My 2016 ebook marketplace hopes and wishes

Sylvester-1097596_1920Rather than speculate on what might happen in the ebook sector this year I thought it would be wiser to simply list the developments I’d like to see. So although some, and perhaps all, of these are a long shot, here’s my short list of hopes and wishes for the ebook market in the New Year:

Less DRM – Publishers continue to be their own worst enemy with digital rights management. It’s part of what makes it so hard for publishers to create an effective direct channel and it provides nothing more than a false sense of security. As I’ve said before, if a reader really wants to unlock and share an ebook there are a number of freely available DRM-removal utilities that are just a few clicks away. Plus, most readers have no idea where their mobi and EPUB files are stored on their devices; those who do know the location probably already have a DRM-removal tool on their computer.

Better direct-to-consumer options – Once a publisher abandons DRM it suddenly gets much easier to create a frictionless direct-to-consumer (D2C) solution. And of course I’m not suggesting publishers should abandon retailers. But it’s time for publishers to diversify their channel strategy and focus more on the one channel they have 100% control over: their D2C channel. As I’ve said before, don’t assume “if you build it, they will come.” You need compelling reasons for consumers to buy direct (see here, here and here, for example).

New, sustainable unlimited ebook subscriptions – My Oyster subscription expired a few days ago, consistent with the sunset plans Oyster announced a few months ago. Oyster itself is about to expire soon, the victim of an unsustainable business model. The all-you-can-read subscription model is not dead though. I’m convinced the way forward is with topic verticals such as sports, religion, cooking, etc. They need to offer more than long-form book content and they need to focus on building community. Think “membership” and the old AMEX line, “membership has its privileges.”

Better notes and annotations, outside the book – I’ve read quite a few ebooks over the years and I’ve highlighted a lot of passages. I’ve also added notes to several, but not as many as I should have. The reason I haven’t annotated more is because I know those notes are stuck inside the book. I want a quick and easy way to export my highlights and annotations, collate them into other documents and make them fully searchable. For example, I’d love to see ebook applications embrace Evernote functionality, making it super easy to sync all my highlights and annotations to an Evernote folder.

I hope we see progress on all of these fronts in 2016 and I hope that the New Year is a wonderful one for you, your family and your organization.


How digital can complement print

Laptop-819285_1920The beauty of the web is that feedback for what I write here is spread across a variety of platforms. These days it seems most of those community discussions are happening on LinkedIn and that’s where some recent comments helped me see the common thread across a few different topics I’ve been writing about.

A couple of weeks ago I noted how Nielsen data indicates a large chunk (49%) of ebook readers are also still buying print. In other words, almost half the reading community surveyed by Nielsen is straddling the fence between print and digital.

Now think about the topic of last week’s article: Publishers are worried about whether or not they can change buyer behavior and attract consumers with a compelling D2C solution. As I mentioned in that piece, a successful D2C offering must include content and services a consumer can only find directly from the publisher, not via retailers.

Instead of looking at digital and print as separate initiatives and consumer bases, it’s time for publishers to invest in digital companions to print products.

What can you create digitally that makes the print reading experience more engaging? Think about companion apps for your most successful print products. More importantly, think about how you’ll deliver those apps directly to consumers.

Here’s an example: I’m currently reading the legendary Gordie Howe’s autobiography, Mr. Hockey. I bought the e-version but this applies to print readers as well. I’m still in the early part of the book, learning about Gordie’s youth and curious to learn more about where he grew up and what that part of Canada looks like. I’m sure my curiosity will continue through the book as I read about the various youth hockey programs he dominated as well as his many years in the NHL and WHA.

If I want to take a deeper dive into Gordie’s story most of it is only a few Google searches away. But why force readers to sift through piles of Google results in search of the most interesting nuggets? Why not have the editor or author provide their recommendations? Put those links in an app that I can open on my phone next to my tablet (or print edition of the book).

Next, make it social. How many people reading this book saw Gordie play in person? Quite a few, I’ll bet. Many of them probably also have photos from those days they could quickly and easily contribute to the app, making it even more valuable for everyone. I’d love to see some previously unpublished shots of Gordie from the 1950’s or even the early WHA days. The app then evolves into a community product and becomes richer as time goes on and more readers contribute their memories.

Next, and I realize Gordie isn’t in the best of health these days, but why not have the author make a cameo appearance in the app from time to time? Publicize a live chat with the author every so often and make sure that session is only accessible in the app. Record those sessions and maintain them in an archive area of the app.

The companion described above is probably a freebie for everyone but I can envision some models where the app might cost 99 cents or even a few dollars. It all depends on the added value it offers. It’s a terrific promotional vehicle for the publisher and a way to establish a strong, meaningful direct relationship with consumers.

Here’s the most important point: Make sure the digital companion is prominently featured in all versions of the book, including print and every flavor of e. It should be the first thing readers see when they open the book. A message like, “Thanks for buying this wonderful product. Be sure to visit our website to obtain the free companion we’ve created for it.” When they come, they register and are asked to opt into your marketing program(s).

A strategy like this not only increases the value of the original book, it also helps publishers create that compelling D2C solution and converts indirect customers into direct ones. It may not work for every book but I’m convinced it’s a model worth pursuing for most titles, especially your bestsellers. 


Direct-to-consumer (D2C) starts with building community, not owning the sale

Directory-881420_640More and more book publishers seem to be focused on building a better direct relationship with consumers. Some of these direct-to-consumer (D2C) efforts are well thought-out while others are nothing more than publishers following the crowd.

How else do you explain so many publisher sites that are simply catalog pages with the option to by print or ebooks direct? What’s the compelling reason for someone to come to the site? Even if they find the site why would a consumer consider buying direct rather than from their favorite retailer?

It reminds me of the old days when everything was driven by seasonal (print) catalogs. The accounts insisted on having enough lead-time to promote titles, so the summer titles were presented the previous fall or winter. The print catalogs were then left behind with the buyer as evidence of the sales call presentation.

Most of today’s publisher websites are nothing more than the digital version of those seasonal catalogs. And since there’s no compelling reason for consumers to discover and explore them, many of these websites are ghost towns.  Publishers create them and then wonder why nobody visits or buys.

Here’s something most D2C-focused publishers overlook: It’s virtually impossible to change a consumer’s buying habits. The larger my Kindle ebook library, the less likely I am to buy my next ebook from a retailer not named Amazon, and that includes an aversion to buying direct from the publisher. It’s that wonderful retailer walled garden phenomenon; and those walls are something publishers helped create by insisting on locking their books inside DRM.

So if that spiffy website is unlikely to generate direct sales why does it exist? If your answer is “to increase discovery”, do yourself a favor and study the results of a Google search for your top titles, series and authors. If your pages aren’t among the top search result links you’re kidding yourself with the “discovery” justification. The top results are the ones getting all the clicks.

Rather than trying to change consumer buying habits and owning the sale, publishers should instead focus their D2C efforts on building community. Publishers own the relationship with authors, so as a publisher, what are you doing to build community around your authors? What are the top three reasons are you giving consumers to come to your website?

Btw, authors are just one component. Many publishers have popular series or dominate a specific genre. What are you doing to build community around that brand or genre?

It’s OK to still offer direct buy buttons on each title’s catalog page but your D2C buy buttons should be offered alongside buy buttons for all the popular retailer sites.  That includes buy buttons for print as well. Let the consumer decide where they want to buy and don’t force them to hunt for your product on a retailer’s site.

If publishers don’t spend the time building this community with consumers, who will? The retailers aren’t going to do it. Their focus is way too broad.

So although most publishers missed out on the opportunity to go direct in the digital era, there’s still plenty of time to establish a strong consumer relationship by using your site to build and foster community. Just be sure to keep your priorities straight and focus on community first and owning the sale second.


Peer-to-peer content distribution

Human-668298_1280The smartwatch movement inspired me recently, which is surprising because I haven’t worn a watch since I started carrying a smartphone many years ago. I’m about as far as you can get from being a fashionista and I liken a watch to other obsolete single-use devices like the GPS. I doubt I’ll buy one anytime soon but I believe the device synchronization model used by smartwatches lends itself to content distribution as well.

You’re probably aware of how most smartwatches get paired with your smartphone. Although they don’t have all the capabilities of a smartphone, things like text messages and phone calls can be redirected from your phone to your watch, thanks in large part to Bluetooth technology. Your phone communicates with your watch the same way your phone connects with a wireless headset or desktop Bluetooth speaker, for example.

Let’s fast-forward to the day when we’ve all become peer-to-peer content distributors. Rather than relying on centrally-managed and hosted sites and services that handle everything from reviews to downloads, this peer-to-peer model means we’re doing all that for each other using Bluetooth or some other simple networking protocols. For example, your phone or computer can easily be turned into a wifi server, allowing you to connect multiple devices to it; that's a capability that exists today and I'm suggesting it could be extended for new uses in the future.

The Kindle introduced a whole new level of reading privacy. Once upon a time on a crowded bus you could see the cover of the book being read by the person across the aisle. Now we’re all masking our reading habits with tablets and phones. No, I’m not suggesting we embrace an overly intrusive model that has privacy advocates screaming in the streets. Rather, I believe a peer-to-peer model could be used to improve discovery and consumption at the hyperlocal level.

Think of the hundreds of riders on a commuter train each morning. Maybe they’re traveling from the northern suburbs into Manhattan. Some of them are neighbors. Many of them are businesspeople. All of them probably follow and read some type of news. Instead of just knowing the top global trends on Google, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what news stories your fellow commuters are reading?

The same concept can be applied to passengers on a plane or even homeowners in a neighborhood. Just as NextDoor.com has disrupted Angie’s List and brought communication and recommendations to the local level, I suggest a peer-to-peer model could do the same for content.

The peer-to-peer aspect really shines when you consider how the content gets from my device to yours. That news story I just read on TheGuardian.com still lives in my browser’s cache. If enough of my fellow commuters read the same article, it floats to the top of the popular news list for our little commuter community. You click the link to it in our peer-to-peer content app and the article is pulled from my cache to your device.

In short, we’re distributing content to each other, without having to go up and down, to and from a central server. Wouldn’t this be terrific on a 4-hour flight with no wifi? Each of our devices acts as a mini-server, hosting content for everyone else.

Publishers would freak out over this model, at least initially. They’ll no longer control distribution and it will create holes in their analytics. I’m sure most, if not all, publishers have something buried in their terms and conditions preventing this sort of thing, but those who want to embrace broader distribution and consumption will eventually warm up to it.

Btw, the model isn’t limited to web pages. Think about the benefits this offers the book publishing sector. What if you could see a list of the popular ebooks in your neighborhood or among your fellow commuters? And what if you could pull a sample of one of those popular titles from someone else’s device, again, a particularly useful solution when you’re outside wifi and cellular range? If you decide you like that sample and you end up buying the ebook your peer-to-peer commuter friend gets credit for the sale with an affiliate cut of the resulting transaction.

We place way too much emphasis on the ability to measure global trends. You see it every day on Google, Twitter, etc. While we all care about these global trends, we’re also keenly interested in local and hyper-local trends. This peer-to-peer model addresses that point while also providing some relief for data plan limits and spotty wifi coverage.


Observations from BEA 2015

The Javits Center must have some sort of time warp technology. I recently attended the BEA event there and I kept asking myself the same question: Is this 2015 or 2005? The digital vibe was almost nowhere to be found in the expo hall. For example, publishers are still handing out stacks of print galleys and samples. Is that really more effective than digital copies? Wouldn’t it be better to distribute e-versions and gather customer info along the way? All this talk of establishing direct relationships with readers and having access to the resulting data still seems to be the stuff of fiction.

There’s also still a big gap between the core industry and the startup community. The Startup Alley, an expo aisle featuring 15 or so up-and-comers, is a nice concept but doesn’t seem very effective for anyone. It also highlights a bigger problem in the publishing industry: there’s no platform or service that continuously evaluates new startups and helps match them with publishers who could benefit from their capabilities. Startups are generally relegated to an area off the beaten path with virtually no buzz to draw attention to them. That’s sad because, as Richard Nash pointed out during the IDPF conference, it’s clear the real innovation is going to come from the startup community.

The most painfully accurate statement I heard all week was from Michael Bhaskar of Canelo Publishing during his opening session at the IDPF event: “Publishers treat ebooks as a secondary priority.” This is partially understandable given the fact that print is still the largest revenue stream but I believe this mindset also prevents digital content from achieving its full potential. 

Bhaskar made another terrific point when he noted that the music industry is leveraging consumer curation in ways the book publishing industry hasn’t even dreamed of. I believe tomorrow’s e-content leaders will fully understand and encourage consumer curation. Whether you call it remixes, custom editions or something else, this is a concept that will help the industry achieve escape velocity from today’s print-under-glass model.

The IDPF conference highlight for me was Jane McGonigal’s session. I haven’t played a video game since PacMan in the early ‘80’s so I went into this one highly skeptical but she opened my eyes to the possibilities. It’s not that every book has to become a game. That’s not it at all. Rather, she challenged the audience to find ways of creating content that takes readers to a whole new level of enthusiasm. The images she showed of gamers completely engaged and immersed in the experience were inspiring.

Another valuable IDPF session was one where Jim Hanas of HarperCollins interviewed David Arabov of Elite Daily. Arabov described how Elite Daily organically builds audience and community and turns that into their finished product. Compare that to book publishing where a totally non-agile approach is used to build products behind closed doors with the hope that yesterday’s marketing models will generate buzz (e.g., buying promotions, shelf space on physical shelves, etc.). Wouldn’t it be cool if publishers engaged with readers during the idea conception and development process rather than waiting till the end after all the time and money have been invested? That sounds like Wattpad to me, which might explain why Allen Lau and his team always report such amazingly high traffic levels. Now they just need to figure out how that translates into revenue, of course…

I had the pleasure of serving as moderator on a couple of IDPF panel sessions. The Amazon panel included Molly Barton and she made an excellent point about the problems with today’s closed ebook ecosystem. As Molly described it, readers often want to socialize their reading experience and today’s model forces them to have those conversations away from the book. Why not integrate this functionality in the reading app? It can be completely unobtrusive, where the service only appears when the reader wants to access it rather than forcing readers off to other apps and platforms.

All-you-can-read subscriptions were, of course, a topic that came up many times throughout the week. Scribd’s Andrew Weinstein shared some observations including how this model affects the long tail. As Weinstein put it, with unlimited reading platforms consumers are more willing to abandon a book and move on to the next one if they lose interest, figuring there’s no additional cost to taste-test a lot of books every month. First of all, let’s hope that’s doesn’t turn out to be the most important benefit subscription platform have to offer. Second, what does that say about the industry’s inability to create a sampling model that actually works?

Finally, I wanted to mention an interesting quote from Sherisse Hawkins of Beneath the Ink. Sherisse has been a pioneer in pushing ebooks beyond the print-under-glass experience and she said that one of their readers recently sent a message saying, “thank you for helping me avoid getting lost in the ‘wiki holes’”. That reminded me of the new Wright Brothers book by David McCullough that I recently finished. It was a fantastic read but I can’t tell you how many times my curiosity led me away from the book to Google where I searched for locations, images and related content. Unlike Sherrise’s customer, I did get lost in a variety of “wiki holes”, but it once again proved to me that this industry needs to figure out how to provide consumers with something more than dumb content on smart devices.