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5 posts from October 2013

Byliner and the art of curation

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.

Following authors and subscribing to content streams

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.)

Curation and discovery

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.

Pricing and length

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.

Terrific iPad app

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.

Kindle Singles and the future of ebooks

"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:

  1. End the practice of artificially puffing up content
    The greatest aspect of Kindle Singles is, of course, their short length. The first one I read was a Single about media and I remember thinking how a typical business book editor would have asked the author to turn this 30-page gem into a bloated 300-page mess. It happens all the time and it's a function of both physical shelf presence and perceived value. In the ebook world there's suddenly no physical bookshelf an individual title has to have a spine presence on. Now we just need to stop equating "shorter" with "cheaper"...more on that in a moment.
  2. Attention spans are shrinking
    Face it. With very few exceptions you're probably thrilled to read all this short-form content that didn't exist 10 years ago. Blogs, no matter what they're called, are very popular. Then came Twitter with its 140-character bursts of information. Let's also not forget about all the other terrific short-form content services like Byliner that we've grown to love. Shortened content is also why The Week is such a popular magazine. Kindle Singles is just tapping into our desire to find the Cliff's Notes on everything so that we can quickly read it and move on.
  3. Amazon becomes the publisher
    Amazon has always been about disintermediation and squeezing margins. What better way to do so than by cutting out one of the foodchain's biggest pieces, the publisher. Horror stories have always been told of how certain bestsellers were rejected by editors from multiple publishing houses. And just how much value does the typical publisher add to a book these days? That's become a very difficult question for publishers to answer, especially in light of all the self-publishing options that offer significantly higher royalty rates. Amazon continues creating new imprints and adding staff. Don't let flops like Tim Ferris' latest book throw you off; Bezos always takes the long-term view, so a few high-profile disappointments won't deter Amazon's plans.
  4. Kill the competition (publishers and retailers)
    Amazon didn't kill Borders but they certainly hastened their demise. B&N continues struggling. Publishers are cutting staff and trying to find their way forward. Amazon isn't going to wake up one day and discover they have the market to themselves...but, every year they'll have more marketshare and clout. Think Microsoft of the 1990's, but multiply that by 2 since it's not just product dominance but retail/distribution dominance as well.
  5. Raise short content prices to today's longer content levels
    Amazon is unprofitable today but that doesn't deter Wall Street. Investors believe short term losses will lead to significant long term gains with Amazon. Although Amazon is OK with selling a lot of ebooks at a loss today, they won't be able to do that forever. And they won't have to. After all, once item #4 takes place there's no reason for Amazon to sell all those ebooks at a loss. There's also no reason for them to equate "short" with "cheap."
In short, pun intended, Singles go from being a publishing experiment in short-form, low-priced content to the standard model of content creation and consumption. Prices for Singles content go up over time too as Amazon realizes competition is limited and "short" really doesn't have to mean "cheap."

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.

Global Ebook Market Report

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.

Statistics skew reality: Average adult reads a book a month

Screen Shot 2013-10-07 at 9.18.24 AMPoll 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.