Anticipating change in the myopic publishing industry

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

Let me provide a few examples…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lifelong learning looms large

You’re probably familiar with Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles every couple of years. I think there should be a similar law for the amount of information and expertise most workers have to acquire in each generation.

In my own career I’ve had to invest a lot of time keeping up on technology, business trends, etc. My generation has faced a bigger challenge with this than my parents’ generation faced. But the hill I’ve climbed, and continue to climb, is nothing compared to what my children and their generation will have to deal with throughout their careers.

Technology is largely to blame, or thank, depending on your point of view. But there’s simply no mistaking the fact that each successive generation will have to embrace lifelong learning more than the generations that preceded them.

This represents an enormous opportunity in the content creation and distribution space. Being a lifelong learner today means you’re staying up-to-date in a variety of ways. Most of that is likely self-paced and informally structured. I see that changing dramatically in the future. 

There’s no single leading brand or platform for lifelong learning but that will change. Think corporate continuing education, catering to individuals and organizations alike. Certifications will become more meaningful and extend well beyond the ones that are mostly limited to IT professionals today.

All of this will be built around a solid foundation of content. How-to and training content for every type of job will become even more valuable than it is today. But where will that content come from? Startups will provide some of it, as will those existing publishers and content creators who are willing to move beyond today’s container-based model…and that’s the key. 

If you’re in the business of publishing books, newspapers or magazines and you’re wedded to a particular container model you’ll miss out. The successful publishers will be the ones who are willing to think outside their current container(s), granulize and tag their content for reuse and offer it in new streams and formats.

As I’ve said before, containers are slowly fading away and they’ll be less important in the future. Now is the time for publishers to plan, acquire, develop and manage their content for the container-less opportunities, like the lifelong learning boom, that are just around the corner.


Evernote as a content distribution channel

I’m addicted to Evernote. I use it throughout the day to capture my meeting notes and other thoughts. I was recently joking with a fellow Evernote user and colleague about how the tool makes us smarter and dumber; smarter because we now have a record of everything but dumber because that record lives on a device, not in our heads. 

Evernote is an interesting platform to study from a content distribution point of view. There are plenty of users like me who rely on Evernote and interact with the tool a dozen or more times every day. Evernote realizes that and they’re creating an entirely new content discovery ecosystem to make the tool even more useful.

I’m talking about the Context service Evernote added to their Premium version. Buried deep in that announcement is a note about how Context integrates The Wall Street Journal with your notes. It’s a brilliant idea and a content discovery and reuse pattern we’ll see much more of in the future.

Let’s say you’re prospecting for new customers and doing some homework prepping for a meeting with one of them tomorrow. We’ll call them XYZ Corp. You do Google searches, review the XYZ Corp’s website and research new XYZ Corp. contacts on LinkedIn. As you’re doing this you’re gathering details and placing them in Evernote as a cheat sheet for tomorrow’s meeting. Evernote Premium now sees that you’re recording information about XYZ Corp. and pulls up relevant articles about them from The Wall Street Journal; all this takes place within Evernote turning the tool into a new content discovery and consumption resource.

This isn’t rocket science and it’s not anything new. Google’s Gmail scans your inbox and has been serving up related ads for years. But now we’re seeing tools like Evernote take it to a new level: Rather than simply serving links to random sites, Evernote feeds users content from a highly trusted source and brand, The Wall Street Journal.

The key, of course, is to serve this content in an unobtrusive manner. Evernote is a productivity tool and the last thing I want is to be faced with a bunch of popups and annoying interruptions, forcing me to click close buttons so I can focus on the work at hand. Privacy advocates will once again freak out, but over time they too will realize there are benefits to services like this.

This is just the start. Look for tools like Evernote to add more content streams to their Premium version; maybe they’ll even have vertical editions of the tool (e.g., Evernote for Investors, Evernote for Marketers, etc.). Publishers should jump at the opportunity to participate because it extends their reach and helps keep their brands in front of readers, both old and new.


Unlocking the hidden value of archives

The cost of scanning, converting and digitizing content seems to decline every year. As a result, we’re seeing all sorts of print archives being converted to digital products. The problem is that too many publishers are applying the “if you build it, they will come” approach to these archives.

Simply creating the digital archive might be good enough for a small market of professional researchers, but it will never attract the larger consumer audience; flipping virtually flipping through stacks of old content loses its appeal fairly quickly.

Curation is the important step required to make these archives interesting to the largest potential audience. It’s all about the many stories the archive content has to tell. Some of these stories will be interesting to one audience while another story appeals to other segments.

Let me give you a couple of examples. I grew up in Pittsburgh during the years when the Steelers and the Pirates were dominant teams in football and baseball, respectively. The Pirates last won the World Series in 1979 and the local papers featured coverage of every game in the regular season and postseason. I’d love to read the story of the season from spring training through the final game of the World Series.

Roberto Clemente was one of my childhood heroes. He played for the Pirates from 1955 through 1972 and was killed in a plane crash on December 31, 1972. The local papers had hundreds of pages of content about Clemente and his career between 1955 and early 1973. I’ve read a few books that were written long after his death and while they were generally quite good they’re not the same as reading the articles that were written as his career unfolded.

That’s an important point. Plenty of books have been written about historical events, global leaders, celebrities, etc. No matter how much research is done by the authors on those topics, there’s nothing that compares to reading the articles that were written when those events took place, when those leaders took action or when those celebrities did whatever celebrities do.

The curation opportunity exists in at least two formats. The first format is the collection. This is where the curator collects the relevant pieces of content and stitches them together to tell the story. The results can be put in front of the paywall to attract eyeballs or maybe serve as a teaser for a paid product. They can also be placed behind the paywall as part of a premium subscription option or as a separate paid product.

The other format involves ebooks. Those collections can be quickly converted into the popular formats and placed in ebook distribution channels. This represents a completely new distribution model for some publishers (e.g., newspapers and magazines); it’s an incremental revenue opportunity of remixed content for those already participating in the ebook channel.

One of the concerns I hear from publishers is that they simply don’t have the resources for curation. Their teams are already stretched too thin and they can’t justify adding to staff.

I have one word for publishers in that situation: crowdsourcing. Think of your most active users, fans, readers and subscribers. How many of them might want to help curate your content to create new products? Also, can you use the Wikipedia model, where the crowdsourcing work happens for free? If not, can you create an affiliate program for curators to earn some income from their efforts?

Finally, think outside the box and don’t limit yourself to just one type of content. For example, one of my favorite books is FDR, by Jean Edward Smith.  The author meticulously researched Roosevelt and provided an amazing story of his life.

But what if the ebook edition provided access to the newspaper accounts of the most noteworthy decisions Roosevelt made in his life? It would have been wonderful to veer away from the book every so often and read the accounts of the events that were written when they actually took place, from the point of view of the journalists in the midst of it all.

A hybrid product like this represents a new opportunity for book publishers and newspaper publishers. Properly curated, this sort of product could easily command a much higher price than the traditional ebook on its own. I’d like to see book publishers venture out of their comfort zone and start exploring new concepts like this. It’s a terrific way to unlock the hidden value of archives and give consumers more of what they want to read.


Disney shows how to tear down walled gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ebook subscription services as publisher affiliates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


How to convert indirect customers into direct customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Content reuse: Five key questions to consider

In the print-only days, once content was published it was rarely considered for reuse. Sure, there were the occasional “greatest hits” or “all-in-one” products, but for the most part the original content was published and forgotten about.

In the digital era it’s a lot easier to redeploy content and drive more visibility and revenue with it. Every piece of content doesn’t lend itself to reuse, of course, and there are several factors to consider before launching a reuse campaign. Here are five questions that can help you formulate a content reuse strategy:

How much reuse value does your content represent?

You need to start with an honest assessment. Don’t just assume you can remix and suddenly create a significant new revenue stream. If your content is time-sensitive it probably has a shelf life that doesn’t lend itself to redeploying today’s content tomorrow. On the other hand, evergreen content is ripe for redeployment and probably an under-leveraged asset in your organization.

What are the products and channels for your redeployed content?

Related to the first question, you also need to think about the specific products and channels you can target for your redeployed content. Focus primarily on new channels these products might enable you to enter. After all, if you’re just pushing a remix into existing channels you’re likely to cannibalize your current products.

Was your content written with reuse in mind?

This is a question most publishers overlook. Since the original product wasn’t developed for potential reuse, publishers are forced to retrofit that content for redeployment. That requires more resources (and expense) than a model where the content was originally written with reuse in mind. Think about how granular and modular your content is, how easily it can be pulled apart and reassembled, like Lego blocks. Btw, if your current editorial model wasn’t built for reuse, how can you modify it to better prep today’s incoming content for reuse tomorrow?

How “reuse-accessible” is your content?

It doesn’t matter how much your content could be reused if it’s not managed in a way that easily enables reuse. Even granular content is sometimes preserved in a manner that doesn’t let a curator go back in and easily extract just the pieces they want. So the tools you have access to as well as the format the content is saved in will have a significant impact on how easily you’ll be able to redeploy it.

Is your goal to reach new customers or simply drive more revenue from your existing customers?

A lot of publishers try to fool themselves on the answer to this one. They think they’ll magically reach new customers with a reuse model when all they end up doing is trying to sell a slightly different version of the same product to existing customers. This is probably the #1 reason for content reuse failure. As noted earlier, the more a reuse campaign can open doors to new channels, potentially reaching new customers, the greater the likelihood of success.

We’ve been thinking a lot about content reuse at Olive Software. In fact, we’re about to release a reuse tool that enables our publishers to do some very cool things with their content. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks…


The marketing tool every publisher undervalues

Why are publishers so scared of free and sample content? Sure, most publishers offer at least one way to test drive their content but they could be doing so much more. I think free/sample content is the single most under-utilized customer acquisition tool out there. Here’s why…

Have you noticed that most newspapers and magazines don’t offer a free e-trial. Or if they do, they bury it on their site. Most of these publishers have always offered free trials of their print product, but free e-trials are almost unheard of. If they’re concerned about chronic freeloaders, why not just give the first few pages of the replica editions?

Even the stingiest publishers let you sample a few articles on their website. I’m sure they figure they’ll at least monetize the ad impressions during that sample period but the same philosophy apparently doesn’t hold up for replica edition sampling. Even if they can’t count those replica edition sampler impressions, why not mix in some interstitial ads between pages for samplers, thereby creating an entirely new revenue stream?

Btw, Amazon, the undisputed king of data and customer acquisition, understands the value of free and sample content; that’s why they typically offer two-week test-drives for newspapers and magazines. Why aren’t publishers following Amazon’s lead? Don’t forget the benefit of gathering prospective new customer names and email addresses; these readers may not opt in immediately but you’ll have a link to market to them in the future.

Then there’s the opportunity for book publishers… Why aren’t they creating super-sized samples available exclusively on their websites? The book samples available on the major retailer sites are generally the same ones publishers offer on their own sites. That’s a huge missed opportunity to establish a direct relationship with those customers.

I realize plenty of book publishers feel it’s hopeless creating a direct-to-consumer channel. They’re clearly not trying very hard though. Here’s another tip: The first thing a reader should see when they open your ebook is a note from the publisher thanking them for their purchase and a link to your site where they’ll find these exclusive, super-sized samples I’m talking about. They should include this messaging in all copies, including the ones sold by retailers. That’s right…use the retailer channels to build your direct channel.

Lastly, how easy are you making it for readers to share that free sample with others? Most publishers put their sample content under lock and key, missing out on the opportunity for pass-along to family and friends of those reading the samples.

Publishers, it’s time to re-think your free/sample content strategy. Learn a lesson from Amazon and start fully leveraging all that terrific content you have to share.