I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days last week in Toronto to speak at a conference on “Giving it Away”, how the culture of “free” is affecting the book business. My workshop sessions were called “Giving It Away with a Purpose”, by which I meant using content as “bait” to build community.
Since this was a workshop, most of the 90 minutes in each session was spent hearing from my audience about their publishing and marketing challenges and trying to help them see how the concepts of vertical and community applied to their particular examples. One of the many pieces of wisdom I’ve picked up from Mark Bide over the years is that we often “learn what we think by saying it”; questions from the audience force me to articulate things that might have been lurking in the back of my mind but had been left unsaid, even internally.
And what I learned that I already knew from these exchanges has to do with “critical mass” and its role in the shift from horizontal to vertical.
I read a piece about a month ago (who knows where, but I think I was originally steered to it by the ReadWriteWeb daily email) about the “X of Y found this review helpful” found on Amazon. What the article explained is why you don’t, and won’t see this employed effectively on any other bookseller’s site. Of all the people who buy books on Amazon, only a small percentage of them write reviews. (Many books don’t have reviews on Amazon; you are often invited to be the “first” to review a book.) Then of all the people who read the reviews, only a small percentage of those will comment as to whether the review was helpful. And a small percentage of a small percentage is an tiny, tiny percentage.
So only when you start out with the number of book customers Amazon has, which is a multiple of BN.com’s customer base (which is, presumably, in second place), can you get enough reviews and enough ratings of the value of the reviews to get a meaningful “Y” for “X of Y found this useful.”
And that was not what we talked about in Toronto.
In the course of my presentation, I talked about FiledBy.com, the new venture offering authors free web sites of which I am a co-founder. Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins, a very acute thinker about digital strategy, pointed out from the audience that FiledBy is totally horizontal: it’s about book authors of all kinds. She wondered if my own new venture might contradict my own theory about verticals.
Temporarily, it might, although the initial “vertical” of FiledBy is book creators (there are sites there not just for authors, but also for illustrators, editors, and others who are credited with creative contributions to books that have ISBNs.) But the creators of FiledBy are very aware that as the number of authors registered with us grows, we will be able to put authors together by interest, creating sub-communities of mystery authors or history authors or knitting authors. And we intend to do that.
Earlier in the presentation, I had expressed the thought that Facebook and Twitter are like AOL for Internet 2.0. AOL (and Compuserve and Prodigy) made the online world, and then the internet, easy for everybody to use. As the internet itself got easier to use, the on-ramp wasn’t necessary anymore and, in fact, the parts of AOL that are healthy today are the verticals they created in the early part of the 21st century when they (belatedly) saw this coming. Soon we will see social networking and short messaging tools everywhere and we will be more likely to employ them in verticals, among people of similar interests, than in the world at large, which is what the horizontal communities are.
Communities require critical mass. It’s great be able throw out a question for the community to answer, but if nobody’s there, it is ineffective. If only 20 editors and 10 agents were on PublishersMarketplace, the deal database wouldn’t be worth much. By the same token, growth in a community enables niching to get more and more narrow and deep.
Soon, publishers are going to see that they that they require critical mass by vertical in order to do cost-effective marketing. That is going to lead to a reshuffling of publishing portfolios, which will be the topic of a subsequent post.
Another big piece of ebook news landed this morning. ScrollMotion has announced that one million titles are on their way to them from LibreDigital! One always presumes that publishers want every title they have on every possible platform so that similar announcements will come from other ebook players soon, but this is another huge stride forward for the ebook business. And for ScrollMotion.