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4 posts from March 2011

Tools of Change Bologna

Our Tools of Change (TOC) conference took another global step forward this past weekend as we held our first event at the Bologna Children's Book Fair.  Both Publishers Weekly and Publishing Perspectives wrote terrific summaries of TOC Bologna but I thought I'd take a few minutes to pass along my own observations:

I loved keynoter (and Nosy Crow chief) Kate Wilson's thoughts on how an ebook should be a "living, breathing, evolving thing with third-party input."  What a huge step forward that is from the world of static print books!

Kate also reminded the audience about the difference between the impulse purchase potential of brick-and-mortar stores and how that's so lacking in the largely destination purchase online world.  It sparked a number of comments throughout the day about just how bad discoverability is in the iTunes App Store.  Whoever solves this problem will be a hero to many.

One last plug for Nosy Crow...  It's wonderful that their digital products feature in-app user feedback.  They're actively encouraging their customers to tell them what they like or dislike, all from within the product itself.  Sure, there are other apps that do this but Kate Wilson made it clear this feature is as important as anything else in the app.

Marie-Adele Murray of Winged Chariot noted how app icons are the new book cover.  Stop and think about that for a bit and consider how it affects your branding message.  How do you condense a visual from what's usually at least 5x8 inches into something smaller than a postage stamp?  And if you have a series of products that lend themselves to a simple visual representation, do you still have enough room to distinguish one from the other in their app icons?  The best example I've seen of this is with a few different travel guide series in the iTunes App Store.  One series might have a graphic of an airplane on all their icons and each title is differentiated by the three-letter airport code for that destination.  Simple and effective, but how many other products lend themselves to something so intuitive?

Sara Berliner of ScrollMotion talked about the importance of cross-platform content development.  As she put it, "consumers want to know they can find your content anywhere."  Yes!  That's precisely why I buy my ebooks from Amazon and not Apple.  I know that if I abandon my iPad/iPhone combo for something else my Kindle library won't be locked into Apple's hardware platform.  Amazon was smart to offer Kindle reading apps for all popular platforms, but what about all those apps you're creating for either iOS or Android?...  What happens if HP's webOS or Microsoft's Windows 7 become the dominant platforms?  Amazon is covered but how many others will be?

I almost missed Joe Schick's talk about the Blio platform...I'm glad I didn't.  Blio is an e-reader app (not a hardware platform) that's currently available only for Windows.  Additional platforms will be offered shortly.  The app renders PDFs and EPUB files and although that doesn't exactly sound newsworthy, I see an application for this that I mentioned to Joe after his session: Blio could be a terrific white-label option to any publisher who hasn't yet implemented their own direct ecommerce solution.  Don't laugh.  There are way too many publishers out there who still are not selling their ebooks directly.  If you're one of them you should check out Blio.

Another popular topic, the debate about DRM, was discussed several times throughout the day.  Brian O'Leary of Magellan Media covered the results of some of his recent research showing that there's no correlation between piracy and whether or not a book is DRM-free.  In fact there are quite a few digital versions of books floating around out there that were never offered as ebooks to begin with.  Publishers, stop punishing your customers with DRM!!  Brian also made an excellent point about how piracy often indicates a demand for your content resulting from the fact that people can't get it locally in a legal manner.

The trio of O'Reilly's Kat Meyer, the Bologna Book Fair's Roberta Chinni and Winged Chariot's Neal Hoskins did an excellent job on this outstanding event.  I can't wait for next year's TOC here.  On top of all that, the food was excellent and the weather was perfect!

Where's Our Industry's GarageBand?

If you own an iPad you've absolutely got to purchase the GarageBand app.  It's the best $4.99 you'll spend this week.  I don't care if you've never played a musical instrument in your life.  You need this app.

Why am I so fascinated by GarageBand?  FIrst off, it's a blast to play with.  You'll be amazed at how good your creations sound and how far your talents can take you even if you can't tell a quarter note from a half note.  Next, I'm finding it to be an incredibly inspiring experience.

Think about how hard it's been over the years to compose music, even something simple.  In the pre-computer days you had to write it all down on blank sheet music.  Composers painstakingly wrote every note for every instrument.  Now a tool like GarageBand not only lets you record the virtual instruments you play on-screen but it also provides an enormous amount of guidance, helping you sound a lot better than you really are.

What I love most about GarageBand is that it encourages experimentation and discovery.  How will that rock guitar sound with this drumbeat?  What if I overlay this bass line with that series of chords?

Now put this in terms of authoring tools.  Most ebooks you read today began life as a manuscript written in a word processor.  Sure, we're starting to add bits of video and audio now that mobile devices (including tablets) are quickly gaining popularity.  But I feel like our authoring tools in general are still stuck in the stone age.  For the most part, we're stuck in place using the existing tools, most of which haven't evolved much in the past 10-15 years, while trying to create something richer and more interesting.

What if we had a content authoring platform as elegant and engaging as GarageBand?  Experienced authors would find new ways to tell their stories, share their how-to knowledge, etc.  But one of the great things about GarageBand is that it's a great enabler for non-musicians.  What about all those people out there who have never written their story, shared their knowledge, etc.?  Would a new, powerful authoring platform like this encourage them to explore, experiment and come up with new types of content than we ever imagined before?  I think so.

The Amazon Android Tablet I'd Buy

Amazon is apparently preparing to launch an Android App Store as early as this month.  Meanwhile, GigaOm's Kevin C. Tofel talks about how the real iPad challenge might come from Amazon in the form of an Android tablet.  I love it!

Why?  I could easily jump from iPhone/iPad to the Android platform this summer because my AT&T contract expires in June.  If the Samsung Galaxy Tablet I tried at the AT&T store recently is any indication, nobody is offering a compelling iPad alternative on the Android platform...yet.  Amazon could be uniquely positioned to do just that.

It's pretty clear that Steve Jobs was partially right a few years ago when he said, "People don't read anymore."  The comparison of apps, songs and books downloaded through iTunes might lead you to believe Steve was totally right.  What's missing from that chart though is information on book downloads from Amazon, B&N, etc.,  for customers using those other apps on their iPad.  In other words, people are still reading books...they're just not buying those books through the iBookstore.  No wonder Apple wants to start enforcing that in-app purchase policy.

The irony in all this is that a major book retailer already has an Android tablet.  Sort of.  The retailer is B&N and the pseudo-tablet is called Nook Color.  I call it a pseudo-tablet because it's really indended to be an ereader with a few add-on apps.  In order to get the full Android potential out of a Nook Color you have to hack it, thereby voiding the warranty.  Some owners are doing that but most are stuck with the limited functionality B&N intended for it.  That's too bad.

Could Amazon make the same mistake?  Sure, but I hope not.  There are two reasons they might though.  The first one has to do with customer support.  The Android platform isn't as tightly controlled as Apple's iOS.  Even though Amazon could decide when and what OS updates to push out there are all those third-party apps that make support that much harder.  That's a somewhat legitimate issue, but not anything that's insurmountable.

The other reason Amazon could follow B&N's lead though has to do with concerns over other e-reader apps on the Android platform.  Would Amazon really want to develop and sell their own Android app if other ebook retailers could offer apps for it?  I hope so.  The winner in the ebook retailer game won't be the one who builds the most walls around their platform.  This game will be won by the retailer with the best reader app, one that keeps adding more and more innovative functionality and isn't limited to just one hardware platform like the iBookstore is.

Amazon, if you get into the Android tablet market, do it with an open product.  Make it one I want to run out and buy, not something that concerns me with too many restrictions and limitations.

P.S. -- B&N, you guys are already more than halfway there with Color Nook.  It would be a shame to see Amazon steal a page from your playbook and create a better mousetrap.  If you're serious about competing here you should take the lead and make the Color Nook the true Android tablet it deserves to be.

Helping Bookstores Remain Relevant

I can't tell you the last print book I bought.  Ever since I got a Kindle more than 3 years ago I've gone almost exclusively with ebooks.  Despite that fact, I visit any one of several local bookstores at least once a week.  I go there because I'm able to browse and discover products in a way that I simply can't do online.

My iPhone is always with me when I'm in the bookstore.  Many times I've found a book that interests me, I pick it up and browse through it, then pull out my iPhone, open the Kindle app and grab the ebook sample (assuming one exists).  I've even bought Kindle ebooks on the spot in a bookstore with my iPhone.  I feel bad, sort of, but it makes me realize the enormous opportunity brick-and-mortar bookstores are missing out on.

I should also mention that I have several other bookstore apps on my iPhone including ones from Barnes & Noble and Borders.  I've never pulled either one of those out while I'm in those stores.  Never.  Why would I?  All my ebooks are in my Kindle library and none of these other e-tailers have given me a compelling reason to switch.

There's something the physical bookstores could do to stop me from constantly defaulting to the Kindle app: Build functionality into their own mobile app that makes me want to go to their brick-and-mortar store.  Here's what I'm talking about:

  • Use location-based services built into pretty much every smartphone to know when I'm in one of your stores.
  • When I open your app and you've detected I'm in-store, offer me special deals which are only good for the next hour.  Make sure all the deals are fully redeemable using only my smartphone app.  Don't email me coupons.  Push them into the app so I can just flash my iPhone at the checkout counter and be on my way without fumbling through my email inbox.
  • If you sell your own reader device, don't make me bring it to your store for all this.  My iPhone is always by my side but I refuse to bring a larger device just to get a deal.  All the promotions and redemptions need to happen with nothing more than my smartphone.  Plus, I probably don't even own your device.  I'm happy reading my ebooks on an iPad today, I might switch to an Android tablet soon and I don't want to be locked into your hardware platform tomorrow.
  • Most importantly, since I'll soon be using your reader app, not Amazon's, you'll know my reading focus the deals on the things I tend to buy.
  • Offer specials on ebooks, print books as well as combinations.  And don't forget about all the other things you sell in your store (remember the cafe!).  If I'm standing in your store and I just bought the ebook version of the latest Mickey Mantle bestseller, make me an offer on the Major League Baseball preseason guide you sell in the magazine section.
  • Take a page out of Groupon's play book.  Use your nifty new app to track how many customers with common interests are currently standing in your stores.  Push a message like this to all of them: "You're a history buff but you've never bought this great ebook about FDR.  If at least 100 of you commit to buying it in the next 10 minutes we'll give you all a special discount of x%.  Stop by the Biography section to browse the book and see why we think it's perfect for you."
  • Surprise me!  Use this app's services to make me want to visit your brick-and-mortar store more frequently!

Everything described above should be free to anyone.  All they have to do is download your free smartphone app and create an account with you.  But don't stop there.  Offer a more exclusive membership program for an annual fee where I'll get even more deals than non-members receive.  How about giving paying members access to lengthier ebook samples?  I'd love that!

Finally, ask all customers to opt in to an anonymous data collection program so that you can analyze the results of all these terrific campaigns and use that data to create even better ones tomorrow.  And don't forget you could also sell that information to publishers.

If you do all this I promise I'll start using your apps and I guarantee you'll see more purchases from me.