How print is slowly killing publishers
A business model I’m sorry we’ll never see

Giving readers what they truly crave

Publishers need to take a page out of the retailer playbook. You’ve undoubtedly noticed how good certain online retailers are at suggesting additional products related to the one you’re about to purchase.

Amazon is arguably the king here with their “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” recommendation sections. These elements typically appear just below the product image and above the product details. That’s prime real estate on the Amazon product page so you can bet these elements drive a lot of add-on sales.

You’re probably familiar with content recommendation links and widgets that have sprouted up all over the web the past few years. Taboola is a leader in this space and they specialize in offering links to related content from other publishers. For example, if you’re reading an article on USA Today’s website you’ll see a headline towards the bottom that says “Sponsor Content” followed by links to a handful of related articles from other sources.

I believe this is simply scratching the surface of content recommendation and we’ll see much more sophisticated cross-pollination in the coming months and years. I also believe many of these will be human-curated and implemented via a lightweight post-production model. An example will help illustrate.

One of the most popular books of the past few years is Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the inspiring story of Louis Zamperini and his journey from juvenile delinquent to Olympic athlete and war hero. It’s a must-read for everyone, btw.

As I read Unbroken a couple of years ago I kept finding myself looking for more details about Zamperini’s life. This led to countless Google searches, YouTube video sessions and other random website visits. Imagine how much more valuable that ebook could be if the best of those other resources were integrated within the ebook. I’m not just talking about an assortment of embedded links. You can get that today in any ebook. I mean integrating the content right there in the ebook, so you never have to leave the ebook reading environment.

Yes, there will be some consumers who prefer a clean reading experience, with nothing but the words the author wrote. For those consumers you simply offer a button to hide the additional elements. But for readers like myself, who walked away from that book looking for more, this additional layer of content is extremely valuable.

Take this a step further and imagine what we can do with a federation of publishers who are willing to share their content with other publishers to create more compelling, valuable products. In my earlier example I suggested curating content that’s out on the open web. Now I’m talking about getting access to paid content and integrating elements of it with other paid content products. The revenue sharing details have to be hammered out but this mashup model will undoubtedly become more widely used in the future.

This doesn’t just apply to ebooks, btw. Every type of content is a candidate for this model. And as publishers get more comfortable with this approach they’ll start to enable curation from outside their organizations. Crowdsourcing is the extreme here, but even opening their content up to a smaller, controlled group of curation experts would be a huge step forward for most publishers.

What I’m describing is part of the DNA of the web itself, of course. We just haven’t seen this approach used in products like ebooks and digital replica editions of print newspapers and magazines. At the end of the day though, readers are looking for more content on the topics that interest them the most. Publishers have an opportunity to give readers what they crave by embracing a model like this where additional layers of dynamic content can be added to the original static product.


Carl Diltz

I agree that this is an area that would benefit the reader and publishers (if they were willing to accept the possibilities of cooperation in implementing this). I wonder though 1) who would do the work? I mean the nonfiction conventions of "further reading" and footnotes are often gold mines in this respect already, but to broaden those features, both to more books and a broader scope, would not be trivial; and 2) what control would the author have over this process? None today of course if the system is external, but if it were actually part of the book, I suspect they'd want to have a say in the matter.

Joe Wikert

Hi Carl. You're absolutely right that there are plenty of questions to still be answered with this model. There's not just the work involved but the rights management and who owns the final product. I don't think any of these will prevent experimentation here but yes, this is unchartered territory that will require more factors to be considered than what publishers have to manage today.

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