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.

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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.


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.