Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant: Where are VPAs leading the publishing industry?

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 11.19.34 AMMy daily hour+ commute to and from work enables me to take in a variety of podcasts, a bit of SiriusXM Radio and, more recently, some quality time with Google Assistant. The latter simply means I press and hold the home button on my Galaxy phone and say, "good morning." Google takes it from there, providing the local weather and news summaries from a variety of sources.

OK, that's not exactly ground-breaking, but what fascinates me is where virtual personal assistants (VPAs) like Google Assistant are leading the publishing industry.

Rather that the mostly one-way interactions I have with Google Assistant today, what if the dialogue looked more like this in the future?:

Me: Good morning.

Google Assistant: Good morning, Joe. The local temperature is...

Me: Let's skip the news. What are the new and noteworthy books in my favorite categories?

Google Assistant: There's a new biography about Leonardo da Vinci you'll want to know about. It's by Walter Isaacson, the author of the Steve Jobs book you liked so much. Would you like to hear the description?

Me: Yes.

Google Assistant: To write this biography Isaacson immersed himself in da Vinci’s 7,200 pages of notebooks, which these days are spread across the map...

Me: Didn't da Vinci spend a number of years in Florence?

Google Assistant: Yes, he was born nearby and spent 1466 through 1476 as an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea di Cion. You visited that part of Florence during the Italy vacation you and your wife Kelly took in September 2017.

Me: Please send the ebook sample to my Google Play account.

Google Assistant: OK, it's now in your library. Would you like me to read the sample to you?

Me: Yes.

That's more of a two-way conversation, encouraging more personalized discovery and consumption. But why does this have to be a solitary experience? Wouldn't it be cool if VPAs could become an extension of your social network, enabling you to experience and interact with content with others?

For example, let's say I get a couple of minutes in to today's Marketplace podcast from NPR and I realize the topic is something my good friend Paul and I often talk about. Rather than listening to it alone, I'd like to see if Paul is available to join me. I ask Google Assistant to ping my friend with this audio greeting: "Hey Paul, it's Joe...I'm about to listen to a Marketplace episode I think we'd both enjoy. Care to join me?"

He's got a few minutes, so he opts in and Google opens a three-way audio channel where the podcasts plays and Paul and I can pause it at any moment to share comments, all done via voice control. Each time one of us wants to say something to the other, the podcast pauses and the two of us are able to voice chat, comparing thoughts. When we're ready for it to start back up, we just tell Google to proceed.

This would be a nice, new way to experience a podcast with others, but how about doing the same for longer-form content, like a lecture or even a class recording? No matter where you and your friends are physically, you could use VPAs to interact with the content as a group.

If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to explore the world of Google Assistant, Alexa, et al. We're only scratching the surface of VPA potential today and these technologies can help us take the next steps in breaking free of the limitations with today's mostly container-based content model.


Here’s another way digital could complement print

Light-bulbs-1125016_1920As I’ve said before, the publishing industry needs to get beyond the current “print or digital” mindset and instead explore ways for one to complement the other. Plenty of industry stats show that most readers are comfortable with either format and many prefer the convenience of switching between the two (e.g., reading the news digital but mostly sticking with print books).

After several years of going exclusively digital with books I have to admit I’ve been reading a few more print books lately as well. Sometimes it’s because the book was given to me and other times I simply opted for the format that was right in front of me at the store.

What I’m finding though is that the reading experience would be better if we could narrow the gap between print and digital. Here’s a great example: As I continue reading The Content Trap I’m highlighting more and more passages. When I do that with an ebook I can quickly search and retrieve those highlights using my phone, my iPad or whatever device is handy. With print books, those highlights and notes are only accessible if the physical book is nearby.

I’d love to see someone develop a service where I can take pictures of the print pages with my yellow highlights and allow me to upload them to a cloud service where they’ll be converted to a digital format. Since I’ve now got a nice library of both Kindle and Google Play ebooks, it would be even better if I could add those print highlights to my existing bookshelves.

Oddly enough though, the Kindle platform doesn’t even allow me to do a full text search across my entire ebook library. The magnifying glass tool in the Kindle app merely searches titles and author names, not the book contents. Imagine how nice it would be if you could search the contents of your entire ebook library and, that same search could also include the highlights from the print books you’ve read?

There would obviously have to be limits to the amount of highlighted or excerpted content you could convert with this type of service. Google, Amazon and Apple are uniquely positioned to offer that print-highlight-to-digital conversion since they already have all the content in their content management systems. As you upload those pictures of print pages with highlights they could quickly identify the source title, automatically adding the cover and metadata to the converted results. A social element could be integrated, enabling you to share some number of highlights with your friends and followers, powering better digital discovery of print content.

How cool would that be? Your print reading experience could finally entire the digital and social worlds.

Greedy publishers could quickly kill this concept, insisting on some sort of monthly fee or other upcharge for their content to be part of this solution. They’d probably argue that if a reader wants to create digital highlights they should buy the ebook as well as the print book. Good luck with that approach.

I hope one or more of the major e-reading platforms offers this type of service soon. I’d lobby pretty hard to get the entire OSV library included in it, free for users, resulting in better discovery and incremental sales from reader friends and followers.


Why ad blockers will help content evolve

Man-791049_1280Ad blocking is one of the more controversial features of Apple’s new iOS release. Apple prefers to call it “content blocking”, but it’s mostly intended to block all those pesky website ads that nag us every day.

Publishers are, of course, totally freaked out at the prospect of their content being consumed without monetizing the accompanying ads. And although ad blockers have been around for quite awhile, they’ve become a front-page story because Apple now makes it so easy to eliminate ads in their Safari browser.

To assess the impact of ad blockers in web browsers I think it’s worth studying the evolution of a similar medium: Television. TV started with totally free, over-the-air broadcasts. Advertisers subsidized those shows and everyone was happy.

Then cable arrived and an interesting thing happened: Most of us were willing to actually pay for all those free channels. Why? Two reasons: Better reception and more channels, although not the hundreds of channels available today. I remember our family’s first cable connection back in the early 1970’s. We went from three fuzzy stations to approximately 12 crisp, clear ones. That wasn’t a huge increase but it was important enough for my parents to sign up for a monthly payment.

Today we have cable, satellite, etc., with ad-subsidized channels, pay channels and that wonderful technology known as the DVR; each of these have their own business models. But with website content the business models still appear to be stuck in the early cable TV era.

On the web we have access to both free, ad-subsidized content as well as content behind paywalls. As ad blockers become more mainstream it forces publishers to make a strategic choice with their free content. Some will continue what they’ve always done: offering free content and now accepting the fact that more reading is taking place without the benefit of ad impression income. Others will push more of their content behind a paywall, reducing consumption but enjoying a false sense of contentment knowing that they aren’t being gamed by the ad-blocking crowd.

Others will embrace something in between. Their content will still be free and ad-subsidized, but in order to access it readers will have to agree to view the accompanying ads. Call it the “ad blocker blocker”. Technology will be developed to display the content only if the ads are also displayed. In fact, you could argue certain mobile apps and video pre-roll ads without skip/fast-forward buttons are examples of how this is happening today; perhaps we’ll see more publishers push their free content off the web and into mobile apps where ad blocking isn’t quite as easy. Yes, solutions will be developed to override this model as well, taking the cat-and-mouse game to a whole new level. But for the free ride to continue, mechanisms like this will have to emerge to ensure content creators and publishers have the revenue stream to keep producing.

It’s an evolution and only the strong and efficient will survive. But it’s also an important step leading to what I believe will be a future with deeper content engagement. After all, if readers find your ads so irritating, doesn’t that say something about your website experience? The ad-blocking movement should be a wakeup call for publishers everywhere, forcing them to do something radical: make the advertising experience more engaging and less annoying for readers.


Disney shows how to tear down walled gardens

Tired of dealing with the fragmented mobile marketplace that iOS and Android represent? The imagineers at Disney have come up with a terrific way to address that problem. It’s both a much-needed solution for consumers and also a clever way for Disney to maintain a direct relationship with consumers who buy indirectly.

I’m referring to the Disney Movies Anywhere initiative, which lets you buy a movie on one platform and watch it on either platform. Imagine a world where all those ebooks you bought on the Kindle platform could also be read now on the Nook platform, and vice versa. You’d be free to choose the lowest price, no longer worrying about ebook library lock-in, where you’ve bought so many titles you can’t imagine abandoning that retailer.

Sounds like a nightmare for the big retailers but a huge win for consumers and publishers.

Of course, how many publishers have the Disney muscle to force retailers into such a model? Very few.

But wouldn’t it be cool if one or more of the Big Five book publishers pushed for something just like this? The first thing a reader would see when they open that ebook from Amazon, B&N, or anywhere else is a message from the publisher thanking them for their purchase and showing the steps necessary to register the purchase with the publisher so the book can be read on any ebook platform.

The publisher not only does the reader a service, they also establish a direct link to all their customers. That leads to a better understanding of customer interests and trends as well as the opportunity to upsell other products directly.

Every retailer except the largest should support this concept as well. If you’re the distant #2 or #3 ebook retailer, you should totally embrace the opportunity to level the playing field with this; you’ll suddenly gain more relevance as all those books bought on the #1 retailer’s platform could now be read on yours.

Here’s another interesting byproduct: How long would the #1 retailer continue selling ebooks at a loss when every sale no longer reinforces consumer lock-in and, in fact, becomes yet another ebook the consumer can read on competitor platforms?


Making apps a core part of your digital publishing strategy

Arun BentyOn May 15, 2013, Apple celebrated 5 years of the App Store and released some astounding statistics.  Over 50 billion apps have been downloaded and that number jumped to 60 billion just 5 months after that announcement. That’s an average of 800 apps downloaded per second! With Apple paying out $15 billion to developers and December alone recording $3 billion in sales, do publishers need more reasons to look at the app store seriously? Let’s not forget, we haven’t spoken about the Google Play store yet, for which numbers are difficult to come by.

But aren’t customers tuned to buying books from iBooks and apps from app stores?
The answer is no. 10 to 30 times as many books are sold on the app store as compared to iBooks. The iBookstore pales in comparison to the Appstore in terms of traffic. So why would you place your wares in a store that has no footfalls? App Stores have changed the way we buy and install software and this begs the question: Aren’t ebooks software in a sense?

What’s the most important benefit of using apps for publishing?
It’s a common notion among publishers that apps makes sense only if you want to plug in some “interactivity” into your book. But there’s so much more to publishing books as apps than just this. Apps give you direct access to the consumer so it opens the doors to promotions, up-selling and cross-selling. It creates a channel to sell direct and increase margins. With the ever increasing focus on direct-to-consumer methods, apps can help publishers build a relationship with their readers despite the control exerted by dominant ebook retailers. With 90% of book sales driven through word-of-mouth marketing, engaging with your influencers is becoming increasingly important.

Aren’t apps expensive to build and maintain?
Yes, apps are expensive to build and maintain. This is where the Papertrell platform comes in. With an easy to use, feature rich, do-it-yourself app publishing CMS that simultaneously builds for all device platforms natively, Papertrell dramatically reduces the cost of app development and maintenance. It’s a platform that’s built for scale: an interactive app can be repurposed from an ePub file in under 48 hours. The platform also supports tools to import and repurpose from InDesign, PDFs and even blogs.

What about distribution? Isn’t it a complex ecosystem across multiple device platforms?
Manually managing titles across app stores is a complex process. The Papertrell platform takes care of end-to-end app distribution, publishers can now automatically submit or update to 7 different app stores with a single click. This also makes managing price promotions and meta-data management simple across multiple app stores. Publishers have a choice of distibuting as a paid app or as a “collection” of titles within a Shelf app with in-app purchase or subscrition as a payment option. The Shelf is fully cusomtizable with a host of features like banners, collections, a fully-featured EPUB and PDF reader, a cloud synced library, offline access, social reading with Facebook and Twitter integration.

What about updating content?
One of the most important features in Papertrell is the ability to quickly respond to customer issues related to content. App stores are notoriously slow in reviewing apps and this can sometimes kill the chance of an app being successful. A Papertrell app can be updated instantly without the need for time consuming app store reviews and will still work in an offline mode.

Can any type of book be converted to an interactive app using Papertrell?
It’s important to define what we mean by interactivity. Most content apps use audio, video and animations to add interactivity, but Papertrell uses a completely different approach. The idea is use existing book assets and repurpose it into a usable, interactive app without relying too much on “bells and whistles”. There are many instances here and here where this principle has been effectively applied. These are examples of books that contain no multimedia but the products have been repurposed into commercially successful apps by simply “gamefying” the content around usage, for example, unlocking chapters based on the quiz result. This is how “interactivity” is defined in Papertrell.

How scalable is app production in Papertrell? Can the process be automated?
Papertrell automatically ingests content from EPUB and other digital formats into a structured content dictionary using pattern recognition methods. Once the content is mapped, and a template is created, an app can produced from a subsequent EPUB in the same series in a matter of seconds. Here’s an example of a series that was produced using automation. This makes it incredibly easy to quickly make changes to the design and look and feel. The structured content dictionary also helps in reusability as new titles can be easily produced by remixing content across a series.

What sort of publishers are best suited for Papertrell?
Papertrell provides a robust platform for publishers who want to build a direct-to-consumer sales channel. Today this pretty much covers every type of publisher: trade, educational, comics, graphic novels, STM, Illustrated, non-fiction and even B2B publishing. With a range of options available to reach out, acquire, sustain and nurture readers, Papertrell provides depth and breadth in terms of features and flexibility to suit any requirement. Whether it’s creating highly engaging and interactive interpretations of books, social reading, ebook promotion and bundling or direct selling and subscription, Papertrell can play an integral part in your digital publishing strategy.

This article was written by Arun Benty. Arun is responsible for Papertrell's business development and product strategy. He is also the Co-founder and Director of Business Development at Trellisys.net, Papertrell's parent company. He has guided several globally recognized app projects for publishers including HarperCollins and Hachette including The SAS Survival Guide - a Webby Award winning app.


Global Ebook Market Report

TOC is dead but I'm glad to see some elements of it live on. A couple of years ago the TOC team launched the Global Ebook Market Report with Ruediger Wischenbart. Ruediger updated the report once or twice a year and we typically released a major update each October for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The book fair opens this week and I was delighted to see that Ruediger and his team did yet another thorough update to the report for 2013. You'll find all the various formats of it here.

If you're looking for the latest data on ebook momentum by geographic region you'll find all the details in this update. If you want to read what's happening globally regarding popular formats, piracy and pretty much everything else related to ebooks you'll also find it in this report. The best news though is that the Global Ebook Market Report has always been and continues to be free. No cost, no registration, nada.

Do do yourself a favor, download this report right now and start reading. You won't regret it and you'll quickly become an expert on the global ebook marketplace.


Best of TOC

Best of tocIt's challenging keeping up with publishing industry news and analysis. I have way too many content feeds to monitor and I'm sure you do too. We do our best to highlight the most important developments on the TOC website but you're forgiven if you fall behind or miss an article every so often.

Most of analysis on the TOC site is somewhat timeless but the blog format might not make it feel that way. That's why we gathered the best of the best articles and assembled them for you in a handy, to-go version. It's called Best of TOC: Analysis and Ideas about the Future of Publishing. More than 60 of the most thought-provoking articles from the TOC team and community are featured and it's available in EPUB, mobi and PDF formats. Best of all, it's completely free.

If you need to catch up on your TOC reading you no longer have an excuse. Download your copy today and tell us what you think.


The Kirtsaeng ruling: What’s your opinion?

Wow. I’m very surprised by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Kirtsaeng vs. Wiley case. I figured it would go the other way. Here’s a nice summary of the majority opinion from the Supreme Court (you’ll find more detailed analysis here):

Putting section numbers to the side, we ask whether the “first sale” doctrine applies to protect a buyer or other lawful owner of a copy (of a copyrighted work) lawfully manufactured abroad. Can that buyer bring that copy into the United States (and sell it or give it away) without obtaining permission to do so from the copyright owner? Can, for example, someone who purchases, say at a used bookstore, a book printed abroad subsequently resell it without the copyright owner’s permission?

In our view, the answers to these questions are, yes. We hold that the “first sale” doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad.

Read more...


Used ebooks: Why your assumptions are wrong and the opportunity is huge

Amazon has a patent and now Apple does too. I'm talking about the techniques both companies might use to let you resell your digital content. They join ReDigi, who already offers a platform to resell your digital music.

Ebooks are next, of course, and the concern I hear isn't so much about the legal aspect but rather the risk of cannibalization. Most publishers seem hung up on the notion that a used ebook sale will mean one less original sale for them. And even if they participate in the used ebook revenue stream, they're concerned that the selling price will be lower, so they'll make less when cannibalization happens. I think that's a very shortsighted view of the opportunity.

This isn't just about lower-priced versions of the original work. It's time to think about the added-value aspects of a used digital content platform.

I've written before about how consumer might be able to resell their highlights and notes. Let's take that a step further. What if someone reads a 300-page business ebook and condenses the key lessons into 10-20 pages? Think of it as the Cliffs Notes, summarized version. Let's further assume that reader bundles their summary with the original ebook they bought and sells it via a used ebook marketplace. Could they charge more for their version? Absolutely.

You're concerned about this being more attractive than the ebook by itself? You should be. But what if the publisher owns this platform? What if all these sales were done directly by them, so they're capturing 100% of the revenue stream and sharing the appropriate cut with the author? Now let's take it another step further... What if that reader isn't just able to sell the one copy they bought, but an unlimited number of copies that come bundled with their summary? The consumer price of this version would be higher than the version with the ebook by itself and the reader who created the summary would receive a portion of the difference between those prices, essentially making them a royalty-based author on the bundle.

Btw, there's no reason the original author couldn't create this summary instead of or in addition to whatever is created in the reader community. In fact, why not open this up to all readers to create their summary of the ebook and let consumers decide which version they want? Use a voting system so that the best summary writers build a reputation and generate the most income.

These summaries aren't limited to written material either. There's no reason video couldn't play a role here. There's also plenty of room for an idea I suggested a couple of years ago: The "VIP Notes Edition." The key is to create a model where author, publisher and summary writer all share in the revenue stream.

So let's stop thinking of the used ebook market as yet another step towards the race to zero content valuation. This is different from the used print book market and it represents some very interesting opportunities for publishers who are willing to embrace a new model.


Why B&N should abandon hardware

The ebook retailing business consists of three elements: hardware, content, and selling model. Dedicated e-readers (think eInk devices) are losing momentum to tablets. Content is mostly quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions, or "paper under glass", if you will. The typical selling model is to buy one ebook at a time. Pretty simple. And not a whole lot of innovation happening in any of the three areas by the major players.

Recently there's been speculation that B&N is about to ditch the hardware part of their Nook business and focus instead on content and licensing. If true, that's probably the wisest thing I've heard from Riggio & Co. in a long time. Hardware has been, and will increasingly become more of, a fool's game for B&N.

They can't possibly steal Apple's mojo, so why try? I'll bet more people are reading B&N ebooks on an iPad or iPhone than they are on the Nook tablets.

On the Amazon side, B&N simply doesn't have deep enough pockets to lose money on both hardware and ebooks as long as Bezos can, so it's time to cut bait. Plus, Amazon's goal is to turn the Kindle Fire into a gateway for purchasing much, much more than ebooks. Amazon has a significantly larger product catalog outside of books, so Amazon can afford to lose money on the device if they make it up on the sale of electronics and other goods B&N doesn't sell.

So if B&N completely gets out of the hardware business what can they do to compete in the ebook world? Think app functionality, reader experience, and content sales model.

Today's e-reader apps have pretty much the same functionality as yesterday's. There's basically no innovation happening with the user experience in any of these apps, whether they come from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc.

Now is the time for B&N to shift all those resources they have in hardware onto the team that develops their Nook apps. What features are customers asking for? More importantly, what features have readers never even envisioned but would love to have? Channel Steve Jobs. We were all pretty content with our MP3 players back in 2000 and then in 2001 the iPod hit the scene. What a game-changer. What will be the "iPod moment" for e-reading apps?

And while they're working on that, be bold and work with publishers to develop some genre-specific, all-you-can-eat, ebook subscription programs. Romance is a good place to start but look at other verticals as well. What kind of package would compel customers to pay a subscription rate of $5 or $10 per month? They'll need to find the publishers who are willing to experiment here but that's why you focus on just one genre to start and build a success story to create others down the road.

At the end of the day B&N should continue to let Apple, Google, et al, distribute their Nook apps. They don't need to lose any more money selling devices that are viewed as commodities. They should instead focus on dramatically changing the reading experience and content acquisition model. After all, once hardware is eliminated, those are the only two other elements of ebook retailing that matter.