What questions do your reader analytics need to answer?

In my book publisher days I recall saying the following to our Amazon rep: “You guys are capturing a ton of reading data from our customers. When are you going to start charging us to access that information?”

She looked at me like I just arrived from another planet and declined to answer the question.

A few years have passed since that encounter but some things never change. Amazon is still the dominant ebook retailer and they continue hoarding reader data, sharing only bits and pieces from time to time. I’m still convinced once day they’ll offer a detailed reader analytics service to publishers…for a price. The data will be anonymized, of course, but it will benefit publishers by shedding valuable light on reading habits and preferences.

In the mean time, Olive Software, the company where I serve as director of strategy, is in the process of revamping its ebook reader app. We want to take our analytics to the next level and we’d like your input. You see, at Olive, we believe in providing publishers with every bit of data about their readers and we do so at no additional charge.

As a former publisher these are the types of questions I would want the data to answer:

  1. How many people opened the book they bought?
  2. Did the typical consumer read from beginning to end, in chronological order, or did they jump around a lot, reading out of sequence?
  3. When readers didn’t finish the book, at what point did they tend to abandon it?
  4. What are the most popular phrases searched for when reading the book?

I’m sure there are plenty of other questions publishers, editors, marketers, etc., would love to see answered with analytics. What are the questions you need data to help answer?

Click here to email me the reader behavior questions you’d like analytics to answer. I’ll gather all the input and will summarize it in a follow-up article. That’s probably yet another thing Amazon would never do for you. :-)


Observations from BEA 2015

The Javits Center must have some sort of time warp technology. I recently attended the BEA event there and I kept asking myself the same question: Is this 2015 or 2005? The digital vibe was almost nowhere to be found in the expo hall. For example, publishers are still handing out stacks of print galleys and samples. Is that really more effective than digital copies? Wouldn’t it be better to distribute e-versions and gather customer info along the way? All this talk of establishing direct relationships with readers and having access to the resulting data still seems to be the stuff of fiction.

There’s also still a big gap between the core industry and the startup community. The Startup Alley, an expo aisle featuring 15 or so up-and-comers, is a nice concept but doesn’t seem very effective for anyone. It also highlights a bigger problem in the publishing industry: there’s no platform or service that continuously evaluates new startups and helps match them with publishers who could benefit from their capabilities. Startups are generally relegated to an area off the beaten path with virtually no buzz to draw attention to them. That’s sad because, as Richard Nash pointed out during the IDPF conference, it’s clear the real innovation is going to come from the startup community.

The most painfully accurate statement I heard all week was from Michael Bhaskar of Canelo Publishing during his opening session at the IDPF event: “Publishers treat ebooks as a secondary priority.” This is partially understandable given the fact that print is still the largest revenue stream but I believe this mindset also prevents digital content from achieving its full potential. 

Bhaskar made another terrific point when he noted that the music industry is leveraging consumer curation in ways the book publishing industry hasn’t even dreamed of. I believe tomorrow’s e-content leaders will fully understand and encourage consumer curation. Whether you call it remixes, custom editions or something else, this is a concept that will help the industry achieve escape velocity from today’s print-under-glass model.

The IDPF conference highlight for me was Jane McGonigal’s session. I haven’t played a video game since PacMan in the early ‘80’s so I went into this one highly skeptical but she opened my eyes to the possibilities. It’s not that every book has to become a game. That’s not it at all. Rather, she challenged the audience to find ways of creating content that takes readers to a whole new level of enthusiasm. The images she showed of gamers completely engaged and immersed in the experience were inspiring.

Another valuable IDPF session was one where Jim Hanas of HarperCollins interviewed David Arabov of Elite Daily. Arabov described how Elite Daily organically builds audience and community and turns that into their finished product. Compare that to book publishing where a totally non-agile approach is used to build products behind closed doors with the hope that yesterday’s marketing models will generate buzz (e.g., buying promotions, shelf space on physical shelves, etc.). Wouldn’t it be cool if publishers engaged with readers during the idea conception and development process rather than waiting till the end after all the time and money have been invested? That sounds like Wattpad to me, which might explain why Allen Lau and his team always report such amazingly high traffic levels. Now they just need to figure out how that translates into revenue, of course…

I had the pleasure of serving as moderator on a couple of IDPF panel sessions. The Amazon panel included Molly Barton and she made an excellent point about the problems with today’s closed ebook ecosystem. As Molly described it, readers often want to socialize their reading experience and today’s model forces them to have those conversations away from the book. Why not integrate this functionality in the reading app? It can be completely unobtrusive, where the service only appears when the reader wants to access it rather than forcing readers off to other apps and platforms.

All-you-can-read subscriptions were, of course, a topic that came up many times throughout the week. Scribd’s Andrew Weinstein shared some observations including how this model affects the long tail. As Weinstein put it, with unlimited reading platforms consumers are more willing to abandon a book and move on to the next one if they lose interest, figuring there’s no additional cost to taste-test a lot of books every month. First of all, let’s hope that’s doesn’t turn out to be the most important benefit subscription platform have to offer. Second, what does that say about the industry’s inability to create a sampling model that actually works?

Finally, I wanted to mention an interesting quote from Sherisse Hawkins of Beneath the Ink. Sherisse has been a pioneer in pushing ebooks beyond the print-under-glass experience and she said that one of their readers recently sent a message saying, “thank you for helping me avoid getting lost in the ‘wiki holes’”. That reminded me of the new Wright Brothers book by David McCullough that I recently finished. It was a fantastic read but I can’t tell you how many times my curiosity led me away from the book to Google where I searched for locations, images and related content. Unlike Sherrise’s customer, I did get lost in a variety of “wiki holes”, but it once again proved to me that this industry needs to figure out how to provide consumers with something more than dumb content on smart devices.


Here’s a dilemma every book publisher should hope to face

A recent email from Evernote piqued my curiosity. I’ve used the note-taking tool for years but never found a reason to upgrade from the Basic (free) version to the Premium (paid) version. Their email announced a “Plus” version with a laundry list of features.

Evernote Plus costs half the price of Premium and offers benefits that are somewhere between Basic and Premium. After reviewing the features I decided Basic still suits my needs, so I remain an Evernote freeloader.

I’m sure I’m not alone and I’m equally certain Evernote will continue tinkering with their business models. At some point they’ll likely hit on a combination that finally gets me to open my wallet.

You could argue that the biggest challenge for a company like Evernote is finding ways to convert more freeloaders into paying customers. It’s a tricky business situation and something that’s totally foreign to book publishers.

Why aren’t book publishers exploring more viable ways to acquire customers with free content and then converting them into paying customers?

The biggest free tool book publishers use today is a poorly conceived one: the ebook sample. When it comes to nudging prospective customers to click the buy button, most ebook samples are only marginally better than the book’s product page description. Samples are also distributed in a manner that doesn’t exactly encourage sharing with friends and family. 

Simply alerting me to a new book doesn’t do the trick either. I’m a big sports fan, mostly baseball and hockey. Long ago I subscribed to an email newsletter telling me about new books as they’re published in the sports category. I’ve never made a single purchase because of that email newsletter.

What I’d love to see, and something that’s more likely to drive conversion, is a service that gives me access to super-sized samples and other behind-the-scenes information about interesting new (and old!) sports ebooks. The service should surprise and delight me. Make me want to come back to this site/app by tossing in unexpected and unannounced deals, including ones that might only be available to me.

I’m simply looking for a better path to go from free content to paid content. Give me access to more content than I can get from a limited sample. Bring the authors into the mix and give them a voice at the table. Make them readily available for Google Hangouts and other ways of engaging with the audience.

Content distributed via this service should be completely free of walled gardens. The material must be available for download into whatever reading app the customer chooses. There should be buy buttons at the end of the super-sized sample and they should be offered for all retailers, including the publisher’s own website.

Don’t forget the data opportunity here. An opt-in could enable user data to flow back to the publishers (e.g., page views, popular titles, sample downloads, purchases, etc.). 

A well-designed service like this would have to be developed independent of the retailers; otherwise it simply becomes another extension of their walled gardens. It would also greatly expand the reach and success of plenty of ebooks.

In order for this to succeed, publishers (and authors) must be willing to make more of their precious content available for free. They’ll eventually face the same dilemma Evernote faces every day, but I’d argue that’s a problem every book publisher should embrace.


Lessons learned at Book Business Live

The team at Book Business recently hosted a one-day, invite-only event in NY. I had the pleasure of attending as well as moderating the first panel of the day, Transforming Your Company for the New Era of Book Publishing.

The day was filled with highly engaging discussions featuring panelists from McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Hachette, Cengage, Perseus, Rodale, HarperCollins and Scribd. Here are a few of the most interesting points I took away from the event:

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) and competitive pricing – Towards the end of my session an audience member asked our panel the following question: How is it possible to build a direct channel when Amazon is always going to at least match, if not undercut, your prices? Clancy Marshall of Pearson provided a terrific response. She noted that her team is focused on creating a broader, more compelling learning environment, not simply trying to sell a book at the lowest price. This is perhaps the most important thing for publishers to keep in mind as they build out their direct channels: It’s all about creating a reason for consumers to come to you, not simply trying to offer the lowest price. You’ll lose 100% of the time if you’re trying to build a D2C channel based solely on low prices.

What's next, now that ebook sales are flattening? Join me at a free webinar on April 28 to see how to drive revenue growth. Click here to register.

What are you going to do with that data? Tom Breur of Cengage told an interesting story of a correlation they noticed between text highlighting and student performance. They looked at the performance of students using a particular title and tracked how often the student tended to use the ebook’s highlighting feature. It turned out that students who highlighted more often generally got lower grades in the class. Their conclusion: Students who highlight are just skimming, not closely reading the text. The real question here is this: As you and your organization gather more data from ebooks, what will you do with that data? It reminds me of those registration cards that used to appear in the back of print books. I once worked for a publisher who had an office with stacks and stacks of those cards, carefully filled out and mailed in from their readers. The cards were just sitting there, taking up space and collecting dust. Gathering the data is just the first step. In the Cengage scenario, I’d like to think they’re developing ways for their platform to help highlight-happy skimmers become more engaged readers.

The lean model is alive and well – I almost stood up and cheered when Mary Ann Naples of Rodale mentioned their use of the lean startup model. We first started talking about the lean approach at Tools of Change several years ago and it’s great hearing that at least one publisher has fully embraced the concept. If you’re not familiar with the lean approach you’ll find all the resources you need here.

Indirect and direct can coexist and thrive – Mary Ann Naples also helped explain how a publisher’s D2C efforts don’t have to conflict with indirect/retailer channels. She talked about the importance of building community, something I believe is critical for publishers to create consumer brands, not industry brands. Further, she pointed out that a publisher’s community-building efforts help establish a compelling D2C solution while also helping their product stand out in the crowded indirect channels. In short, community can be leveraged to build a stronger consumer brand across all channels.

Focus on your biggest fans – I loved this point made by Rick Joyce of Perseus. He talked about how the music business is so good at selling more products to a band’s mega-fans. A broad consumer approach is fine but what about that portion of your list that tends to have the strongest following? It might be a particular series or author, for example. Are you creating the deluxe editions, the boxed sets, the must-have versions that those fans crave? And are you working with that part of your customer base to build the community foundation of your D2C efforts?

Kudos to Denis Wilson of Book Business and all the speakers who were remarkably transparent in their discussions and audience Q&A. If you ever have a chance to attend one of these Book Business events I highly recommend you make the time for it.


How the Internet of Things (IoT) affects content

You’ve undoubtedly heard all the hype by now. Sensors will be everywhere and we’re about to sink in the sea of data they’ll produce. Don’t just view the Internet of Things (IoT) as how your coffeemaker connects to the web though. This phenomenon means so much more, especially for content creators and distributors.

Fast forward with me to a time where your car and house are connected via the IoT. You’ll no longer need to keep track of oil changes, tire rotations, furnace filter replacement dates, etc. You’ll have immediate access to all the particulars via a dashboard app or receive text alerts when something needs attention.

All that data will also help identify trends and the likelihood of something going awry. For example, based on your driving tendencies and those of thousands of other drivers, this data will help determine when you’ll need to perform future maintenance and repairs. These predictive analytics will help you avoid even costlier repairs down the road.

What does any of this have to do with content?...

I’ve just outlined a terrific opportunity for creators of how-to and DIY information. If your organization offers content for weekend warriors or anyone comfortable turning a wrench, well, the IoT could be a game-changer for you.

Those sensor vendors and app developers will want to offer more than just the raw data. The value of their products increases significantly if they can also help their customers with their maintenance and repair projects.

Think of this as a whole new distribution channel with plenty of interesting revenue model options. Freemium, premium, subscription, micro-transaction…they’re all viable models here, but don’t forget the need to share some of that new revenue with the companies providing the sensors and apps.

The IoT opportunity goes well beyond the examples I’ve mentioned here. Think about the type of content you produce and how sensors and the IoT will eventually open new doors for discovery and distribution. The possibilities are endless and the data is just the beginning.