Amazon Rapids and the dumbing-down of reading

Rapids_logo_headerAt first I thought it was an SNL parody about ebooks for kids. We’re so addicted to info snacking, seemingly less able (and interested) in focusing on long form reading, so let’s create a new platform that helps foster even shorter attention spans for our kids.

Amazon Rapids is nothing more than a series of text messages disguised as a new way of encouraging kids to read. Go ahead. Download the app, read the sample content and tell me whether you think it’s worth $2.99 a month to expose kids to these “short stories.” I wouldn’t recommend Rapids to kids even if it was offered for free.

Anyone who knows me would agree that I’m an unabashed digital enthusiast. Nobody wants technology to help make reading more accessible and interesting than me. I’ve given countless presentations about how today’s ebooks are nothing more than “print under glass” and how we spend so much time reading “dumb content on smart devices.”

With Rapids, Amazon now enables kids to read even dumber content on their smart devices. I really wish it were nothing more than an SNL skit but I think Amazon is serious about this one.


Here’s a better model for book search and discovery

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 3.49.38 PMHow are you helping consumers find the perfect book for their needs or interests? If you’re like most publishers, you offer a search function on your site. Visitors simply type in a topic and relevant titles from your catalog are displayed.

This is pretty similar to how search works on Amazon. In both cases, book metadata is used to determine the best matches. So if the search phrase happens to be in a book’s title, description, etc., that title is likely to float to the top of the results.

That’s great, but why not leverage the book contents, not simply its metadata, for the search process. Amazon’s Search Inside feature lets you do this, but only after you’ve selected a particular book. What if you’re a publisher with a deep catalog on religion and someone is looking for the book with the most in-depth coverage of Pope Francis? Metadata-only searches can help, but the full contents are the only way to truly measure topical depth, especially if you want to compare two similar titles to see which one has the most extensive coverage of the search phrase.

Google Book Search (GBS) offers this sort of visibility but most publishers have a cap on the percentage of content visible to GBS users. That’s primarily because publishers want to prevent someone from reading the entire book without buying it.

I believe the solution is to expose all the contents to a search tool and display results that only show snippets, not full pages. That’s exactly what we’re now offering on our bookstore website at Our Sunday Visitor. If you click on the Power Search link at the top of the page you’ll be taken to this new search tool.

If I search for “Pope Francis” I get these results. The top title has 203 hits, so if I click “view 203 results” I can then take a close look at every occurrence of my search phrase in the highest ranked title. Note that this platform takes proximity into consideration, so if you have a multi-word search you can limit the results to just those instances where the words are closest to each other. At any point the user can click on the cover image to read title details or buy the book.

Think about how powerful this tool is for publishers with deep lists on vertical topics (e.g., cooking, math, science, self-help, etc.). Instead of relying exclusively on the book description to make the sale, the contents are fully searchable and comparable across a list of related titles.

We’re in the early experimentation phase with this platform. We’re planning to use a variety of ads that say something like, “find your next great read”; users who click on those ads will be taken to the search landing page where they can explore the full contents of our entire ebook catalog.

This search platform is powered by the outstanding team at MarpX. If you’d like to experiment with this on your site, you’ll find contact info at the bottom of their home page. MarpX has been a wonderful partner for us and I highly recommend you explore their solution as well.

I hope you’ll join us in this effort to move content search and discovery to the next level.


Why shop at a brick-and-mortar bookstore?

Coke2Do you still shop at your local bookstore? I typically go once, maybe twice a year, and the last time for me was December 2015. I made a rare summer visit to my local B&N this weekend in search of books for my almost six-month-old grandson, Jasper. No matter how good Amazon makes their “Look Inside” feature, it will never replace the experience of flipping through a children’s book, especially those with pop-ups, pull-tabs and other fun elements you find in so many children’s titles.

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and there were at most 10-15 other shoppers in the entire store. That got me thinking: What are the compelling reasons to shop at a physical bookstore? The “buy local” movement is a nice feel-good for consumers but it’s not a viable long-term strategy for brick-and-mortar stores.

Despite my love/hate relationship with Amazon over the years, I admit that I currently buy almost all my books there. Thanks to Prime, my wife and I spend a lot on plenty of other Amazon products every month too. That’s the beast we consumers created and it simply replaced another beast that preceded it: the formerly powerful combo of B&N and Borders superstores.

It’s sad to watch B&N shift square footage from books to seemingly anything other than books. I get it that they need to find a new path forward but I’m amazed at the many book discovery and sales opportunities they’ve ignored or overlooked.

This particular B&N had been completely remodeled since I last visited it in 2015. Despite all the signage it took far too long for me to locate the two sections I wanted to visit after finding my Jasper books. Why isn’t there an in-store mobile app designed to quickly help me find my way, sort of a virtual replacement for all the in-store personnel that used to assist you at every turn? GPS and in-store sensors are more than good enough to help consumers navigate a superstore. Plus, there’s a data collection opportunity these stores are missing out on; publishers would likely pay big bucks for reports quantifying consumer time spent in front over various promotional campaign types (e.g., end-cap vs. front-of-store vs. free-standing displays).

Why stop there though? Since they know I’m in the store, why not allow me to opt in to exclusive deals, customized for my interests, delivered via this mobile app and which expire as soon as I walk out the front door? This could limit the showrooming practice where consumers sample in the physical store but end up buying, sometimes via their phone, while they’re still standing in the aisle.

While I was feeling bad for brick-and-mortars I felt even worse when I picked up a couple of recent publications from the blockbuster “For Dummies” series. I had the pleasure of spending a few years working at the publishing house where the series was created and expanded and I think what we said back then is still true today: Everyone is a dummy about something.

Branding was always such an important consideration for those yellow-and-black covers but you discovered the one-of-a-kind content personality when you flipped through any of the hundreds of successful titles. That’s no longer the case. The two I picked up had morphed into generic-looking covers and, surprisingly, plain vanilla interiors. The once playful heading fonts are gone and so too is that powerful message, “a reference for the rest of us.”

Like any publisher of a highly successful series, I’m sure the Dummies team felt the time was right for a refresh. I think they made a huge mistake with their new approach though. It would be like Coke switching to blue cans or McDonalds ditching their golden arches.

Once upon a time the Dummies books would be showcased, face out, in a four-foot-wide display at your local store. Those covers were so powerful individually but made an even stronger impression when 20 of them were aligned in a chain-wide promotional campaign.

The newer Dummies books mostly blend in with the rest of the white noise on the shelf. Given the scope of that series, I see that as yet another missed brick-and-mortar opportunity, particularly since impulse-buying seems to happen more in the physical store than online. Consumers will no longer be drawn to the bright yellow-and-black covers that once served as a foot traffic magnet within the local bookstore.


The short-form content resurgence

Statistics-76198_1920I remember the first time I heard the phrase “info snacking” back in 2007. It was when the Kindle launched and Jeff Bezos said his newfangled device would slow the info snacking trend and enable deeper engagement with content.

The Kindle platform certainly launched the ebook revolution but it’s interesting that it didn’t halt short-form content momentum. In fact, I’d argue that info snacking is more popular than ever before and, ironically, that popularity is largely driven by Bezos’ own company, Amazon.

Remember the late 1990’s when it seemed like publishers could generate digital income by selling individual book chapters? Once upon a time I too thought that might be a viable model but in hindsight it’s clear books and chapters can’t be treated like albums and songs. Most books are written so that the individual chapters are too reliant on each other, thereby making them far less valuable individually.

We need to think about taking things in the opposite direction. Rather than tearing apart a book and trying to sell individual chapters, content needs to be developed in short, granular formats so that each piece can be sold on its own and can be remixed with other granular pieces. And while this is mostly true for non-fiction I can see where it also has potential for some fiction works as well.

Short-form content success is all around us. Amazon launched Kindle Singles several years ago and the program has grown to more than 2,000 titles today. A few days ago they announced a program called Singles Classics where they’re breathing new life into older short-form evergreen content from the pre-digital era. And earlier this month they launched a short-form initiative within one of their audio subsidiaries called Audible Channels.

All of this simply reflects the fact that we’re all pressed for time but we still want to consume content. Sure, there’s nothing quite like fully immersing yourself in a long book written by a wonderful storyteller. But these short-form services are simply addressing our craving to be hyper-efficient, aware of the latest trends in our jobs/careers and always up-to-the-date on worldly news.

The movement isn’t going away, so what is your organization doing to address it? As you think about that question be careful to look beyond written content. I finally decided to buy one of those Amazon Tap devices and it’s only reinforced my earlier belief that voice UI’s and audio content consumption will be important models in the future.


Amazon extends their dominance with Audible Channels

Screenshot_20160709-140715 (1)Even though they’re gaining momentum I’ve never been a big fan of audio books. Amazon, of course, owns the market with both Audible and Brilliance. Although it didn’t receive a lot fanfare last week, Audible introduced one of the most interesting and long overdue services that I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m talking about Audible Channels and it takes short-form listening to an entirely new level. Some have mistakenly written Channels off as nothing more than a glorified podcasting option but it’s much more than that.

First of all, thanks to Channels I’m finally able to listen to periodicals. Popular brands like The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Bezos’ own Washington Post are just a few of the feed options. Rather than having to find the time to read a few newspaper articles each day I can quickly zip through them with the combination of phone+Bluetooth+car radio during my morning commute.

Isn’t it amazing that the newspaper industry never bothered to jump on the convenience and popularity of audio before now? Newspapers have been struggling for years with flat or declining subscription levels and now Amazon steps in to fill the audio void.

Next, taking a page out of the Netflix playbook, Channels also offers a growing number of original content feeds. Amazon, the king of data, is uniquely positioned to quickly determine which topics and genres will likely be most successful, so even though original content could be viewed as an expensive venture the risk is probably quite low. And hey, Amazon is never one to shy away from losing a lot of money, so this is a no-brainer for them.

Now let’s go back to the podcast topic for a moment. Yes, Channels offers access to many of the same podcasts you can get for free via iTunes and other services. So why pay for them via Channels? One word: curation.

Over the past six months I’ve immersed myself in the podcast arena, not as a creator but as a listener. I’ve spent countless times trying to find the next great podcast and it’s like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I’ve really only found three that I listen to on a regular basis but I’ve tried at least 30+ others along the way. Part of my exploration involved working my way top to bottom through the popular lists while others hit my radar through recommendations from similar feeds. I’m convinced that neither approach is optimal and that there’s a huge opportunity to dramatically improve the inefficient discovery experience here.

Channels promises a curation process powered by editors who handpick only the best of the best. Will it improve podcast discovery? Only time will tell, but it’s got to be better than the discovery options we’ve dealt with up to now.

All of this comes to you for the low, low price of $4.95 per month. If you’re already an Audible subscriber, typically paying $14.95 per month, you now have access to Channels for no additional charge. Btw, if you’re looking for that pricing info and a quick way to sign up, just go to this rather hard-to-find page.

Audible Channels isn’t just for consumers interested in short-form audio content. It’s also an important lesson for publishers of all types of written content. Amazon is 20+ years old and they’re still disrupting. If Channels is successful every periodical publisher will soon discover they’ll need to make their content available on it, producing yet another new chapter in the story of Amazon’s marketplace dominance.

Subscription options are pretty limited today but I can see a future where I’ll be able to subscribe to audio versions of the sports sections from all the papers I care about, for example. When that happens, don’t you think newspaper publishers will deeply regret the fact that they didn’t build this platform themselves?


Let’s take “Search Inside the Book” to a whole new level

Telescope-187472_1920Do you remember when Amazon introduced both “Look Inside” and “Search Inside” functionality for books? They were such simple yet revolutionary features at the time. Before Look/Search Inside it was impossible to do a simple flip test like you could at a brick-and-mortar store.

Fast-forward to today where we take Look/Search Inside features for granted, so much so that there’s been virtually no innovation on this front. I believe there’s a real opportunity here though to help consumers find what they’re looking for as well as significantly improve the overall content discovery and evaluation process.

Let’s start with a simple question: Why are Search and Look Inside both limited to individual books? What if my first problem is to figure out which book has the most in-depth coverage of topic xyz? Let’s say I want to do some research on the Pittsburgh Pirates, specifically looking for coverage of a former player named Dave Parker. How do I find the book with the most in-depth coverage of Parker?

The typical approach is to search on Amazon. The search results there are initially sorted by relevance and you might think that’s the end of the story. But all Amazon is really doing is searching the metadata associated with each book; they’re not searching the actual contents of the books to push titles with higher relevance to the top of the results. That means books with that name or phrase in the title often get pushed to the top.

Take a closer look at those search results and you’ll quickly appreciate just how ineffective the current Amazon solution is. You’ll need to skip past the first four results as they’re not books at all; I requested “books” only but the results reflect the challenges Amazon has with internal product types and definitions. Those are followed by a couple of titles that have nothing to do with Dave Parker the former baseball player but they happen to be authored by another guy named Dave Parker. This shows how much Amazon’s search prioritizes a book’s metadata; there are probably very few references to “Dave Parker” inside those books but these titles float toward the top of the results simply because of the author name. Next is a book about Dave Winfield, another former baseball player, which looks promising. The problem here is that it made it to the first page of results because the book’s co-author is Tom Parker, so when Amazon sees “Dave Winfield” and “Tom Parker” next to each other it thinks there’s a hit because of the former’s first name plus the latter’s last name. Ugh.

At this point you might think the solution is to go to Google Book Search. Take a look at Google's results and I think you’ll agree I’m no closer to finding the right book than I was at the start. To be fair, Google Book Search is a better solution than Amazon’s search but there are still some enormous holes. For example, although Google’s service is searching the book contents it’s still highly biased by the metadata. Just look at the author names of the first several titles in those search results and you’ll see what I mean. Also, Google is severely limited because their solution is tightly connected to their book preview service. That means Google will only show you some of the pages with hits, hiding many others and then completely cutting off your view once you reach a certain threshold.

What we really need is something like Google Book Search across an entire library, with full visibility into all the content, featuring an algorithm that’s smart enough to focus on true relevance and isn’t thrown off simply by metadata. The results would show two or three lines of the text surrounding each hit so the reader can appreciate the context throughout.

This uber-search would be powerful for some types of books and totally useless for others. For example, there’s absolutely no need for it in the fiction space but think about how useful it would be in non-fiction areas like business, science, technology, biography, cooking, etc. I see this as a service a publisher could place on their website, dramatically improving the current metadata-only search results you typically find.

In fact, this uber-search vision is a service my OSV colleagues and I are currently exploring with a third-party developer. Before we get too far along with it we wanted to describe it for the publishing community to see if anyone knows of a better solution that already exists. We haven’t found one yet but as we roll it out we’ll be sure to describe the process here so other publishers can learn from our experience and potentially embrace our solution as well.


This idea is both a consumer feature and a marketing opportunity

Imac-606765_1920We take it for granted that when we open our favorite ebook app it automatically jumps right into the last book we were reading. And while that’s handy, I’d like to see at least one other option when I open the app.

How about a reader-customized landing page? This page should be fully configurable, based exclusively on my particular interests. For example, we all have our favorite genres, topics and authors we like to follow. Let’s start off by allowing readers to place a widget on this landing page showing the top five bestsellers in their favorite category.

Another widget I’d love to see is a quick-and-easy way to grab samples of newly published (or upcoming) books in my preferred categories. So maybe a top five list again with a one-click-sample download button next to each cover.

Then there’s the social opportunity… I recently asked one of my good friends to tell me the best WWII books he’s read over the past few years. That was done through a combination of texting and email. How about adding a capability to this landing page so I can quickly find (or follow) my most trustworthy friends and answer that question right in the reader app? Both of us would have to opt in, of course, but what a great way to share and access highly relevant information, especially when it’s in such close proximity to the one-click sampling/buying process.

You’ve undoubtedly seen some of this functionality on your favorite retailer’s website or through their email marketing campaigns. That’s great, but sometimes I go to amazon.com to buy dog food, not books, and my email inbox is already overflowing with other marketing messages. Frankly, I think I’ve become numb to all the sales pitches that hit my inbox every day. Now compare that to the time when I’m opening the Kindle or Google Play Books apps on my iPad; that’s when I’m focused on books, but not just reading…I’m often ready for book discovery when I launch those apps, so why not help me find what I might be interested in?

I also realize most of the time we might want to just leave well enough alone and continue jumping right back into that last book we were reading. Great, but how about placing a button in the app’s nav bar to quickly take me to this configurable landing page?

Another nice touch would be to let me customize the feeds by day and time. For example, if I’m opening it up during business hours I’m probably looking for work-related content. But let me also configure it to show sports and history lists and samples when it’s after 5PM or on the weekend.

You’d think that Amazon would already offer something like this in the Kindle app. All the other reader apps tend to follow their lead and since books now represent such a small slice of Amazon’s overall revenue it would be great to see some other ebook retailer step up and innovate with a service like this.


A new take on ebook windowing

Window-941625_1920Ebook windowing is a technique designed to prevent ebooks from cannibalizing print book sales. The original thinking went something like this: Release a new title in print format only, thereby preventing e-cannibalization.

The result? Frustrated consumers. If you’re an ebook reader there’s nothing worse than realizing a digital edition doesn’t exist for that new book you recently discovered and were ready to buy. These days it seems the lack of a digital edition isn’t the result of publisher windowing as much as publisher ebook indifference.

I think it’s time to reconsider the windowing model, but with a twist.

Rather than offering print without digital initially, why not offer that ebook exclusively on the publisher’s website? For the first 30 days, for example, the ebook is only available as a direct-to-consumer option from the publisher. Most ebooks are ready for download before the print book anyway, so this is a new way of taking advantage of the print manufacturing and distribution delays. When the final version is ready to send to the printer the publisher can make it available for purchase as an ebook on their site. The e-exclusivity period expires when the book is off the press and in stores a few weeks later.

Two of the big challenges with this approach are:

  1. Making sure consumers are aware of the initial exclusively direct availability
  2. Getting consumers to change their buying behavior

Neither of these is easily overcome but both are critical for a successful direct-to-consumer strategy. They also require a long-term commitment, so don’t expect game-changing results initially.

The awareness obstacle starts with creation and careful management of a customer list. Email newsletters are critical and they must contain valuable information and insights, not just one promotional message after another. This isn’t just about emails and list management though. A publisher needs to be committed to building community with their audience, giving them reasons to come to their site on a regular basis, etc. Many publishers have an allergic reaction to this approach; these publishers will never create a successful direct channel.

Raising and maintaining consumer awareness is hard enough, but changing consumer buying behavior has a much higher degree of difficulty. If you’re a Kindle reader and you’ve built a large e-library with Amazon you need a compelling reason to buy your next ebook from somewhere else.

The direct sales model eliminates the retailer and enables the publisher to keep a larger chunk of the revenue. In many cases this means the publisher nets 100% of the selling price vs. only about 50% when the ebook is sold through a retailer. So why not pass a portion of that difference along to consumers? A 40%-off deal during that initial direct-only stage might be a compelling enough reason for some of those Kindle loyalists to consider buying direct instead, especially if the Kindle price ends up being close to list.

I realize this strategy won’t put a dent in Amazon’s ebook dominance. But over time it can enable publishers to build a stronger direct-to-consumer business, the benefits of which include knowing who your customers are, being able to market directly to them and gathering analytics about their reading behavior.


Why I’m not on the Amazon Echo bandwagon…yet

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 9.32.56 AMI almost bought an Amazon Echo last November. It was on sale for $129 and I figured it was too good a deal to pass up. Amazon promised two-day Prime delivery but they got overwhelmed by all the orders and, like many others, they botched mine and said I might receive it by end of year. At that point I decided it wasn’t meant to be so I cancelled and I’m glad I did.

I already have a couple of other terrific Bluetooth speakers and while the Alexa voice control feature is nice, I’m not convinced it’s worth $100+. It reminds me of dedicated GPS devices and fitness bracelets, both of which have been replaced by sensors in my phone.

Echo is more of a nice-to-have, not need-to-have, item for me, especially with its ability to turn news and other types of written content into streamable audio content. But I’m much more interested in a mobile solution, not one that sits on a countertop.

Like GPS and fitness devices, Echo’s main functionality will also eventually find its way into the phone itself. The reason I’m prefer a mobile solution is that I spend a lot of time in my car where I use the Bluetooth feature of my radio and phone to listen to podcasts, music, etc.

The Echo platform becomes very attractive to me when it’s nothing more than an app on my phone that plays through my car radio. The app handles all the speech command conversion via the cellular connection, the same way the streaming content arrives.

This app doesn’t have to be free, btw. Charge me $5/month or something close to that and I’ll gladly pay for the option to “play news” and other commands in my car.

Where this really gets fascinating is with longer-form content and the ability to use voice commands to annotate and highlight audio books, for example. Whether it’s in my car or at home, it would be nice to finally have the ability to do more than just listen to an audio book. For example, when I hear a noteworthy passage, I’d like to be able to say “pause”, “highlight last two sentences”, “add private note to highlight saying ‘this is something I should pass along to the marketing team’”, etc.

Take it a step further and integrate my email app so that rather than just making that verbal note to pass along to marketing, let me say, “create email to Joe Smith at company.com, subject ‘key discovery’, body is highlight, send.”

Let’s say you’re listening to that book and you hear a phrase, person or location you’re not familiar with. The app should have the ability for me to say, “pause”, “tell me about phrase/person/location” and the app responds with the appropriate audio stream (e.g., top Google search result, Wikipedia entry, etc.)

All my audio highlights and annotations must be searchable, by voice as well as text. In fact, let’s add the capability to integrate all these highlights and notes into Evernote so I can keep everything in one place.

Amazon might be happy selling $100+ voice-controlled Bluetooth speakers today but the real opportunity is with a fully mobile, app-driven solution that integrates with a broader number of content sources and streams. We’re not there yet but by combining voice control and streaming audio the Amazon Echo platform is starting to show us what’s possible down the road.


How “Send to Kindle” can help neutralize Amazon

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.52.39 AMPublishers who sell ebooks direct to consumers typically do so in EPUB format. That’s because most publishers are still wedded to the false sense of security DRM provides and EPUB offers a popular DRM solution. Contrast that with Amazon’s format, MOBI, where Amazon is the only company who can apply and manage MOBI’s DRM’d files and settings.

A former colleague of mine and I used to get a kick out of reading the many painful steps readers are forced to go through when buying DRM’d EPUB files direct from publisher websites. It’s not uncommon for the process to require more than a dozen steps to proceed from buying to reading. Most of the process has to be endured once again if the consumer decides to start reading the same book on another device.

Click here or here to see the many hoops one must jump through to install DRM’d EPUB ebooks on one device as well as read them across multiple devices. It’s no wonder when you search for help on the topic the most popular links aren’t how to manage the process but rather how to remove the DRM and eliminate the associated headaches.

More and more publishers are starting to realize that DRM is pointless but they’re still missing out on one of the biggest opportunities of all: Putting their DRM-free ebooks into a reader’s Kindle library.

It’s no secret that Amazon dominates the ebook marketplace. Most readers have built a substantial Kindle library and the last thing they want to do is create a new library outside the Kindle ecosystem. They simply want all their books in one place.

Amazon’s Send to Kindle functionality has been around for quite awhile and I believe it’s one of the most underutilized services available to publishers. The Send to Kindle email option lets publishers push non-DRM’d ebooks directly onto a consumer’s Kindle bookshelf. I’m sure it was originally designed for documents other than ebooks but I think it’s time for book publishers to take advantage of it for their ebooks as well.

In addition to simply selling EPUB or PDF ebooks, why not provide readers with the MOBI version and push them directly onto their Kindle devices and apps? All you have to do is ask the reader for their unique Kindle email address and then have them enable inbound emails from your domain. Once that’s in place you’re able to place the ebook on their shelf just like Amazon does.

Once you’ve established that direct relationship with the consumer and their Kindle account, why not ask them if they want to opt in to receiving future related ebook samples from you? They’ll no longer have to search for similar books from your list as you’ll be able to automatically push samples to the reader’s Kindle bookshelf as they’re published. Take it a step further and make your samples available via this service 30 days before they’re available anywhere else. Get even more creative and offer a random free ebook prize to some number of lucky winners every month. There are plenty of ways to make Send to Kindle work for you and your customers.

It’s all part of creating a compelling reason for readers to come to you, the publisher, rather than always relying on retailer partners. Used wisely, the Send to Kindle service can help neutralize Amazon’s dominance while also helping publishers establish a better direct relationship with their customers.