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.


2016 Trend Report: What publishers need to know

Statistics-1020319_1920The Future Today Institute has created a terrific, free report summarizing key technology trends and what they mean for tomorrow. I’ve embedded the report below so you can quickly flip through it.

I read the whole report and highlighted the most noteworthy elements for publishers below. That leads me (once again) to the topic of curation, a very important (current and) future publishing trend. Curation is becoming as important as creation, especially as we’re bombarded with more information than we can possibly consume.

As you read through my curated list below, with slide numbers in parenthesis, be sure to look at each item through the lens of publishing. How will each one of these affect how your content is discovered, acquired and consumed in the future?

Bots (slide 15) – This type of automation will be combined with other emerging technologies, leading to things like highly customized audio learning platforms where the UI is totally voice-controlled (see SVPAs below).

Natural Language Generation (slide 17) – I’ve written before about Narrative Science and I’m confident we’ll see more and more algorithmically-generated content in the future.

Smart Virtual Personal Assistants, or SVPAs (slide 22) – Alexa is the one I use every day when interacting with my Amazon Tap device. Expect this one to evolve quickly as today’s functionality will be considered very primitive in a year or so.

Ambient Proximity (slide 23) – Beacons haven’t taken off yet but they represent such an interesting opportunity. Think of all the interesting things your local bookstore could do with beacons and promotional content.

Attention (slide 25) – Despite the lame name, this one will have a significant impact on the ongoing evolution of content presentation, especially when married to beacons and additional knowledge of the user’s current state.

Ownership (slide 36) – Up to now, creators of user-generated content seem more interested in visibility than compensation, but how long will that be the case?

One-to-few Publishing (slide 39) – Podcasts are dead, right? No, in fact there’s a significant opportunity in smaller, more tightly-focused audiences. This market concentration likely leads to higher subscription prices and/or advertising rates.

Intentional Rabbit Holes (slide 42) – Great concept that’s all about deeper engagement. What services can you add to your site or content to encourage readers to take a deeper dive and perhaps expose them to additional monetization opportunities?

Augmented Reality (slide 52) – It’s been around for a while but was only recently legitimized by Pokemon Go. Think of all the ways your content could be augmented via tools like Layar, for example.

Internet of X (slide 63) – Let’s say you’re a publisher of architecture books and other short-form content about design and construction. What’s preventing you from creating The Internet of Architecture?

Each of these are on different timelines, of course, and won’t affect content at the same moment. All of them, however, are likely to have a profound impact on just about every type of content in the next few years.


How are you connecting with your customers?

Figures-1607182_1920The people who actually buy and read books are still mostly nameless and faceless individuals from a publisher’s point of view. This, despite the fact that there are plenty of opportunities for publishers to establish a direct relationship with consumers. I’m not necessarily talking about selling direct; I’m referring to the opportunity to build a relationship with the people who open their wallets every day for your products.

This isn’t something that’s limited exclusively to ebooks, btw. In fact, the publisher-consumer relationship can be built via print books as well.

What’s the first thing consumers see when they open one of your books? Most of the time it’s the book’s title page. What a waste. If you just bought a book and are about to start reading it, do you really need to be reminded of the title? I’m sure this violates the core of The Chicago Manual of Style and a slew of other publishing references but what’s wrong with publishers offering a simple “thank you” message on that first page? Something like:

Thanks so much for your purchase. Be sure to register your book at www.publisherwebsite.com for free membership in our reader club where you’ll get early access to new titles and opportunities to meet your favorite authors.

Step one is to convert that anonymous consumer into a real person. But don’t just make some lame request for them to hand over their email address. You’ve got to give them compelling reasons to connect or they’ll simply ignore you.

I mentioned “early access to new titles”. What does that mean? I’m suggesting that publishers offer samples of new publications exclusively on their website or via email through free membership programs. Amazon typically doesn’t offer the ebook or e-sample till the print book publishes. Why not take advantage of the period between when the sample is ready and the book is released to encourage consumers to join your membership program or visit your site? And if you do this, be sure to remove all DRM from those samples; after all, the goal is to encourage sharing of that content, not lock it down.

I also mentioned how a reader club could provide ways for consumers to meet authors. Author webinars are one option and you could make them available exclusively to members. Those tend to be one-way conversations though, so how about adding a few more intimate virtual events with no more than 10-12 attendees? Lucky winners would be randomly drawn from the membership base and earn the opportunity to interact with authors via Google Hangout or any of a number of other virtual platforms.

Exclusive content is another way to drive consumer engagement. Would your authors be willing to create short articles, videos, etc., that are shared via the membership program? I realize every author won’t be on board with this but the ones who will are the authors who understand the importance of connecting with their readers.

This sort of program could be used to drive more sales through all channels. If you’re interested in building a better direct channel though you could also offer a variety of discounts and other incentives to get consumers to buy from your site.

It’s amazing that in 2016 most publishers still act as if there’s no benefit in establishing a relationship with their readers. The reality is these same publishers are missing out on opportunities to expose more of their content to readers who already bought from them. And as the saying goes, maintaining an existing customer generally leads to a better economic outcome than trying to find and sell to a new customer.


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.


What can publishers learn from Pokemon Go?

Pokemon-go-logoLong considered nothing more than a gimmicky fad, it turns out that augmented reality (AR) is actually alive and well. At least that’s the case when it’s associated with a brand as large as Pokemon.

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard all the Pokemon Go stories and maybe you’ve even dodged a player or two, overly-focused on their phone while embarking on a virtual hunting expedition. On the surface it’s nothing more than another time-wasting game but I believe it offers some very important lessons for publishers.

Let’s start with the hybrid, print-plus-digital opportunity. Recent reports indicate ebook sales have plateaued and growth has shifted back to the print format. There are a number of underlying reasons for these trends including higher ebook prices as well as the adult coloring book phenomenon. But as I’ve said before, publishers need to stop thinking about print and digital as an either/or proposition. Some customers prefer print while others lean towards digital. Many readers are in both camps, switching between print and digital based on genre, pricing, convenience, etc.

Most publishers overlook the fact that digital can be used to complement and enhance print. Skeptical? Have a look at a few of the demos Layar offers on this page.

Stop and think about how something like Layar could be used to bring your static pages to life. Maybe you publish how-to guides, print is your dominant format and you’ve always wondered how you could integrate videos with the text. You’ve tried inserting urls but very few readers bother typing them in. QR codes are an option but they’re clunky and take up precious space on the page. Why not use AR to virtually overlay those videos on the page without having to dump in a bunch of cryptic-looking urls or QR codes?

Are you looking to engage your readers in the book’s/author’s social stream? Here’s your chance to integrate them virtually using a platform like Layar.

Better yet…have you always wanted to know who all those nameless, faceless consumers are who bought your print book from third-party retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble? Here’s an opportunity as a publisher or author to initiate a conversation directly with your readers. Add an Easter egg to the print edition where readers can receive a reward via an AR-powered offer; you will, of course, ask for each reader’s name and email address before handing out those rewards.

This approach to marrying digital to print is totally unobtrusive. Print readers who don’t want to bother with their phones can continue reading the book without interruption. Those customers interested in learning more, interacting with authors or uncovering special publisher offers will likely see the value of connecting their phones with the printed page.

The possibilities are endless. So the next time you see a Pokemon Go player wandering aimlessly be sure to thank them for helping identify new ways of distributing, promoting and enriching content.


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.