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5 posts from March 2014

What if digital preceded print?

As the saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I believe that’s the state of the digital content industry and it’s all because print preceded digital.

When you look at a digital newspaper, magazine or book what do you see? My favorite expression for this is “print under glass.” What you see is a replica of the print edition on the digital device. Many of these apps even go to the trouble of simulating the flip of the page. Meanwhile, the same apps ignore the power of the device and offer lame solutions to problems like search.

Tossing in another analogy, our industry is at the same stage TV was in the early days. The first TV shows were nothing more than radio programs in front of a camera. They didn’t take advantage of the visual medium just like we’re not taking advantage of the digital device medium.

We’ve all been using the same hammer for so long that everything we create looks like a print product. Startups are typically in a better position to overcome this bias but they too are still affected by it. They key is to eliminate all thoughts of print and print presentation when reimagining digital. That’s a tall order and I think it forces us all to conjure up our inner Steve Jobs.

Jobs was a magician at making products consumers didn’t know they wanted but immediately fell in love with. He was his own focus group, partly because he realized focus groups can lead to New Coke and oftentimes they just tell you what you think you want to hear.

Rather than thinking of the product and the history of its category, I believe Jobs was able to focus on dramatically improving the user experience. He didn’t care that mobile phones didn’t have an app ecosystem prior to the iPhone. He didn’t care that the pundits mocked the thought of an oversized iPhone as tablet.

We too need to put aside all the print history and tendencies and focus instead on how to create dramatically improved user experiences. I don’t believe the solution here is simply print under glass. We need to get past the current “radio program in front of a camera” stage. We also need to be bolder with our experimentation. As this wonderful video pokes fun at, the transition from scrolls to bound books wasn’t that hard, so why are we so reluctant to abandon the print UI and move on to a dramatically better digital UI? 

Airplanes as storefronts

Have you seen the “Seat Monitors” ad by Southwest Airlines? They recognize the fact that most travelers already have a laptop or tablet with them, so why install all those expensive (and heavy) seat back video screens?

United Airlines is taking the next logical step with this. Starting next month you’ll be able to stream a wide variety of TV shows and movies to your tablet or laptop, all for free.

The United solution is a terrific option for consumers and it got me thinking about the opportunity for publishers. Why not turn all those airplanes, and the millions of travelers they hold captive, into an enormous unlimited content sampling service?

Which airline will be the first to take United’s TV/movie model and extend it into books, newspapers and magazines? 

What if those onboard servers United plans to use for video also had all of today’s newspapers, the latest editions of magazines and maybe a million or so ebooks? I’m not talking about samples, btw; I mean the entire ebook, newspaper and magazine. This content would be streamed to the traveler’s tablet or laptop, just like the video, so it would only be accessible in the air.

Why would publishers agree to this? Two words: discoverability and sponsorships.

Ever see an interesting magazine cover in an airport newsstand but you can’t justify buying or lugging it around in your bag? That same magazine suddenly becomes more appealing when it’s freely available as an e-zine on your flight.

Curious to know what’s front-page news in cities like LA or Chicago? Good luck finding those papers in the San Francisco airport. Getting access to The LA Times or Chicago Tribune e-editions while you’re inflight almost makes you want to board that plane sooner. Almost.

What about that book you’ve considered buying but you’re not sure you’ll like it? The sample on Amazon turned was too short to help you figure out whether it’s worth buying. Now you’ve got 4 hours on a flight from Denver to Newark to dig a bit deeper, all without spending a penny on it.

Each of these scenarios represents an opportunity for a publisher to get their content in front of consumers who are interested in reading it. Now that you’ve got them engaging with your content offer them a subscription plan they can’t resist. If they only get 4 chapters into the 36-chapter book, they’ll either buy it now or realize they didn’t like it after all. Either way, the author and book publisher have gone further with that prospective reader than they could have without this service.

Then there’s the sponsorship opportunity. The airline could have a new sponsor every month to help fund this initiative. The messaging could be something like, “This flight’s free newsstand and bookshelf are brought to you by Samsung, the leaders in consumer electronics.” It’s another way for sponsors to get their message out and make a great impression on consumers. Some of that sponsorship income would be passed along to participating publishers.

You could take this a step further and use the service as an opt-in mechanism for newsletters or prospective customer acquisition. I know the privacy advocates hate this, but plenty of consumers are more than willing to share their name and email address in exchange for discounts and free access to valuable products and services.

When most of us board a plane we often have our time planned out. You need to read a report, catch up on a few emails, or maybe sit back and flip through a newspaper or watch a video. Sometimes it’s nice to discover something new though. A free service like what I’ve described here would be embraced by a lot of travelers and would also likely lead to more content discovery and subsequent purchases.

Lose control of your content


When recently being interviewed for the release of my urban fantasy novel Dying for a Living, I was struck by this question: You give away a lot of free books…Why?

It is a legitimate question. After all, why wouldn’t people be curious as to why I gave away my book for free? Yet the question hung on, following me, popping up again and again—as I made a cup of tea, when I sat down to work, as I slipped on my coat and prepared to step out into the day—and it was only later that I realized why this was such a fascinating question.

First of all, artists are generally very protective of their work. And why shouldn’t they be? We spend a good deal of energy creating it and then a good deal more advocating for its right to life, to exposure. Then when the dissenters roll in, we spend yet more energy defending it—which is to say that may aspects of the creative process engage the professional artist in this particular way, eliciting specifically these kinds of reactions—the desire to control one’s own content.

And this raw emotion is further complicated in the digital age. Three hundred years ago, an author did not have to worry about a pirate running off into the night with a million copies of their book. What pirate would want to carry that many books? It would be too cumbersome for the heister to imagine such a thing.

But now, as your eBook sits so vulnerably exposed on the World Wide Web, piracy of that volume is possible. Even seeing the words together World Wide Web brings to mind a kind of Earth-sized book-eating spider that will run off with that novel you gained fifteen pounds while writing. Has no one respect for your sacrifices?

For these reasons, I acknowledge that today’s artist certainly has fresh challenges in comparison to generations’ past. But I also want to entertain the idea that one could “lose control” of their content, and it will still be okay. The more important questions: Do you have faith in your content? Did you create your content for the purpose of sharing it? For creating that magical reading experience for someone, as it was once created for you?

If the answers to these questions are yes, then piracy is not the problem.

Neil Gaiman has some wonderful thoughts on this and you can learn more about them here.

Gaiman makes the wonderful point that most people find their favorite writer (or favorite artist) through the free route—from a book in the library, from a friend, etc.

When you lose control of your content, when your goal is create magic rather than horde your materials, you increase the risk of finding those adoring fans. Those people who will buy all of your work, follow your blog, your process, come to your readings, viewings, etc. These are the people who tell everyone about you—your greatest marketers.

There could be many, many of these people out there—but not unless they know about you. And that is Gaiman’s argument, I believe, that the people who will truly support you and bolster your career, will not pirate your work.

So for this reason, it is best to relax your grip on your content. You don’t have to throw everything you’ve ever created into the wind, but you can relax.

Of course, there are supplemental considerations for the professional artist as to whether or not “free” is best for you. Evidence suggests that it helps your “weaker” projects sell more but hinders your bestsellers. You should read Joe’s article on this here before making any decisions about your content.

But what I’m proposing—for myself as much as anyone else—is that we move through the digital age with a little less fear regarding our content. Have a little more faith that—just as the right books came to us at the right time—that our work will find its audience*. We should focus on sharing the magic that drew us into this business. And if we believe in our content, then we know the magic is there. We just have to release it.

*with the help of marketing, of course. Take a bit of responsibility!

This article was written by contributor Kory M. Shrum, poet and author of Dying for  a Living. Her poetry has appeared in North American Review, Bateau, and elsewhere. She lives in Michigan with her partner and a ferocious guard pug. When not writing, she can be found teaching, traveling, and wearing a gi.

What can we learn from Getty’s new free, embed model?

Getty Images made an interesting content-usage model announcement last week. After years of playing whack-a-mole with everyone who’s ever stolen one of their images, Getty decided to embrace the free model for a portion of their library. You’ll find additional details on this here and here.

As a wise man once said, you can significantly reduce piracy if you make your content available at a reasonable price and in a convenient format.

OK, free is a pretty radical price and of course piracy evaporates when content becomes free. But it’s important to note that Getty isn’t just giving up and letting pirates have their way. They’ve introduced a model that I think could become a viable template for other types of content.

Note that Getty isn’t saying everyone can now just copy and paste the images into their sites. Getty is instead providing a snippet of HTML code you’ll use to legally embed the images on your site. This approach offers a number of benefits for Getty including tracking and, more importantly, a new potential revenue stream.

By embedding the code in your site Getty will be able to gather data about where their images are being viewed and who is viewing them. This data could eventually be valuable to Getty as they’ll suddenly have access to plenty of metrics they knew nothing about before. Unless you’ve been hibernating the past few years you know that big data can be quite valuable and it’s easy to see how Getty’s data will become big rather quickly.

What’s even more intriguing to me is how Getty will be able to control how those images are rendered on your site. The images live on Getty’s servers, much like YouTube videos live on Google’s servers.

Do you remember when YouTube videos didn’t have pre-roll ads? These days it’s rare to watch any YouTube video without first having to sit through a short ad. 

Will embedded Getty images soon have ads in them? Maybe. It makes sense for Getty to at least experiment with ads. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to study all that data they’re gathering to determine the viability of ads with images.

What about other types of content? Magazine and newspaper articles come to mind. How often is that content illegally copied and pasted onto someone’s website? How often is the same content scraped off the publisher’s website and dropped into an app? The app might give credit to the publisher, and even offer a link to where the content originally appears on the publisher’s site, but how many times do readers get what they need from the ad-free scraped version and never click through to the publisher’s site? How many ad impressions are lost as a result?

What if publishers offered a model like Getty’s, so someone could grab a snippet of code to embed the article in their own site? That version would provide data and a possible advertising opportunity, just like Getty’s.

OK, I think I know what would happen… Most publishers would resist, saying they want the traffic coming to their own site and threatening legal action against anyone who copies and pastes illegally. The smart publisher, on the other hand, would instead embrace this for the data and new, alternative revenue opportunities it represents.

I can’t wait to see how Getty’s model evolves and whether it will expand into other types of content.

Oyster Books: Disrupting the disruptor

Remember how disruptive the $9.99 ebook pricing model was when the Kindle launched in 2007? It set the standard for how much consumers expected to pay for an ebook. It was also a price far less than consumers were accustomed to paying for the same book in print format.

Amazon has evolved a bit since then and now also offers the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) program, where Amazon Prime members can borrow one book a month from a catalog of more than 500,000 titles. Since KOLL is free with your Prime membership the perceived value of KOLL-eligible ebooks drops even further.

I recently signed up for a similar model from Oyster: $9.95 per month provides unlimited access to Oyster’s 100,000+ ebook catalog. I’m sure some of these books are part of KOLL, so why would I pay an additional $9.95/month for Oyster?

One (hyphenated) word: All-you-can-read. 

Oyster definitely has a no-frills feel to it. It’s currently only available on iOS and you won’t find a lot of bells and whistles with their reader app.

But Oyster also has a lot of great books I’m interested in, including several I hadn’t discovered before. In fact, I’m finding there are so many to read that I can’t possibly get to all of them anytime soon. 

Here’s the problem traditional ebook retailers should worry about: A model like Oyster’s starts to squeeze out the other books I thought about reading. Ebooks you absolutely want to read will still be bought if they’re not part of an all-you-can-read subscription, but all others become irrelevant.

Why would I spend $10 for an ebook that’s not a “must read” for me when I can find plenty of others I want to read that are part of my $10/month, unlimited subscription? I had more than a dozen samples queued up in my Kindle account to read and now I don’t care about any of them.

How can Amazon compete with this? Their KOLL program is hamstrung by their existing deals with publishers. Publisher resistance is undoubtedly the reason KOLL only lets you read one book per month. Oyster, on the other hand, had no existing model or agreement with publishers and can therefore build their model and publisher relationship from scratch.

That sounds like a chapter from The Innovator’s Dilemma, doesn’t it? And how ironic that this disruption is happening to arguably the biggest disruptor of the Internet era?

Oyster’s catalog only has 100,000 titles so it’s clear many publishers aren’t participating. That’s OK though. I checked out a couple of my favorite genres and quickly found more than 10 titles I can’t wait to read.

The Oyster model further tilts the market towards the risk-takers as well as the self-publishing houses. The naysayers and other publishers who sit on the sidelines will need a compelling reason for consumers to pay full price for their ebooks and they’ll risk giving further ground to other, lesser-known titles and authors.

What a great time to be a reader…but what a challenging time to be a publisher or author. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see how an all-you-can-read model chokes the revenue stream for publishers and authors. This model may be new to written content but it’s been around awhile in the music sector thanks to Pandora and Spotify.

What sort of pain can book publishers and authors expect if Oyster and other all-you-can-read models take off? Check out this musician’s story. Her music was streamed 2.8 million times but generated only $5,022, or less than two-tenths of a penny per stream. What we don’t know is how many of those streams led to someone buying one of her tracks or albums. That type of upside potential is more likely in the music market than it is in the ebook market though.

Will Oyster cause the existing ebook model to implode? No, of course not. Amazon will probably use Oyster as leverage with publishers to create something even more compelling than KOLL. That, or they’ll just buy Oyster with Jeff Bezos pocket change. I hope the latter doesn’t happen though since it will be interesting to see how much of an impact Oyster can have on the current market.