The short-form content resurgence

Statistics-76198_1920I remember the first time I heard the phrase “info snacking” back in 2007. It was when the Kindle launched and Jeff Bezos said his newfangled device would slow the info snacking trend and enable deeper engagement with content.

The Kindle platform certainly launched the ebook revolution but it’s interesting that it didn’t halt short-form content momentum. In fact, I’d argue that info snacking is more popular than ever before and, ironically, that popularity is largely driven by Bezos’ own company, Amazon.

Remember the late 1990’s when it seemed like publishers could generate digital income by selling individual book chapters? Once upon a time I too thought that might be a viable model but in hindsight it’s clear books and chapters can’t be treated like albums and songs. Most books are written so that the individual chapters are too reliant on each other, thereby making them far less valuable individually.

We need to think about taking things in the opposite direction. Rather than tearing apart a book and trying to sell individual chapters, content needs to be developed in short, granular formats so that each piece can be sold on its own and can be remixed with other granular pieces. And while this is mostly true for non-fiction I can see where it also has potential for some fiction works as well.

Short-form content success is all around us. Amazon launched Kindle Singles several years ago and the program has grown to more than 2,000 titles today. A few days ago they announced a program called Singles Classics where they’re breathing new life into older short-form evergreen content from the pre-digital era. And earlier this month they launched a short-form initiative within one of their audio subsidiaries called Audible Channels.

All of this simply reflects the fact that we’re all pressed for time but we still want to consume content. Sure, there’s nothing quite like fully immersing yourself in a long book written by a wonderful storyteller. But these short-form services are simply addressing our craving to be hyper-efficient, aware of the latest trends in our jobs/careers and always up-to-the-date on worldly news.

The movement isn’t going away, so what is your organization doing to address it? As you think about that question be careful to look beyond written content. I finally decided to buy one of those Amazon Tap devices and it’s only reinforced my earlier belief that voice UI’s and audio content consumption will be important models in the future.

Agile publishing: Creating better books through transparency

MCTrade book publishing is not a complicated process. Publishers acquire the rights to publish new titles primarily through relationships with agents. Once the agreement has been signed, the process from manuscript to shipping is fairly predictable and more or less linear:

Acquisition => Manuscript => Editing => Prepress => Production => Marketing => Sales

Each step of this process can be clearly identified by the associated teams who work on each step (e.g., Editorial, Design, Marketing and Sales teams). This siloed approach to publishing has, for the most part, worked for more than a century, helping publishers effectively deliver a finished book to the marketplace within a reasonably well-projected window of time based on their capacities.

The problem with this approach is that while it focuses on the activity of bringing a group of titles to market, it neglects how publishers might improve their products through a more collaborative and transparent approach.

This is where I believe agile thinking can help.

What is agile?

Beyond the standard definition, in the software development space agile is known as a set of principles related to how projects and teams operate in producing “potentially shippable increments” to market.

You may be thinking “How could publishers benefit from agile, when their goal is usually to deliver a single, finished product to the marketplace instead of software that is released in continuous versions over time?” It’s a good question, so let’s consider how three specific agile practices within the Scrum framework could better help publishers to deliver higher quality new titles to market with each release cycle, known as a span, resulting in better per-title performance and quality as well as more collaborative cross-departmental teams.


One method for managing development throughput in software is know as Scrum. The term Scrum is taken from the game of Rugby (scrummage) when play is resumed after a stoppage. In technology, Scrum is best thought of as a framework for defining and prioritizing a set of tasks for small specialized teams to work on in intensive work sessions known as “sprints.” Sprints typically last two to four weeks in duration and are highly focused on accomplishing a prioritized set of tasks (the backlog) decided upon by the Scrum team at the Product Owner’s direction at the beginning of the sprint during a dedicated planning session.

It’s in this initial session when the team decides, based on their technical understanding of the requirements for a set of tasks, an estimation of how much time will be necessary to complete a particular sprint. If the estimation exceeds more than a few weeks, then the work may need to span more than one sprint. Completion of a sprint must always result in a “potentially shippable increment” of working software. The following three practices are a part of all successful Scrum teams’ workflows and if implemented within publishing teams, I believe they will also result in a similar outcome: a high quality “shippable” product and improved team dynamics based on a high level of transparency and communication.


Estimation is admittedly a guessing game, hence the name. However, a good scrum master (in the case of publishing this would be the Managing Editor) will rely upon daily Scrums and retrospectives (more on those in a minute) and reporting to help better estimate toward the future. One such report, known as the burn down chart, tracks the estimated amount of time needed to complete the work at the beginning of the sprint on the x-axis and then projects a downward line as work is completed throughout the sprint, with the line ideally resolving at zero on the y-axis at the end of the sprint.

This chart is the tool by which a team’s ability to estimate is measured. With this information gathered and analyzed over time a good Product Owner (think: publisher) will be able to better forecast the necessary investments to complete versions, or titles, in order to meet the goals for the overall business.

In my experience working on and with publishing teams, the process of estimation is, for the most part, one that relies strictly on financial forecasting at the acquisition phase instead of incremental evaluation and adaptation in the way that Scrum does. At the beginning of a book’s life cycle the “Pub Board” as it is affectionately termed, performs a financial estimation plugging in numbers such as cost of goods, marketing, advance and ongoing royalty percentages as well as other line items along with a “guesstimate” of first year sales and a unit projection for a set number of years beyond that know only as “lifetime” or “balance.”

The cost side of this process is typically estimated based on actual historical figures as publishers typically have a good handle on printing, obsolescence, freight and other expenses. However, the guessing game around how many units a title will sell is always  just that. And in that way, publishers typically don’t employ the same decision making process as software teams when making decisions about future releases. Sure, many publishers employ the use of report cards that track projected vs. actual numbers, however this data seldom makes its way back to the acquisitions team in future rounds of projections. Instead, teams typically look on these numbers strictly as an indicator of past performance.

Overall, the evaluation of a span’s performance is primarily sales oriented and after the fact. Seldom do publishers take the time to consider the effect the publishing process, including the teams involved, have on a book’s ultimate performance.

How it’s done

By employing agile estimations in publishing, the Publisher and Managing Editor should gather all teams together at the beginning of a cycle/span to go through each release in detail, outlining the requirements. This meeting will take a number of hours to complete, planning at least an hour for every three titles in a span. During this meeting, the Publisher will detail the overall goal for each title, including its hook, target audience and projected sales volume. The managing editor will then go through the logistics and technical aspects of the book: timeframes, trim size, binding, etc. This process will give each specialized team an opportunity to ask any questions relative to their work as well as giving everyone an overall understanding of the role they play in the books success or failure.

Finally, all teams must agree to what success looks like for a finished span. This must be stated up front in order that the process and products can be evaluated at the end in order maintain continuous improvement.

By investing this time up front, publishers will see teams that are more personally invested in the overall success of a span and also take in qualitative feedback from team members that will help to better inform the process, including which books they acquire, in the future.

Daily scrums/standups

Publishing teams are notoriously siloed. This isolationist mentality has, quite frankly, gotten a bad rap. I, for one, am a firm believer in silos. As you can tell from the agile definition above, specialized teams are a prerequisite for agile methods to work, and in that way publishing closely mirrors software development. The problem most people often have with silos in publishing organizations is the all too familiar lack of communication that exists between teams when a project is deep inside of another team’s process. This is where the idea for “standups” comes in.

In agile organizations, teams working in the Scrum framework meet daily for fifteen minutes to discuss what each member of the team is committing to for that day. In publishing, those who would be mandatory at this meeting would be all team members responsible for a title or group of titles and it would be up to the managing editor to facilitate these meetings as a servant leader. This meeting is not a check-in to make sure folks are doing their jobs. Instead this meeting consists of three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday to help us meet the goal for this span?
  2. What will you do today to help us meet the goal for this span?
  3. What impediments are standing in your way from helping to meet the goal for this span?

This process serves to clearly communicate how much work has been done and how much work remains. It also helps everyone to clearly understand any impediments that are stalling progress, which will have impacts further down the pipeline. It is then the managing editor’s job to work on removing the blockers so that work can continue.

This practice of daily standup meetings will further enhance communication within silos as well as bring transparency to a book’s development and help to alleviate any frustration before it begins for those further down the line.

Reviews and retrospectives

A sprint review is conducted at the end of a sprint and it involves not only the Scrum team (in this case the Publisher, Managing Editor and teams responsible for doing the work) but also any other stakeholders such as Marketing, Sales and other Executives who are invested in that span’s goals and performance.

A retrospective gives the Scrum team involved an opportunity to unpack what happened during the previous release cycle or sprint. In publishing, this is a process that should take place for the entire publishing team responsible for the work involved in producing a span’s titles. The purpose for a retrospective is to understand not only what happened, but how can we learn from it and make improvements going forward. This includes not only evaluating the products that were created, but also the processes used.

As in all things agile, this meeting is democratic and the team as a whole decides together how the meetings should be conducted. Of course, it is of paramount importance that trust be fostered in these meetings, so this is an opportunity for everyone to be reminded by the Managing Editor that we were all rowing toward the same finish line and everyone did the best job that they could. This should be laid out up front, which will ensure that no one casts aspersions at any other team member and everyone stays focused on the objective, which is to learn and improve both product and process.

Wash, rinse, repeat

Once you’ve implemented these agile methods into your publishing operation and gone through a complete cycle you will be amazed at the amount of communication that goes on. Of course, in publishing if there is one thing we bemoan it is the number of random meetings we’re required to attend on a daily basis. By implementing agile methodologies, namely Scrum tactics into your systems, the need for ad hoc meetings should diminish as the communication lines will be far more open and frequent through a systematic approach.

Through repeated use of title span planning meetings, daily standup reviews and retrospectives, your entire publishing team will be in-tune to the goals and performance of not only the finished products but the process itself. This discipline will, by its very nature force you to see where improvements need to be made and with a savvy Managing Editor and Publisher duo you should begin to see continuous improvements in your team and your products’ performance.


One final tactical tip for you. To aid in the daily interoffice communication, I would recommend you consider eliminating email and move to some type of enterprise IM tool such as Slack or Hipchat. These tools will allow you to group interoffice discussions into themed conversations, providing needed visibility to other team members where email does not. There is still the necessary direct messaging built in to provide for private conversations, as well as the ability (in Slack at least) to quickly call someone or start a conference call in a channel (the technical name for a themed conversation). This tool has become critical in the teams I lead and I believe it could be a huge help to your team as well.

1 DISCLAIMER: It’s important to state right up front that these ideas are only pieces of the Scrum puzzle. True Scrum adheres to a whole host of rules and principles that when not executed entirely results in something less than Scrum. Because publishing houses typically work on spans over a period of a few months (spans), true Scrum is not an option. To that end, the following practices, while derived from the official Scrum GuideTM, do not comprise all of Scrum. For more information on all things Scrum, jump over to

This article was written by Michael Covington. With a unique background combining more than 10 years in bookselling, 10 years in publishing and presently serving as a product manager for Disciplr, Michael has a one-of-a-kind perspective on the intersection of books, publishing and technology. Michael and his family live in Colorado Springs, CO where he invests his "spare" time helping publishers solve old problems with new solutions through his consultancy, FuturePub.

Amazon extends their dominance with Audible Channels

Screenshot_20160709-140715 (1)Even though they’re gaining momentum I’ve never been a big fan of audio books. Amazon, of course, owns the market with both Audible and Brilliance. Although it didn’t receive a lot fanfare last week, Audible introduced one of the most interesting and long overdue services that I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m talking about Audible Channels and it takes short-form listening to an entirely new level. Some have mistakenly written Channels off as nothing more than a glorified podcasting option but it’s much more than that.

First of all, thanks to Channels I’m finally able to listen to periodicals. Popular brands like The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Bezos’ own Washington Post are just a few of the feed options. Rather than having to find the time to read a few newspaper articles each day I can quickly zip through them with the combination of phone+Bluetooth+car radio during my morning commute.

Isn’t it amazing that the newspaper industry never bothered to jump on the convenience and popularity of audio before now? Newspapers have been struggling for years with flat or declining subscription levels and now Amazon steps in to fill the audio void.

Next, taking a page out of the Netflix playbook, Channels also offers a growing number of original content feeds. Amazon, the king of data, is uniquely positioned to quickly determine which topics and genres will likely be most successful, so even though original content could be viewed as an expensive venture the risk is probably quite low. And hey, Amazon is never one to shy away from losing a lot of money, so this is a no-brainer for them.

Now let’s go back to the podcast topic for a moment. Yes, Channels offers access to many of the same podcasts you can get for free via iTunes and other services. So why pay for them via Channels? One word: curation.

Over the past six months I’ve immersed myself in the podcast arena, not as a creator but as a listener. I’ve spent countless times trying to find the next great podcast and it’s like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I’ve really only found three that I listen to on a regular basis but I’ve tried at least 30+ others along the way. Part of my exploration involved working my way top to bottom through the popular lists while others hit my radar through recommendations from similar feeds. I’m convinced that neither approach is optimal and that there’s a huge opportunity to dramatically improve the inefficient discovery experience here.

Channels promises a curation process powered by editors who handpick only the best of the best. Will it improve podcast discovery? Only time will tell, but it’s got to be better than the discovery options we’ve dealt with up to now.

All of this comes to you for the low, low price of $4.95 per month. If you’re already an Audible subscriber, typically paying $14.95 per month, you now have access to Channels for no additional charge. Btw, if you’re looking for that pricing info and a quick way to sign up, just go to this rather hard-to-find page.

Audible Channels isn’t just for consumers interested in short-form audio content. It’s also an important lesson for publishers of all types of written content. Amazon is 20+ years old and they’re still disrupting. If Channels is successful every periodical publisher will soon discover they’ll need to make their content available on it, producing yet another new chapter in the story of Amazon’s marketplace dominance.

Subscription options are pretty limited today but I can see a future where I’ll be able to subscribe to audio versions of the sports sections from all the papers I care about, for example. When that happens, don’t you think newspaper publishers will deeply regret the fact that they didn’t build this platform themselves?

Here’s what book publishers can learn from the podcast model

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 1.38.08 PMDid you make the same mistake I did and assume podcasts are yesterday’s platform, that interest in them has plateaued (at best) and they’re not worth thinking about today? If so, here’s a short article that might help you re-think your stance. If you’re still not convinced have a look at the infographic in this article, paying close attention to the chart showing how podcast listening is on the rise.

What seemed like a fad that’s dying off is actually showing nice growth. I’m contributing to that growth as I now listen to a variety of podcasts during my daily work commute. As I leverage this medium I’m realizing it offers some very important lessons for book publishers:

Simple, easy subscriptions – When I discover a new podcast I’m interested in I literally click once to subscribe and the content stream comes to me. What could be easier? More importantly, what’s the analogy in the book publishing world? How do I “subscribe” to an author, series or topic? We all have our favorite authors. Wouldn’t it be terrific if a single click could initiate a subscription to everything they write in the future? That includes having samples of their new books delivered automatically to your preferred reading app/device.

Steady rhythm – Your favorite podcasts are usually delivered on a predictable schedule. Some are daily while others are weekly. This rhythm leads to anticipation, knowing that today’s edition will be loaded on your device at the usual time. This is another concept that’s totally foreign to book publishers. Books are released according to seemingly random schedules and some publishers are still even locked into the old “season” model. If you’re going to enable readers to subscribe to an author or topic as described above, be sure to produce a steady, engaging stream of valuable content for your audience.

Discovery – This remains one of the hot topics, always on the minds of book publishers. If you’re focused on discovery think about this question: How well do each of your products enable discovery of your other, related products? Some publishers still rely on back-of-book ads, even in ebooks. How about automatically delivering other, related content to your audience? A good example is how NPR promotes new podcasts. Yes, they advertise by plugging new ones in old, established podcasts. But recently I noticed they took the bold step of automatically downloading the first segment of a new podcast onto my device. I don’t recall opting in to that and it might irritate anyone keeping a close eye on their data plans but it’s a novel concept. I wasn’t going to seek that new podcast out and now all I have to do is click “play” to try it out, yet another example of one-click access and engagement.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the podcast marketplace it’s time to take a closer look. Subscribe to two or three that look interesting and see what other lessons can be learned.

Here’s how Siri, Alexa and other IPAs will revolutionize publishing

Information-1183331_1280For the past several years I’ve been writing about how containers such as books, newspapers and magazines are slowly fading away. They’ll certainly be around for many years but their relevance will slip into the background as personalized, digital content streams become more important.

The more I think about the future the more I believe two other trends will have an even more significant impact on reading, learning and engaging with content: voice user interfaces (VUI) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Today Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are mostly perceived as gimmicks. Tomorrow these intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) will become the gateway to a whole new way of consuming and interacting with content.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how these IPAs need to break free of their current apps and devices, becoming platforms to a broader set of content services. It’s great that Amazon’s Alexa can now be experimented with via the site, but how long will it take before these services realize their full potential, not simply serve as a way to ask whether or not it will rain tomorrow?

Ultimately, I’m convinced these IPAs will enable us to have conversations with the most knowledgeable experts we’ll never meet and who really don’t even exist. Think about that for a moment.

It’s one thing to ask Alexa questions like, “what was the score of last night’s Cubs game?” or “what was Muhammad Ali’s most famous quote?”. It’s entirely different when you treat the device like a trusted advisor or teacher by asking things like, “who was the best Cubs player of all time?”; in this case, the response can’t simply be retrieved from a reference guide as it requires a highly subjective answer based on gathering and interpretation of facts as well as a healthy dose of conjecture. That’s where AI comes into play.

The model I’m describing likely requires AI capabilities that are more powerful than today’s. In 2016 company like Narrative Science can take a baseball game box score and turn it into a two-paragraph newspaper summary; tomorrow these AI platforms will need to be able to tell more of the story as well as answer questions like, “how did Anthony Rizzo get to second base in the fourth inning?”.

Let’s apply this to a more interesting, lengthier use-case. Maybe I want to learn about electricity and electrical wiring for a home project I’m working on. I want to do this all via voice and audio during my daily commute to and from work. Today I could turn to a variety of YouTube videos, websites and books. Tomorrow I want to simply start with this request: Tell me the essentials of electricity.

The IPA then dives right into a tutorial, perhaps taken from one of those resources noted earlier (e.g., books, websites, etc.) The session is highly interactive though. Every so often I might ask a clarifying question like, “what’s the difference between the black wire and the white wire?” or “is a wire nut OK on its own or should I also wrap the connection in electrical tape?”, and the assistant provides the answers then returns to the lesson.

To contrast, in today’s world we’re used to thinking in terms of the document model and how search results are simply an intermediate step. That step might just be one of many the user has to proceed through to ultimately get their answer. In the IPA world of tomorrow the experience needs to feel more like a conversation with an old friend or instructor; the IPA selects the best path rather than relying on you to find the needle in the search results haystack.

All of this dialog presumably will go through the Amazon’s and Google’s of the world and the answers come back through those same gatekeepers as well. But ultimately consumers will insist on the dialog and answers coming from other trusted brands and sources. So one day I might start that electricity session by saying something like, “take me to the Home Depot channel” and then I can have my dialog within an ecosystem of more reliable, highly relevant content and responses.

In order to make this giant leap the content must either be richly tagged, thoroughly analyzed by a powerful AI platform or a little bit of both. Either way I’m excited about the new opportunities it represents.

Let’s take “Search Inside the Book” to a whole new level

Telescope-187472_1920Do you remember when Amazon introduced both “Look Inside” and “Search Inside” functionality for books? They were such simple yet revolutionary features at the time. Before Look/Search Inside it was impossible to do a simple flip test like you could at a brick-and-mortar store.

Fast-forward to today where we take Look/Search Inside features for granted, so much so that there’s been virtually no innovation on this front. I believe there’s a real opportunity here though to help consumers find what they’re looking for as well as significantly improve the overall content discovery and evaluation process.

Let’s start with a simple question: Why are Search and Look Inside both limited to individual books? What if my first problem is to figure out which book has the most in-depth coverage of topic xyz? Let’s say I want to do some research on the Pittsburgh Pirates, specifically looking for coverage of a former player named Dave Parker. How do I find the book with the most in-depth coverage of Parker?

The typical approach is to search on Amazon. The search results there are initially sorted by relevance and you might think that’s the end of the story. But all Amazon is really doing is searching the metadata associated with each book; they’re not searching the actual contents of the books to push titles with higher relevance to the top of the results. That means books with that name or phrase in the title often get pushed to the top.

Take a closer look at those search results and you’ll quickly appreciate just how ineffective the current Amazon solution is. You’ll need to skip past the first four results as they’re not books at all; I requested “books” only but the results reflect the challenges Amazon has with internal product types and definitions. Those are followed by a couple of titles that have nothing to do with Dave Parker the former baseball player but they happen to be authored by another guy named Dave Parker. This shows how much Amazon’s search prioritizes a book’s metadata; there are probably very few references to “Dave Parker” inside those books but these titles float toward the top of the results simply because of the author name. Next is a book about Dave Winfield, another former baseball player, which looks promising. The problem here is that it made it to the first page of results because the book’s co-author is Tom Parker, so when Amazon sees “Dave Winfield” and “Tom Parker” next to each other it thinks there’s a hit because of the former’s first name plus the latter’s last name. Ugh.

At this point you might think the solution is to go to Google Book Search. Take a look at Google's results and I think you’ll agree I’m no closer to finding the right book than I was at the start. To be fair, Google Book Search is a better solution than Amazon’s search but there are still some enormous holes. For example, although Google’s service is searching the book contents it’s still highly biased by the metadata. Just look at the author names of the first several titles in those search results and you’ll see what I mean. Also, Google is severely limited because their solution is tightly connected to their book preview service. That means Google will only show you some of the pages with hits, hiding many others and then completely cutting off your view once you reach a certain threshold.

What we really need is something like Google Book Search across an entire library, with full visibility into all the content, featuring an algorithm that’s smart enough to focus on true relevance and isn’t thrown off simply by metadata. The results would show two or three lines of the text surrounding each hit so the reader can appreciate the context throughout.

This uber-search would be powerful for some types of books and totally useless for others. For example, there’s absolutely no need for it in the fiction space but think about how useful it would be in non-fiction areas like business, science, technology, biography, cooking, etc. I see this as a service a publisher could place on their website, dramatically improving the current metadata-only search results you typically find.

In fact, this uber-search vision is a service my OSV colleagues and I are currently exploring with a third-party developer. Before we get too far along with it we wanted to describe it for the publishing community to see if anyone knows of a better solution that already exists. We haven’t found one yet but as we roll it out we’ll be sure to describe the process here so other publishers can learn from our experience and potentially embrace our solution as well.

This idea is both a consumer feature and a marketing opportunity

Imac-606765_1920We take it for granted that when we open our favorite ebook app it automatically jumps right into the last book we were reading. And while that’s handy, I’d like to see at least one other option when I open the app.

How about a reader-customized landing page? This page should be fully configurable, based exclusively on my particular interests. For example, we all have our favorite genres, topics and authors we like to follow. Let’s start off by allowing readers to place a widget on this landing page showing the top five bestsellers in their favorite category.

Another widget I’d love to see is a quick-and-easy way to grab samples of newly published (or upcoming) books in my preferred categories. So maybe a top five list again with a one-click-sample download button next to each cover.

Then there’s the social opportunity… I recently asked one of my good friends to tell me the best WWII books he’s read over the past few years. That was done through a combination of texting and email. How about adding a capability to this landing page so I can quickly find (or follow) my most trustworthy friends and answer that question right in the reader app? Both of us would have to opt in, of course, but what a great way to share and access highly relevant information, especially when it’s in such close proximity to the one-click sampling/buying process.

You’ve undoubtedly seen some of this functionality on your favorite retailer’s website or through their email marketing campaigns. That’s great, but sometimes I go to to buy dog food, not books, and my email inbox is already overflowing with other marketing messages. Frankly, I think I’ve become numb to all the sales pitches that hit my inbox every day. Now compare that to the time when I’m opening the Kindle or Google Play Books apps on my iPad; that’s when I’m focused on books, but not just reading…I’m often ready for book discovery when I launch those apps, so why not help me find what I might be interested in?

I also realize most of the time we might want to just leave well enough alone and continue jumping right back into that last book we were reading. Great, but how about placing a button in the app’s nav bar to quickly take me to this configurable landing page?

Another nice touch would be to let me customize the feeds by day and time. For example, if I’m opening it up during business hours I’m probably looking for work-related content. But let me also configure it to show sports and history lists and samples when it’s after 5PM or on the weekend.

You’d think that Amazon would already offer something like this in the Kindle app. All the other reader apps tend to follow their lead and since books now represent such a small slice of Amazon’s overall revenue it would be great to see some other ebook retailer step up and innovate with a service like this.

Here’s where innovative publishers need to focus

Idea-48100_1280There are a number of key attributes successful publishers will be known for in the future. These core capabilities will be very different from the ones that have led to the modern empires of the Big Five.

Some attributes will remain the same, of course. For example, it will always be crucial for publishers to acquire, develop and produce excellent content. But the services and capabilities that surround and complement the acquire/develop/produce core are what will matter most.

With that in mind, here’s my short list of what will separate tomorrow’s publishing leaders from all the rest:

Being data-driven – Remember the old days when Ingram data was the only source of industry-wide sell-through information? Then Bookscan hit the scene and it felt like we moved from the Stone Age to the Information Age. I’m not talking about this kind of data. Bookscan and other retailer sell-through numbers are lagging indicators. They represent what happened yesterday, last week or last month. The successful publisher of tomorrow wants to know what’s happening right now and where the trends are leading. Real-time website analytics, heat maps, email open/click-thru rates…that’s where the actionable data can be found today but most book publishers treat them as secondary information sources at best. A publisher who thinks they’re data-driven today might adjust plans for a book scheduled to publish six months from now based on sell-through data they studied from last month. Tomorrow’s data-driven publisher will alter the free content on their website this afternoon based on information they gathered this morning.

Breaking free of containers – Why are publishers focused on lagging indicators? Because they’re stuck in the era of containers. They’re producing books, magazines or newspapers and they measure everything based on those containers. It may not be obvious but the container model is slowly fading away. Please don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying books are going away. Print books will still be produced for a long, long time. But the way content is being consumed is shifting to a more digital, container-less model. Think about that last bit of content you read on your phone. Did you care whether it was originally produced for a newspaper, a magazine, a blog, a website or a newsletter? Probably not. What mattered most is that the content covered a topic that matters to you. Innovative publishers need to think more about highly relevant content streams rather than content containers.

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) – I vividly recall talking five years ago with a Big Six executive about the importance of creating a vibrant direct-to-consumer channel. She rolled her eyes and said they’d never do that because they prefer to let their retail partners handle the consumer connection. I feel somewhat validated now as I see that same publisher experimenting more and more with D2C. It’s not just about capturing all the revenue. The data and resulting opportunities to do some very powerful things with that data are what make D2C such an important model. That, and the fact that you become less reliant on middlemen who control your destiny, ought to be reason enough to focus on D2C.

Owning and leveraging the list – The most important piece of data every publisher should own is the customer name and email address. This is what makes D2C so special. Securing names and emails isn’t as easy as simply making a sale. You’ve got to earn the consumer’s trust by having them opt in to your future marketing campaigns. Too many publishers who have built a D2C channel simply become data hoarders, gathering names and emails but never doing much with them.

Building the funnel – One of the biggest reasons publishers don’t go direct is that they feel they’re unable to attract enough traffic to make it worthwhile. That’s because they’re not applying the funnel model. You start by offering plenty of outstanding free content on your site. Once visitors arrive and they like what they read you have the opportunity to connect with them via free newsletters, for example; rather than waiting and hoping they come back, offer to continue sending outstanding content right to their email inbox. Part of this step includes asking them to opt in for other offers and information from you. As the funnel narrows from top to bottom, you’re leading these consumers along a path loaded with all your terrific content, some of it free and some of it paid.

This isn’t for everyone. For example, the Big Five are simply too reliant on the existing ecosystem, unwilling to risk alienating certain channel partners and built upon a very rigid container-based creation and distribution model. The Big Five will remain large, just like B&N and Borders did for many years after Amazon arrived. But then Borders went away and in order to survive B&N evolved from a bookstore to a gift shop.

The smaller players though, the ones who focus on a particular topic, vertical or audience are the publishers who are best positioned to embrace the attributes described above. And as they do they’ll find themselves in a far better world with a direct connection to customers and the ability to serve those customers with more than just one or two types of container-driven content.

Why is text-to-speech only an afterthought?

Buttons-304219_1280I spend a lot of time commuting to and from work in my car and I try to use the time wisely. I cycle through a playlist of podcasts every week but I feel like I’m missing out on other types of content. Regardless of your daily commute, I’ll bet you’d feel the same way if you’d stop to consider the possibilities.

I’m thinking mostly about short-form content such as website articles, whitepapers and other documents. If someone sends me a link or I discover an interesting article online it’s highly likely I won’t have time to read it immediately. That’s why I typically save it in Instapaper or Evernote.

This approach has turned me into an article hoarder as I have countless unread articles in both Instapaper and Evernote. So while I thought my problem was a lack of time at that moment, the truth is I rarely have time to read many of these things later either.

To its credit, the Instapaper app for Android has a text-to-speech feature built in. But the way it’s implemented tells me it was added as an afterthought. Sure, I can tap the “Speak” button and sit back and listen, but how useful is that when you’ve got a bunch of 2-4 minute articles stacked up and you’re trying to go hands-free while driving along the highway (or taking a walk, or running on a treadmill, etc.)?

Publishers sometimes talk of engaging with the consumer who’s reading their content while standing in the proverbial grocery store check-out line. Next time you’re in line at the grocery store look around. Nobody reads like that. Some people have their phones out but they’re probably scanning Facebook or sending a text message. Rather than heads-down reading you’re more likely to see people with ear buds in, listening to music while they shop or wait in line. And let’s face it: nobody reads while they’re running or doing other strenuous activities.

So along with all those “send to” buttons for various social and “read later” services, why isn’t there one built exclusively for text-to-speech conversions that open up all sorts of new use-cases for content consumption?

The service has to do much more than just transform text to audio though. There’s an important UI component that needs to be considered. The entire platform has to be audio-based, including voice commands. Picture an app on your phone that has all the voice command capabilities of Siri or Alexa, for example. Whether you’re driving or running, all you’d have to do is say things like “skip”, “next article”, “archive”, “annotate”, etc. The user should be able to manually create playlists and the service should offer the option of automatically detecting topics and placing each article in a relevant folder (e.g., sports, business, DIY, etc.).

Don’t forget the social aspect and opportunities here. Using voice commands I should be able to quickly and easily share an interesting article via email, Twitter, etc. Let me also keep track of the most popular articles other users are listening to so I don’t miss anything that might be gaining momentum.

One business model option is probably quite obvious: insert short audio ads at the start of each article, similar to the plugs I’m hearing more frequently in podcasts. And since the article topic and keywords can be identified before streaming it’s easy to serve highly relevant ads that are closely aligned with the articles themselves; think Google AdSense for audio. Give publishers an incentive to feature new “send to audio” buttons on their articles by sharing that well-targeted ad income with them.

Doesn’t this seem like it’s right in Google’s wheelhouse? I suppose they’ve got bigger fish to fry but this looks like an existing marketplace gap that’s just waiting to be filled.

Here’s how indexing could evolve with ebooks

Telescope-122960_1920Last month I shared some thoughts about how indexes seems to be a thing of the past, at least when it comes to ebooks. I’ve given more consideration to the topic and would like to offer a possible vision for the future.

Long ago I learned the value an exceptional indexer can bring to a project. For example, there’s a huge difference between simply capturing all the keywords in a book and producing an index that’s richly filled with synonyms, cross-references and related topics. And while we may never be able to completely duplicate the human element in a computer-generated index I’d like to think value can be added via automated text analysis, algorithms and all the resulting tags.

Perhaps it’s time to think differently about indexes in ebooks. As I mentioned in that earlier article, I’m focused exclusively on non-fiction here. Rather than a static compilation of entries in the book I’m currently reading, I want something that’s more akin to a dynamic Google search.

Let me tap a phrase on my screen and definitely show me the other occurrences of that phrase in this book, but let’s also make sure those results can be sorted by relevance, not just the chronological order from the book. Why do the results have to be limited to the book I’m reading though? Maybe that author or publisher has a few other titles on that topic or closely related topics. Those references and excerpts should be accessible via this pop-up e-index as well. If I own those books I’m able to jump directly to the pages within them; if not, these entries serve as a discovery and marketing vehicle, encouraging me to purchase the other titles.

This approach lends itself to an automated process. Once the logic is established, a high-speed parsing tool would analyze the content and create the initial entries across all books. The tool would be built into the ebook reader application, tracking the phrases that are most commonly searched for and perhaps refining the results over time based on which entries get the most click-thru’s. Sounds a lot like one of the basic attributes of web search results, right?

Note that this could all be done without a traditional index. However, I also see where a human-generated index could serve as an additional input, providing an even richer experience.

How about leveraging the collective wisdom of the community as well? Provide a basic e-index as a foundation but let anyone contribute their own thoughts and additions to it. Don’t force the crowdsourced results on all readers. Rather, let each consumer decide which other members of the community add the most value and filter out all the others.

This gets back to a point I’ve made a number of times before. We’re stuck consuming dumb content on smart devices. As long as we keep looking at ebooks through a print book lens we’ll never fully experience all the potential a digital book has to offer.