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?


The future of content recommendation services

If you’re overly concerned about data privacy you’ll want to stop reading right now because I’m about to give you a glimpse of the future that will make you bristle.

For the rest of you, I’d like to describe a vision I have of how content services will dramatically improve, become widely used, and even paid for, in the not too distant future.

You’re probably familiar with services like Taboola and Outbrain. They’re the technologies behind all the “You may also like” or “Sponsored content” blocks of links that have become ubiquitous on websites. They use sophisticated algorithms to suggest related content you might be interested in reading. 

Then there’s Google. My Android phone’s Google app does a terrific job presenting nuggets of information I might find useful. It’s equally awful at it too though. On a recent trip through Atlanta it suggested the CDC as one of the nearby attractions I might want to check out. I realize Ebola is a hot topic right now but is there really anything in my Google-accessible content stream that would suggest the CDC as an interesting destination for me? 

Google’s app, as well as its News service, are both casting an extremely wide net in the hopes that something in their recommendation stream will cause me to click. Every year I find Google’s stream suggesting fewer and fewer truly relevant articles for me. This, despite the fact that they have access to so much of what I’m doing, where I’m going and what I’m interested in.

What’s wrong with this picture? These services should be improving, not simply providing an even wider pipeline of content, most of which doesn’t interest me at all.

What’s missing is a service that pays much closer attention to who I am and what’s likely to engage me. That’s one of the things I always liked about Zite, the content service that recommends more content based on what you’ve previously read in the app. I used to spend a great deal of time in Zite every day. Then they got acquired and for some reason their stream just isn’t as engaging for me as it used to be.

What’s needed is a service that is much more closely aligned with everything I do, or as much of my life as I’m willing to let it access. I’m talking about my email in-box as well as the websites I visit and even my work and personal calendars. Here are a few use cases for the service I’d like to see: 

  • Prepare for trips – It’s nice that Google shows a card for this afternoon’s flight status, but they could do so much more. How about tracking my personal interests and serving up recommendations for downtime activities? Knowledge of my interests would hopefully prevent an app from suggesting I visit the CDC, for example. This service could also interact with my TripIt account, notice that I made a car rental reservation and suggest a better alternative (e.g., a better rate with another carrier, one that earns me miles on my preferred airline, or a better option like Uber or Lyft, etc.) How about a few facts and figures about where I’m heading? This destination info is available on Wikipedia, so it would be easy to tap into that content source as well as many others.
  • Provide news and research for upcoming meetings – The assumption here is that I’ll allow this service to access my daily calendar. When it sees I have a 2-hour meeting with XYZ Corp next week it begins early by creating and sending me a snapshot of the organization as well as noteworthy news about XYZ Corp. The detailed version arrives a week before the meeting, giving me plenty of time to become an expert on the company. The day before or the morning of the meeting I then get a shorter follow-up with any updates that weren’t available earlier.
  • Stay on top of the competition – The key here is to know the company I work for and the industry we’re part of. Better yet, if it’s a large, multi-sector company, it knows exactly which area I focus on and tailors everything around that space. The service then uses all the publicly available data sources to feed me updates and insights about the competition.
  • Tap into streams from leaders and celebrities – How would you like to gain access to the news and content streams being delivered to people like Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos? Obviously they’ll want to filter their public version to avoid accidentally leaking confidential information, but there would still be enough content to make for some very interesting reading. Rather than waiting for Bill Gates to tell us what books he read and recommended from last year, let’s see what’s on his inbound content stream today.
  • All this, with no manual configuration required – Some elements of what I’ve described above are available today, if you’re willing to spend a lot of time configuring your keywords and splicing together multiple services. Don’t forget that your interests change over time…and so does your calendar, of course. I want a service that is always up-to-date based on what it sees me doing throughout the day and week. It needs to be fully automated and change as my interests and focus change.

I can see multiple flavors of this service. The simplest one is free and is funded by ads and sponsorships, just like many of Google’s existing services. A paid version eliminates the ads and comes with more bells and whistles. And remember that leaders/celebrities idea? Those could be structured as subscriptions to that individual’s feed. Plenty of people would pay a monthly fee for access to these streams. And although Warren Buffett doesn’t need this additional income, he could always have it flow to his favorite charity.

We’ve got a long way to go before we’ll see a service like this, but I’ll be among the first in line to sign up for it when one arrives.


Why Amazon Firefly is important

At any given point in time it’s easy to assume that search engines have evolved as much as they’re ever going to. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid falling into the logic that was allegedly uttered long ago by Charles Duell: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Putting the gimmicky eye candy called “Dynamic Perspective” aside for a moment, there’s another element to Amazon’s recently-announced Fire phone that everyone in the content industry needs to focus on: Firefly.

On the surface, Firefly also feels like a Fire phone gimmick. In reality, it’s a next generation search platform and likely to be the first significant Google challenger. I’m not suggesting Google will disappear or feel the pain anytime soon, but Firefly will force them to evolve.

Firefly lets you snap pictures of objects so you can buy them from Amazon. It’s the next step in showrooming, the process brick-and-mortar retailers loathe. Publishers need to look beyond Firefly’s ability to enable one-click purchase of a physical book sitting on a table. Rather, publishers need to consider how Firefly will eventually enable the discovery and consumption of all types of digital content as well.

Let’s say you’re at the ballpark watching the Pittsburgh Pirates play. You snap a picture of the beautiful city skyline, looking out from behind home plate in PNC Park. You’re curious to learn more about the park, the team or maybe even the city itself.

Instead of clicking the camera button, click the Firefly button on your Fire phone. Rather than just getting a photo you might not ever look at again, your screen is filled with search results. These aren’t just the website links you get from Google though. You’re looking at all sorts of free and paid content you can consume now or later.

All the usual suspects are included here. You’ll see links to books about the team, park and city. But you’ll also have an opportunity to buy the program, print or digital, from today’s game. And maybe there’s a link to purchase a digital edition of today’s local paper or just portions of it (e.g., the sports section, just those articles covering today’s game, etc.) The results could also include articles about the team/park/city, accessible via either a trial subscription or maybe they’ll ultimately be free thanks to the ever-expanding reach of Amazon Prime. 

Don’t forget that all these results won’t just appear in random order. Amazon will develop a search algorithm as sophisticated as Google’s, but with the benefit of all Amazon’s “customers who viewed x also viewed y” data and capabilities.

Most importantly, don’t forget the power of paid placement in these results. Amazon has generated plenty of revenue from publishers for placement and promotional campaigns. Firefly will open the door to an enormous number of new ways Amazon can charge publishers for premium placement in those Firefly search results.

I haven’t forgotten that you’re sitting at a baseball game and the last thing you want to do is flip through search results and spend time reading content on your phone. That leads me to another model I suspect we’ll see from the Firefly search platform: save for later.

Web searches today focus exclusively on the here and now. You search, find what you need and you move on. Firefly opens the door to a lengthier relationship between user and search results.  You can’t be bothered with all the Firefly details when you’re trying to watch the baseball game. That’s why you’ve configured Firefly to save those results for later retrieval. They could sit in a holding area in your Amazon account, similar to your Amazon Wish List, or maybe they’ll be delivered to you via email. The more likely scenario is that Amazon will do both, of course. Amazon knows the value of data and reminding customers of what they like, so expect to see plenty of notifications about these potential one-click purchase opportunities.

None of this functionality exists today, of course. And most of it won’t be available when the Fire phone ships in July. But rest assured that these and plenty of other innovations will eventually be available through the Firefly feature. Amazon’s #1 goal is to get consumers to buy things and Firefly is a huge step forward in making those transactions happen more frequently and conveniently.  


Making apps a core part of your digital publishing strategy

Arun BentyOn May 15, 2013, Apple celebrated 5 years of the App Store and released some astounding statistics.  Over 50 billion apps have been downloaded and that number jumped to 60 billion just 5 months after that announcement. That’s an average of 800 apps downloaded per second! With Apple paying out $15 billion to developers and December alone recording $3 billion in sales, do publishers need more reasons to look at the app store seriously? Let’s not forget, we haven’t spoken about the Google Play store yet, for which numbers are difficult to come by.

But aren’t customers tuned to buying books from iBooks and apps from app stores?
The answer is no. 10 to 30 times as many books are sold on the app store as compared to iBooks. The iBookstore pales in comparison to the Appstore in terms of traffic. So why would you place your wares in a store that has no footfalls? App Stores have changed the way we buy and install software and this begs the question: Aren’t ebooks software in a sense?

What’s the most important benefit of using apps for publishing?
It’s a common notion among publishers that apps makes sense only if you want to plug in some “interactivity” into your book. But there’s so much more to publishing books as apps than just this. Apps give you direct access to the consumer so it opens the doors to promotions, up-selling and cross-selling. It creates a channel to sell direct and increase margins. With the ever increasing focus on direct-to-consumer methods, apps can help publishers build a relationship with their readers despite the control exerted by dominant ebook retailers. With 90% of book sales driven through word-of-mouth marketing, engaging with your influencers is becoming increasingly important.

Aren’t apps expensive to build and maintain?
Yes, apps are expensive to build and maintain. This is where the Papertrell platform comes in. With an easy to use, feature rich, do-it-yourself app publishing CMS that simultaneously builds for all device platforms natively, Papertrell dramatically reduces the cost of app development and maintenance. It’s a platform that’s built for scale: an interactive app can be repurposed from an ePub file in under 48 hours. The platform also supports tools to import and repurpose from InDesign, PDFs and even blogs.

What about distribution? Isn’t it a complex ecosystem across multiple device platforms?
Manually managing titles across app stores is a complex process. The Papertrell platform takes care of end-to-end app distribution, publishers can now automatically submit or update to 7 different app stores with a single click. This also makes managing price promotions and meta-data management simple across multiple app stores. Publishers have a choice of distibuting as a paid app or as a “collection” of titles within a Shelf app with in-app purchase or subscrition as a payment option. The Shelf is fully cusomtizable with a host of features like banners, collections, a fully-featured EPUB and PDF reader, a cloud synced library, offline access, social reading with Facebook and Twitter integration.

What about updating content?
One of the most important features in Papertrell is the ability to quickly respond to customer issues related to content. App stores are notoriously slow in reviewing apps and this can sometimes kill the chance of an app being successful. A Papertrell app can be updated instantly without the need for time consuming app store reviews and will still work in an offline mode.

Can any type of book be converted to an interactive app using Papertrell?
It’s important to define what we mean by interactivity. Most content apps use audio, video and animations to add interactivity, but Papertrell uses a completely different approach. The idea is use existing book assets and repurpose it into a usable, interactive app without relying too much on “bells and whistles”. There are many instances here and here where this principle has been effectively applied. These are examples of books that contain no multimedia but the products have been repurposed into commercially successful apps by simply “gamefying” the content around usage, for example, unlocking chapters based on the quiz result. This is how “interactivity” is defined in Papertrell.

How scalable is app production in Papertrell? Can the process be automated?
Papertrell automatically ingests content from EPUB and other digital formats into a structured content dictionary using pattern recognition methods. Once the content is mapped, and a template is created, an app can produced from a subsequent EPUB in the same series in a matter of seconds. Here’s an example of a series that was produced using automation. This makes it incredibly easy to quickly make changes to the design and look and feel. The structured content dictionary also helps in reusability as new titles can be easily produced by remixing content across a series.

What sort of publishers are best suited for Papertrell?
Papertrell provides a robust platform for publishers who want to build a direct-to-consumer sales channel. Today this pretty much covers every type of publisher: trade, educational, comics, graphic novels, STM, Illustrated, non-fiction and even B2B publishing. With a range of options available to reach out, acquire, sustain and nurture readers, Papertrell provides depth and breadth in terms of features and flexibility to suit any requirement. Whether it’s creating highly engaging and interactive interpretations of books, social reading, ebook promotion and bundling or direct selling and subscription, Papertrell can play an integral part in your digital publishing strategy.

This article was written by Arun Benty. Arun is responsible for Papertrell's business development and product strategy. He is also the Co-founder and Director of Business Development at Trellisys.net, Papertrell's parent company. He has guided several globally recognized app projects for publishers including HarperCollins and Hachette including The SAS Survival Guide - a Webby Award winning app.


Location-based content in the future

I’m one of the hundreds of millions of people who use Google News in a variety of ways. Long ago I configured it for the keywords I like to track so that I can scan the latest headlines on my favorite topics. I also have it set up to show me the latest goings-on in my hometown.

I’ve got to say the local element of Google News isn’t exactly the service’s greatest feature. It’s littered with stories that aren’t exactly news, they’re not in line with my interests and, in some cases, they have only a very loose association with my town.

It’s amazing that in this day and age of geo-tracking, data capture and rich content there’s no killer app for location-based content.

I’m talking about a service that does the following:

  • Knows precisely where I am, whether that’s at a ballgame, in the supermarket or sitting in a coffee shop
  • Knows who I am, including my interests and habits, whether this is the first time I’ve been in this location or if I come here regularly
  • Provides me with information, stories, and yes, even deals on purchases I might want to make while I’m in that location 

I’ve seen bits and pieces of these requirements but I haven’t seen them all rolled into one service.

The first point is pretty simple. Every modern phone has geo built in, so it’s just a question of this service tapping into those capabilities. 

The second point may sound spooky, especially if you’re concerned about data privacy. Then again, anyone who thinks they can avoid being tracked and measured these days is pretty naïve. Opt out when you can but know that data is still being collected, even if it’s nothing more than your location from cell tower triangulation.

I figure that since all this data is being gathered, why not use it to my advantage as a consumer?

The second point also sounds a lot like how Zite, now part of Flipboard, tracks my reading habits to gauge my interests and uses that information to provide more relevant content tomorrow. That’s a terrific application of data gathering and one that always resulted in a more efficient reading experience.

The third bullet is where all the work still needs to happen. Tagging is critical here. When stories are written, what level of tagging is included so those same stories can be presented in a location-based service? I’ll bet there are few, if any, geo-based tags included with most articles today, so this is an important point to consider when creating content. 

Finally, the game-changer here isn’t a bunch of apps. You don’t want to force mobile users to download a new app every time they visit a new city or go to a museum. This has to be one single service that provides access to all the big stories and hidden tidbits of information no matter where you are. Sort of like Google News, only much, much better.


Chromecast needs a killer app

Judging by the ongoing out-of-stock situations it's safe to say demand for Google's Chromecast device remains strong. One of my local Best Buy stores finally had them in stock so I grabbed one. My one-word review: Meh. I don't regret buying Chromecast but I can't find a killer app for it.

If you're not familiar with Chromecast all you need to know is that it allows you to wirelessly stream content from your computer or mobile device to your TV. It's an indirect method, as the content on your tablet/laptop gets sent to your router and then over to the Chromecast device in your TV. On the surface, that's nice. After all, projecting video from your computer to your living room screen without a bunch of cables is handy. On the other hand, the apps that support Chromecast are limited. Anything in the Chrome browser works but few mobile apps are supported. That means I can stream games from my NHL Gamecenter subscription but I have to do so within the browser, not through the Gamecenter app on my iPad.

I'd love to see Chromecast work with PowerPoint. Most conference rooms have HD TVs but sometimes the right connection dongle isn't handy. It would be great if I could just plug Chromecast into the TV and project the deck wirelessly but that's not an option yet.

YouTube, Hulu and NetFlix all work fine as well, but what's the point? My Samsung LED TV has apps built in to let me watch streaming movies anyway. All I have to do is plug a USB WiFi stick into the TV and I have full web access. Granted, managing it with my TV's remote is a hassle, so Chromecast has that advantage since you control it with your tablet or laptop.

The only use-case I can think of that really lends itself to Chromecast is video-based training. Even though you can obviously do this on one screen or a computer with a second monitor, I see the benefit of having the instructor on a much larger TV, especially if there's a whiteboard or other region to focus on besides the talking head. Learning to code, for example, would really lend itself to the instructor, their source code and whiteboard on your TV and the programming environment on your computer.

I'm also surprised there aren't any great Chromecast hacks yet. If you search for hacks or novel applications you'll be disappointed. Chromecast seems like the type of device that hackers would love to enhance, and you'd think Google would fully support their efforts.

I'll still use my Chromecast, probably a few times a week. I also plan to take it on the road since at some point I'd like to think PowerPoint access will be supported. And since most hotels have complementary WiFi I should be able to watch NHL games at night via my Gamecast subscription on the TV rather than on my smaller computer/tablet screen.

So for $35 Chromecast is a fairly small investment but its limited functionality holds it back from being worth so much more.


Global Ebook Market Report

TOC is dead but I'm glad to see some elements of it live on. A couple of years ago the TOC team launched the Global Ebook Market Report with Ruediger Wischenbart. Ruediger updated the report once or twice a year and we typically released a major update each October for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The book fair opens this week and I was delighted to see that Ruediger and his team did yet another thorough update to the report for 2013. You'll find all the various formats of it here.

If you're looking for the latest data on ebook momentum by geographic region you'll find all the details in this update. If you want to read what's happening globally regarding popular formats, piracy and pretty much everything else related to ebooks you'll also find it in this report. The best news though is that the Global Ebook Market Report has always been and continues to be free. No cost, no registration, nada.

Do do yourself a favor, download this report right now and start reading. You won't regret it and you'll quickly become an expert on the global ebook marketplace.


The "more content is better" myth

Despite what some people think, content is not a commodity where the more you have of it the better off you are. In fact, the opposite is often the case; we're all swimming in content and unable to keep up with the constant flow of new articles, books, etc. So why do some publishers still think more is better?

I'm reminded of this flawed "more is better" logic by my local paper, The Indianapolis Star. The Star has spent the last week or so hyping the fact that their daily edition will start getting larger next month. More local coverage. More state coverage. More sports coverage. More of just about everything. Pretty much every newspaper has been shrinking over the years, so on the surface this might sound like good news. I often joke that Tuesday's and Wednesday's editions of the Star are nothing more than brochures, so you'd think I'd be on board with this move.

While I do believe this strategy might help slow the short-term drop in circulation, it's definitely not a long-term solution. All they're really playing to is the die-hard print newspaper fan, probably in the older demographic and getting older every year. Meanwhile, the younger demographic, most of which have never subscribed to a paper, won't find anything appealing here.

I don't want more content from my local newspaper. I want more better targeted content from them. I want content that fits my particular interests, not just more content in general.

This is why I, like millions and millions of others, tend to spend more time getting my news from sources like Google News, Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, et al, than I do from my local paper. These services let us tailor our content feed, so even though they start with infinitely more content than the local paper, the results are customized to match our needs and interests.

Yes, local papers allow customization like this, but they're starting with a base of content that's a fraction of the size served up via Flipboard, Pulse, etc.

Publishers, rather than trying to wow us with the breadth and depth of your content, please give more thought to the services you're really competing with (e.g., Google, Zite, etc.) and what level of personalization you'll offer your customers.


In search of a better search

Imagine Google's search results with no sophisticated algorithm behind them. Rather, when you type in your search phrase and press Enter, Google simply shows you a list of websites where that phrase can be found. No indication of relevance. No ranking mechanism. It's just a list of the sites that contain the phrase. Maybe the list is arranged in chronological order, where the older sites containing your phrase appear first.

Pretty worthless, right? So why do we accept that as our search solution in every major ebook reader app? Open an ebook, search for a phrase and the results merely list each occurrence of it, arranged from page 1 through the end of the book.

You might think a sophisticated search would only be useful for specialty products like textbooks and other reference materials. I disagree. I could see something like this being quite useful in novels, for example. Let's say you forgot who a minor character is and you'd like to quickly learn more about them. Sure, you could do a simple text search and see where the character first appears, but wouldn't you prefer results that provide some context? Maybe it's really the fourth occurrence of that character's name where you'll get the real details on their role in the story. That wouldn't be easy to figure out with today's ebook search capabilities.

And yes, I'm aware of at least two specialty ebook platforms that offer better search results. That's because they have editors who spend hours and hours parsing the content to build this feature manually. I have one word for them: scale. Their solution simply doesn't scale...more on that in a moment.

Here's another use case for a smarter ebook search feature: catalog-wide search. I challenge you to go to Amazon or a publisher's website and use their site search feature to tell you which book has the most in-depth coverage of a particular topic. Let's say you're looking for a book about creating websites. You want one that provides thorough coverage of HTML but also offers a solid introduction to JavaScript. You can't use site search on Amazon or a publisher's site to figure this out. You'll have to look at each book's table of contents and determine the answer yourself, one book a time. A better solution is one where the results show you exactly how deep the JavaScript coverage is in each book, arranged where the books having the most in-depth coverage appear first.

Now back to the scale problem... The key here is to enable these richer search results without requiring a bunch of manual labor. Book publishers are trying to reduce staff and cut costs, not add more of either. So the only way to deliver this service is through a software solution where the content is analyzed and a rich, context-sensitive index is created.

Does that sound far-fetched to you? I don't think so, In fact, I believe we'll see a service like this very soon. I know I'll get a lot of use out of it and I bet you will too.


Let Chromecast spark your imagination

Everyone is gaga over Chromecast, the new device from Google that connects your mobile device to your TV. I agree that it's cool but I think today's excitement is overlooking tomorrow's possibilities.

Yes, Chromecast lets you wirelessly stream video from your phone or tablet onto your TV. By doing so, it also turns your mobile device into your TV's remote control. The most interesting aspect of Chromecast though, IMHO, is the fact that it opens the door for more interctive, engaging activities on the bigger screen.

Today we generally sit back and watch as our TV entertains us through network broadcasts, movies, DVR playbacks and services like Netflix. But it's definitely a lean-back model. Our smaller devices are where more of the lean-forward activities take place, such as browsing the web, reading articles and creating content. There's been talk for years now about a hybrid model on the big screen, where both lean-forward and lean-back activities will take place but we haven't seen that materialize yet.

Take a look at this side-by-side feature comparison of Google's Chromecast to Apple's Airplay. What's the most important line on that comparison table? Some would argue the battle is won by whoever supports the most third-party apps (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, etc.) If that's true, Apple has the advantage.

I think that's short-term thinking. To me, the long-term winner is determined by the "third-party API" element. As you can see, both of these services support third-party APIs. The difference is that Apple's is all about their closed ecosystem, so forget about using Android devices, for example. Google's, on the other hand, supports all popular platforms, including Apple devices. Apple still has a phenomenal platform and they sell a lot of devices. But at $35 Google Chromecast is pretty much irresistible.

So what happens when developers see huge sales of Chromecast devices? They become more interested in writing apps for the platform. In fact, they start coming up with apps that leverage the platform in ways Google probably never imagined, and that's where the real game-changing ideas are hatched.

Here are the critical questions you need to ask: How can your content be enhanced on the big screen? What features, services and elements could be added to your products that don't make sense on the smaller screen?

Chromecast is red hot and currently on backorder. I'm not convinced it, or Google's platform, is predestined to be the ultimate winner. Someone could easily come along with an even better mousetrap.

What Chromecast is teaching us though, is that we need to put aside all our biases and open our minds to imagining (and inventing!) all the new ways content will be consumed in the future.