FreeTime

“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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Hats off to Amazon


When the story of how Amazon came to dominate the consumer book business is written ten years from now, there will need to be a chapter entitled “September 6, 2012″.

Of course, that was the day that Judge Cote approved the settlement agreed to by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster and began the process of undoing the publisher price-setting regime that was established by the agency model. This is actually designed to unleash broad and deep discounting in the ebook marketplace and I think we’ll see evidence very soon that it will succeed in that objective beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. (I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about what I think are inevitable consequences of that achievement.)

But that’s not all Amazon accomplished on September 6, 2012. It’s not nearly all. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t good for Amazon about the Judge’s announcement was that it stole a lot of the attention from what they can accomplish without the government’s help.

One day after scrappy competitor Kobo tried to upstage them by announcing their own updated suite of devices, Amazon did a combination of outperforming and underpricing the device competition from them, as well as from NOOK, Apple, and Google. Even the device innovation wasn’t what most impressed me. There were several other innovations that raise the bar substantially for everybody competing with the Kindle ecosystem.

1. Leveraging their ownership of Audible, the dominant player in downloadable audiobooks, Amazon has introduced a Whispersync feature that enables seamless switching between reading an ebook and listening to the audiobook version. One of my sisters-in-law, who is both a teacher of reading-challenged kids and an adjunct professor teaching others who do the same, had asked me a few months ago why nobody had done this. I asked around and was told “it is complicated.” Publishers can’t do it because they don’t control the delivery ecosystems. Other ebook retailers can’t do it because they don’t deliver audio.

Only Amazon could do it. Now they have.

1A. In addition to the use of Whispersync to allow seamless toggling between reading and listening, Kindle introduced a feature called “Immersion Reading” that allows you to read and listen at the same time.

Does everybody notice that this creates a real reason to buy both an audiobook and an ebook of the same title? Seems like that is something all authors and publishers can celebrate.

This specific innovation is particularly ironic if we remember some history. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon wanted to put in a text-to-speech capability that would deliver an audiobook by automation of every ebook. Agents and publishers balked because of the obvious rights issues; audiobooks are a separate profit center for everybody and nobody with a commercial interest wanted to see that threatened, even though others thought that the automated delivery wouldn’t really satisfy an audiobook customer.

Nobody will have a problem with this solution, though. The consumer buys twice.

And, incidentally, somebody else can write a whole blog post on how this suite of capabilities can be used as an opportunity-creator in the college and school markets!

2. Leveraging their ownership of IMDb (the movie and TV database), Amazon is enhancing the experience of watching video by making information about the film and its personnel available at a click. Last month bloggers were explaining that Google bought Frommer’s from Wiley because they wanted to turn content into metadata. Now Amazon is clearly demonstrating exactly why that’s useful and important.

3. Leveraging their publishing capabilities and their role as the only retailer with an audience large enough to deliver a critical mass of readers all by itself, they are introducing serialization by subscription with Kindle Serials. The initial foray is modest: a selection of eight very low-priced serial novels delivered in chunks of at least 10,000 words. But this “tests” the model of getting people to buy something up front knowing in advance that it will come in stages.

(When I explored the viability of subscription models for ebooks, I speculated that the only one that could really pull it off for general reading would be Amazon. Consider the camel’s nose to have now officially penetrated the tent.)

On one hand, this recalls the success of the self-published novellas-cum-novel called “Wool” by Hugh Howey. But it also could be the foundation for something like Dominique Raccah’s “agile publishing” model, which is an active experiment now at her company, Sourcebooks, with author David Houle. Amazon would have the great advantage of a much larger audience to “invite” into an experiment of that kind and, when you are doing something dependent on participation for success, having more people to appeal to at the outset is a huge advantage.

4. Amazon is subsidizing all their devices with ads served as screen savers. They were initially planning to change the previous practice of offering higher pricing that enabled consumers to avoid the advertisements. Their first announcement was that Amazon had gone all in with all their devices coming with advertising and without a “pay more” option to avoid it. Although the initial reaction to this apparently forced a change, and they’re now offering the Kindle Fire without ads for $15 more, this still opens up a series of other thoughts and questions.

How can anybody compete on device pricing with a competitor that not only has the most direct contact with buying-and-paying customers but which is also bringing in ad dollars to subsidize a cheaper retail price?

Does this mean that Amazon “knows” that by far most consumers elected to save the money and don’t care about the ads?

Are they building a priceless communication network to promote content and to charge content creators for the next generation equivalent of store windows and front tables?

I thought Google was the champion of advertising. Why didn’t they figure this out first for the Nexus 7?

5. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which basically collects core metadata (characters, scenes) from books and movies, is a building block to ultimately deliver summaries and outlines that could be an exciting additional unique capability of the platform. It could perhaps even be a start on generating automation-assisted “Cliffs Notes”-type content that could ultimately command a separate purchase fee.

6. Amazon has built a parental control capability into their Kindle ecosystem called FreeTime so that kids can use the device and even obtain content but only in approved ways. There are fledgling initiatives like Storia from Scholastic and the longstanding PBS brand Reading Rainbow for which one of the core propositions is creating a reading environment for kids with adult controls. These kid-centric platforms are obviously designed to present environments that parents and teachers will find superior to what they use themselves for the purpose of enabling kids’ reading. They suddenly have some serious competition from the most popular platform already out there.

And Amazon has built in what is perhaps a killer app that the others probably can’t even contemplate: they can apparently control the amount of time a kid can spend doing various activities on the device, so parents can mandate a ratio of reading time to movie time to game-playing time. I’m sure more than a few parents will say “wow!” to that.

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Judge Cote’s decision is also very good news for Amazon, and it was what reporters called to talk about on the day of the press conference that announced all of the above. Michael Cader’s very thorough analysis (on which I have written a few more words below) spells out what we don’t yet know about the speed and complexity of implementation, starting with whether an appeal will be heard and whether implementation will be delayed pending that appeal.

But it would seem that the chances are good that many of the controls that prevented Amazon from discounting high-profile books for the past 18 months will come off a month, or maybe two months, before Christmas.

I think that Amazon will discount aggressively. Their “brand” is, among other things, very much about “low prices for the consumer”. And they have always used price as a tool to build market share. Expect them to lead the way.

The price-setting won’t be done by humans; it will be done by bots and algorithms, responding to what is happening in the marketplace among their competitors every day. Amazon is very good at this; they’ve been doing it for years. Presumably, BN.com has a similar set of skills and tools. Presumably everybody except Apple had to price at least their wholesale-purchased books competitively.

Apple was protected by the MFNs that remain in place for all but the settling publishers. But without that protection, how will Apple compete? They’ve never had to do competitive pricing of commodity products before. I will be very impressed if Apple can get through the price fights about to take place without an obvious black eye. They haven’t been training for this.

Overall, this should mean another surge of growth in the ebook market, which had seen a serious dropoff in its growth rate over the past year. We won’t be seeing ebooks doubling share annually again, but we’re about to see digital priced aggressively in ways that will make any regular consumer of print wonder whether they should consider making the shift that so many heavy readers have already made.

When the settlement is implemented, the three settling publishers will have their book prices cut by retailers, whatever they decide about setting list prices and however they negotiate the next round of commercial terms. But the three publishers still permitted to use agency pricing — Random House and the continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin — will probably find that they are forced to lower the prices they set to keep their big books competitive. At least that would be my expectation. It will be beyond interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Pardon a plug here for my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, and his skills as the indispensible reporter on the publishing scene. His four posts on Friday: on the Judge’s ruling, on what happens next as a result, on their new hardware, and on the various reading and consumption features that were the subject of most of this post, comprised — by far — the clearest and most thorough explanation of a staggering array of complex information. Of course, Michael is more than a reporter on the industry; he’s been a player in it for 25 years.

I really don’t understand how reporters who don’t have the benefit of that background can justify not reading him. (You hit a pay wall it takes $20 a month to scale if you are not a subscriber. Just about everybody making a living in trade publishing has no trouble with the value proposition.) They’d all certainly be doing their jobs better if they did.

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