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.


The evolution of ebook subscriptions

Today’s ebook subscription providers offer a nice value proposition for avid readers. It’s great that the all-you-can-read models from Oyster, Scribd and Kindle Unlimited provide consumers with something other than the print model where you buy one book at a time. Now the industry needs to think about how the subscription option can evolve further and enable even more interesting business models.

Think about books that tend to change frequently over time. Technology how-to guides and reference manuals are just a couple of examples. When I was a tech book publisher I often heard complaints from readers about how the book they bought last month is already obsolete. As the industry shifts from print to digital this is a great opportunity to create a one-book subscription: For $x/year the publisher offers to keep the digital edition up-to-date and the consumer is reassured they haven’t bought an obsolete product.

What's next, now that ebook sales are flattening? Join me at a free webinar on April 28 to see how to drive revenue growth. Click here to register.

Another approach is to look at small libraries of highly focused content. One of the things you’ll quickly discover with each of the current all-you-can-read models is that their depth on a particular topic is pretty limited. For example, as a baseball fan I can tell you that Oyster’s sports library is pretty shallow. The problem becomes even more noticeable this time of year when publishers are releasing a bunch of new titles for opening day; you typically don’t find many new releases in the ebook subscription programs.

Rather than leaving new titles out, why not feature them in a mini-all-you-can-read library for a topic like baseball? If one publisher has the title depth they could do this on their own. Most topics would benefit from a multi-publisher solution though. In that case, a provider like Oyster could offer this as an add-on to their current $9.99/month model. I would gladly pay an additional $5/month for access to newer releases of baseball books in my Oyster subscription. For those of you concerned that the monthly price is too high, think about what other add-ons could be featured in a program like this; once you know the subscriber’s preferences (e.g., baseball fan), it’s not too hard to come up with other digital goodies you could include to make the deal even more compelling.

Will the book publishing industry simply settle for the basic ebook subscription model we see today? That’s highly likely given the industry’s aversion to risk. It took the combined efforts of two startups, Oyster and Scribd, to get the publishers this far in embracing the subscription model. Let’s hope another startup comes along to take the model even further.


Content, technology and the digital scrapbook of your life

Every year it seems our cell phones take on new roles in our lives. Long ago flip phones merely enabled you to make calls. Today’s smartphones are loaded with sensors to do everything from track your health to tell you about a sale at a local store.

I think it’s time for our phones to do even more and this involves the convergence of content and technology to automatically create the digital story of your life.

Imagine an app that constantly monitors your phone’s location to do the following:

  • Log where you were today and make assumptions about what you did in each location,
  • Gather and organize content relevant to where you’ve been,
  • Build it all into a living, growing record that you can edit and share with others.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Now let’s think about the results of this.

One day you went to see the Reds play the Pirates in Pittsburgh at PNC Park. The app logs the event and pulls in the box score along with a couple of noteworthy articles about the game from the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh newspapers. It also saves the weather information (e.g., “partly cloudy, 61 degrees at first pitch with a high of 68 degrees”) and provides interesting factoids about what happened in sports on that same day 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc.

On another day you attend your child’s college graduation ceremony. The app checks the school’s calendar and determines you were indeed at the ceremony. This information is logged and because the school was kind enough to expose the graduation program to the app, it too has now been digitally preserved in your stream.

By the way, this imaginary app also offers a user network. So it knows that you went with a friend to that baseball game, and your friend is part of the app’s network. This tidbit is also preserved along with all the great pictures you both took at the stadium. No longer do you have to worry about uploading or emailing photos; your app settings were already configured for two-way sharing between you and the friend who accompanied you at the game. The same goes for the graduation ceremony; now all your friends and family who are members of this service all have access to each other’s pictures.

We could, of course, extend this even further… If you ordered food at that baseball game the information could be logged so you could easily track your diet. In short, any transaction that takes place on your phone could be wired into this app as well. Those transactions that aren’t made with your phone could still be easily integrated: just take pictures of the receipt and the phone does the rest.

The app’s goal is to provide every user with a digital scrapbook of their life. The key is to automate as much of this process as possible. Let your phone and the app figure out what to collect and you can always go in and tweak it later if you want.

There’s also an enormous content opportunity here. I mentioned how the app pulls in content from newspapers but, of course, the feeds could come from anywhere. Ultimately this is a way to redeploy content based on context and preserve it for years and years. After all, one of the reasons you want to gather this information is to remember and relive the events of last week or last year. It’s also an interesting way to build the story of your life, one that can be passed on from one generation to the next. I’d love to have this kind of information about my parents and grandparents, for example.

A variety of business models could be used here including free, advertising/sponsor-based and premium. Ancestry.com and other genealogy services have proven the interest we have in our past. People spend hours and hours sifting through all that historical data, making assumptions about family connections, how people met, etc. An app like this eliminates the guesswork and tells the life story you want to communicate with your friends and future generations.


How crowdsourcing will ultimately add value

Most publishers cringe at the thought of crowdsourcing. Publishers often believe they exclusively own the art of content curation and they feel threatened when they sense others encroaching on their turf.

It’s hard to argue with that logic, especially in our disrupted world where the publisher’s role is under attack from self-publishing, free content and authors with their own platforms. That’s why every publisher should rethink the role they play and determine how to remain relevant in the years to come.

I believe crowdsourcing will eventually be a very powerful tool for all publishers. One of the key problems with crowdsourcing today is that it’s little more than a buzzword and most crowdsourcing efforts are poorly coordinated and leveraged.

Imagine this scenario in the future: A newspaper publisher allows members of their community to create remixes of the paper’s original content. Additionally, they not only allow, but they actually encourage the community to integrate it with content from other sources, including the “competition”. These derivative works will benefit from the interests and curation skills of highly passionate community members. It’s a blend of bloggers and “professional” content, for example. 

What’s in it for the community curators? If the publishers are smart, they’ll create affiliate programs where the publisher sells access to these crowdsource remixes and the curators earn a share of the resulting revenue. This also helps those curators build brand names of their own, potentially ones the newspaper might want to hire full time. Think of it as a feeder system for new content talent.

Now let’s look at the opportunity for book publishers. What if the publisher allowed the community to create their own editions of books? Let’s say you want to read that new blockbuster book about marketing strategies. What if a marketing guru read it before you, highlighted all the critical elements and inserted additional, relevant notes from their years of experience? Now you have a book that has significantly more value than the original edition. The publisher can probably charge more for this edition and pay the marketing guru a portion of the incremental revenue. Over time you’d see multiple digital editions of books. Would you pay more for the “Seth Godin Edition” of that marketing strategy book, where Godin didn’t write it but he highlighted the important stuff and inserted a bunch of related insights?

Most existing publishers will balk at all of this, worrying about the additional layers of complexity, a modified review process, etc. As the incumbents reject it we’ll see yet another new chapter of The Innovator’s Dilemma unfolding right in front of us as startups will fill the void; after all, startups don’t worry about new processes and whether it’s OK to break the old rules.


Ebook subscription services as publisher affiliates

I was at an event last week where an attendee described the following scenario: She discovered an author on the Oyster unlimited ebook subscription service, she read one of their books and then realized the author’s other books aren’t included in Oyster. She was then forced to buy the author’s next ebook somewhere else. The end result is the publisher still has no relationship with the reader and Oyster earns nothing from the sale of that next book.

We’re going to see more and more of this as publishers dip their toes in the ebook subscription waters, adding portions of their list but not their entire catalog.

This is a significant missed opportunity for the publisher...and the subscription provider (Oyster).

Here’s how the publisher and subscription provider can alter the model and both come out ahead: The subscription provider becomes a publisher affiliate, leading these interested and engaged readers to the publisher’s site where they then purchase that next book that’s not in the subscription plan. Maybe the publisher even sweetens the deal, giving the reader a special discount for being an Oyster subscriber. This requires the publisher and Oyster (or Scribd, for that matter) agree on affiliate terms, but wouldn’t they both prefer this sales model vs. losing that reader to some other retailer?

The publisher could take this a step further and have the purchased book placed in the subscription provider’s reader application. So now when I use my Oyster app I’m sometimes reading books rented through my subscription, and other times I’m reading books I own. The beauty here is that I’m using the same application in both situations so I don’t have to remember the idiosyncrasies of multiple apps.

If I was still a book publisher this is something I’d pursue immediately. The subscription model is here to stay and the startups in this space could use some help to stay afloat and not get crushed by the 800-pound gorilla.

For the sake of competition and keeping the dominant player honest, let’s hope Oyster and Scribd extend their services by implementing something like this.