© 2013, Joseph B. Wikert
Remember when newspaper and magazine publishers said they can’t keep giving their content away for free so they started putting it behind paywalls? Then they got disappointed by the low number of subscribers, reversed course and paywalls began to come down.
It seems like a scene out of Back to the Future as paywalls are now apparently once again in vogue. Over the past week I’ve read multiple accounts of publishers deciding the totally ad-subsidized model just isn’t going to cut it.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
What happens when the all-you-can-read content subscription model gains momentum? I'm talking about services like Next Issue, where I pay $15/month for access to 90+ magazines. If my experience is any indication I think we'll see some very interesting trends develop from this model.
I've been a Next Issue subscriber for several months now. When I started I still had a handful of active print subscriptions. Over the past few months though I've started letting every one of those lapse. Some of these magazines are in Next Issue, but, more importantly, a couple are not. IOW, I'm starting to let the service dictate which magazines I read, regardless of whether they're part of the all-you-can-read subscription. Why?
First of all, $15/month isn't exactly cheap. If I had the time (and interest) to read all the 90+ magazines I'd feel I'm getting a deal. But since I only care about 6-8 of them it's not that much of a bargain for me. That's $180/year for about seven magazines, or roughly $25 each. I could subscribe to several of those in print for much less than $25/year. The psychological impact is important here as every month I'm wondering if I'm getting my money's worth from Next Issue. Just as some people binge at the all-you-can-eat buffet, I find I'm trying to binge at the all-you-can-read magazine trough.
Next, there are only so many hours in a day. At first I seemed to balance my Next Issue reading time with my non-Next Issue magazine reading time. Now that a few more magazines I like have been added to Next Issue though, all of my magazine reading time is now dedicated to Next Issue.
It's gotten to the point where I don't really even care about a magazine if it's not part of this subscription service. So for me, Next Issue itself has become more powerful than the magazine brands Next Issue carries. Just as Comcast has long determined which TV networks I can watch, Next Issue is now dictating which magazines I read.
If I'm a typical consumer that means Next Issue has some pretty powerful leverage with the magazines that aren't yet part of their program. After all, those magazines can get some portion of that $15/month from me if they join Next Issue, or they can get 100% of nothing from me if they stay on the sidelines.
A service like Next Issue has the potential to become the primary pipe for magazine content consumption. It's not exclusive, of course, but I haven't found any other service like it. It's certainly caused a dramatic shift in my magazine subscription and reading patterns.
Once upon a time when you liked a song and wanted to own it you had to buy the entire album it appeared on. It didn't matter if the other 11 tracks were terrible. You were forced to buy them all.
That all changed in the digital era, of course, and now we can buy tracks individually. Consider that a victory for the a la carte model.
Spotify and a number of other all-you-can-listen-to music streaming services then arrived on the scene, further disrupting the music industry. There was a time when I insisted on owning my music, not renting it. I guess I've evolved though since I can't tell you the last time I bought a track but I know I've listened to Spotify several times in the past week. Advantage, bundled content...or is that just a new, even more liberating way to enjoy a la carte music?
Let's shift the focus to books. Many publishers, myself included, made the mistake of thinking books are like music and we should make them available by the chapter. Oops. That hasn't worked yet and I'm not sure it ever will. It's more accurate for me to say that I don't think it will ever work on a wide variety of genres; some, like cookbooks, lend themselves to it, but the typical book doesn't. Looks like bundled content wins here.
A more appropriate example in the book world would be one of the many all-you-can-read ebook subscription services. They've been moderately successful so far and I think there's a great deal of genre-specific upside here (e.g., broad ebooks subscriptions for sports, history, etc.) Again, bundled content looks like a winner.
How about shorter-form written content, like newspapers and magazines? Up to now we've been forced to subscribe to the whole paper or issue. Publishers haven't been willing to let us pick and choose the topics, writers, etc., that we want. I think that will change in the not-too-distant future. I'd love to be able to select my favorite columnists, sports, locations, etc., and create my own custom product. In this space, bundling is the only option today but a la carte looks very promising.
I mention all this because of an article I read recently about how cable TV's pricing model is supposedly unfair. The article's author notes we're forced to pay for a lot of channels we never watch. True, but what happens when that content is unbundled? If ESPN costs every cable customer $5/month does it really remain $5/month if only half the households in an a la carte world sign up for it? Highly unlikely. So in many respects, non-sports fans are helping subsidize my ESPN habit while I'm helping subsidize their Travel and Lifetime channel habits.
You don't have to look any further than Comcast's "triple play" model to see how bundles are often a better financial option than a la carte services.
My point here is that bundling and a la carte shouldn't be considered mutually exclusive. We've seen some areas where both work well while other segments tend to favor one over the other. So why not offer both and let the customer decide? But as a consumer, don't fall into the trap the author of that cable TV pricing article did and assume that adding one magically leads to lower prices.
I'm convinced "the discovery issue" is an imaginary problem that only exists in the minds of publishers. Consumers generally don't care. When was the last time you worried about finding the next thing to read? That's rarely a concern because we're all drowning in content options. The same is true for most consumers.
Consumers don't fret about finding something new; I believe they're more concerned with staying ahead of the content onslaught and making sure they're reading the best content. That's a problem discovery doesn't solve.
At some point we'll experience a completely new content consumption model. Sure, you'll still be able to buy a magazine, a newspaper, an ebook, read a blog post, etc. But rather than sinking in the ever rising sea of content, we'll have the equivalent of a content concierge to help us navigate.
Computers are supposed to make our lives simpler, not more complicated, right? That's what some have led us to believe, but it's definitely not the case with content. The web, self-publishing and countless other innovations have only made it more challenging to focus our limited time on the content that's most valuable.
This is one of the reasons I love the magazine called The Week. You could spend seven straight days under a rock with no access to any type of media, but if you read the latest edition of The Week when you resurface you'll quickly catch up. The Week provides the highlights from the news sources their editors feel are most important. It doesn't lean left or right, pro or con on an issue; it generally provides both sides. We need more services like The Week.
You could argue services like this already exist. I don't think they're as complete and extensive as they'll be in the future though. Think about the topic of sports. ESPN does a phenomenal job providing news and opinions on all sports. They provide that content in articles, video, podcasts, emails, etc. What they don't offer though, are all the great opinions and content found in Sports Illustrated.
As broad as the ESPN franchise is, it focuses on ESPN content. Consumers don't want "either/or", they want "and". In this case, I want ESPN and Sports Illustrated. But I don't want everything simply dumped on me. I want it delivered like The Week does it; I want a content concierge who spends all their time reading everything and making suggestions, just like the hotel concierge does with local restaurants and attractions.
What we have today are the "print under glass", quick-and-dirty, p-to-e conversions we call ebooks. Similarly, we have digital reproductions of newspapers and magazines. It's the low-hanging fruit of the digital content world. We're even proud of the fact that the digital user interface is so similar to the print interface, as if anything different would be too hard for consumers to figure out. (Yes, I'm talking about you, curling digital page corners.)
If today's publishing industry had invented the automobile I'm quite certain we'd have reigns and stirrups, not a steering wheel and gas/brake pedals. (Here's a Tumblr page waiting to be created by someone: Call it, "If the publishing industry invented X", where "X" is any modern appliance, service, etc., that we can't live without. All the posts would show how the publishing industry applied yesterday's thinking to tomorrow's invention.) :-)
Rather than solving the imaginary discovery problem I think it's time to invest resources in how content will be consumed in the future. The content concierge doesn't have to be a person, btw. Some of this can be automated, or "computerized", as a former boss of mine used to say. It's not just about content selection though. The model of how the content is distributed and paid for needs to radically change as well.
That may not sit well with some publishers. Then again, I'm sure there were quite a few blacksmiths in the early 1900's who weren't too keen on the emergence of the combustion engine.
BusinessWeek is all hyped up about a new service they're offering print subscribers. It's called "expedited morning delivery." I first heard about it a couple of issues ago and didn't think much about it. Then when I went out to grab the morning paper late last week I found my next issue of BusinessWeek in with the paper. Here's what the BusinessWeek cover says:
We are pleased to announce that your magazine will now be hand delivered to your residence in the morning 1-2 days prior to when you previously received it.
My bubble thought: "how much money are they wasting on this meaningless initiative?" After all, if I'm really that anxious to get my hands on the next issue I'll simply go to the free digital version they include with my print subscription. The simple truth is I generally don't read BusinessWeek (or any other print magazine, for that matter) till a few days or so after it's arrived. I wonder how many other subscribers are like me and this does absolutely nothing for them.
Ironically, BusinessWeek's expedited delivery service comes in the same month that my print subscription expires...and I have no plans to renew. I love the magazine so why am I letting my subscription lapse? Two words: Next Issue. If you're not familiar with it, Next Issue is an all-you-can-read digital magazine subscription service that can't be beat. I've been a subscriber for a few months now and they're always adding new magazines to the list. BusinessWeek was recently added, so I see no reason to pay for a separate print subscription when I can access the same content via Next Issue. It's not cheap ($14.99/month) but it's well worth it, particularly since it allows me to cancel a few print magazine subscriptions.
There are two other great features of Next Issue that really appeal to me. First, I can share my subscription with my wife. We both like different magazines but we're covered under one subscription. She's got an iPad mini and I use an Android tablet; the user experience is the same across both platforms. Second, Next Issue promotes discovery. I'm reading a couple of magazines I never would have bothered to buy on their own. But since they're part of my existing subscription I'm reading them from time to time and extending their advertising reach.
So now I listen to most of my music via streaming services (primarily Spotify) and I get most of my magazine content from Next Issue. It won't be long before we'll see the same phenomenon with ebooks. For now, though, I'm still buying individual ebooks and waiting for a Next Issue-like service that meets my needs for longer-form content.
P.S. -- This BusinessWeek initiative reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quote:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
It seems BusinessWeek is actually trying to create faster horses. Silly idea.
I spent the last six weeks taking on some consulting projects and exploring full-time job opportunities. I've had the luxury of being very selective on both, but especially on the latter. My primary goal has been to find a role where I can have a significant impact on the organization's future. Culture is critical as well, of course; I've been looking for a team that's passionate about the business and where everyone is rallying around a common goal. Lastly, I made it clear I need to stay in Indiana, even if that means I'm on the road a lot.
I'm delighted to let you know that I've found the ideal solution that addresses all these objectives. On June 20th I'm officially joining the team at Olive Software. If you're not familiar with Olive it's probably because they only recently started expanding into the book publishing and eLearning space. Olive specializes in creating a digital presence for publishers and content owners. And although the organization is currently thriving, that's not where the Olive opportunity ends.
I spent time in Olive's Aurora office last week and came away thoroughly energized. I wanted to dive in and become a contributor to this team right then and there. I met several Olive employees throughout the day and each one of them left me with the same impression: they all love what they're doing, they deeply respect what their colleagues bring to the table and they're all enthusiastic about the future of the organization. What more could I ask for? :-)
I've got a few days to decompress a bit before I fully immerse myself in my new role at Olive next week. I can't tell you the last time I was this excited about a new job. Part of it has to do with the fact I'm stepping outside of the book publishing industry for the first time in many years. But as Kat Meyer and I realized long ago, the challenges that exist in book publishing are similar to the ones faced in other content creation and distribution industries; the length of the work and the frequency of publication doesn't really distinguish content as much in the digital model as it did in the print model.
Thanks to everyone who brought me on board for consulting work and to discuss full-time opportunities. These past six weeks have been a new experience for me and I've learned at least one very important lesson: Even though the traditional publishing industry is rapidly shrinking and the job openings are limited, there are plenty of interesting opportunities in adjacent businesses, particlarly with organizations that truly understand digital and aren't paralyzed by The Innovator's Dilemma.
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.
None of the Big Six are all that interested in creating their own direct channel. They usually say “we already have retail partners…we don’t know how to sell direct and we don’t care to learn.” That’s all true but the real reason they won’t do it, and wouldn’t be successful if they did right now, is because none of them are household brand names.