© 2013, Joseph B. Wikert
In the old days of product development customers didn’t see a new product until it was finished. Everything was polished and the bugs were (mostly) worked out. Sometimes the finished product wasn’t really what the customer had in mind though, which exposed some painful flaws in this model.
Remember when newspaper and magazine publishers said they can’t keep giving their content away for free so they started putting it behind paywalls? Then they got disappointed by the low number of subscribers, reversed course and paywalls began to come down.
It seems like a scene out of Back to the Future as paywalls are now apparently once again in vogue. Over the past week I’ve read multiple accounts of publishers deciding the totally ad-subsidized model just isn’t going to cut it.
Now that I'm in the broader digital content industry and no longer in the book publishing sector I've realized something very important: Amazon isn't killing book publishers. Publishers are killing themselves. Book publishers, or more accurately, their products, are becoming less and less relevant every year.
Let's start with the distinction between information snacking and long form reading: More of my time is now spent snacking, reading short pieces of content. The time I spend snacking has largely shifted from the time I used to read more long form content. My tablet and phone are almost always with me and I find the web as well as services like Flipboard, Zite, Instapaper and Byliner are replacing much of the time I used to spend in books.
I find myself much more attracted to short bursts of content and I doubt I'm alone. Book publishers, on the other hand, are still caught up in making products built for yesterday's container, the 300-page print book. That's fine for the rare storytelling author who can capture your attention for many hours, but let's face it...most authors and their books don't meet that standard.
Publishers are an Inefficient breed, but not in the typical sense. I'm not talking about production or editorial processes. Widespread outsourcing and staff cuts mean publishers are more efficient in these areas than ever before. But what about being efficient from the customer's point of view?
Where does most content consumption happen these days? On the web. Where is the book publisher's content? It's not on the web and it's certainly not exposed to the major search engines. Google is amazingly efficient at enabling content consumption, but the results benefit info snacking, not long-form consumption.
Publishers will shudder at the thought of exposing all their content to the search engines. How about simply taking some baby steps in that direction? Start with the ebook sample. Why are samples always under lock and key via DRM? Publishers need to encourage sample sharing and not lock them down.
How about giving prospective customers even more content than today's samples offer? Instead of 5%, give 10% or 20%. Maybe give that larger chunk only to customers who are willing to provide their contact info on your website. Then you'll have a way to market directly to them. And be sure to expose that additional content to the search engines, btw!
Finally let's talk about something that will give every traditional publisher heartburn: the need to change revenue models. Publishers are tied to yesterday's revenue model in a classic case of The Innovator's Dilemma. I'm talking about the difference between content purchased at today's prices vs. sponsor/ad-based content consumers will pay less, if anything, for.
At some point, even longer form content will be offered via a new model, where the content is fully exposed on the web, searches lead to it, and it's partially or fully subsidized by advertising or sponsorship. That's a model today's publisher is simply not structured for and they simply cannot fathom.
Startups will understand it though, mostly because they'll exploit the opportunity created by incumbents who are desperately trying to protect their outdated model.
Habits are hard to break, especially for book publishers. How else can you explain the industry's insistence on sticking with rigid, tightly synchronized release dates for new publications? It made sense in the old days when print ruled and the big brick-and-mortars dominated retail. But even back then I used to think it was silly to delay a book's release date for months just so we could get a slot in one of those brick-and-mortar promotional campaigns.
Amazon makes this less of an issue and I always appreciated their willingness to allow for drop-in titles, even when those titles required a lot of promotional support. Amazon is able to turn on a dime since they don't have to coordinate a title's roll-out across hundreds of physical stores. Nevertheless, I haven't seen publishers evolve and embrace the new promotional opportunities, and release date options, that are available with ebooks.
Once again, Amazon leads the way. Their recently-launched Kindle First service is brilliant. They're giving customers the opportunity to buy new books on their platform one month before they're available everywhere else. It looks like the big publishers haven't opted into this; perhaps they're finally waking up to the fact that Amazon is eating their lunch.
Kindle First offers the earliest access to these new books and you can buy one each month for $0 with your Amazon Prime membership. That's a free purchase, not a loaner. So Kindle First becomes yet another reason to sign up for Amazon Prime.
Meanwhile, publishers who haven't opted in to Kindle First probably think they're showing Amazon who's boss. Yeah, right. Rather than staying out of the program, publishers should launch something new and exciting of their own.
Publishers, how about making your ebooks available exclusively on your own site 30 days before you release them everywhere else? This, of course, means you've got to have a robust direct ebook channel established on your website. We know that's not the case for most publishers, but hopefully this is another reminder of why they should make a direct ebook sales channel a priority.
Imagine the volume you could drive if your frontlist was available only on your site for the first month. Who says you have to treat retailers equally? Yes, there will be backlash from the big ebook retailers, but let's face it...those retailers want to carry your bestsellers too, so I doubt they'd give you too much grief.
Speaking of which, this model isn't optimal for all books. Titles from unknown authors on nichey topics aren't likely to benefit from it. But what about your bestsellers? What about the titles from your proven authors, the ones with the platforms?
It's not just that you'll keep 100% of the revenue in these direct sales. This is also about building a direct relationship with your readers and being able to market to them in the future. And yes, most publisher websites are not a consumer destination today. But what happens when that website is the exclusive outlet for the first 30 days of each publication? I think consumers will find a reason to go there.
On a related note, I'd like to make a plea for every publisher to rethink their ebook samples strategy. Why in the world are these also tied to the book's official release date? Publishers, get your samples out there before the book publishes. What is the benefit to holding the samples till the book's release date? Amazon now lets consumers backorder an ebook before it's released, so point your customers there if you have to. But please don't let me read some review or tweet about a book that's coming out next month and then not give me a way to get access to the sample before the book publishes. I guarantee I'll forget about this book and you'll lose the sale.
Also, why are these samples under lock and key, DRM'd like they contain the country's nuclear launch codes? Here's a thought: Why not make those samples completely DRM-free and actually encourage readers to pass them along? Maybe you should consider putting these exclusively on your site before they go to retailers. It's another way to establish that direct relationship with your readers, and if you remove the DRM element it should be extremely easy to implement.
Last week I wrote about how Kindle Singles are likely to influence the future of ebooks. This week I'd like to share some thoughts on another service for short-form content: Byliner. Unlike Singles, where you purchase titles individually, the Byliner service is an all-you-can-read subscription model.
My favorite Byliner feature is the fact that I can follow specific authors. I thoroughly enjoyed Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. I know I need to read her other books but time just doesn't permit right now. Thanks to Byliner I'm able to discover several short-form works by Mary and read one or two of them in a matter of minutes.
This is an important glimpse of the future, btw. I firmly believe that books, magazines, and other print content containers will become far less important in the future. Those vessels were simply a convenient delivery format in the physical world. What we really want though are great stories by authors we love to read. I don't need this content as a "book" or part of a "magazine", regardless of whether it's print or digital. Instead, I'd prefer to pay for a Mary Roach content stream subscription. The same goes for Steve Rushin. Byliner offers all their authors in the same broad subscription but in the not too distant future I'm convinced we'll have access to more granular subscription options too (e.g., by author, by genre, etc.)
What makes Byliner different from simply surfing the web and reading interesting articles you find? It's all about curation. The authors and articles featured in Byliner are among the best. I have yet to find one that didn't fascinate me. Good luck saying that about most online articles you stumble upon.
Then there's the fact that your favorite authors are discovering and recommending content from other authors. What a terrific solution to the discovery issue everyone in publishing complains about. I'm seeing that recommendations by my favorite authors are much more likely to lead to great reads than recommendations from my Facebook friends. Think about that for a moment. Does your social graph really overlap with your reading interests? Mine certainly doesn't.
With Kindle Singles you're making a (small) financial investment in every piece of content. In Byliner's all-you-can-read model there is no such investment or guilt factor. If I don't like a piece I'll just move on to the next one. It still costs the same amount every month, so I'm inclined to explore even more. (Another discovery plus!)
Byliner articles are even shorter than Kindle Singles, or at least that's the case most of the time. I love it that they even give you a reading time estimate with each Byliner article. That's a much better gauge of whether I really have time to read this piece than telling me the number of pages, especially when the ability to increase/decrease font size makes "page" a hard word to define.
Lastly, Byliner has a wonderful iPad app that lets me download and save articles for offline reading. That's a great feature for those times when you're out of wifi range. I know I've always got a great selection of short-form content ready to read, regardless of where I am. Given how short these pieces are though, I wish they had an option to automatically download articles from my favorite authors, topics I always read, etc.
If you haven't given Byliner a test drive you need to do so now. It's both a great content service as well as a leading indicator for how publishing and content consumption is rapidly evolving.
"Compelling ideas expressed at their natural length." That's Amazon's tagline for their popular Kindle Singles program. And while Singles hasn't exactly been a major industry disruptor I believe it lays the foundation for some of the bigger, bolder initiatives Amazon is planning for the future. I also believe it's a model that will become much more common over time.
The formula looks like this:
TOC is dead but I'm glad to see some elements of it live on. A couple of years ago the TOC team launched the Global Ebook Market Report with Ruediger Wischenbart. Ruediger updated the report once or twice a year and we typically released a major update each October for the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The book fair opens this week and I was delighted to see that Ruediger and his team did yet another thorough update to the report for 2013. You'll find all the various formats of it here.
If you're looking for the latest data on ebook momentum by geographic region you'll find all the details in this update. If you want to read what's happening globally regarding popular formats, piracy and pretty much everything else related to ebooks you'll also find it in this report. The best news though is that the Global Ebook Market Report has always been and continues to be free. No cost, no registration, nada.
Do do yourself a favor, download this report right now and start reading. You won't regret it and you'll quickly become an expert on the global ebook marketplace.
Poll results from USA Today have me scratching my head. According to their numbers, the average American adult who doesn't own a tablet/e-reader reads 11-13 books per year. The range is even higher for owners of tablets/e-readers: 16-21 books per year.
Let's simplify and just say the poll tells us the average American adult reads at least one book per month. Can you honestly say your friends all read a book a month? OK, because you're reading this I know you're in the book publishing industry, so you and your friends are outliers here. Let's talk about the real average American.
Pew released a similar report last year. If you scroll down to the "Book readers" table you'll see numbers in the center column showing mean number of books read. But look at the right column for the median and you'll find a pretty significant drop-off; the median is typically half or less of the mean. And note the table heading says that books are included here if they were "read all or part of the way through." So suddenly all those ebook samples I've downloaded, read two paragraphs of and never went back to, count in my total. Woohoo!
The mean/median difference is largely explained by all those people who read several books every week. So in this case, mean isn't as meaningful as median. But what happens when we exclude all the books that weren't read from cover to cover? How far do the numbers drop then?
As other polls have shown, my friends seem to be more interested in surfing the web and doing something other than reading books on their tablets. So even though they now have an iPad or Android tablet, their book reading habits haven't changed much, certainly not to the degree shown in the USA Today poll.
I also have to believe that if the average American was actually buying at least one book a month we wouldn't see publishers continually downsizing, regardless of whether those books were print or digital.
Finally, what would these numbers look like if we could remove all the editions 50 Shades of Grey? Between that phenomenon, and the fact that most people round up when talking about how many books they read, something tells me these poll results don't reflect reality. I'd rather see how consumers are voting with their wallets, not how smart they're trying to sound to a pollster.
I recently marked the 3-month mark in my new job at Olive Software. It's a terrific place to work, btw, and I couldn't ask for a more interesting opportunity -- we've got a great team, both here in the U.S. as well as in Israel.
I'm still fairly new, of course, but I've been fortunate to learn a lot in a very short period of time. Some of the issues facing our biggest channel, newspapers, are similar to the ones faced in all content industries. Others are a bit more unique to newspapers. I thought I'd take a few minutes to summarize the key challenges I see as well as some of the solutions I believe are required to address them.
For the last several years of my work in the technology book industry I used to say that our customers are getting older...and dying. We weren't catering to the younger audience. That is, of course, also true in the newspaper world. The under-30 crowd grew up with the Internet and largely believes content is and should be freely accessible. Part of the solution here is finding ways to monetize via advertising, which is easier to do in the news world than in the book world. Either way, In both cases though I believe the future leaders will be the ones who figure out how to get the most out of smaller revenue bases. That means the entrenched leaders have even more cutting to do while the startups, who aren't struggling with The Innovator's Dilemma, have plenty of opportunities ahead.
Your local paper probably offers a digital version and it probably looks just like the print edition. That replica version is nice but certainly not the end game in digital news. Related to the demographics item above, replica editions are largely favored by the older crowd and not so much by the younger reader. Most newspapers still rely largely on that older audience to drive the majority of their revenue, so they certainly can't afford to abandon replica. The winners here though will be the ones who figure out they need to offer two digital options: replica and a more dynamic version. The latter needs to have a born digital feel to it, one where 20-somethings don't look at it and say, "that's the product my parents and grandparents read, but it's not for me."
Crowdsourcing isn't the long-term solution here but neither is the newsroom, on-staff writer/editor model. The future leaders in the news content space will leverage something in between. Yes, there will be some staff members but far fewer than ever before. Freelancers will become much more important as the papers continue focusing on reducing their fixed costs. And beware the columnist or other contributor who feels they are the brand. This is true in some cases where the author has established a highly unique style and voice in the market. Those are few and far between though...more rare than previously thought. If you don't believe me, just ask Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher; they're quickly learning that Dow Jones, at least, feels the AllThingsD brand is much bigger than either of their personal brands.
Speaking of brands, newspapers need to wake up before it's too late and focus on how they can extend their brands. What comes to mind when you think about the world's most popular newspapers? Quality? Trusted source? Politically leaning to the left or right? All of these characteristics have life beyond a print paper or its digital replica. Papers have been so focused trying to save their advertising income and reigniting their subscriber base that they really haven't given enough thought to how they should extend their core brand name before it's value is extinguished forever. These trusted brands need to venture into new channels with their content.
Most papers are struggling to find their identity in the new, digital-first world. Are they focused mostly on local? More on national with a bit of local? What about global coverage? My local paper is going through this problem right now. Their solution seems to be "add more content." I don't think that's the long-term answer. This strikes me as something that's too little, too late. They need to instead focus on extending their brand with new types of products and dominating the market with some unique coverage. Instead they're planning to serve up more syndicated content from USA Today. Again, not exactly an inspired solution for today's challenges.
Like many others in this industry, I'm curious to see what Jeff Bezos does with The Washington Post. As I said earlier, I think you can count on him doing some very innovative things at WaPo. And one thing we know for sure, Bezos always takes the long view on the market, so the industry should brace itself for some very aggressive tactics, even if it means losing a bunch of money in the short term. I liken it to the same impact USA Today had when it launched in the early 1980's, only more cut-throat. :-) Bezos has a long history of making markets more efficient and hastening the demise of the competition. Look for more of that as he disrupts yet another industry.