Here’s where innovative publishers need to focus

Idea-48100_1280There are a number of key attributes successful publishers will be known for in the future. These core capabilities will be very different from the ones that have led to the modern empires of the Big Five.

Some attributes will remain the same, of course. For example, it will always be crucial for publishers to acquire, develop and produce excellent content. But the services and capabilities that surround and complement the acquire/develop/produce core are what will matter most.

With that in mind, here’s my short list of what will separate tomorrow’s publishing leaders from all the rest:

Being data-driven – Remember the old days when Ingram data was the only source of industry-wide sell-through information? Then Bookscan hit the scene and it felt like we moved from the Stone Age to the Information Age. I’m not talking about this kind of data. Bookscan and other retailer sell-through numbers are lagging indicators. They represent what happened yesterday, last week or last month. The successful publisher of tomorrow wants to know what’s happening right now and where the trends are leading. Real-time website analytics, heat maps, email open/click-thru rates…that’s where the actionable data can be found today but most book publishers treat them as secondary information sources at best. A publisher who thinks they’re data-driven today might adjust plans for a book scheduled to publish six months from now based on sell-through data they studied from last month. Tomorrow’s data-driven publisher will alter the free content on their website this afternoon based on information they gathered this morning.

Breaking free of containers – Why are publishers focused on lagging indicators? Because they’re stuck in the era of containers. They’re producing books, magazines or newspapers and they measure everything based on those containers. It may not be obvious but the container model is slowly fading away. Please don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying books are going away. Print books will still be produced for a long, long time. But the way content is being consumed is shifting to a more digital, container-less model. Think about that last bit of content you read on your phone. Did you care whether it was originally produced for a newspaper, a magazine, a blog, a website or a newsletter? Probably not. What mattered most is that the content covered a topic that matters to you. Innovative publishers need to think more about highly relevant content streams rather than content containers.

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) – I vividly recall talking five years ago with a Big Six executive about the importance of creating a vibrant direct-to-consumer channel. She rolled her eyes and said they’d never do that because they prefer to let their retail partners handle the consumer connection. I feel somewhat validated now as I see that same publisher experimenting more and more with D2C. It’s not just about capturing all the revenue. The data and resulting opportunities to do some very powerful things with that data are what make D2C such an important model. That, and the fact that you become less reliant on middlemen who control your destiny, ought to be reason enough to focus on D2C.

Owning and leveraging the list – The most important piece of data every publisher should own is the customer name and email address. This is what makes D2C so special. Securing names and emails isn’t as easy as simply making a sale. You’ve got to earn the consumer’s trust by having them opt in to your future marketing campaigns. Too many publishers who have built a D2C channel simply become data hoarders, gathering names and emails but never doing much with them.

Building the funnel – One of the biggest reasons publishers don’t go direct is that they feel they’re unable to attract enough traffic to make it worthwhile. That’s because they’re not applying the funnel model. You start by offering plenty of outstanding free content on your site. Once visitors arrive and they like what they read you have the opportunity to connect with them via free newsletters, for example; rather than waiting and hoping they come back, offer to continue sending outstanding content right to their email inbox. Part of this step includes asking them to opt in for other offers and information from you. As the funnel narrows from top to bottom, you’re leading these consumers along a path loaded with all your terrific content, some of it free and some of it paid.

This isn’t for everyone. For example, the Big Five are simply too reliant on the existing ecosystem, unwilling to risk alienating certain channel partners and built upon a very rigid container-based creation and distribution model. The Big Five will remain large, just like B&N and Borders did for many years after Amazon arrived. But then Borders went away and in order to survive B&N evolved from a bookstore to a gift shop.

The smaller players though, the ones who focus on a particular topic, vertical or audience are the publishers who are best positioned to embrace the attributes described above. And as they do they’ll find themselves in a far better world with a direct connection to customers and the ability to serve those customers with more than just one or two types of container-driven content.


Why is text-to-speech only an afterthought?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s how indexing could evolve with ebooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Another way to monetize ebooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What’s the missing ingredient for unlimited reading services?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


The lost art of indexes in ebooks

Labyrinth-1015639_1920When was the last time you used an index in an ebook? Maybe the better question is this: Have you ever used an index in an ebook? One of the challenges here is that most ebooks don’t have indexes, the result of the misguided notion that text search is a better solution.

Every so often I come across an ebook with an index. More often than not it’s just the print index at the end of the book, sometimes with nothing more than the physical page references that offer almost no value in a reflowable e-format.

Fiction represents a large chunk of ebook sales and those books generally don’t benefit from an index. The same is true for some types of non-fiction books. But for pure reference guides, in-depth how-to’s and other works, an index can be pretty useful.

If you’re relying exclusively on text search in an ebook you have to know exactly what you’re looking for. More importantly, why do we settle for such a lame text search solution when we’re spoiled every day with powerful, relevance-ranked search tools like Google?

When you search for a phrase in an ebook the results are shown in chronological order. You see all the occurrences from the beginning of the book to the end. Imagine if Google worked that way. So when you type in a phrase Google tells you the first (oldest) site to use that phrase, then the next oldest site that used it, etc. Users would laugh and reject it, yet that’s exactly what we’re forced to accept in ebook search.

What I really want is relevance-based results. Show me the location in the book with the highest density of that phrase and prioritize occurrences of it in a heading over occurrences in body text. I’m sure there are other attributes that could be rolled into an effective ebook search algorithm but I’ll take just those two features for starters.

The other problem with relying on search instead of an index is that you lose the benefit of synonyms and related terms. An indexer takes all that into consideration so you’re much more likely to find everything you’re looking for with a good index than a simple text search.

I’m not lobbying for back-of-book indexes in ebooks like they appear in print books. That’s another aspect that needs to change when you go digital. I want to see index functionality right there on the page I’m reading. The trick here is to offer it in a manner that’s not disruptive for the reader.

Remember that article I wrote a few weeks ago with the video showing a vision for auto-enriched ebooks? The same UI approach described there could be used here. The content is initially presented in as clean a manner as ebooks are today. But when you tap the screen on your tablet all the phrases that are indexed magically change color or are denoted with some other UI effect (e.g., underline). Just tap the phrase you’re interested in and a pop-up appears with relevance-ranked index results. These would be presented in a scrollable list with each entry having a preview of the text from that location in the ebook. Make it easy for me to bookmark those entries right in the pop-up. The net result is a way to quickly and easily access a smarter index without having to leave your current location.

This feature doesn’t exist today because we’re still stuck in the print-under-glass era of ebooks. I’m optimistic that one or two of the popular reading applications will eventually add such a capability though and help us get beyond today’s model where we’re consuming so much dumb content on all these smart devices.


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.


A vision for making ebooks more engaging

Light-bulbs-1125016_1920I’m convinced we’re still in the very early stages of ebook evolution. The current print-under-glass model works great for some books but long-form digital content has so much more potential.

The market will ultimately move beyond the only option readers have today of consuming dumb content on smart devices. Content enrichment is one way forward but neither authors nor publishers have an appetite for the effort required to add video and other web elements to their books. And before anyone suggests that I’m trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, let me once again say that some books are just fine with the print-under-glass model. But there are plenty of books and genres that would benefit from digital enrichment and those are what we need to focus on.

If the manual process isn’t viable, how can we use technology to our advantage to take this content to the next digital level? I propose an automated solution, one where auto-tagging, text analysis and search results all play a role.

Here’s how it would work:

  • The ebook contents are analyzed by an enrichment tool where key phrases, names, locations, etc., are identified and tagged,
  • Those tagged elements are then viewable by the reader when they tap the screen in their reading app; the service remains completely invisible to readers who don’t wish to use it,
  • When the reader taps on one of the tagged elements a pop-up menu provides the opportunity to dive deeper on that topic with links to video, audio, maps, web pages, etc.; all of this is fed by the application’s preferred search engine (e.g., Google, Bing, etc.),
  • The reader is then able to take that deeper dive, pin links to the page for future reading and share their favorites with other readers of the ebook.

Because this vision integrates web elements with the book it requires an active internet connection. If the reader is offline they’re still able to read the original print-under-glass version of the book.

The video below is a quick walk-through of how this concept is presented to the reader. As you watch it, remember the intention here is to develop a front-end content analysis/parsing tool that tags and builds all the linkages, so no work is required by the author or editor. Also note the opportunity to create new income streams for the publisher and author via paid and sponsored link campaigns.


Ebook sample subscriptions and automation

Censorship-610101_1920Each time I finish a book I end up going through the same inefficient process: I head to Amazon and a couple of other sites to look for other titles on similar topics that might interest me. I usually find several candidates and then I go through the equally inefficient process of requesting samples for those ebooks.

Why is it that I can subscribe to dog food for my three basset hounds but I can’t subscribe to ebook samples? This is an opportunity not just for retailers like Amazon but for publishers as well.

As I’m browsing a book catalog, either a retailer’s or a publisher’s site, a seemingly endless list of titles and covers are presented to me for consideration. Once I find one that looks promising I should be able to click once and have the sample sent to me. That assumes I have an account set up on the site, of course, but if you’re browsing a catalog you probably have log-in credentials there; if not, it’s a terrific opportunity for the retailer or publisher to encourage you to create an account.

Since I tend to read books on a narrow range of topics why not let me subscribe to new samples in each of those areas? Retailers and publishers, push the sample content to me and quit waiting for me to come to you.

I get a kick out of back-of-book ads that promote related titles at the end of an ebook. Those are nice solutions for print, especially when you have a few blank pages at the end of the last signature. They’re next to invisible in an ebook though. Here’s a better idea: add info about a couple of related titles inside the ebook, maybe between a couple of chapters. Don’t disrupt the reading process, hence the suggestion to message between chapters, but please feel free to let me know I’m getting close to the end and that I might want to consider a follow-up title, especially if you’re going to give me an extra discount as an owner of the first title.

What I’m ultimately suggesting here is to think about applying some technology and automation to the ebook sample distribution process. And as I’ve said before, make sure you’re sending those samples in a totally DRM-free format and one that encourages sharing via email and social channels.

Anyone who has been reading my articles over the years knows that samples are a hot topic for me. Long ago I suggested that ebook samples are one of a publisher’s most underutilized marketing assets. What’s changed since I first started hyping the ebook sample opportunity years ago? Pretty much nothing. Now that I’m back in a publishing role I plan to take my own advice and make sure that we’re getting the most out of our ebook samples. Stay tuned as I’ll be sure to report on our team’s progress in the weeks and months ahead.