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3 posts from November 2013

The rebirth of paywalls

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.


Death by irrelevance

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.

Snacking vs. dining

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.

Changing expectations

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!

Changing revenue models

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.

Another way for publishers to control their own destiny

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.

Kindle First

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.

Publisher First

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.

Pre-release samples

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.