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.

Debunking the discovery problem

Ever since ebooks gained traction the publishing industry has obsessed with what’s typically referred to as “the discovery problem.” The common wisdom is that discovery of the content will lead to fame and fortune.

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.

I believe digital content’s main challenge is more about efficiency, less about discovery, and my inspiration for this point of view comes from a totally unrelated business: the coffee industry.

A recent Businessweek article noted that single-serve pods (e.g., Keurig) have eliminated coffee’s biggest consumer: the kitchen sink. (Btw, Businessweek apparently doesn’t worry about content discovery as that article can’t be found on their website; it’s only in the print edition but I found a related version of it here.)

It turns out that with Mr. Coffee and other drip systems a great deal of product ends up going to waste. The net result is that as the single-serve devices gain momentum we’re creating a climate where total consumption is lower and excess inventories are leading to lower prices for coffee beans.

In short, the article notes that while Americans still drink a lot of coffee, they do it more efficiently. Each cup in the single-serve model is more expensive but in total we’re consuming and wasting far less coffee now.

What in the world does this have to do with digital content?

I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that we have an excessive amount digital content today. A great deal of it is being produced but in many cases nobody is reading it. This has led to an overabundance of free and cheap content which is being both professionally published as well as self-published.

Wasted coffee goes down the drain but wasted content simply goes unread. In some cases, hoarders like myself have moved the content from online to local devices, but much of that content is never actually consumed.

Here’s a parallel from yet another completely unrelated industry: service provider recommendations. My wife and I recently cancelled our Angie’s List subscription because we discovered the Nextdoor social network. As you may already know, Angie’s List is battling allegations of fraudulent and deceptive practices and its reviews are typically posted by complete strangers. Meanwhile, Nextdoor offers reviews and advice from people you know or could easily introduce yourself to: your next-door neighbors. I’ve found these local reviews on Nextdoor to be much more reliable. In fact, I’ve hired two service providers in the past week based on Nextdoor recommendations. Best of all, Nextdoor is totally free.

Compared to Angie’s List, Nextdoor feels like a more highly curated and relevant service. Discussions and recommendations come from people you might already know and everyone lives right there in your neighborhood. In fact, many of Nextdoor’s members are going through the same situations you are (e.g., hail storm, wind damage, down trees, etc.)

Nextdoor offers what I refer to as a better “content efficiency” experience than Angie’s List. It’s what I’m looking for and the content is presented when I need it.

Just as nobody walks into a bookstore asking for the latest book from Macmillan, nobody is sitting around saying, “gee, I wish I could discover more content.” What we really need is more efficient delivery of content that’s highly relevant to our specific needs and interests. 

We’ve mostly given up on RSS feeds and let’s face it…Twitter is yet another fire hose that’s next to impossible to effectively manage.

At some point content efficiency will improve. I’ve referred to this before as the need for a “content concierge”, resulting in much better recommendations, tailored content streams and, yes, it will come at a higher price, just like the single-serving coffee pods.

We may end up spending just as much time reading efficiently delivered content but it will be highly targeted and we’ll pay more for the privilege of others (human curators and well-tuned, automated algorithms) helping us find the precious needles in the overwhelming haystacks.

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.

Why Oyster now sells ebooks too

Oyster started as an all-you-can-read ebook subscription service but they recently decided to expand their reach by selling individual ebooks as well. There’s been plenty of speculation on why they made this move, including catching up to competitors like Scribd and Amazon. While the competitive point is valid, I think there are two more important reasons for this move: sustainability and customer loyalty.

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.

Regarding sustainability, Oyster’s business model is a tricky one. Even though Oyster only earns $9.95/month from a subscriber they’re undoubtedly paying publishers more than $9.95 each month for certain subscribers. It all depends on how many books that subscriber reads in the month.

A subscriber doesn’t have to read the entire book for a publisher payout to occur, by the way. Each publisher has negotiated a percentage threshold, so once a subscriber reads past that agreed-to point in the book Oyster pays the publisher as if the entire book was read. In short, some (and perhaps many) subscribers are triggering full publisher payouts for partially read books.

That sounds like a great way to build a large subscriber base but if you’re losing money on many of them it’s hard to make it up in volume. This is precisely why Oyster needed to diversify their business model. They already have the platform, the reading application and they’re building a nice brand. All they had to do was add the option to buy rather than subscribe. It’s also a smart way to add more recent and popular publications to their offering, which tends to be pretty shallow in many subject areas.

The other enormous challenge I see for these all-you-can-read subscriptions is customer loyalty. Since I never own the content I’m reading, and one service’s library starts to look same as all the others, there’s no reason for me to stick with any one provider. The service with the lowest price and other gimmicks eventually becomes the winner. That’s not exactly an attractive long-term strategy.

But if I’ve built a library of books I actually own on that platform it starts to look more like the walled garden Amazon built. Once you’ve bought a lot of Kindle editions it’s hard to think about moving to another ebook platform. That’s undoubtedly what Oyster hopes to do by adding the purchase option to their service.

Will it make a difference? Perhaps, but the biggest threat to Oyster and Scribd is, of course, Amazon. Fortunately for Oyster and Scribd, Amazon is now much more focused on drones all the other non-book consumer product areas. That’s enabled Oyster and Scribd to build some buzz and momentum. The problem is that if someone at Amazon decides to make subscriptions more of a priority both of these little guys are extremely vulnerable. It’s just too easy for consumers to switch to Amazon and gain all the other benefits an ebook-only service simply can’t offer.

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.

The evolution of ebook subscriptions

Today’s ebook subscription providers offer a nice value proposition for avid readers. It’s great that the all-you-can-read models from Oyster, Scribd and Kindle Unlimited provide consumers with something other than the print model where you buy one book at a time. Now the industry needs to think about how the subscription option can evolve further and enable even more interesting business models.

Think about books that tend to change frequently over time. Technology how-to guides and reference manuals are just a couple of examples. When I was a tech book publisher I often heard complaints from readers about how the book they bought last month is already obsolete. As the industry shifts from print to digital this is a great opportunity to create a one-book subscription: For $x/year the publisher offers to keep the digital edition up-to-date and the consumer is reassured they haven’t bought an obsolete product.

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.

Another approach is to look at small libraries of highly focused content. One of the things you’ll quickly discover with each of the current all-you-can-read models is that their depth on a particular topic is pretty limited. For example, as a baseball fan I can tell you that Oyster’s sports library is pretty shallow. The problem becomes even more noticeable this time of year when publishers are releasing a bunch of new titles for opening day; you typically don’t find many new releases in the ebook subscription programs.

Rather than leaving new titles out, why not feature them in a mini-all-you-can-read library for a topic like baseball? If one publisher has the title depth they could do this on their own. Most topics would benefit from a multi-publisher solution though. In that case, a provider like Oyster could offer this as an add-on to their current $9.99/month model. I would gladly pay an additional $5/month for access to newer releases of baseball books in my Oyster subscription. For those of you concerned that the monthly price is too high, think about what other add-ons could be featured in a program like this; once you know the subscriber’s preferences (e.g., baseball fan), it’s not too hard to come up with other digital goodies you could include to make the deal even more compelling.

Will the book publishing industry simply settle for the basic ebook subscription model we see today? That’s highly likely given the industry’s aversion to risk. It took the combined efforts of two startups, Oyster and Scribd, to get the publishers this far in embracing the subscription model. Let’s hope another startup comes along to take the model even further.

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. 

Content, technology and the digital scrapbook of your life

Every year it seems our cell phones take on new roles in our lives. Long ago flip phones merely enabled you to make calls. Today’s smartphones are loaded with sensors to do everything from track your health to tell you about a sale at a local store.

I think it’s time for our phones to do even more and this involves the convergence of content and technology to automatically create the digital story of your life.

Imagine an app that constantly monitors your phone’s location to do the following:

  • Log where you were today and make assumptions about what you did in each location,
  • Gather and organize content relevant to where you’ve been,
  • Build it all into a living, growing record that you can edit and share with others.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Now let’s think about the results of this.

One day you went to see the Reds play the Pirates in Pittsburgh at PNC Park. The app logs the event and pulls in the box score along with a couple of noteworthy articles about the game from the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh newspapers. It also saves the weather information (e.g., “partly cloudy, 61 degrees at first pitch with a high of 68 degrees”) and provides interesting factoids about what happened in sports on that same day 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc.

On another day you attend your child’s college graduation ceremony. The app checks the school’s calendar and determines you were indeed at the ceremony. This information is logged and because the school was kind enough to expose the graduation program to the app, it too has now been digitally preserved in your stream.

By the way, this imaginary app also offers a user network. So it knows that you went with a friend to that baseball game, and your friend is part of the app’s network. This tidbit is also preserved along with all the great pictures you both took at the stadium. No longer do you have to worry about uploading or emailing photos; your app settings were already configured for two-way sharing between you and the friend who accompanied you at the game. The same goes for the graduation ceremony; now all your friends and family who are members of this service all have access to each other’s pictures.

We could, of course, extend this even further… If you ordered food at that baseball game the information could be logged so you could easily track your diet. In short, any transaction that takes place on your phone could be wired into this app as well. Those transactions that aren’t made with your phone could still be easily integrated: just take pictures of the receipt and the phone does the rest.

The app’s goal is to provide every user with a digital scrapbook of their life. The key is to automate as much of this process as possible. Let your phone and the app figure out what to collect and you can always go in and tweak it later if you want.

There’s also an enormous content opportunity here. I mentioned how the app pulls in content from newspapers but, of course, the feeds could come from anywhere. Ultimately this is a way to redeploy content based on context and preserve it for years and years. After all, one of the reasons you want to gather this information is to remember and relive the events of last week or last year. It’s also an interesting way to build the story of your life, one that can be passed on from one generation to the next. I’d love to have this kind of information about my parents and grandparents, for example.

A variety of business models could be used here including free, advertising/sponsor-based and premium. and other genealogy services have proven the interest we have in our past. People spend hours and hours sifting through all that historical data, making assumptions about family connections, how people met, etc. An app like this eliminates the guesswork and tells the life story you want to communicate with your friends and future generations.

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.

Finding the optimal streaming content value proposition

Have you paid much attention to the various pricing options used in the streaming content space? A recent article on re/code talks about the challenges the music industry faces as it wrestles with free, ad-subsidized streaming services. In short, the article says free is bad and paid is good. I’d add that’s true for everyone but the consumer, of course.

The problem isn’t perhaps so much about making free go away but rather making the paid options much more compelling.

For example, I’m a big fan of Spotify. At first I just used the free, ad-based version and created a bunch of playlists. The ads didn’t seem too intrusive but when I saw the opportunity to try a three-month, 99-cent trial of the paid version I couldn’t resist. For less than a dollar I could eliminate the ads and download as much music as I want to each of my devices.

I use Spotify much more frequently now but the three-month trial is about to end. Am I so hooked on the Spotify Premium that I’m ready to fork over $9.99 per month going forward?

No way.

Even though $9.99 sounds like a bargain that’s still about $120 per year, much more than I’m willing to spend for the service. Spotify would have better luck converting a freeloader like me if they offered something in between. For example, I’d sign up for $2.99/month for an ad-free version with no download capability. And I’d consider signing up for $4.99/month for downloads and no ads. They’ll probably never see another nickel from me as long as the options are limited to free and $9.99 though.

Spotify’s problem is the free version is just too darned good, at least for me.

This challenge isn’t limited to the music world though. My wife and I share a Premium subscription to Next Issue, the all-you-can-read digital magazine service. We pay $14.99/month for unlimited access to more than 140 magazines. At first it seemed like a great deal but I’m opening the app less frequently every month and $180/year is starting to feel quite expensive. The other challenge here is that with the right combination of bookmarks, alerts, newsletter subscriptions and RSS feeds, it’s possible to gain free access to most of the content I’m paying for via Next Issue. As a result, our Next Issue subscription is likely to end soon.

Let’s compare that to Oyster, the all-you-can-read ebook service. Once again, my wife and I share a $9.95 subscription and we couldn’t be happier. I’d probably be willing to pay even more than that and I figure the price will go up before too long because Oyster’s business model isn’t sustainable at $9.95/month. But there’s no legal free alternative to this ebook content, so Oyster has much more leverage than Next Issue when it comes to the threat of “free” cannibalizing “paid.”

If you’re thinking of jumping into the streaming content marketplace, be sure to study the results of comparable existing products and make sure your free option isn’t so good that most consumers will never consider upgrading.