Why I’m not on the Amazon Echo bandwagon…yet

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 9.32.56 AMI almost bought an Amazon Echo last November. It was on sale for $129 and I figured it was too good a deal to pass up. Amazon promised two-day Prime delivery but they got overwhelmed by all the orders and, like many others, they botched mine and said I might receive it by end of year. At that point I decided it wasn’t meant to be so I cancelled and I’m glad I did.

I already have a couple of other terrific Bluetooth speakers and while the Alexa voice control feature is nice, I’m not convinced it’s worth $100+. It reminds me of dedicated GPS devices and fitness bracelets, both of which have been replaced by sensors in my phone.

Echo is more of a nice-to-have, not need-to-have, item for me, especially with its ability to turn news and other types of written content into streamable audio content. But I’m much more interested in a mobile solution, not one that sits on a countertop.

Like GPS and fitness devices, Echo’s main functionality will also eventually find its way into the phone itself. The reason I’m prefer a mobile solution is that I spend a lot of time in my car where I use the Bluetooth feature of my radio and phone to listen to podcasts, music, etc.

The Echo platform becomes very attractive to me when it’s nothing more than an app on my phone that plays through my car radio. The app handles all the speech command conversion via the cellular connection, the same way the streaming content arrives.

This app doesn’t have to be free, btw. Charge me $5/month or something close to that and I’ll gladly pay for the option to “play news” and other commands in my car.

Where this really gets fascinating is with longer-form content and the ability to use voice commands to annotate and highlight audio books, for example. Whether it’s in my car or at home, it would be nice to finally have the ability to do more than just listen to an audio book. For example, when I hear a noteworthy passage, I’d like to be able to say “pause”, “highlight last two sentences”, “add private note to highlight saying ‘this is something I should pass along to the marketing team’”, etc.

Take it a step further and integrate my email app so that rather than just making that verbal note to pass along to marketing, let me say, “create email to Joe Smith at company.com, subject ‘key discovery’, body is highlight, send.”

Let’s say you’re listening to that book and you hear a phrase, person or location you’re not familiar with. The app should have the ability for me to say, “pause”, “tell me about phrase/person/location” and the app responds with the appropriate audio stream (e.g., top Google search result, Wikipedia entry, etc.)

All my audio highlights and annotations must be searchable, by voice as well as text. In fact, let’s add the capability to integrate all these highlights and notes into Evernote so I can keep everything in one place.

Amazon might be happy selling $100+ voice-controlled Bluetooth speakers today but the real opportunity is with a fully mobile, app-driven solution that integrates with a broader number of content sources and streams. We’re not there yet but by combining voice control and streaming audio the Amazon Echo platform is starting to show us what’s possible down the road.

When will content truly become mobile?

Mobile-605422_1920After 7+ years of working remotely from my home office I recently started a new job with a daily commute. It’s actually quite an enjoyable ride and I originally planned to make it even better with a variety of mobile/audio content. Podcasts were at the top of my list but I also figured I could finally dive into audio books and a variety of text-to-speech solutions.

Mobile content has been a hot topic for years so I figured the options would be endless. Boy, was I surprised. My car has all the modern navigational bells and whistles but it seems the most cutting-edge mobile content feature is Sirius radio, a technology that’s now almost 15 years old.

Satellite radio is nice but is that as good as it gets? Since Sirius puts their receivers in most new cars I’m wondering if the publishing industry has missed an opportunity to create a new distribution channel. Why aren’t audio books and other digital content products available via satellite radio? Yes, I realize satellite focuses on broadcasting, not narrowcasting, but surely there’s bandwidth available to send individual packets of content like an audio book to an individual receiver. That content could then be stored locally and played back at the driver’s convenience.

You could argue that Bluetooth is the solution to this problem. After all, I can buy an audio book on my phone and listen to it in my car via Bluetooth. I’d rather see a service directly integrated with my car’s in-dash system though so I’m not fumbling around with both the dashboard display and a phone. Sirius could represent an entirely new distribution partner. (What’s more likely to happen is that Amazon will eventually make its way into your new car’s touchscreen and their dominance will be extended yet again.)

Audio books probably aren’t the right solution for me after all though. I’m still reeling from sticker shock after surveying the audio book landscape. You’d have to be pretty committed to the book and format to pay more for the audio edition than you’d pay for the print edition. I thought the unlimited monthly subscription platforms might be an alternative but they have too many restrictions. Scribd is a great example. I’m limited to one audio book per month so it’s really unlimited for ebooks but very limited for audio.

I get it that most audio books incur a high production cost, especially if they’re read by a celebrity author. But why does the author have to be the audio talent? In fact, do we really even need human voice talent to create the audio editions? If you haven’t recently explored the text-to-speech world you’ll be amazed at the current capabilities. We’re no longer limited to those tinny, lifeless monotone streams, so why not automate the text-to-speech conversion without the need for pricey audio talent?

Here’s a radical idea: Sell the all-in-one edition where my print purchase also includes the ebook and audio formats. We’re seeing the beginnings of this with alternate format add-ons like Amazon’s Audible narration and Kindle MatchBook; the former brings audio to the ebook and the latter provides a discounted Kindle edition if you’ve already bought the print version. Let’s make things simpler though and stop hoping consumers will discover these tiny add-on links on the Amazon product page. Publishers should sell the all-in-one edition directly, and perhaps exclusively, giving consumers a compelling reason to buy direct.

The untapped mobile opportunity goes beyond books. In fact, I think there’s an even bigger mobile opportunity for short-form content. For example, why don’t newspapers and magazines offer audio editions? They seem to think the “digital” version of their content is limited to website articles and print replica editions. Yes, some of the replica edition platforms offer text-to-speech but not a complete, mobile audio experience.

Periodical publishers should ask themselves this question: what would Steve Jobs do? I’m pretty sure for starters he’d offer a full audio edition, structured in playlist format enabling the consumer to simply say “next” or “listen” as the app reads each of the headlines to you. Today’s audio options are simply grafted onto the written edition and not offered in a mobile-optimized format.

Many of these periodical publishers continue losing brand relevance with the younger generation. I wonder if a better mobile audio solution could help them reverse that trend.

For now my commute is limited to a variety of podcasts and one-off audio feeds and I’m left asking this question: Can we really call it “mobile” content when there are still this many gaps?

Finding the optimal streaming content value proposition

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

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

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

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

No way.

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

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

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

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

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

Why today’s ebooks are like the golden age of radio

The date was April 8, 1927 and the front page of The New York Times featured this headline: FAR-OFF SPEAKERS SEEN AS WELL AS HEARD HERE IN A TEST OF TELEVISION. Click here to read a PDF version.

As I read that 1927 article I recently I couldn’t help but wonder how confused the public was with this newfangled television thing. After all, radio had been popular for several years and few probably even imagined the need for a more powerful and engaging communication and entertainment vehicle. In fact, the article notes the following:

The Bell Laboratories have been directed to concentrate on developing television with all possible speed, although the American Telephone and Telegraph Company has no idea today whether it will ever be commercially valuable.

So a new technology was invented, the public was curious but everyone questioned its viability.

Sound familiar?

We’re in the print-under-glass stage of ebooks today. The ebooks we read are nothing more than digital replicas of the original print product. They almost never take advantage of the powerful digital capabilities of the devices they’re read on. I often refer to this as “reading dumb content on smart devices.” 

Today’s ebooks are more or less at the same stage radio was at back in the 1920’s. Like radio in the 20’s, ebooks are still a somewhat recent success, particularly since the first popular e-reading device, the Kindle, is less than 10 years old. Today’s ebooks are easy to get comfortable with. They operate like we expect them to. But other than the content itself, the presentation of today’s ebook rarely surprises or delights; it’s basically a digital page-flipper of the print edition.

The market has experimented with enriched or enhanced content and the results have been weak at best. As a result, most publishing experts feel the future promises nothing more than the print-to-e editions we see today.

I couldn’t disagree more.

In April of 1927 television was viewed as a gimmick, a solution in search of a problem, similar to how anything beyond today’s static ebook is perceived. It didn’t happen overnight but television obviously got beyond the gimmick stage and became an enormous industry. I believe the same thing will happen with the next generation of ebooks, or whatever we end up calling them. Anyone who believes today’s ebooks are as good as it gets probably would have scoffed at television in 1927.

By the way, although that NYT article is almost 90 years old it’s important to note that radio hasn’t gone away. Listeners don’t spend anywhere near the amount of time with radio that they used to and families certainly don’t gather around radios for evening entertainment. But radio found its niche and didn’t disappear.

The same will be true not only for print books but for today’s static ebooks as well. Sometimes you just want to curl up with a simple story, no fancy digital device or web connectivity required. But there are plenty of other types of content and reading experiences that will dramatically benefit from moving beyond today’s print-under-glass model. That’s where the real disruptive opportunities await an industry that’s never been known for embracing change.

Taking a page out of ESPN's playbook

If you missed this recent BusinessWeek article about ESPN you owe it to yourself to go back and read it. ESPN is so much more than just a sports network and their brilliant strategy offers plenty of lessons for publishers. Here's just one important indicator of their success: While the average network earns about 20 cents per subscriber each month ESPN is paid $5.13. That's more than 25 times the average!


Bob Lefsetz on What the Book Biz Can Learn From the Music Biz

The Lefsetz Letter should be required reading for everyone in the publishing industry. Sure, it focuses mostly on the music biz but so much of what Bob Lefsetz has to say is highly applicable to the world of book publishing. The podcast interview below features Bob's wisdom on topics like what the book publishing industry can learn from the music industry, discoverability, where he believes the book industry is heading and whether anyone can knock Apple of the top of the mountain.

Dear XM: No Means No!

Xm Boy, this guy was right.  I finally decided to cancel my XM radio subscription and I had to jump through countless hoops over the past couple of hours. As the other blogger notes, there's no way to terminate the service via the XM website.  You have to do it on the phone.  And if you want to see just how screwed up XM is right now, call their 1-800 number and see how long it takes to talk to an actual human being.

I figured out a trick to help speed things up though.  I called earlier tonight and went through the phone menu options to cancel and gave up after spending almost 30 minutes on hold.  I grabbed dinner and came back for round two.  This time I chose the option to activate a phone, not cancel an account.  It was still a 10-15 minute wait but it did the trick...or so I thought...in reality, the fun was just beginning.

My first conversation was with a woman who spoke broken English and asked me to verify my name, phone number, address and account. She also wanted to know why I'm canceling and I told her it's because (a) there are too many commercials on the talk radio stations, (b) the music channels seem to be recycling the same stuff even more frequently than they did originally and (c) several channels are now deactivated over the weekend, including a few I used to listen to late at night on Fridays and Saturdays. 

She was courteous enough and said she needed to transfer me to a different department.  I asked her if I was going to be put on hold for awhile and she said "no" and that she'd be on the line with me.  In fact I wound up on hold again for another 7-8 minutes and she periodically checked in to see how I'm doing.

Next up, broken English-speaking woman #2.  She asked what she could do for me.  I asked her if she happened to speak at all to the first woman about my account.  She humbly acknowledged that yes, the first one told her I wanted to close the account.  She then asked me to verify all the things the first woman had me verify.  Frustrating, but at least it seemed like I was getting closer...

Representative #2 also kept telling me about all the great new services I can expect when the Sirius merger is complete.  I told her there's nothing she could say that would cause me to change my mind.  She decided she was up for the challenge and offered me 3 more months at $4.99/month.  I said no.  She chuckled and then changed the offer to 3 more months totally free.  Again I declined.  I think she finally realized she had met her match; after all, just how bad does a customer want to leave you when they turn down 3 free months?!

She said I'm paid up through September 18th.  It doesn't matter though as I've already packed up the receiver as well as all the cords and antennas and put it all in a drawer.  I seriously doubt I'll go back.  I finally realized I'm better served by the thousands of songs on my 80-Gig Zune.  Farewell, XM...

Andy Beal Interview on BlogTalkRadio

Radically_transparentAndy Beal is the co-author of our recently-released title Radically Transparent, a book that shows you how to monitor and manage your online reputation.  Although you can find all the relevant facts about the book via that link provided in the previous sentence, there's another great way to learn more about it and Andy himself: Check out the audio interview Andy recently did with John Havens of BlogTalkRadio (BTR) (streaming link here and MP3 download link here).

If you're looking for a way to extend your platform you owe it to yourself to check out BlogTalkRadio.  I interviewed Alan Levy, their CEO and co-founder here a few months ago and shed some light on what they're doing to help authors promote their books.  Andy Beal's interview is an excellent example of what's possible with BTR's service.  I just wish Amazon (and the other online retailers) would figure out how to automatically integrate this information on their product pages.  If I'm considering a book purchase it would be nice to have access to more in-depth information and insight from the author in an audio format like this.

I was on the road last week but I understand my copy of Radically Transparent is waiting for me at the office.  I can't wait to dig into it and learn new ways of tracking my own online reputation as well as the reputations of the various brands and imprints my group publishes into (e.g., Sybex, WROX and Wiley).

BlogTalkRadio Interview with Alan Levy

BlogtalkradioBlogTalkRadio is a service that hit my radar earlier this year and I keep hearing more and more about them.  I got curious and decided to explore it a bit further to see what BlogTalkRadio (BTR) might have to offer authors and publishers.  Fortunately for me, Alan Levy, CEO and co-founder of BlogTalkRadio agreed to an interview for my blog.  Here's what Alan had to say:

JW: What's the market need that BTR aims to serve?

AL: It terms of function we're focused on the audio market, but our sweet spot is in allowing people to interact in real time with technology that allows people listening to a live audio stream to call in via their phone and chat with hosts/guests.  Since hosts can use text chat to communicate as well, and mix in pre-recorded mp3's to a live stream, the experience for listeners is the same as when they listen via terrestrial radio.

However, our chief value in terms of market need is in building community. In just over one year, our thousands of hosts/publishers have produced more than 35,000 segments. Notable guests on the network have included Presidential candidates, Academy Award winners, top selling authors and many more. A complete list can be found here.

JW: What sort of equipment does someone need to create their own talk show on BTR?

AL: A computer to program their shows (takes about two minutes to put in a title, pull down a menu to pick a time, etc.) and any type of phone to host their shows.  Listeners can listen online or via their phone to the live shows or listen in demand via a flash player which resides on the hosts blog or RSS into Itunes, Google Reader, etc. There is no download required for the host, listener or guest.

JW: What are some of the common characteristics shared by the most popular talk shows that your service hosts?  What makes them successful?

AL: The characteristics match terrestrial radio or any other form of major media network, which is what we are.  (We call ourselves The Social Broadcast Network).  Our most successful hosts pick a specific niche to focus on, know their topic inside out, are personable/funny/edgy (or a combination of these) and deliver consistent, high-quality shows on a regular basis.  Take our political director, Ed Morrissey (here's his show). Ed's got an extremely popular blog and well respected for his views on Republican/Right issues.  He's gotten John McCain on his show (three times), John Kerry, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Guiliani.  These are top people (and potential Presidents) chatting in an environment where anyone can call in.  That's a powerful medium and our audience knows that (as Ed's numbers show).

JW: You mentioned in an e-mail message to me that BTR is doing a lot with book authors.  Can you share some of the specifics there, what's working and what techniques authors could use on BTR to expand their platform and communicate with their readers?

AL: First off, many authors can't afford a lengthy book tour.  We offer them a "virtual book tour" where they can interact with a live audience while sitting at their desk at home.  Plus (like all of our shows) the archive (mp3/audio file) of the show is available within half an hour after the show is recorded and they get a podcast feed.  This provides authors a series of shows that are available online, 24/7 for readers to get to know their work/voice in a way that instantly builds rapport you can't get from a rear book jacket.

The live element is also great for promotion and contests.  Authors can offer their books at a 10% discount if listeners enter in a pin code just while the show is live and so on.  Having both live and archived shows provides great incentive and opportunity for reader interaction.

Finally, publishers are always looking for innovative ways for their authors to promote their books.  By using our White Label product (our technology on their sites with their branding), they can promote their content, reintroduce successful books to the public and build a community around their authors. There are plenty of advertising and sponsorship opportunities for the publisher and their authors as well.

JW: Individual author talk shows are interesting, but what could we be doing from the publisher/marketer side to tap into the potential of BTR?

AL: Great question and thanks for asking!  We have created a co-branded "Stations" for publishers on the BTR website.  As our site generates millions of unique page views a month and an ever-growing demographic/user base, Stations allow publishers to create their own community on BlogTalkRadio.  This will operate like the rest of our site (live calls that are archived, etc.) but feature the Publisher's branding to increase our visitor's awareness of their books/authors.  We can also individualize sponsors/advertisers for their Station and insert customized audio, pre-roll ads in the archived shows. Authors can also be included in BTR's program guide under their unique category (i.e. sports, politics, etc) to provide additional exposure to the author and publisher. Finally, while publishers cannot post an Amazon book jacket on their website, there is no such restriction on BTR to post the book jacket on the author's profile page.

Publishers know that typical book buyers go to Amazon online or Barnes & Noble in person.  So any way to enhance the publisher brand and build reader interaction with their authors is essential.  By creating a co-branded Station (on our site or off), Publishers can create a unique community around their brand and generate book sales while enhancing the visitor/reader experience.

P.S. -- Here's a link to a PDF you can download called "The Digital Podium" which talks about BTR's Virtual Book Tour platform.

Sprint's Ambassador Program Rocks

SprintAfter almost 2 months of free Ambassador service from Sprint I have to admit that I'm hooked.  I'm dreading that day in September when Sprint ends my 6-month trial.

What's so great about it?:

The phone -- I love the form factor of the M610 they sent me.  It's small enough to slip into any size pocket and not too small so that it's easily lost.  It's also loaded with features.

The music -- I've been an XM subscriber for about a year now and figured I wouldn't get much use out of the Sirius service in this phone.  Wrong.  Not only do I use it almost as much as my XM device, it's much more reliable and portable than the XM player.  Yes, the channel selection is limited and yes, there are still the occasional skips as the signal synchs, but it's still a great part of the overall service.

The GPS -- I've never had a cellphone with GPS built into it before but boy is it handy!  The updates as you're driving probably aren't as precise as a dedicated GPS device, but it's definitely "good enough" (and then some) to help you find your way.

The camera -- Yeah, it's only a 2-megapixel camera, but it's not so much the quality of the photos as the rapid uploading and e-mail capabilities of the network that get my attention.  I've used the camera on a couple of trips now and e-mailing the pictures is not only easy but extremely fast.

Finally, there's the overall service.  I've tested this in Indiana, New York, New Jersey and Florida.  The results: great signal strength and very clear audio.

It really makes me wish I wasn't already signed up for another year or two for my family's cellphone plan at Cingular...  (Btw, Cingular has been an excellent carrier for my family over the last 3 years, and much, much better than the experience I had with Verizon!)