What is “adaptive content”?

That’s a question a few people asked me via email after a webinar I co-presented last week. I briefly mentioned it on one of my webinar slides but I didn’t spend a lot of time digging into it. 

I talked about how the concept of layering enables publishers to turn their static e-products into dynamic, premium offerings. Layering is just the first step towards adaptive content. I’ll also admit that my definition of adaptive content is different from what you’ll read elsewhere.

A quick Google search shows a variety of articles and opinions on the definition and future of adaptive content. I’m not suggesting the perspectives found via those links are wrong; I just believe they’re not going far enough.

You’ll find plenty of people who talk about adaptive content in the context of distribution channels and devices. (The latter, btw, borders more on responsive design IMHO.) What you don’t see much of in the existing dialog on adaptive content is the actual user, the person reading the content.

So when I talk about adaptive design I’m envisioning it not from a channel or device POV. I’m thinking more about the user, their experience, tendencies and interests. That sounds creepy, I know, but it’s going to happen. Twenty years ago most people would have balked at the notion of an email app that presents you with ads based on subjects it deems relevant to the contents of your inbox. Today, however, Gmail does just that and reportedly has hundreds of millions of users.

At some point down the road digital content apps (including your web browser) will use similar capabilities to present that how-to ebook or e-zine in a manner that’s completely tailored to you. And you’ll never have to tell it a thing for it to spin up that custom experience. Our devices (and the apps loaded on them) will constantly track your behavior and use that information to dynamically present the next piece of content.

Let’s say you and I are building decks and we just bought the same digital how-to product with step-by-step instructions and videos. Your tablet knows you’re quite familiar with power tools and construction projects because it’s noted that you’ve contributed several knowledgeable (and highly-rated) answers on one of the popular DIY forums. Your tablet also knows that you regularly read the most popular DIY e-zines and that you tend to focus on articles covering lumber construction projects. 

I, on the other hand, hardly know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver and my tablet is well aware of my lack of knowledge on the deck-building topic. 

So the content and pace of the digital how-to product we both bought is presented in one manner on your tablet and in a completely different manner on mine. The source content is all the same and you can certainly drill down into more of the basics that I’m presented with, but the app assumes you’re beyond all that.

This changes everything, of course. Content must be written in a more granular manner and it must be richly tagged to ensure it’s presented properly in every use-case. Equally important is the need for the app/device to pay attention to how the content is then consumed by all these different users and make adjustments for future users. Maybe nine out of the first ten novices jump to a later topic that appears later in the product; the app should learn from this and rearrange the content sequence for the eleventh novice.

Yes, this type of model will require users to opt in and privacy advocates will completely freak out over the possible consequences of such a platform. The benefits will far outweigh the risks though, and I’m convinced this vision of adaptive content will become a reality down the road.

Three lessons from comScore’s latest mobile apps report

comScore recently published a 15-page report on the state of mobile apps. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but if you don’t have the time, here are the three big takeaways for content publishers:

Mobile apps are the new digital engagement king. Prior to 2014 the combination of desktop plus mobile browser was where digital engagement was happening. Now mobile apps are the leader, but there are some caveats. 75% of a user’s time is limited to four apps. Given that trend, what’s the likelihood your new app will replace one of those popular four? The key here is to make sure your content plays well and is seamlessly integrated with the apps that are already attracting all the eyeballs.

Mobile is just one critical element of a device-agnostic strategy. Digital engagement on the desktop isn’t dead. In fact, according to the Comscore report it’s up 1%. OK, that’s not exciting growth but it’s important to note that desktop engagement is holding its own...for now. So while the combination of apps and mobile browsers represent 60% of total digital engagement, the 40% represented by desktop is still significant enough to warrant attention. Does the user experience change when a customer shifts from consuming your content on a phone to a tablet or desktop? Don’t treat any device/platform as a second-class citizen. Even though mobile apps have all the momentum it’s important to make sure you’re not forcing your customers to learn a new UI when they switch from one device to another. (Hint: Think HTML presentation/consumption.)

Downloaded and then forgotten. An earlier report from Nielsen indicates consumers typically use 23-27 apps per month. If you’re like me your phone already has a heck of a lot more than 27 apps on it. And I’ll bet you’re downloading several new apps every month, but for the most part you’re probably still using the same ones over and over. So we’re all a bunch of app hoarders. We download a new app, maybe open it once or twice and then abandon it. Remember that old saying about how it’s easier to sell something new to an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one? Someone who has already discovered and downloaded your app is closer to engaging with your content than someone who may not even know the app exists. So what are you doing to remind (or incent) inactive users to open and take advantage of that app they downloaded?

Byliner and the art of curation

Last week I wrote about how Kindle Singles are likely to influence the future of ebooks. This week I'd like to share some thoughts on another service for short-form content: Byliner. Unlike Singles, where you purchase titles individually, the Byliner service is an all-you-can-read subscription model.

Following authors and subscribing to content streams

My favorite Byliner feature is the fact that I can follow specific authors. I thoroughly enjoyed Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. I know I need to read her other books but time just doesn't permit right now. Thanks to Byliner I'm able to discover several short-form works by Mary and read one or two of them in a matter of minutes.

This is an important glimpse of the future, btw. I firmly believe that books, magazines, and other print content containers will become far less important in the future. Those vessels were simply a convenient delivery format in the physical world. What we really want though are great stories by authors we love to read. I don't need this content as a "book" or part of a "magazine", regardless of whether it's print or digital. Instead, I'd prefer to pay for a Mary Roach content stream subscription. The same goes for Steve Rushin. Byliner offers all their authors in the same broad subscription but in the not too distant future I'm convinced we'll have access to more granular subscription options too (e.g., by author, by genre, etc.)

Curation and discovery

What makes Byliner different from simply surfing the web and reading interesting articles you find? It's all about curation. The authors and articles featured in Byliner are among the best. I have yet to find one that didn't fascinate me. Good luck saying that about most online articles you stumble upon.

Then there's the fact that your favorite authors are discovering and recommending content from other authors. What a terrific solution to the discovery issue everyone in publishing complains about. I'm seeing that recommendations by my favorite authors are much more likely to lead to great reads than recommendations from my Facebook friends. Think about that for a moment. Does your social graph really overlap with your reading interests? Mine certainly doesn't.

Pricing and length

With Kindle Singles you're making a (small) financial investment in every piece of content. In Byliner's all-you-can-read model there is no such investment or guilt factor. If I don't like a piece I'll just move on to the next one. It still costs the same amount every month, so I'm inclined to explore even more. (Another discovery plus!)

Byliner articles are even shorter than Kindle Singles, or at least that's the case most of the time. I love it that they even give you a reading time estimate with each Byliner article. That's a much better gauge of whether I really have time to read this piece than telling me the number of pages, especially when the ability to increase/decrease font size makes "page" a hard word to define.

Terrific iPad app

Lastly, Byliner has a wonderful iPad app that lets me download and save articles for offline reading. That's a great feature for those times when you're out of wifi range. I know I've always got a great selection of short-form content ready to read, regardless of where I am. Given how short these pieces are though, I wish they had an option to automatically download articles from my favorite authors, topics I always read, etc.

If you haven't given Byliner a test drive you need to do so now. It's both a great content service as well as a leading indicator for how publishing and content consumption is rapidly evolving.

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.

Best of TOC

Best of tocIt's challenging keeping up with publishing industry news and analysis. I have way too many content feeds to monitor and I'm sure you do too. We do our best to highlight the most important developments on the TOC website but you're forgiven if you fall behind or miss an article every so often.

Most of analysis on the TOC site is somewhat timeless but the blog format might not make it feel that way. That's why we gathered the best of the best articles and assembled them for you in a handy, to-go version. It's called Best of TOC: Analysis and Ideas about the Future of Publishing. More than 60 of the most thought-provoking articles from the TOC team and community are featured and it's available in EPUB, mobi and PDF formats. Best of all, it's completely free.

If you need to catch up on your TOC reading you no longer have an excuse. Download your copy today and tell us what you think.

What devices and formats do your customers prefer?

Most publishers create ebooks in all formats figuring it doesn't matter whether mobi is more important than EPUB or if the content is read on an iPad more frequently than on a mobile phone. That approach means these publishers have no idea how their content is being consumed. It also means they probably don't have a direct channel to their customers or some other way of polling them on their preferences.

At O'Reilly we like to stay on top of our customer reading habits and preferences. We monitor device and format trends through surveys and download statistics (from our direct sales channel). For example, here's a chart showing which primary and additional devices our customers read our books on:


As you can see, a computer is the O'Reilly customer's preferred reading device and the Kindle family is a distant second. What I find interesting here is the fact that Android tablets are much more popular reading devices for O'Reilly content than an iPad is. In fact, for our customers the small-screen iPhone/iPod combo is also a much more popular reading device than the iPad. Another interesting tidbit is that the iPad's popularity is almost exclusively as a second option, not the primary reading device.

Now let's look at preferred formats:


Here we see PDF still dominates; we learned long ago that most of the reading taking place on the computer is with PDFs, not EPUB or mobi files. This is a trend we've seen for years now and PDF doesn't seem to be any closer to relinquishing its format leadership status now than it was back in 2009, for example. And despite the Kindle's popularity EPUB is preferred much more so than mobi.

That begs the question: If the Kindle is such an important device for O'Reilly customers (see first chart), why is mobi a distant 3rd in format popularity? Is it possible our customers are loading their Kindles with PDFs? Sounds like a great question we need to add to our survey...

These charts reflect the preferences of the O'Reilly customer. Unless you also happen to publish technology books I'm pretty sure your results will look different from ours. But are you even taking the time to ask your customers these questions?

Why B&N should abandon hardware

The ebook retailing business consists of three elements: hardware, content, and selling model. Dedicated e-readers (think eInk devices) are losing momentum to tablets. Content is mostly quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions, or "paper under glass", if you will. The typical selling model is to buy one ebook at a time. Pretty simple. And not a whole lot of innovation happening in any of the three areas by the major players.

Recently there's been speculation that B&N is about to ditch the hardware part of their Nook business and focus instead on content and licensing. If true, that's probably the wisest thing I've heard from Riggio & Co. in a long time. Hardware has been, and will increasingly become more of, a fool's game for B&N.

They can't possibly steal Apple's mojo, so why try? I'll bet more people are reading B&N ebooks on an iPad or iPhone than they are on the Nook tablets.

On the Amazon side, B&N simply doesn't have deep enough pockets to lose money on both hardware and ebooks as long as Bezos can, so it's time to cut bait. Plus, Amazon's goal is to turn the Kindle Fire into a gateway for purchasing much, much more than ebooks. Amazon has a significantly larger product catalog outside of books, so Amazon can afford to lose money on the device if they make it up on the sale of electronics and other goods B&N doesn't sell.

So if B&N completely gets out of the hardware business what can they do to compete in the ebook world? Think app functionality, reader experience, and content sales model.

Today's e-reader apps have pretty much the same functionality as yesterday's. There's basically no innovation happening with the user experience in any of these apps, whether they come from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc.

Now is the time for B&N to shift all those resources they have in hardware onto the team that develops their Nook apps. What features are customers asking for? More importantly, what features have readers never even envisioned but would love to have? Channel Steve Jobs. We were all pretty content with our MP3 players back in 2000 and then in 2001 the iPod hit the scene. What a game-changer. What will be the "iPod moment" for e-reading apps?

And while they're working on that, be bold and work with publishers to develop some genre-specific, all-you-can-eat, ebook subscription programs. Romance is a good place to start but look at other verticals as well. What kind of package would compel customers to pay a subscription rate of $5 or $10 per month? They'll need to find the publishers who are willing to experiment here but that's why you focus on just one genre to start and build a success story to create others down the road.

At the end of the day B&N should continue to let Apple, Google, et al, distribute their Nook apps. They don't need to lose any more money selling devices that are viewed as commodities. They should instead focus on dramatically changing the reading experience and content acquisition model. After all, once hardware is eliminated, those are the only two other elements of ebook retailing that matter.

Next Issue: Why I recommissioned my old iPad

I had to take my first-gen iPad out of mothballs for this one. I’m talking about the Next Issue service and app. Like most of you I’ve let my print magazine subscriptions lapse over the past several years. I spend less than $150/year on my remaining subscriptions and more than half of that is just for one, The Week, which is highly recommended, btw. So why would I sign up for an online magazine subscription program that will cost me $15/month, or $180/year? Because it’s terrific.


TOC’s Global Ebook Market report

One year ago we published the first edition of our Global Ebook Market report. We focused on the major English language territories but also featured coverage of several other popular languages as well.

A lot has changed in the past year so we recently published a completely revised edition of the report. You’ll find it here. The good news it’s totally free, both in terms of cost and DRM. :-) It’s also available in all the popular formats (PDF, EPUB, and mobi), so you’ll be able to read it on any device you own.


Three questions for…Jason Illian of BookShout

1. What is BookShout and what makes it unique?

BookShout is a unique type of ereader that allows for sharing and discoverability. In other words, the “social” tools are built into the ereader so that users can either actively or passively share the books with which they are most passionate, increasing unit sales and notoriety. Not only can readers share notes and thoughts to other BookShout users, but they can also share them out to Facebook and Twitter.