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.


The future of content recommendation services

If you’re overly concerned about data privacy you’ll want to stop reading right now because I’m about to give you a glimpse of the future that will make you bristle.

For the rest of you, I’d like to describe a vision I have of how content services will dramatically improve, become widely used, and even paid for, in the not too distant future.

You’re probably familiar with services like Taboola and Outbrain. They’re the technologies behind all the “You may also like” or “Sponsored content” blocks of links that have become ubiquitous on websites. They use sophisticated algorithms to suggest related content you might be interested in reading. 

Then there’s Google. My Android phone’s Google app does a terrific job presenting nuggets of information I might find useful. It’s equally awful at it too though. On a recent trip through Atlanta it suggested the CDC as one of the nearby attractions I might want to check out. I realize Ebola is a hot topic right now but is there really anything in my Google-accessible content stream that would suggest the CDC as an interesting destination for me? 

Google’s app, as well as its News service, are both casting an extremely wide net in the hopes that something in their recommendation stream will cause me to click. Every year I find Google’s stream suggesting fewer and fewer truly relevant articles for me. This, despite the fact that they have access to so much of what I’m doing, where I’m going and what I’m interested in.

What’s wrong with this picture? These services should be improving, not simply providing an even wider pipeline of content, most of which doesn’t interest me at all.

What’s missing is a service that pays much closer attention to who I am and what’s likely to engage me. That’s one of the things I always liked about Zite, the content service that recommends more content based on what you’ve previously read in the app. I used to spend a great deal of time in Zite every day. Then they got acquired and for some reason their stream just isn’t as engaging for me as it used to be.

What’s needed is a service that is much more closely aligned with everything I do, or as much of my life as I’m willing to let it access. I’m talking about my email in-box as well as the websites I visit and even my work and personal calendars. Here are a few use cases for the service I’d like to see: 

  • Prepare for trips – It’s nice that Google shows a card for this afternoon’s flight status, but they could do so much more. How about tracking my personal interests and serving up recommendations for downtime activities? Knowledge of my interests would hopefully prevent an app from suggesting I visit the CDC, for example. This service could also interact with my TripIt account, notice that I made a car rental reservation and suggest a better alternative (e.g., a better rate with another carrier, one that earns me miles on my preferred airline, or a better option like Uber or Lyft, etc.) How about a few facts and figures about where I’m heading? This destination info is available on Wikipedia, so it would be easy to tap into that content source as well as many others.
  • Provide news and research for upcoming meetings – The assumption here is that I’ll allow this service to access my daily calendar. When it sees I have a 2-hour meeting with XYZ Corp next week it begins early by creating and sending me a snapshot of the organization as well as noteworthy news about XYZ Corp. The detailed version arrives a week before the meeting, giving me plenty of time to become an expert on the company. The day before or the morning of the meeting I then get a shorter follow-up with any updates that weren’t available earlier.
  • Stay on top of the competition – The key here is to know the company I work for and the industry we’re part of. Better yet, if it’s a large, multi-sector company, it knows exactly which area I focus on and tailors everything around that space. The service then uses all the publicly available data sources to feed me updates and insights about the competition.
  • Tap into streams from leaders and celebrities – How would you like to gain access to the news and content streams being delivered to people like Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos? Obviously they’ll want to filter their public version to avoid accidentally leaking confidential information, but there would still be enough content to make for some very interesting reading. Rather than waiting for Bill Gates to tell us what books he read and recommended from last year, let’s see what’s on his inbound content stream today.
  • All this, with no manual configuration required – Some elements of what I’ve described above are available today, if you’re willing to spend a lot of time configuring your keywords and splicing together multiple services. Don’t forget that your interests change over time…and so does your calendar, of course. I want a service that is always up-to-date based on what it sees me doing throughout the day and week. It needs to be fully automated and change as my interests and focus change.

I can see multiple flavors of this service. The simplest one is free and is funded by ads and sponsorships, just like many of Google’s existing services. A paid version eliminates the ads and comes with more bells and whistles. And remember that leaders/celebrities idea? Those could be structured as subscriptions to that individual’s feed. Plenty of people would pay a monthly fee for access to these streams. And although Warren Buffett doesn’t need this additional income, he could always have it flow to his favorite charity.

We’ve got a long way to go before we’ll see a service like this, but I’ll be among the first in line to sign up for it when one arrives.


The next big thing in content subscriptions

Today’s sports fan has a seemingly infinite number of resources for news, commentary and long-form reading. I often use the Bleacher Report for scores, ESPN for short-form articles and Oyster for books. It’s nice having all those options but it can also be very inefficient. Besides having to configure all my favorite team settings in each news service I also have to remember the shortcuts and idiosyncrasies of each of their reader apps.

I’d prefer more of an all-in-one service. I’m talking about something with an all-access pass to every form of content, from tweet streams to up-to-the-minute scores to editorials to full-length books. Think ESPN Insider plus a sports book library; or maybe Oyster’s sports library plus the breadth of short-form content in ESPN Insider.

Amazon recently launched Kindle Unlimited, their all-you-can-read service for ebooks. Traditional publishers have been slow to embrace this model, partly because they fear both cannibalization and Amazon. Regardless of whether Amazon succeeds with Kindle Unlimited (they will), the all-you-can-read model is here to stay. It’s now just a question of how long it will take before it includes all content forms, short and long, and becomes more vertical, topically-focused.

An all-access model for news, short- and long-form content is more likely to succeed if it’s focused on specific content verticals. Sports, business and religion are three segments that immediately come to mind, but there are plenty of others. And even though traditional publishers will still have their fears, there are plenty of younger, less risk-averse publishing brands emerging who will gladly fill the void and reap the benefits. It’s bound to be yet another real world scenario brought to life from the pages of The Innovator’s Dilemma.


How print is slowly killing publishers

It’s a textbook example of The Innovator’s Dilemma. The crazy part is we all know it’s a big problem and yet very few publishers are taking evasive action.

I’m talking about the reliance on print, even at the expense of digital transformation and growth. Here are a few reasons why print is a publisher’s silent killer:

Presentation style – A newspaper is pretty much defined by what appears on the front page as well as how everything else follows it in each edition. Books aren’t that different; they have a beginning, middle and an end. Digital content, on the other hand, isn’t as rigidly defined. Have you ever reached the end of a Google News feed, for example? Publishers who have deep roots in the print world are often too focused on how the print product is presented, often allowing it to drive their digital product.

Workflow – Presentation style is, of course, closely tied to workflow. A publisher who built their editorial and production models around print is likely to apply the same existing model to digital. This is the main reason many publishers evolve from static to dynamic content. And when they experimented with digital they often overhauled their workflow with disastrous results. The problem wasn’t due to a new workflow. Rather, a product nobody wanted was created and the new workflow got tossed aside with the failed product.

“It’s all we know, what we do best” – Editorial teams that have perfected print delivery often have problems adapting to digital. It’s foreign to them and outside their comfort zone. One publisher recently told me they’re pulling digital strategies out of editorial and into a small, centralized team; publishers and editors are to think about print and print only. Meanwhile, print revenues continue to decline. It might make the editors more comfortable but it’s also got to be pretty demotivating. Now is not the time to revert to comfort zones.

Opens the door to startups – As The Innovator’s Dilemma teaches us, disruption is great for the startup and often not so kind to the incumbents. It’s actually an excellent opportunity for established publishers to engage with startups but that rarely happens. As one startup founder recently shared with me, “I get the impression the publisher wants to simply copy our technology, not partner with us.”

Print defines your brand – This is probably the biggest killer of all if your brand is directly associated with print. When consumers hear your brand name all they can think of is a print product. There’s no association with digital whatsoever. Newspapers struggle mightily with this one. The solution is tough to swallow: Create a new brand that’s built around and tightly aligned with digital. It’s OK to say “Powered by old-print-publisher”, but the main brand needs to be detached from your existing, print-centric name. 


Unlimited subscriptions: Five things you need to know

One of the worst kept secrets in recent history was finally unveiled last Friday when Amazon announced their Kindle Unlimited program. It has the potential to become yet another terrific service for consumers but many publishers and authors are less than enthusiastic about it.

Here are five important points everyone in publishing should keep in mind when analyzing Kindle Unlimited and the other all-you-can-read subscription services:

  1. Amazon just legitimized the model – I signed up for Oyster several months ago and I love it. When I mention Oyster and the all-you-can-read model to publishing industry friends they treat it like it’s a fad that will soon disappear. Now that Amazon is in the game it’s time for everyone to realize that the model is here to stay, regardless of what the naysayers think.
  2. It’s not for everyone – The industry’s 800-pound gorilla just showed up but I don’t expect a major impact in the short term. Amazon’s title assortment is pretty limited, particularly with no Big Five participation. That’s why I have no plans to ditch my Oyster subscription for Kindle Unlimited. The other important fact here is that a large percentage of book buyers will prefer to own their content, not rent it. Everyone didn’t stop buying tracks on iTunes when Spotify took off, so don’t look for any seismic shifts here either.
  3. The pioneering startups are now on borrowed time – Even though others are probably also sticking with Oyster (for now) I do worry about the long-term prospects for them as well as Scribd. Neither of those startups has been able to create a household brand name yet and now they face competition from one of the most well known brands on the planet. I figure both of them have about 18 months to either come up with a unique value proposition or fade away. Anyone could have predicted Amazon’s entrance in this space and since competition is always a good thing I’m hoping both Oyster and Scribd have something special up their sleeves.
  4. Publisher financial models will evolve – This is the most interesting aspect of all. The business models vary among the providers and some publishers are undoubtedly getting better terms than others. In general, a publisher gets paid when the consumer reaches an agreed-to reading threshold in a book. Those percentages are as low as 10% and 20% in some cases. In some models the amount paid to the publisher is the same they would have received if the ebook were purchased, not rented, so it’s a function of the title’s digital list price. In other models a percentage of total revenue is placed in a pool and paid out to publishers based on consumer reading frequencies and thresholds. I have no doubt Amazon will sweeten the pot to lure more publishers into Kindle Unlimited. Publishers need to remember that that once the Kindle Unlimited platform gains traction Amazon will do what they always do, renegotiating so publishers receive less and Amazon keeps a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Sound familiar?
  5. Publishers can control their own destinies – Many of the bigger publishers who aren’t participating in Kindle Unlimited already realize the point I made in item #4. But what they might not realize is that they have other options. Just because they’re concerned about Amazon doesn’t mean they should avoid the all-you-can-read subscription model. In order to ensure future competition in this space I hope these publishers will sign up immediately with Oyster and/or Scribd. In order to keep Amazon honest we need at least one of these startups to survive.