ScanMarker Air: Great concept, poorly executed

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 12.21.42 PMDespite my strong interest in the digital content marketplace, I still read quite a few print books every year. I also like to highlight excerpts for future reference.

That works great in the ebook world as those highlights are always only a few taps away on my iPad but my print highlights are far less accessible, especially if I'm away from my physical bookshelf. I thought I found an interesting solution to the problem when I saw the umpteenth ad for ScanMarker Air in my Facebook feed.

The promise was simple: A handy OCR device which looks like an oversized highlighter and wirelessly sends your scanned text to the device and app of your choice, all for about a hundred dollars.

The device connects effortlessly to laptops, tablets and phones. The scanning and text conversion process is pretty good, although far from flawless. It's the limitations around where that text can be sent that has me scratching my head.

The Mac app works great. Not only can you send the text to the ScanMarker app but I can instead send it directly to other apps like Evernote. That's a key feature but this functionality is missing from the iPad and Android versions of the ScanMarker app. The problem I've run into is that I don't always have my Mac with me when I'm reading a book. My phone is generally nearby, but that means I have to scan the excerpts into my ScanMarker phone app then copy-and-paste them in Evernote, an extra, clumsy step.

I'm hoping the ScanMarker team updates their apps to support scanning directly into other tablet and phone apps. That seems iffy at best though as I noticed their Android app has only been downloaded a few thousand times and it hasn't been updated in months. If the user base remains small, early adopters like myself will end up with an orphaned product.

If the ScanMarker team happens to see this review, I hope they consider a pretty simple use-case for future development: I'm sure most, if not all, ScanMarker customers are using it with books. If so, how about adding the ability to identify the title by scanning the ISBN? Further, allow me to configure my app so that anytime I scan a new ISBN the app create a new Evernote entry where all highlights go till I scan a new ISBN, for example. If I switch back to a book I started scanning earlier, let me switch the excerpt destination to the older Evernote entry when I re-scan the first book's ISBN.

ScanMarker Air could become the device I was hoping for when I bought mine a week ago. If you're thinking about buying one, I recommend you wait until we see if TopScan, the company behind this device, adds much-needed functionality to this marginally functional product.


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.