Unlocking value with audio and DBW 2018

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 3.54.52 PMI haven't attended or presented at a major publishing event since TOC ceased operation in 2013. Over these past five years I've returned to my roots on a couple of fronts. First, as a former software developer, it was fun heading up strategy and business development for a small software company which specializes in helping print publishers make the leap to digital. For the past couple of years though, I've been blessed to work with and lead a team of publishing professionals, similar to the various publisher roles I've previously held at places such as Macmillan, John Wiley & Sons and O'Reilly Media.

These two recent roles have enabled me to step back and look at the future of content development and distribution in a whole new light. The rapid pace of technology has also brought a number of new capabilities and services to the forefront, some of which simply didn't exist in 2013 (e.g., Alexa).

Many of you know that the last major digital publishing event, Digital Book World (DBW), recently changed hands and is now owned by Score Publishing. I've had the pleasure of speaking with Score's CEO, Bradley Metrock, and I'm inspired by the energy and vision he brings to the table for DBW. That's why I'm excited to announce that I'll be both speaking at DBW 2018 in October as well as moderating the New Media Book World track there.

My DBW session, "How Audio Will Unlock Value", connects a number of topics I've written about on my website and will cover each of the following, for starters:

  • Siri, Alexa, et al, are just scratching the surface
  • The importance of richly tagged content
  • Playlists, both personal and crowdsourced, show how curation becomes at least as important as creation
  • Voice UIs lead to the most powerful adviser and mentor you'll (n)ever meet

I'm looking forward to this session and track, but more importantly, I'm excited to reconnect with many members of the community I haven't crossed paths with since 2013. I hope you're planning to attend DBW 2018 so that we can continue the conversation in Nashville this October.

(P.S. -- In case you're wondering, no, I'm not on the DBW payroll -- I simply remain a fan of these important industry gatherings and I want to help spread the word and serve as an agent of change, same as I did in the TOC days.)

Blockchain and the next generation of content reuse and syndication

Chain-2364830_640What do you think about the KodakOne and KodakCoin strategies? If Wall Street is any indication, these might represent the long-awaited turnaround the tired Kodak brand desperately needs to regain relevance. Then again, the resulting Kodak stock surge might be nothing more than a short-term blip once the Bitcoin buzz settles down again.

I tend to think the long-term effects of KodakOne and KodakCoin will fall somewhere between those two extremes. I'm more interested, however, in what the underlying blockchain technology could bring to the broader opportunities in content reuse and content syndication.

Some have speculated that blockchain could help solve the content piracy issue. I disagree. I'm not convinced publishers are really suffering from piracy, so this is a solution in search of a problem.

But what about content reuse and the ability to truly unlock the full value of any piece of content? Today there are a variety of platforms and services acting as content clearinghouses who manage rights and payments. It's always seemed like a highly inefficient part of the business, requiring too much manual intervention. Think instead of a blockchain-powered content bazaar where creators offer their IP to anyone and are assured they're receiving their fair share of all reuse revenue.

The content remix model that's been predicted for so long could become a reality with blockchain at its heart. This isn't just for written content, btw. Think audio and video as well. It lends itself to a true remix marketplace as well as a frictionless syndication model: Just set your terms and let the open market determine what's valuable and what's not. Remixes could be built on earlier remixes, all with a reliable audit trail and accounting built in. This model would also generate a wealth of rich, useful data; the key question is whether the platform developer makes this data widely accessible or hides it from the community.

So even though blockchain might not be Kodak's salvation, it has the potential of becoming a game-changer for more effective content discovery, distribution and reuse.

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.

Amazon's Whole Foods acquisition is about so much more than groceries

Shopping-29647_1280Yes, the grocery business is huge. And while it's one of several industries Amazon hasn't yet dominated, there's something way more significant about their acquisition of Whole Foods.

This deal is about location, location, location. No, it's not just about having Amazon groceries in physical locations. This is about creating a more efficient gateway between consumers and Prime, ultimately driving more sales of all Prime-eligible products, not just groceries.

The efficiencies result from Amazon delivering products to Whole Foods, not your doorstep. If you like free two-day delivery today, how do you feel about free same-day pick-up of all those same products tomorrow? Amazon is already heading towards that model today, but it becomes much more economical for them to do so when the local Whole Foods replaces your home as the delivery location. Rather than having to manage all those individual packages going to all those different destinations, yours and all your neighbors' products make one simple trip from Amazon's local DC to your nearby Whole Foods.

Your 8AM order of two books, a bag of birdseed, running shoes from Zappos and a cordless drill is ready for pickup at Whole Foods by 3PM that same day, a convenient stop on your commute home. Oh, and because Amazon knows you're stopping by Whole Foods around 5:30 that evening, they'll gladly tell you about all the great dinner options you could whip up by adding on to your 8AM order.

An added bonus is you no longer have to worry about that Amazon box being stolen off your front porch. You can still get two-day free delivery to your home, but you'll often prefer the shorter delivery window, and package safeguarding, available via the Whole Foods option.

I, on the other hand, will have to wait a bit for this added benefit. Even though my hometown is about to open a new Ikea and a community eyesore, better known as Topgolf, Whole Foods still hasn't made it to Fishers, Indiana.

Here's how to turn book samples into a powerful B2C tool

Army-2186_640Book samples are one of the most under-utilized tools in a publisher or author's marketing arsenal. Most consumers will not buy a book without at least flipping through it, so many download samples before making a purchase decision. But how many times have you downloaded a sample which was nothing more than the frontmatter and a bit of an introduction? I've run into that problem countless times and those samples didn't lead to me clicking the buy button.

The problem with today's book sampling model is that it's just some random percentage of the first several pages of the book. The fact that this approach involves no curation means it's efficient but, unfortunately, it's also highly ineffective.

Imagine how lame previews would be if movie producers used this same approach? You're sitting in the theater and the teasers for a few upcoming movies are nothing more than the first two minutes of each. That's not how it works with movies, of course, and it offers an important lesson for book publishers: Good samples require curation.

We learned that lesson recently at OSV. Rob Eagar, founder of Wildfire Marketing, is an expert in a freemium model where curated samples are the key ingredient. These samples feature more of the valuable content nuggets and enable readers to get a better sense of what they can expect to find in the full book. You're not giving away all the book's key ingredients, but you're definitely providing readers with more value than they'll find in a typical ebook sample.

These samples are delivered via email, so that means we're able to establish a direct relationship with prospective customers, a critical step for a B2C business model. Having access to those names and email addresses means we're able to build our B2C list and dramatically increase our up-/cross-sell activities.

If you'd like to see what this looks like, click here to visit the OSV freemium landing page. You'll find the first several titles in our freemium campaign and more will be added in the coming months. We're delighted with the initial results and we're looking forward to building this out further as we add to our B2C capabilities.

Which digital book format has the most growth potential?

Microphone-38120_1280The answer might surprise you…

Amazon’s Kindle format dominates the ebook market today and it’s easy to assume that will remain the case going forward. Despite that fact, I see a number of trends indicating the digital book space could be ripe for disruption.

Notice I use the term “digital book”, not “ebook.” That’s because the digital format with the most upside isn’t MOBI or EPUB. It’s audio.

Amazon also dominates the audio book space, of course, thanks to their ownership of both Audible and Brilliance Audio. Amazon’s audio book subsidiaries are built around yesterday’s business model though, and I believe technology and consumer habits have evolved to the point where a new business model will emerge.

Have you ever priced an audio book? Let’s use George Orwell’s 1984 as an example. Audible currently offers the audio version for $20.97 while Amazon sells the paperback for $11.42 and the Kindle edition for $9.99. There are exceptions, of course, but the audio format is typically the most expensive option.

What might happen if audio editions were priced at or below the print or Kindle editions? The recent trends in ebook sales might be a good indicator here. As ebook prices have increased over time (thank you, agency model), print has experienced a resurgence and ebook sales have flattened and even declined for some genres.

Next, consider the growing interest in podcasts, as described here. Two factors drive this trend shown above: convenience and laziness. Low-production YouTube videos have replaced how-to books on a variety of topics. It’s also a lot easier to watch or listen than read. I’m sure that last statement made quite a few of you bristle, but it’s true. Reading isn’t going away, but overall consumption could be dramatically increased if it weren’t for the painfully high price of your typical audio book.

Why are prices so high? The obvious culprit tends to be the professional talent (and additional time) required to create the audio format. But is it really critical to limit recordings to either the author or voice professionals? If you want to continue charging those high prices the answer is probably “yes.”

If you’re open to exploring other pricing models though, you’ll be inspired by the approach used by The Week. I recommend you subscribe or at least listen to a few of the podcasts created by The Week. You’ll quickly discover their editors and other staff members are the voice talent. The voices are clean and crisp, not robotic, and the finished product is terrific. Yes, these are free streams, but they give you a sense of what’s possible with a much lower investment.

Technology is opening new doors here as well. Remember the monotone, computer-generated audio of the 90’s? Text-to-speech has improved quite a bit over the years and will only get better over time. If you’re still not convinced, scan this related article and be sure to listen to some of the audio samples; it’s virtually impossible to distinguish the human-generated segments from the computer-generated ones.

Despite all this, why would publishers have any interest in seeing lower prices for audio formats? Because it represents an enormous opportunity to break the stranglehold Amazon currently has on all digital formats.

Imagine a world where publishers could establish a strong, direct-to-consumer (D2C) channel featuring audio. The D2C audio edition of 1984 could be computer-generated and sell for $9.99, the same price as the Kindle edition; but in this case, the publisher keeps 100% of the selling price, not whatever percentage they’re receiving from Amazon for the Kindle edition.

Are you worried that consumers will buy one audio copy and share it with all their friends? If so, please don’t fall back into that digital rights management (DRM) trap that only reinforces Amazon’s dominance. Rather, create a simple mobile app where all the purchased audio files live. Most publishers don’t realize it, but the fact that a reader’s Kindle files are buried in their app is more of a file-sharing deterrent than DRM itself. If you don’t believe me, ask a few of your friends if they even know how to retrieve their ebook files from their Kindle app, for example.

The opportunity here is huge, and not just for selling audio books directly. It’s a chance for publishers to forge a more meaningful, ongoing relationship with their customers. I’ve grown to love history books over the years, mostly ones about WWII and the civil war. I subscribe to a few publisher newsletters but I still sometimes overlook interesting new publications. Wouldn’t it be cool if audio samples of those new books could be sent directly to the app on my phone? I just set a few preferences and I’ll never miss another new title.

Today most publishers sell transactionally, one book at a time, to nameless/faceless consumers. The model I’m describing isn’t ideal for all publishers, but for ones with genre depth it represents a new approach where they could better serve their customers as well as take more control over their own destiny.

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.

“The Content Trap” is the must-read book of the year

The Content TrapA recent trip to a local brick-and-mortar bookstore helped me realize that even the best algorithms and email campaigns can’t replace in-person product discovery. I noticed a book called The Content Trap sitting face-out on the shelf and couldn’t resist picking it up.

Great title. Intriguing outline. Normally I’d make a note to grab the ebook sample and consider buying it later. What I saw during my in-store flip test convinced me I shouldn’t wait. So, I made the unusual decision (for me) to buy the print copy, not the ebook.

As I walked out of the store it dawned on me: Despite all the daily book recommendation emails I get from Amazon and elsewhere, this one never hit my radar till I walked through that store. Actually, maybe one of those emails actually did mention it, but I never noticed because I receive so many book promo messages that they’ve turned into nothing more than in-box white noise. This seems to indicate the email marketing model could benefit dramatically from an overhaul.

If so, the vision shared in The Content Trap likely provides at least a portion of the new formula. It’s been awhile since I broke out a highlighter and started marking up a physical book. I’m only a few chapters into The Content Trap and I’ve already highlighted dozens of important passages. In fact, it ran my old highlighter dry so I had to buy a new one.

This is one of those books that really makes you stop and think, so don’t assume you’ll be able to tear through it in an afternoon. Here are a few of the more fascinating segments I’ve read so far:

The language for success in media, as in technology, is less and less about content and more and more about connections.

It’s striking how many digital media managers still think in terms of product appeal to individual customers rather than in terms of managing and exploiting connections. This is even more surprising in view of the fact that media consumption has always been inherently social.

Through its Marketplace, Amazon had shifted strategy from selling products to owning a platform. A similar “content versus platform” choice confronts many organizations today.

Superior products are great, but strategies that exploit connections are better.

Can we help readers to help each other? [That last question helped one publisher shift] from being important to being relevant, as one editor put it.

Btw, those quotes are all packed into the first 30+ pages. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book. I also just started following the author, Bharat Anand, on Twitter and encourage you to do the same. This guy is brilliant.

Do yourself a favor and buy this book immediately. You won’t regret it and you’ll be well armed with an entirely new way of thinking as 2017 begins.

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.

Google experiments with book discovery…and fails

IMG_0008Even though you probably never stray from the Kindle reader app I’d like to encourage you to expand your horizons. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on Apple’s iBooks and Google Play, for example, to explore other platforms and keep Amazon honest. After all, Amazon’s need to innovate diminishes if ebook platform competition dries up.

When Google recently announced plans to add a Discover feature to their ebook reader app I was curious to learn more. Google is the king of search so I was hoping they could use their brawn and data to create a major breakthrough on the book discovery front.

I assumed Google would look at my Play ebook library and base some assumptions on what I’ve bought and read over the years. I figured they’d let me recalibrate their assumptions to better suit my interests; for example, they know I like hockey books but my Google purchases haven’t focused on my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lastly, since Google monitors my Gmail inbox and search requests, I also assumed they’d use that info to fine tune their book recommendations in their new Discover service.

My hopes were dashed and my assumptions proven wrong when I saw the results. Google Discover is nothing more than a dumping ground of all things books. They apparently assume that if you read books you’re interested in everything about books; that’s like assuming a 70’s rock enthusiast is interested in all types of music including disco, jazz, classical, rap, etc.

How could Google get it so wrong? Why did they simply mail it in and why did they even bother? I’ve got to believe usage of Google Discover is pathetically low. If so, I hope the poor performance doesn’t discourage Google from going back and doing it right the next time.

Google needs to leverage all that data they have about us, more than Amazon has, btw, go back to the drawing board and come back with a Discover 2.0 service that really works and is deeply engaging.