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.

Chromecast needs a killer app

Judging by the ongoing out-of-stock situations it's safe to say demand for Google's Chromecast device remains strong. One of my local Best Buy stores finally had them in stock so I grabbed one. My one-word review: Meh. I don't regret buying Chromecast but I can't find a killer app for it.

If you're not familiar with Chromecast all you need to know is that it allows you to wirelessly stream content from your computer or mobile device to your TV. It's an indirect method, as the content on your tablet/laptop gets sent to your router and then over to the Chromecast device in your TV. On the surface, that's nice. After all, projecting video from your computer to your living room screen without a bunch of cables is handy. On the other hand, the apps that support Chromecast are limited. Anything in the Chrome browser works but few mobile apps are supported. That means I can stream games from my NHL Gamecenter subscription but I have to do so within the browser, not through the Gamecenter app on my iPad.

I'd love to see Chromecast work with PowerPoint. Most conference rooms have HD TVs but sometimes the right connection dongle isn't handy. It would be great if I could just plug Chromecast into the TV and project the deck wirelessly but that's not an option yet.

YouTube, Hulu and NetFlix all work fine as well, but what's the point? My Samsung LED TV has apps built in to let me watch streaming movies anyway. All I have to do is plug a USB WiFi stick into the TV and I have full web access. Granted, managing it with my TV's remote is a hassle, so Chromecast has that advantage since you control it with your tablet or laptop.

The only use-case I can think of that really lends itself to Chromecast is video-based training. Even though you can obviously do this on one screen or a computer with a second monitor, I see the benefit of having the instructor on a much larger TV, especially if there's a whiteboard or other region to focus on besides the talking head. Learning to code, for example, would really lend itself to the instructor, their source code and whiteboard on your TV and the programming environment on your computer.

I'm also surprised there aren't any great Chromecast hacks yet. If you search for hacks or novel applications you'll be disappointed. Chromecast seems like the type of device that hackers would love to enhance, and you'd think Google would fully support their efforts.

I'll still use my Chromecast, probably a few times a week. I also plan to take it on the road since at some point I'd like to think PowerPoint access will be supported. And since most hotels have complementary WiFi I should be able to watch NHL games at night via my Gamecast subscription on the TV rather than on my smaller computer/tablet screen.

So for $35 Chromecast is a fairly small investment but its limited functionality holds it back from being worth so much more.

Newspapers as disruptors

That seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? After all, newspapers are the ones that have been disrupted the past several years. True, but Matt Sokoloff recently wrote a very interesting article suggesting that newspapers are about to disrupt local TV. Yeah, I laughed too when I first considered it. But do yourself a favor and read Sokoloff's piece. It's one of the insightful pieces on the newspaper that I've read.

He paints a picture of local TV being fat and happy while the newspapers are desperate for survival. And, true to The Innovator's Dilemma, which Sokoloff references in the article, the TV industry is likely to be caught completely off-guard by an unexpected competitor.

The disrupted becomes the disruptor. How cool is that?

Bundled vs. a la carte content

Once upon a time when you liked a song and wanted to own it you had to buy the entire album it appeared on. It didn't matter if the other 11 tracks were terrible. You were forced to buy them all.

That all changed in the digital era, of course, and now we can buy tracks individually. Consider that a victory for the a la carte model.

Spotify and a number of other all-you-can-listen-to music streaming services then arrived on the scene, further disrupting the music industry. There was a time when I insisted on owning my music, not renting it. I guess I've evolved though since I can't tell you the last time I bought a track but I know I've listened to Spotify several times in the past week. Advantage, bundled content...or is that just a new, even more liberating way to enjoy a la carte music?

Let's shift the focus to books. Many publishers, myself included, made the mistake of thinking books are like music and we should make them available by the chapter. Oops. That hasn't worked yet and I'm not sure it ever will. It's more accurate for me to say that I don't think it will ever work on a wide variety of genres; some, like cookbooks, lend themselves to it, but the typical book doesn't. Looks like bundled content wins here.

A more appropriate example in the book world would be one of the many all-you-can-read ebook subscription services. They've been moderately successful so far and I think there's a great deal of genre-specific upside here (e.g., broad ebooks subscriptions for sports, history, etc.) Again, bundled content looks like a winner.

How about shorter-form written content, like newspapers and magazines? Up to now we've been forced to subscribe to the whole paper or issue. Publishers haven't been willing to let us pick and choose the topics, writers, etc., that we want. I think that will change in the not-too-distant future. I'd love to be able to select my favorite columnists, sports, locations, etc., and create my own custom product. In this space, bundling is the only option today but a la carte looks very promising.

I mention all this because of an article I read recently about how cable TV's pricing model is supposedly unfair. The article's author notes we're forced to pay for a lot of channels we never watch. True, but what happens when that content is unbundled? If ESPN costs every cable customer $5/month does it really remain $5/month if only half the households in an a la carte world sign up for it? Highly unlikely. So in many respects, non-sports fans are helping subsidize my ESPN habit while I'm helping subsidize their Travel and Lifetime channel habits.

You don't have to look any further than Comcast's "triple play" model to see how bundles are often a better financial option than a la carte services.

My point here is that bundling and a la carte shouldn't be considered mutually exclusive. We've seen some areas where both work well while other segments tend to favor one over the other. So why not offer both and let the customer decide? But as a consumer, don't fall into the trap the author of that cable TV pricing article did and assume that adding one magically leads to lower prices.

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!


Content Lessons Learned from NHL GameCenter LIVE

I'm a huge hockey fan and even though I pay Comcast extra for the NHL Network I only get to see a few games a week, most of which don't interest me. I want to see my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they're not on the cable channels frequently enough. I'd like to have access to every Penguins game and the only option for that is NHL's GameCenter LIVE subscription. It costs $169 though and, being a cheapskate, I resisted signing up...till now.

I coughed up $169 over the weekend and I'm glad I did. Now that I've used the service for a few days I've discovered there are a number of lessons GameCenter can teach those of us who manage other types of content:

The ongoing value of the direct sale -- When you sell direct you capture 100% of the transaction. There's no middleman. So now the NHL has a direct relationship with me and I'm no longer some unknown customer with Comcast in the middle. The NHL now has an excellent opportunity to upsell to me, especially since they'll quickly discover my preferences.

Trust your customers -- I was amazed to discover that I could use my GameCenter account on more than one device at the same time. That means I can watch one game on my iPad while another is playing on my computer. I'm assuming this means I'll be able to share my account with my son (who's also a big NHL fan). If so, we could both watch the same or different games simultaneously. That was a very pleasant surprise, btw, as I expected them to lock the second device out. Think of this as the equivalent to a DRM-free ebook. I'm sure the NHL doesn't want me posting my account credentials for anyone to use but their system is loose enough to surprise and delight. I can't wait to watch two games simultaneously (on different devices) when a couple of good ones are on at the same time! Btw, this is how all types of content access should work. But with all the restrictions and limitations we encounter every day in the digital world I was blown away to see how liberal GameCenter's access policies are. This makes me like them and their product even more. Trust is an amazing thing, isn't it? :-)

Make sure your content is available everywhere (including direct!) -- This sounds so obvious but it's so frequently overlooked. Sure, some of the NHL content was available to me via cable but I wanted more. Are you only making your e-content available on the "big" sites? Are those sites reaching all your potential global customers? Probably not. Once again, that's why you need a strong direct sales presence and the ability to serve that content globally.

Make sure it's on every platform -- I can watch games on any of my devices. That includes Mac, Windows, iPad, Android phone, and yes, even my Blackberry Playbook. Are all of your ebooks available in EPUB, mobi and PDF? Those are the key three today and if your content isn't available in all of those formats you're definitely missing some platform opportunities. More importantly, when a customer buys your product do they receive it in all those formats? Unless you're selling it directly as a multi-format product (like we do on oreilly.com) I'll bet the answer to that is no. Don't force your customers to buy mobi today and epub separately tomorrow, for example. That's irritating. Give them all formats in one transaction. This once again underscores the importance of having a strong direct channel. After all, you're probably safe assuming the big e-tailers are only going to offer the format that best suits their needs, not the customer's.

Pricing shouldn't be a race to the bottom -- At first that $169 price tag sounded awfully rich to me. But the more I looked into the service the more I realized it's actually quite reasonable. That's mostly because the NHL is delivering a very high quality product without the limitations found in other services (e.g., MLB's AtBat). All the games I care about are featured and the video is somewhere between standard and high def; pretty remarkable considering it's coming in via wifi. Every ebook doesn't have to be $9.99 or less. Consider your product's overall value proposition before you give in to the pressures of a low-priced solution.

My Fox Business Interview

Fox Business host Stuart Varney was in fine form today.  If you missed it, Stuart challenged me to defend the publishing business given all the industry threats he sees (e.g., margin erosion, changing reading habits, etc.).  I only had a couple of minutes but I'd like to think I hit on some of the high points to address Stuart's concerns.  Watch the embedded video below and judge for yourself though...

That's Me...on TV...

Fox bizI might not have the time to write a blog post over lunch on Thursday because I'm leaving around noon to do an interview on the Fox Business channel.  That's right.  Set your DVR to record from 1-2 PM (eastern time) tomorrow (Thursday, 7/17) and then get ready to critique my performance.

The interview will be with Fox's Stuart Varney and should air at approximately 1:45 PM.  I'm told he'll be asking me about the current state of the book publishing industry, what the future looks like, etc.  If Fox winds up showing the interview on their website I'll do a follow-up post with a link to it.  Of course, all this is contingent on me not getting preempted by some other more newsworthy topic...so keep your fingers crossed for a slow news day tomorrow.

Adobe Media Player: Nice Features, No Content

AmpCliff Edwards recently wrote this insightful BusinessWeek article about the Adobe Media Player.  I'm a sucker for the latest online video service so I thought I'd give it a try.

The verdict?  Sure, it's yet another nice, slick utility that shows a lot of promise, but where's the content?  The product's home page features a video of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show (one of my favorites), but the service currently offers zero Comedy Central videos (these are listed as "coming soon").  There's a fair amount of content that you're likely to find on a variety of other services, but nothing special to lure you in to the Adobe platform.

On the plus side, if you're a fan of The Twilight Zone, as I am, you'll find a great archive of the Rod Serling classics.  Commercials are included, but hey, we didn't even have remote controls or color TV's (let alone DVRs) when these things originally aired!

TV Rants

TvThe writer's strike is paying dividends for me.  I used to DRV every Tonight Show and Daily Show episode and then just watch the first 15 minutes of each.  Sometimes I'd fall behind though and have to invest a couple of hours in non-stop skimming to catch up.  That hasn't been a problem the past few weeks.  The writer's strike means no new episodes of either show.  NBC is showing really old re-runs (from 1992) and while Leno looked funny at first the novelty quickly wears off.

The result?: I stopped DRV-ing both shows.  I think I've finally weaned myself off the Tonight Show.  I doubt I'll bother recording it after the writer's strike is over.  I can't seem to completely break away from Jon Stewart and the Daily Show though.  I kind of miss that one.  I might drop it as well though if the strike lasts another month or so.

My bigger gripe has to do with two relatively new networks: The Big Ten Network and The NFL Network, neither of which deserve a link.  Both of these greedy networks are taking programming that was once free and making it part of a premium package on cable/satellite.  The Colts game on Thanksgiving night was on the NFL network but broadcast locally so I had a chance to see this channel in action.  Unimpressive.  They somehow managed to find the two least insightful commentators and put them together for one game (Cris Collinsworth and Bryant Gumbel).  A a bonus they periodically showed a "special new feature for the NFL Network."  It was nothing more than pictures from the game.  Is that really groundbreaking?

I haven't seen the Big Ten Network and it wouldn't break my heart if I never do.  Gone are the local broadcasts of Purdue and IU football and basketball games.  Oh well.

The bright side in all of this is that I suddenly have a lot more time to read some of the great books that have piled up at home!