The digital content scalability problem

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 3.04.46 PMWhy are ebooks still stuck in the print-under-glass model? Why haven't we seen anything new and exciting in the digital book transformation process?

Those are questions I've been asking myself a lot lately. Ebooks are convenient in that you can carry an entire library on a phone or tablet. They're also more readily available for browsing or purchase, right from the comfort of home. But the reading experience features nothing more than a digital version of the print edition.

I've spent a lot of time evaluating content transformation platforms over the past several years in the hopes that I'll discover the path forward from today's world of dumb books on smart devices. I'm disappointed to say we're at roughly the same stage as we were at more than 10 years ago when the Kindle first hit the scene.

The problem? Scalability.

There are countless books which could be greatly enriched by leveraging technology. Everything from the simple insertion of video to the addition of more interactive elements would turn a static experience into a much more memorable (and probably more effective) experience. These enrichment platforms are becoming easier to use, enabling drag-and-drop functionality so you don't have to be a programmer to create a rich user experience. However, the cost of creating these next-gen products is typically more than what the publisher invested in the creation of the original print product.

Think about that for a minute. As a publisher, you have a pretty good sense of the ROI for your next new title. Most of the variables involved operate within a fairly tight range (e.g., author advance, editing expense, manufacturing cost, sell-in level, etc.) Even the total sales, and therefore resulting revenue, are fairly predictable, within a given range. All this predictability provides the publisher with a P&L model without a lot of surprises.

Now think about asking a publisher to spend two or three times that initial product investment to create an enriched version of the same title. The product development expenses are higher, and may even result in cost overruns due to the newness of the approach. More importantly, the resulting revenue projection is a total shot in the dark. Until the publisher has created enough of these new products, they have no idea what sort of sales range to project.

Scalability should lead to better efficiencies. We saw this with ebooks; an ebook can be created today at a fraction of what publishers used to pay for the service 5-10 years ago. The same thing needs to happen with enriched content. Vendors need to have a path to a model where the transformation cost is less than half the original print/ebook product cost. If they're unable to get there, they might as well abandon ship and get into a different business.


Blockchain and the next generation of content reuse and syndication

Chain-2364830_640What do you think about the KodakOne and KodakCoin strategies? If Wall Street is any indication, these might represent the long-awaited turnaround the tired Kodak brand desperately needs to regain relevance. Then again, the resulting Kodak stock surge might be nothing more than a short-term blip once the Bitcoin buzz settles down again.

I tend to think the long-term effects of KodakOne and KodakCoin will fall somewhere between those two extremes. I'm more interested, however, in what the underlying blockchain technology could bring to the broader opportunities in content reuse and content syndication.

Some have speculated that blockchain could help solve the content piracy issue. I disagree. I'm not convinced publishers are really suffering from piracy, so this is a solution in search of a problem.

But what about content reuse and the ability to truly unlock the full value of any piece of content? Today there are a variety of platforms and services acting as content clearinghouses who manage rights and payments. It's always seemed like a highly inefficient part of the business, requiring too much manual intervention. Think instead of a blockchain-powered content bazaar where creators offer their IP to anyone and are assured they're receiving their fair share of all reuse revenue.

The content remix model that's been predicted for so long could become a reality with blockchain at its heart. This isn't just for written content, btw. Think audio and video as well. It lends itself to a true remix marketplace as well as a frictionless syndication model: Just set your terms and let the open market determine what's valuable and what's not. Remixes could be built on earlier remixes, all with a reliable audit trail and accounting built in. This model would also generate a wealth of rich, useful data; the key question is whether the platform developer makes this data widely accessible or hides it from the community.

So even though blockchain might not be Kodak's salvation, it has the potential of becoming a game-changer for more effective content discovery, distribution and reuse.


Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant: Where are VPAs leading the publishing industry?

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 11.19.34 AMMy daily hour+ commute to and from work enables me to take in a variety of podcasts, a bit of SiriusXM Radio and, more recently, some quality time with Google Assistant. The latter simply means I press and hold the home button on my Galaxy phone and say, "good morning." Google takes it from there, providing the local weather and news summaries from a variety of sources.

OK, that's not exactly ground-breaking, but what fascinates me is where virtual personal assistants (VPAs) like Google Assistant are leading the publishing industry.

Rather that the mostly one-way interactions I have with Google Assistant today, what if the dialogue looked more like this in the future?:

Me: Good morning.

Google Assistant: Good morning, Joe. The local temperature is...

Me: Let's skip the news. What are the new and noteworthy books in my favorite categories?

Google Assistant: There's a new biography about Leonardo da Vinci you'll want to know about. It's by Walter Isaacson, the author of the Steve Jobs book you liked so much. Would you like to hear the description?

Me: Yes.

Google Assistant: To write this biography Isaacson immersed himself in da Vinci’s 7,200 pages of notebooks, which these days are spread across the map...

Me: Didn't da Vinci spend a number of years in Florence?

Google Assistant: Yes, he was born nearby and spent 1466 through 1476 as an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea di Cion. You visited that part of Florence during the Italy vacation you and your wife Kelly took in September 2017.

Me: Please send the ebook sample to my Google Play account.

Google Assistant: OK, it's now in your library. Would you like me to read the sample to you?

Me: Yes.

That's more of a two-way conversation, encouraging more personalized discovery and consumption. But why does this have to be a solitary experience? Wouldn't it be cool if VPAs could become an extension of your social network, enabling you to experience and interact with content with others?

For example, let's say I get a couple of minutes in to today's Marketplace podcast from NPR and I realize the topic is something my good friend Paul and I often talk about. Rather than listening to it alone, I'd like to see if Paul is available to join me. I ask Google Assistant to ping my friend with this audio greeting: "Hey Paul, it's Joe...I'm about to listen to a Marketplace episode I think we'd both enjoy. Care to join me?"

He's got a few minutes, so he opts in and Google opens a three-way audio channel where the podcasts plays and Paul and I can pause it at any moment to share comments, all done via voice control. Each time one of us wants to say something to the other, the podcast pauses and the two of us are able to voice chat, comparing thoughts. When we're ready for it to start back up, we just tell Google to proceed.

This would be a nice, new way to experience a podcast with others, but how about doing the same for longer-form content, like a lecture or even a class recording? No matter where you and your friends are physically, you could use VPAs to interact with the content as a group.

If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to explore the world of Google Assistant, Alexa, et al. We're only scratching the surface of VPA potential today and these technologies can help us take the next steps in breaking free of the limitations with today's mostly container-based content model.


Here's how to turn book samples into a powerful B2C tool

Army-2186_640Book samples are one of the most under-utilized tools in a publisher or author's marketing arsenal. Most consumers will not buy a book without at least flipping through it, so many download samples before making a purchase decision. But how many times have you downloaded a sample which was nothing more than the frontmatter and a bit of an introduction? I've run into that problem countless times and those samples didn't lead to me clicking the buy button.

The problem with today's book sampling model is that it's just some random percentage of the first several pages of the book. The fact that this approach involves no curation means it's efficient but, unfortunately, it's also highly ineffective.

Imagine how lame previews would be if movie producers used this same approach? You're sitting in the theater and the teasers for a few upcoming movies are nothing more than the first two minutes of each. That's not how it works with movies, of course, and it offers an important lesson for book publishers: Good samples require curation.

We learned that lesson recently at OSV. Rob Eagar, founder of Wildfire Marketing, is an expert in a freemium model where curated samples are the key ingredient. These samples feature more of the valuable content nuggets and enable readers to get a better sense of what they can expect to find in the full book. You're not giving away all the book's key ingredients, but you're definitely providing readers with more value than they'll find in a typical ebook sample.

These samples are delivered via email, so that means we're able to establish a direct relationship with prospective customers, a critical step for a B2C business model. Having access to those names and email addresses means we're able to build our B2C list and dramatically increase our up-/cross-sell activities.

If you'd like to see what this looks like, click here to visit the OSV freemium landing page. You'll find the first several titles in our freemium campaign and more will be added in the coming months. We're delighted with the initial results and we're looking forward to building this out further as we add to our B2C capabilities.


Which digital book format has the most growth potential?

Microphone-38120_1280The answer might surprise you…

Amazon’s Kindle format dominates the ebook market today and it’s easy to assume that will remain the case going forward. Despite that fact, I see a number of trends indicating the digital book space could be ripe for disruption.

Notice I use the term “digital book”, not “ebook.” That’s because the digital format with the most upside isn’t MOBI or EPUB. It’s audio.

Amazon also dominates the audio book space, of course, thanks to their ownership of both Audible and Brilliance Audio. Amazon’s audio book subsidiaries are built around yesterday’s business model though, and I believe technology and consumer habits have evolved to the point where a new business model will emerge.

Have you ever priced an audio book? Let’s use George Orwell’s 1984 as an example. Audible currently offers the audio version for $20.97 while Amazon sells the paperback for $11.42 and the Kindle edition for $9.99. There are exceptions, of course, but the audio format is typically the most expensive option.

What might happen if audio editions were priced at or below the print or Kindle editions? The recent trends in ebook sales might be a good indicator here. As ebook prices have increased over time (thank you, agency model), print has experienced a resurgence and ebook sales have flattened and even declined for some genres.

Next, consider the growing interest in podcasts, as described here. Two factors drive this trend shown above: convenience and laziness. Low-production YouTube videos have replaced how-to books on a variety of topics. It’s also a lot easier to watch or listen than read. I’m sure that last statement made quite a few of you bristle, but it’s true. Reading isn’t going away, but overall consumption could be dramatically increased if it weren’t for the painfully high price of your typical audio book.

Why are prices so high? The obvious culprit tends to be the professional talent (and additional time) required to create the audio format. But is it really critical to limit recordings to either the author or voice professionals? If you want to continue charging those high prices the answer is probably “yes.”

If you’re open to exploring other pricing models though, you’ll be inspired by the approach used by The Week. I recommend you subscribe or at least listen to a few of the podcasts created by The Week. You’ll quickly discover their editors and other staff members are the voice talent. The voices are clean and crisp, not robotic, and the finished product is terrific. Yes, these are free streams, but they give you a sense of what’s possible with a much lower investment.

Technology is opening new doors here as well. Remember the monotone, computer-generated audio of the 90’s? Text-to-speech has improved quite a bit over the years and will only get better over time. If you’re still not convinced, scan this related article and be sure to listen to some of the audio samples; it’s virtually impossible to distinguish the human-generated segments from the computer-generated ones.

Despite all this, why would publishers have any interest in seeing lower prices for audio formats? Because it represents an enormous opportunity to break the stranglehold Amazon currently has on all digital formats.

Imagine a world where publishers could establish a strong, direct-to-consumer (D2C) channel featuring audio. The D2C audio edition of 1984 could be computer-generated and sell for $9.99, the same price as the Kindle edition; but in this case, the publisher keeps 100% of the selling price, not whatever percentage they’re receiving from Amazon for the Kindle edition.

Are you worried that consumers will buy one audio copy and share it with all their friends? If so, please don’t fall back into that digital rights management (DRM) trap that only reinforces Amazon’s dominance. Rather, create a simple mobile app where all the purchased audio files live. Most publishers don’t realize it, but the fact that a reader’s Kindle files are buried in their app is more of a file-sharing deterrent than DRM itself. If you don’t believe me, ask a few of your friends if they even know how to retrieve their ebook files from their Kindle app, for example.

The opportunity here is huge, and not just for selling audio books directly. It’s a chance for publishers to forge a more meaningful, ongoing relationship with their customers. I’ve grown to love history books over the years, mostly ones about WWII and the civil war. I subscribe to a few publisher newsletters but I still sometimes overlook interesting new publications. Wouldn’t it be cool if audio samples of those new books could be sent directly to the app on my phone? I just set a few preferences and I’ll never miss another new title.

Today most publishers sell transactionally, one book at a time, to nameless/faceless consumers. The model I’m describing isn’t ideal for all publishers, but for ones with genre depth it represents a new approach where they could better serve their customers as well as take more control over their own destiny.