The Shatzkin Files


“Platforms” are not exclusively the purview of Kindle, NOOK, and other retailers


I am recently awakened to the importance of “platforms” in our dynamic digital publishing world. Some could say I’m slow on this one (and they’d be right). Perhaps it is the “to the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail” syndrome in action, but my belated awareness reminds me once again that the most important single concept publishers need to take on board to succeed in the digital future is “vertical”.

Here’s what woke me up.

We’re working on the Publishers Launch Kids conference on January 15, our second annual exploration of the world of children’s book publishing. We rapidly discovered three (there are more) propositions which create the environment within which kids  might well be encouraged by parents and teachers to read digitally.

Storia comes from Scholastic. They worked with 200 pilot teachers to build personalized reading experiences for each child: age-specific and with a personal bookshelf. The business model is individual title purchases; kids make “wish lists” and parents approve and enable the purchases. And there are tools to allow parents and teachers to track the kids’ reading.

RRKidz grew out of the successful TV series, Reading Rainbow, which was purchased by actor LeVar Burton and Hollywood producer Mark Wolfe. They robustly augment with video, use gamification to entice the kids to read more (badges for completion, for example), and provide a dashboard for parents to track the kids’ activity. Reading Rainbow works on a subscription model rather than individual purchase. They start you out with one free book but then go to an all-access model for $9.99 a month, or you can buy six months for $29.99.

And Magic Town is an international platform that also creates a controlled environment for kids reading. They push English language books all over the world, and offer a combination of a subscription and individual purchase model. They have different levels of engagement: “watch” (which is “read to me”), “play” (hot spots in the books with interactivity), “explore” (quizzes to test comprehension), and “read together” (stripping out the narrator so parent-child or early readers can do it themselves).

The light bulb that went on for me when we talked to these companies was that they were providing good and valid reasons for the gatekeepers for children’s reading to steer the kids over whom they have sway to one of them. To do all they can do, the platforms require some customization of the content. Storia would seem to have a head start in this platform competition because of the power of Scholastic’s reach and the enormous amount of content they already own, but all of these players have unique features.

And there are others building variations on this theme, including Ruckus and Capstone, the latter with more of an educational focus.

This provides a lot for publishers to be thinking about. Intuitively, one assumes the job of the publisher is to make the investments necessary to get their content onto all the platforms where it might sell, particularly if the customers there wouldn’t find or acquire it any other way. But it also means that the platform owner would control the audience and could, conceivably, not allow all competing content access. Or they could, over time as they gain a stronger hold on a larger audience, reduce the payments to outside content owners.

This raises a business challenge much like what we see as the problem (for publishers and authors) of subscription services. Subscription services might not have other characteristics of platforms (like providing metrics or context), but they “encourage” their subscribers to restrict their choice of content to what is provided within the service.

Both platforms and subscription services constitute a land grab, or, more precisely, a customer-control grab. Is it wise for publishers to allow their content to be used to strengthen the grip a gatekeeper has on an audience, whether or not they start out as a competitor? Whether or not it is wise, do publishers have any choice?

While I was pondering this, Kindle and NOOK both announced modifications of their own platforms to accomplish some of what Storia, RRKidz, and Magic Town are trying to do: get parents to see them as the preferred environment for their kids’ book consumption.

Kindle’s offer, called FreeTime, enables parents to manage the media access their kids have on the new Kindle Fire line. So they can specify 30 minutes of video, 30 minutes of games, and unlimited reading time (for example). That’s pretty powerful, and one can readily see parents choosing the Kindle platform just to get that capability. Kindle does this by allowing multiple accounts on one device and giving the parents that level of control on their kids’ accounts.

Barnes & Noble also now offers multiple accounts on the NOOK so a parent can have a naughty romance ebook and be sure that their kids won’t stumble across it while reading the material in their account.

Now sensitized to the power of the platform, I’m seeing more of it everywhere. B&N and Kobo have created tools for consumers to save treasured content and to enhance discovery. B&N calls their saving capability “scrapbooking”. Their new discovery capability, which they call “channels” uses humans (what a concept!) to create lists of “what to consider next” from various triggers (books, authors, subjects).

Kobo has tied the saving and discovery together in a very alluring way that, I must admit, makes me think about buying their new ARC device when it becomes available. What B&N calls “scrapbooking”, Kobo calls “tapestries”. You can “pin” (very much like the new web sensation Pinterest) digital items of interest — books, songs, web pages, whatever — together so they are visually nested for viewing. But what is really captivating is that ARC then runs a crawl along the bottom of the page with suggestions for other content that might interest you, based on what is in your tapestry. I am pondering a book idea; it seems to me that Kobo has just created a tool that could really help with the research.

That could provide me with a reason to buy their device and to use them regularly for content purchases. And that’s the point of a platform. Note that the capability only makes sense if it is applied to a vertical. The unique tool Kobo has built delivering automated search essentially looks for the people, places, and things suggested by the content in your tapestry. In other words, each reader creates his or her own verticals.

But it isn’t necessary to be a global retailer with devices, or even a children’s book specialist with an understanding of how kids learn and read, to apply the principal of vertical platforms. If a publisher thinks vertically — about niches — they can do it themselves. Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks demonstrated that with the two new initiatives she just announced and which she explained at our Publishers Launch Conference at Frankfurt on October 8.

One of Raccah’s ideas is also a children’s book initiative. Called “Put Me in the Story”, it is a way to really enhance one of the most common parent-child experiences: reading a book together at bedtime. The capability Sourcebook announced takes a kids’ name and picture and inserts them inside a well-known children’s book presented digitally. Raccah wants to restrict the “Put Me in the Story” title base to well-known children’s books. Fortunately for her, Sourcebooks has had a number of big sellers in that genre recently so she can start with her own books.

But what really impressed me, and should make all publishers think, is Sourcebooks’ new “Shakesperience” line.

I did some acting in Shakespeare as a teenager. I always read the Washington Square Press Folger Library editions because they had the play’s text on the right-hand page and definition of terms and other notes on the left. I didn’t care if what was available from Penguin or Dell Laurel was cheaper or had a clearer typeface or was reputed to have a better introduction. I wanted the version that made the language of Shakespeare most accessible, and the Folger Library did that.

Sourcebooks has taken the idea of making reading Shakespeare easier and raised it to a new level using digital capabilities. They’ve added some audio and video, so you can hear and see how the pros do it. But what is most helpful is that they’ve taken the glossary idea and both extended and embedded it. They define individual words and phrases in context, and they put the definitions in so that you just mouse over what you want cleared up and get the definition in a little box. I spent some time with the Romeo and Juliet app — a play I know well — and found it really helpful.

Sourcebooks is starting with three plays (R&J, Hamlet, and Othello, which are apparently the three “most taught”) so this isn’t a platform yet, just the basis of one. But as they build out to the entire canon, it is conceivable that they will build a way to read Shakespeare that can establish itself as the one best way to do so. With a variety of community and informational features built around it (where every play is being performed, how different English teachers approach each play), there is a real possibility they can build a strong hold on franchise content that is in the public domain. That would really demonstrate the power of platform.

At the same Publishers Launch Conference in Frankfurt last week where Dominique Raccah talked about these two initiatives, we also heard from CEO Rebecca Smart of Osprey, a vertical publisher whose original niche was in military history. They have a dedicated audience of buffs with whom they communicate all the time. Smart, in an insight she credited to Seth Godin, said “I don’t look for audiences for my books. I look for books for my audience.” It is easy to imagine Osprey building a platform for readers of military history, with text and visual glossaries and other bells and whistles that make reading that content much more productive than reading it anywhere else.

This is an optimistic view of the future from a publisher’s perspective. What’s scary is the potential for one gatekeeper for all books. Many gatekeepers that are somehow vertical-specific — with overlaps, of course — is a much more cheerful prospect.

There are a lot of platforms and nods to platforms not included in this piece, which is trying to make a fairly narrow point. There are educational platforms like Blackboard, Moodle, and WebCT that are trying to control access to students in schools. (Ingram’s “Vital Source” digital textbook capability has joined forces with Blackboard to increase its power and relevance.)

At our Frankfurt conference, Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne made it clear that the platform capabilities they have built will be made available to other big brands.

There are applications that go in this direction in genre publishing. The AllRomanceEbooks web site isn’t a romance platform, but it could be the start of one. When HarperCollins announced (yesterday) that they were launching DRM-free and social reading capability for their romance line, they teamed up with AllRomance to do it. That’s platform-”like”.

The point is that it’s not just about the content itself; it’s also about the ancillary value the platform can add; it’s about the format/wrapper/technology that supports the objectives of the audience for that content.

Nobody has created a total genre “platform” per se yet. AllRomance adds value to the shopping/retail experience. Tor creates a place to talk and learn about new books. Baen has a subscription service. But none (that I know of) are adding sufficient context to the reading/consumption experience itself to qualify in the same way as the other examples. They’re not creating a virtual place/space where it’s more useful or enjoyable to consume the same content than it would be elsewhere. But I’m sure it’s coming.

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  • Peter_Turner

    Mike, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. This post strikes me as profoundly important. One paragraph in particular seems essential and worth rereading:

    “Both platforms and subscription services constitute a land grab, or, more precisely, a customer-control grab. Is it wise for publishers to allow their content to be used to strengthen the grip a gatekeeper has on an audience, whether or not they start out as a competitor? Whether or not it is wise, do publishers have any choice?”

    Thanks,

    Peter

  • Michael Starks

    Finally, a thoughtful post in the publishing media about platforms. Now I hope my colleagues in the library world will also start thinking seriously about this subject. For a lesson on how important platforms are and on how difficult it is to free the consumer from his platform prison, just study the history of the PC business.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Very kind evaluation. I’m flattered. Thanks.

      Mike

  • Angela Patchell

    I feel heartened by this post and your thoughts vertical publishing. Platforms are using the rich online data available allowing readers ro collect, collate and discover the content that interests them. I have discovered through trial and error with VIZeBooks and Military Books App that readers are loyal to a vertical eBookstore App. Mike with the new mini iPad about to launch in the  next few days – the Apple platform will grow hugely and very quickly.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Not sure how much an additional device — no matter how good — will grow iBooks sales. There has been no shortage of iOS devices in the marketplace and the iBookstore hasn’t been able to get itself out of third place in the US market (although it is doing much better in other parts of the world).
      Mike

      • Angela Patchell

        iBooks is an App in iTunes store found on your Apple device; but you can create your own vertical eBookstore App and put it into Itunes; which is what we have done with Military Books and ViZeBooks. IBooks isn’t vertical enough and finding a book is akin to a needle in a haystack. The small iPad will be a one device, phone, tablet and pc, rolled into one a sure winner!

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Very interesting, Angela. And does the app get populated with titles through automation or manually? How many titles are in each app? And how much do they change?

        Mike

      • Angela Patchell

        Military Books App has over fifty books and is now being extended to sell hundreds of titles. We have a web based back office for editors to upload new books, titles, marketing material and change prices at anytime. We also have web version which can work across all platforms.

  • http://mindtherant.blogspot.com/ MindTheRant

    Mike –

    As much as I enjoyed your post, I’m intrigued (and puzzled) that you highlighted all of these imaginative platforms for reinventing the book but never mentioned their delivery mechanisms. I’ve looked up 3 so far — Sourcebooks’ Shakesperience, Scholastic’s Storia, and Reading Rainbow’s RRKidz — and discovered they’re all apps written for the iPad. (Storia has also been written for Windows PCs and the Android platform.)

    To me, being locked into a platform is one thing: being locked into a platform device is another. It’s gratifying that I can enjoy Shakesperience, Storia, and RRKidz for the price of a single portable tablet like the iPad, but when I hear you speculating you may buy Kobo’s ARC device because it has a unique and alluring save and discovery feature — well, it’s a little disheartening. (Another brand-specific, hardware-specific platform? Sheesh!)

    Anyway, it would be great if when you’re touting an innovative reading or book platform you’d also mention the delivery mechanism — web browser, PC or Mac app, iPad, Android tablet, whatever it happens to be.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Everybody intends to go beyond iOS. It’s just the logical place to start. And if you’re doing things that are complex graphically, the amount of reconsideration necessary to go from tablet-screen to phone-screen isn’t trivial.

      And, to be precise, they’re not all about “re-inventing the book” (although Shakespearience is) as they are about controlling or maybe delivering an environment in which many books or book-like experiences can live. That’s an app or a web-site, not a book.

      As I think about it, I think “platform” implies “app” and will more and more as HTML5 takes hold.

      Mike

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