phrases that are most commonly searched for and perhaps refining the results over time based on which entries get the most click-thru’s. Sounds a lot like one of the basic attributes of web search results, right?

Note that this could all be done without a traditional index. However, I also see where a human-generated index could serve as an additional input, providing an even richer experience.

How about leveraging the collective wisdom of the community as well? Provide a basic e-index as a foundation but let anyone contribute their own thoughts and additions to it. Don’t force the crowdsourced results on all readers. Rather, let each consumer decide which other members of the community add the most value and filter out all the others.

This gets back to a point I’ve made a number of times before. We’re stuck consuming dumb content on smart devices. As long as we keep looking at ebooks through a print book lens we’ll never fully experience all the potential a digital book has to offer.

Another way to monetize ebooks

Coins-948603_1920In today’s market there are typically two methods for ebook distribution: free or paid. I’ve said before that one day we’ll see an ad-subsidized model take hold. Purists generally reject that concept, saying they won’t let advertisements interfere with their reading experience. That’s fine. They can pay full price but I’ll sometimes opt for the cheaper (or free) ad-subsidized version.

There’s another option that could become popular one day and it will be almost as as frictionless as the free model.

Are you familiar with Google’s Opinion Rewards app? I learned about it a couple of years ago and now I use it to buy three or four ebooks per year. Once the app is installed on your mobile device you’ll get periodic notifications asking you to respond to a survey. These questions can feel kind of creepy as Google uses the geo service in your device to ask specifics about stores you recently visited, for example. It takes about 10 seconds to answer and each survey nets me anywhere from 10 to 50 cents, sometimes even more; I usually end up with $10-$12 in my Google account every two to three months and I always use it to buy an ebook in the Google Play store.

With that in mind, imagine a service where you can download all the ebooks you want, for no charge. The content is locked and it becomes accessible as you answer a survey question every few pages. Or maybe you answer a few survey questions at the start of each chapter. Either way, rather than cash or credit card, you’re paying for the ebook with your data and opinions.

Again, this model isn’t for everyone. Privacy freaks will definitely choose the traditional option, paying full price to avoid sharing more data or opinions.

In order to make this happen we’ll need an ebook application and platform that supports a survey-driven business model. Google would be the logical choice as they could easily integrate their Opinion Rewards service in their ebook app. I doubt that will happen though as Google has expressed almost zero interest in the ebook marketplace. Doesn’t it seem as though they only released an ebook application because Apple has one?

In order for any company to offer this option they’d have to place a high value on the survey data. That means they’d either use the results to improve their own business (unlikely) or sell the anonymized results to others (more likely).

The key difference with this model for publishers is that they’ll earn only as their content is read. So if most users download the book then lose interest after a chapter or two, that’s all the survey income the publisher will earn; this pay-as-you-go model scares the heck out of most publishers because they’d rather get full price up front and not worry about whether the content was engaging or if readers finished the book.

There’s a huge ecosystem of free ebooks today. Publishers and authors typically give these books away and hope some number of readers will buy the next title in the series or another book from that author. A pay-as-you-go model, which doesn’t really force the user to open their wallets, could become a more viable option, helping authors and publishers better understand how their content is being consumed.

What’s the missing ingredient for unlimited reading services?

Infinity-1179939_1280I’ve been a fan of unlimited e-reading services for at least a couple of years now. When Oyster Books went under I shifted to Kindle Unlimited. For short-form magazine content I use Texture, the offering formerly known as Next Issue.

Prices for these services are typically in the $10-15/month range and, for the most part, I think they’re worth it. Even though I refer to them as “unlimited” one key shortcoming is what’s not available in the all-you-can-read platforms. You’ll rarely find the bestselling books in an unlimited reading service, for example. Just because the catalog offered contains hundreds of thousands of titles doesn’t mean you’re likely to find the next great read there.

Lately I’m realizing that I’m not getting much use out of my Texture subscription. The issue isn’t so much that it lacks titles. In fact, now that Texture includes access to almost 200 magazines it’s hard to find ones that aren’t included, and that’s the problem.

The value proposition for these unlimited services has always been based up on overwhelming you with content. What I really want them to offer now is a curated experience.

Texture knows that I enjoy reading BusinessWeek and Sports Illustrated, for example. Why not let me configure my Texture subscription to ensure I never miss articles about my favorite teams and industries/companies I want to follow? Then use that information to help me continue expanding my horizons, presenting me with content on adjacent businesses, for example.

Put all that material together in a custom magazine, made just for me every week (or whatever frequency I prefer). Let me vote up/down on articles so the system can better determine what I really like (e.g., certain writers, themes, styles, etc.) How about letting me share my custom magazines with other Texture subscribers, and vice versa?

Curation of unlimited book subscriptions is a bit trickier. But how about starting by sending excerpts from newly added titles I might enjoy, based on my reading habits to date? It often feels like I’m searching for that needle in a haystack when I try to figure out what book I should read next. There have got to be ways to simplify and help me narrow things down as well as ensure I don’t overlook an obvious winner.

I’m not looking for a million books or hundreds of magazines. I want what most interests me and I’d like to see the subscription services figure that out. Don’t make me just come to you and open your app. Communicate with me via email and/or text messages if I prefer. Surprise and delight me rather than simply expecting me to be wowed by the overwhelming amount of content offered.