Blinkist and the “read less, learn more” movement

Remember the “info snacking” phrase that was somewhat buzzworthy several years ago? The thinking was that everyone was too focused on reading short bursts of content and soon no one would have the attention span to read an entire book. In fact, info snacking was one of the terms Jeff Bezos mentioned when the Kindle launched; he suggested that the Kindle would encourage more deeply engaging, long-form reading.

And now we have Blinkist. Think of Blinkist as info snacking for books. Blinkist summaries are so short they make Cliffs Notes seem like long and boring tomes.

Let’s leave fiction off the table for a moment and talk about books on business strategy, investing, management, marketing, etc. How may of those 300-page books have you finished and immediately realized the author could have conveyed the critical points in about 5 pages?

You can almost see the editor telling the author, “this is great stuff, but we need you to double/triple/quadruple the length.” That (sort of) made sense in the brick-and-mortar days when a shelf presence drove discovery but now these books feel like they’re artificially inflated.

I’ve only read a few book summaries on Blinkist but I think they’re onto something. Yes, I remember (and once subscribed to) other summary services including getAbstract and Executive Book Summaries. I always found those to be nothing more than glorified tipsheets. If you really wanted to learn the key elements of the book you still had to read the whole thing. Blinkist’s summaries are definitely superior to others that I’ve read before.

10-15 minutes is all it takes to read one of the many well-written Blinkist summaries. Have you always wanted to read The Lean Startup? Why spend hours reading 300+ pages when you can get the gist in about 10 minutes? How about Business Adventures, that classic book Bill Gates recommends every business leader read? You can knock out that summary in less than 15 minutes.

I think we can all agree that every book doesn’t lend itself to a good summary format experience. Some authors, even non-fiction authors, are wonderful storytellers. Bill Bryson is a great example. I read his A Short History of Nearly Everything several years ago and found it to be an amazing journey from start to finish. When I saw Blinkist offers a summary of that one I have to admit I cringed. That’s a book you should read in its entirety and there are, of course, countless others that should never be read only in summary format. So while there are exceptions to the summaries formula I tend to believe most non-fiction books are excellent candidates for an abbreviated alternative.

The big question I have is why aren’t publishers taking control of this model? Why rely on a third-party to write and distribute these summaries? Who is better qualified to do the job than the original author or editor? I could see publishers selling these summaries, standalone or as a subscription, direct on their websites.

We all know why publishers won’t do this though. Most publishers view this as cannibalization and replacing a higher-priced sale with a lower-priced one. That’s unfortunate but far from surprising. Smarter publishers will consider bundling the summary with the full ebook at a slightly higher price than the ebook alone. Others might find opportunities to actually charge more for the summary figuring it’s a time-saver and some readers will be willing to pay a premium for a faster read. Still others will use the summary as an upsell to the full ebook: When consumers buy the summary they also get a special, limited-time discounted offer for the full ebook.

Most will just sit and watch though. It’s a textbook example of The Innovator’s Dilemma, which, I might add, is also available as a summary on Blinkist. :-)


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 from one publisher’s aversion to ebooks

I recently did something that I haven’t done for more than five years: I bought a physical, print edition of a book. For myself. I didn’t want to, but I had to. The publisher made me do it. The story behind my purchase offers lessons for all book publishers, but especially those who have yet to embrace the ebook market.

I’m a huge baseball fan and when I heard that Hal McCoy, a legendary sportswriter, recently published a book about his career covering the Reds, well, I had to have it. If you take a quick look at that link to the book on the publisher’s website you’ll see they only sell a print edition there. A quick look on Amazon shows that print is the only option online as well.

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.

That made me stop and double-check the pub date. It’s 2015, after all, and surely every publisher offers e-editions of their frontlist, right? I’ve apparently stumbled across one of the remaining publishers who is still stuck in the 1990’s. 

Not to worry… I figured I’d just run out to one of the many local brick-and-mortar stores and buy a copy there. No dice. There’s not a single copy of this book to be found at any of the local stores.

Amazon offers it at 21% off the publisher’s list price though, and since I’m a Prime member I’ll get it in a couple of days. So here we have a small boutique publisher who is contributing to their own market limitations. In this world of digital abundance they prefer to live in the era of physical scarcity.

Why print-only? It’s hard to assume they haven’t found a viable way to quickly, easily and inexpensively create EPUBs and mobi files. Not only are there a variety of simple tools for this but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of outsource providers willing to do it for a song.

Is it fear of cannibalization? Perhaps. But is that such a bad thing? I’d argue in this case that the number of potential customers who aren’t buying the print edition because it’s not available far outweighs the number of customers who might opt for a cheaper e-version over of print.

Here’s a radical idea: Charge 50% more for the e-edition. So that $19.99 print book lists for $29.99 as an ebook. Even after Amazon applies their consumer discount the publisher still makes more than they do on any print copy sale. Btw, I paid almost $16 for the print edition through Amazon but I would have gladly paid $29.99 for an e-edition, if only they’d offer one.

The publisher wouldn’t have to stick with a permanent digital list price that’s 150% of the print list. Maybe they could just have it set that high for the first 30 or 60 days, for example. The key is to measure the results, see what can be learned from the combination of print and digital sales and adjust accordingly.

Here’s another radical idea: Sell the ebook direct exclusively for 30 or 60 days. After that initial period offer it through all  theother ebook channels. (Yes, I realize this means the publisher has to renegotiate terms with distributors.)

As a consumer I admit that I’m not a fan of paying more or having to go through some crazy DRM process on a publisher’s website when I buy direct. But in this case I’d be willing to live with both of those situations.

At the very least, how about this?: Offer me an e-sample on the publisher’s site so I can start reading the book while I wait for the print copy to arrive. And please don’t lock that sample…make it easy to copy and send to others; after all, it’s a marketing tool for the publisher and the author.


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.


Is the Ebook Revolution Over?: Driving Ebook Growth as Sales Plateau

You knew it wouldn’t last forever. You expected the double-digit growth rates would taper off but you never anticipated your ebook sales would flatten out so quickly.

Is the ebook revolution over?  Is this as good as it gets for ebooks? Or is there something you can do today to generate ebook revenue growth like you’ve seen in the past?

To help answer these questions I'm pleased to announce a free Olive Software webinar I'm hosting which will show how publishers can grow their top line and, at the same time, wrestle back control of their business.  

Here are just a few of the topics we plan to cover:

  • Why the market is flattening out
  • What will drive future growth
  • It’s not print or digital; it’s print and digital
  • How indirect can help drive direct sales
  • The tools and techniques you need to succeed
  • How Olive can be your growth partner

Please join us at 1:00PM ET on April 28 for this 30-minute session – click here to register now, as virtual seating is limited. 


How digital can be a companion for print

Congratulations, print publishers. You dealt with enormous disruption these past several years and you managed to avoid the same fate as your music industry counterparts. For example, most book publishers still generate 70-80% of their revenue from print. How many music labels can say they generate anywhere near that percentage from CDs?

Is the survival of print a good thing or a bad thing? Rather than worrying about that one, here’s the question we really need to think about: Why do we treat these two formats as mutually exclusive?

Depending on what they’re doing, why do consumers tend to use either print or digital but almost never use print and digital for the same product?

I’ll use myself as an example... Believe it or not, my wife and I still subscribe to our local print newspaper, the Indianapolis Star. Our subscription plan includes a digital version as well as print. When I’m at home I always read print and never bother opening the digital edition; when I’m on the road, of course, I’m limited to a digital-only experience.

Why do I never bother opening the digital edition when I’m home? Because it’s just a digital replica of the print edition I read over breakfast. OK, there might be a few extra bells and whistles in the digital edition but they’re not significant enough to get me to open the app after I’ve read the print edition.

The same is true for books and magazines. Digital simply replaces print, so there’s no reason to use both formats for any given title.

I think it’s time to reimagine digital as a companion to print, not simply a replacement for it.

Today’s digital editions are nothing more than print-under-glass. They’re digital replicas of the print product. As a result, we tend to buy one format or the other, but rarely both.

I used to publish technology books for IT professionals. Many of those books on programming languages and productivity tools had companion websites. The websites offered additional content, sample files and other goodies that didn’t come with the book. These sites also represented a way for the publisher to dynamically extend the original content with additional elements and coverage, some of which might not have been available when the book was originally published.

I’d love to see the industry evolve to the point where each print product has a digital companion, not just a print replacement. The digital companion would extend and enhance the print experience and would be an optional add-on to the print product. Some of these digital companions could be free but the more valuable ones could have a price.

Btw, publishers could offer these companions exclusively on their websites, converting print customers who bought from Amazon and elsewhere into direct customers. Promote them in the print product and bring those customers to your website where you can build a direct relationship, up-sell, cross-sell, etc.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article called Why Johnny doesn’t like e-textbooks. Maybe Johnny doesn’t want the print-under-glass digital edition of the textbook, but I’ll bet he’d be interested in a digital companion for the print textbook featuring notes from other students, cheat sheets for test prep, sample quizzes, slide decks from class lectures and better explanations of key topics from other students and teachers.

Textbooks aren’t the only products that could be further monetized with digital companions. Just about any type of content lends itself to digital extension and enhancement. We just need publishers and authors to start thinking of digital as a companion for print, not simply a replacement.


Anticipating change in the myopic publishing industry

Have you ever heard the quote, “everything that can be invented has been invented”? It was once believed that a U.S. Patent Office commissioner uttered those words but that claim has since been refuted. Regardless of whoever said (or didn’t say) it, I’m convinced it’s a view many in the publishing industry strongly believe in. 

Let me provide a few examples…

In 2006 the ebook marketplace mostly consisted of PDF files. There were a few other formats but none showed any signs of broad consumer adoption. The industry seemed to be growing weary of anticipating the ebook explosion that was always “just around the corner”.

I remember working at a large book publisher in those days. One of my former colleagues was very outspoken, noting that books aren’t like music (which had already made the shift from physical to digital), there’s no device that makes a digital version more interesting than a print version, consumers like holding and reading a print book, etc.

Then, in late 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle and everything changed.

Let’s fast-forward a few years for the second example… In 2011 I was co-chair of the Tools of Change publishing industry conference. One of the messages we communicated to attendees was the need for them to diversify their channel strategy and focus on the one channel they totally control: direct-to-consumer. Our pleas were met with rolling eyes, yawns, and responses like this one from a very high-level executive at one of the Big Six: “We don’t need to create a direct channel…that’s why we have retail partners like Amazon, for example.”

My how times have changed. Today we even see the big guys focusing more on direct-to-consumer strategies, particularly as Amazon becomes more dominant and pushes for an ever-bigger piece of the pie.

For my third and final example, let’s look back to 2013, when some were suggesting a “Netflix for books” model would emerge. Most scoffed at the idea, suggesting books aren’t like movies and an all-you-can-read option would never take hold.

Earlier this year we saw the launch of Oyster Books, featuring that all-you-can-read model. Some publishers opted to experiment while consumers (like me) flocked to the service. Even Amazon has copied the model with their Kindle Unlimited program. 

(Btw, as I’ve said before, the current all-you-can-read ebook models are unsustainable. How long can these providers keep paying publishers more than they’re earning from most subscribers in top-line revenue? Amazon is the only player with enough resources to pull that off, and based on their stock’s performance in 2014 it looks like Wall Street is becoming impatient with Amazon’s loss-leader philosophy.)

I mention these three examples because I believe we’re in the midst of yet another shortsighted moment. Ebook revenues have plateaued for many book publishers. Some believe the market has reached equilibrium and that a roughly 75/25 split between print and digital is the future.

These publishers are quite comfortable living in the “print under glass” world, where they drive incremental revenue from digital editions that are identical to the print editions. They don’t like it that consumers expect to pay less for the digital edition (vs. the print edition price), but they’re growing comfortable with the model. Many of them briefly experimented with native apps and enriched ebooks; for the most part, their expenses exceeded revenue on these failed projects.

This is largely why these publishers have an allergic reaction when someone mentions the phrases “enriched ebook” or “enhanced ebook”.

In the early days of television most shows were simply radio programs in front of a camera. There were probably quite a few executives back then who figured that was the future and radio-plus-camera was as good as it would get.

I firmly believe that quick-and-dirty digital editions of print books are not the endgame. Some consumers are and will be perfectly content to read digital replicas of print products, but many will crave something that’s much richer though, especially once they experience it.

We won’t be stuck eternally in today’s “print under glass” world. In the not-too-distant future I’m convinced at least one model will emerge to take us out of this rut. Publishers would be wise to continue experimenting with content enrichment and enhancement (yes, we need better a better term for this!) so they’re not caught flat-footed when the movement takes hold.


Disney shows how to tear down walled gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ebook subscription services as publisher affiliates

I was at an event last week where an attendee described the following scenario: She discovered an author on the Oyster unlimited ebook subscription service, she read one of their books and then realized the author’s other books aren’t included in Oyster. She was then forced to buy the author’s next ebook somewhere else. The end result is the publisher still has no relationship with the reader and Oyster earns nothing from the sale of that next book.

We’re going to see more and more of this as publishers dip their toes in the ebook subscription waters, adding portions of their list but not their entire catalog.

This is a significant missed opportunity for the publisher...and the subscription provider (Oyster).

Here’s how the publisher and subscription provider can alter the model and both come out ahead: The subscription provider becomes a publisher affiliate, leading these interested and engaged readers to the publisher’s site where they then purchase that next book that’s not in the subscription plan. Maybe the publisher even sweetens the deal, giving the reader a special discount for being an Oyster subscriber. This requires the publisher and Oyster (or Scribd, for that matter) agree on affiliate terms, but wouldn’t they both prefer this sales model vs. losing that reader to some other retailer?

The publisher could take this a step further and have the purchased book placed in the subscription provider’s reader application. So now when I use my Oyster app I’m sometimes reading books rented through my subscription, and other times I’m reading books I own. The beauty here is that I’m using the same application in both situations so I don’t have to remember the idiosyncrasies of multiple apps.

If I was still a book publisher this is something I’d pursue immediately. The subscription model is here to stay and the startups in this space could use some help to stay afloat and not get crushed by the 800-pound gorilla.

For the sake of competition and keeping the dominant player honest, let’s hope Oyster and Scribd extend their services by implementing something like this.


How to convert indirect customers into direct customers

Every digital newspaper, magazine and book I’ve ever purchased from an e-retailer share something in common: None of them included a pitch from the publisher to lure me away from the e-retailer and go direct. Not a single one.

This, despite the fact that it’s never been easier, or more important, for publishers to diversify their channel strategy and focus on their D2C business. Pretty remarkable. It’s even more amazing when you consider that more and more publishers are finally starting to wake up to the importance of either building a D2C channel or fortifying it.

Here’s the easiest solution possible for publishers to remedy this situation: Make sure a compelling message from you is the first thing consumers see when they open the indirectly-distributed version of your product. What does that look like?

In general, it’s something like this: “Thanks for buying this e-paper/e-mag/ebook. Are you aware of the benefits of buying your next edition/product directly from us? Click here to learn more.”

Again, that’s the very first thing a reader should see when they open your product. When you do this you’ll be using the enormous power and reach of the retailer network to build your own D2C network.

Why doesn’t this happen today? The first reason is that most publishers probably haven’t even thought of this tactic. The second reason is that publishers are worried about retailer retaliation if they implement it. If that has you worried, consider this: Can a retailer actually dictate what content is and isn’t acceptable in your product? Although Amazon, for example, tends to be extremely bold I think even they would realize this would be overreach on their part.

Would that prevent them from making the publisher feel the pain? Probably not, but it could create a very interesting situation, both legally and in the court of public opinion. 

Simply inserting this D2C messaging is only step one, of course. Publishers need to deliver and provide a compelling reason for consumers to buy direct. Here’s a hint on how to solve that problem: Make sure the most valuable, feature-rich version of your product is only available direct from you, the publisher. That’s not too hard to do, btw. If you’ve ever subscribed to an e-newspaper through a digital retailer you know what I mean; the user experience is awful, particularly when compared to the full digital replica edition. Ebooks represent a similar opportunity; publishers should make sure the richest, most compelling edition is only available from them, not third-party retailers.

When will publishers wake up and leverage this approach? Some will, but most won’t, largely because of the fear factor noted earlier. The most successful, vibrant publishers of the future will make this a standard practice though and fear of retailer retaliation will disappear.