The Apple newsstand was an abortion from day one

October 20th, 2014

Apple never even tried to understand magazine publishing, and magazine publishers were stupid to play along. Now Publishers want out of Apple’s Newsstand jail.

It was a bad deal from the start, but publishers were willing to jump in because of all the breathless promises about the “digital revolution” — that still hasn’t done much for magazine publishers.

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If you think publishers are stressed now …

October 15th, 2014

This morning I gave a talk to some Chinese businessmen on publishing. Mostly on ebook publishing.

Right now, the big publishers are facing serious competition on many fronts.

The Unique Selling [Proposition] (or USP) of a trade-publishing house is its ability to print large numbers of physical books cheaply and get them into lots of bookstores. That’s the real reason a writer hands over a huge chunk of his or her royalties to a traditional publisher.

However, with print in terminal decline and bookstores on the way out, this USP is becoming less valuable by the minute.

Source: Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

I disagree that print is in “terminal” decline, but I agree with Gaughran’s point that publishers have lost a lot of their advantages in the market. As book stores continue to close it’s only going to get worse, because a big publishing house has little benefit in a digital book marketplace, like Amazon.

Of course a lot of books are sold in other places — like Supermarkets and Sam’s Warehouse and such — but an increasing proportion are sold online, where being a big trade-publishing house doesn’t help you much.

This morning a few Chinese publishers asked me how they could get English translations of their math and science-realted texts into American schools.

Think about that. China has world-class scientists too, and their work has already been incorporated into age-appropriate texts. Why not translate them into English?

I realize that the marketplace for school books is very complicated, but look at the larger issue here. As English becomes more common around the globe (mostly because of the Internet), and as trade becomes easier, American publishers won’t just be competing with domestic start-ups and self-publishers, they’ll be competing with English translations of foreign books.

Update: And today I see this — Publishers aim to take Chinese literature to the world.

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Journalism is being replaced

October 14th, 2014

Matthew Ingram posted an interesting article a few days ago: Journalism’s biggest competitors are things that don’t even look like journalism.

The point is that people have more options today.

Think of all the things you used to get from the newspaper. Classified ads. Information on style trends. Political opinion. Social opinion. Local news. National news. Comics. Deals on tires. Sports scores.

You don’t need a newspaper for any of those things now, and you don’t even have to read about it. Youtube is a popular source of information for all kinds of things.

I call this whole phenomenon “digital fragmentation.” It used to be that an information publisher’s product went to market in one (or maybe a couple) outlets. Usually print. There were other options — cassette tapes, phone conferences, floppy disks sent through the mail, etc. — but they were weird niche things.

Now everything is a weird niche thing because there are thousands of niches. For any given outlet you have tons of options.

Consider “social media.” Does that mean Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest or Twitter or ….

How about audio. Does that mean podcasts or audio books, iTunes or Audible, satellite radio, internet radio, FM, AM or … what?

The number of options has simply exploded, creating thousands of niches with very specific characteristics. It’s no longer a choice between a newspaper or the evening news. It’s a choice between hundreds of different kinds of outlets.

The challenge for modern publishers is finding the right audience(s) in this tangle of possible delivery options, knowing that little parts of your audience will always be peeling off to the Next Big Thing. Or, rather, the Next Little Thing, because most new options are going to take an increasingly small piece of the pie.

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“Send this to my real computer”

October 8th, 2014

Conversion rates on mobile aren’t very good, at least in part (I suspect) because nobody wants to fill out a form with one of those silly keyboards on a smart phone. Especially if you have autocorrect! Argh.

However, a lot of people like to shop on their mobile device. They may be at a store, or maybe they’re having coffee with a friend and somebody recommends a product. They look it up on their smartphone, but then … the form! Oh no!

Amazon has this down. It’s one click and you’re done. So one possible solution for m-commerce is to use Amazon payments.

But there are other times when you have to fill out a form or do something that requires a real keyboard on a real computer.

I think there’s a need for a browser plug-in that allows people to send things from one device to another, so if I’m on my smartphone and don’t want to deal with the horrible form, I can send it to my desktop where I have a real keyboard. The plug-in would be like foxmarks, or some other bookmark managing plug-in, but it would have to deal with other variables.

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Can Facebook save digital publishing?

September 26th, 2014

As I’ve said before many times, Apple and Amazon are not friends to subscription publishers. They either don’t understand the subscription publishing model, or, understanding it, they want to undermine it.

The problem is that subscription publishing relies on a relationship between the publisher and the subscriber. It’s not a one and done thing like buying a book.

Apple and Amazon insist that the subscriber is their customer, and that simply doesn’t work for the publisher. The problem is not the 30 percent remit! It’s the subscriber information.

What subscription publishers need is a platform on which to post their digital content where they can retain the relationship with the subscriber. It’s really a simple thing, but apparently nobody wants to do it.

Evernote would be a good model. Evernote has a great platform for viewing content online. All they would need to do is add a “my subscriptions” area, where the subscriber could add the login information for all his publications. Evernote would authenticate the subscriber with the publisher’s API, and the publisher would provide the content through a feed.

Simple. Elegant. Perfect.

But Evernote won’t do it because it would spoil their relationship with Darth Vader (aka Apple).

It’s a shame, because this Evernote concept solves a couple real problems.

First, it gets publishers out of the software business — where they do not belong. Publishers are in the content business. They can’t be worrying about tweaking their technology every time somebody comes out with a new phone or tablet, or changes their OS.

Second, the reader doesn’t have to download a different app for each of his publications. He simply has a place where he keeps all the stuff he wants to read. (In this example, Evernote.) And … there it is. Easy.

Third, it helps Evernote because all the publishers would be promoting them, and their software would become the default reader software.

Still … nobody’s doing it. Oh well.

But today I read that Facebook is courting publishers.

There’s no reason why Facebook couldn’t take on the role that I outline above for Evernote. Facebook could become the reader’s interface.

This would be even better than my Evernote model because publishers could allow readers to share content (with certain limits, I’m sure) which would help the publisher extend his audience. It would help Facebook because they could charge some nominal fee for the service they’re providing to the publishers.

Imagine logging into Facebook not only to see what cats are up to these days, but to find out what Sports Illustrated says about the Redskins, what Brew Your Own says about Belgian Strong Ales, and what Knight Kiplinger says about investing.

People would never get their faces out of their phones.

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Time for publishers to get REAL

September 25th, 2014

(No, I’m not shouting. REAL is an acrostic. Read on.)

I was speaking with a publishing colleague recently about the need for a digital strategy. I came up with a generic list — something any publisher could do — but it didn’t scan, so I worked on it until I could put it into a convenient, memorable acrostic — REAL — which stands for
Reject hype,
Embrace niches,
Adapt your strategy and
Listen to your customers.

Reject hype

Have you noticed yet that the iPad hasn’t fundamentally transformed the magazine marketplace? Have you noticed that print is not dead, that there are still newspapers, that some people still read books, and that bloggers haven’t replaced the need for actual experts?

The breathless hype about the digital revolution always reminds me of the Segway.

There’s a class of people out there who are always hyping something. Everything has to be transformative, and it’s always different this time. Unfortunately, those are the people who are usually asked to do keynotes, so … we deserve it.

Don’t listen to the hype. No, you won’t be left behind and replaced if you show a little caution before jumping on the latest fad. Good business practices still apply. Don’t pay much attention to the “transformative” people and chill a little.

Embrace niches

FM radio didn’t completely replace AM radio, and satellite radio hasn’t either. Vacuum machines have not been the death of brooms. They’ve simply found their own niches.

Despite all the predictions, print isn’t dead. What’s happened is that as readers have other options, print is ending up in a smaller niche than it had when it was the only choice. That’s perfectly understandable without crazy predictions about fundamental changes.

My own preferences may be illustrative. I like to clip web articles to Evernote so I can read them on my smart phone, but I read books on the Kindle app on my iPad — unless it’s a book I intend to take notes in, in which case I read in print. Almost everything productivity-related I do on a real computer — either a laptop or a desktop. (I prefer not to use the on-screen keyboards when I can avoid it, and nothing beats a mouse.)

It’s not so much that people are completely moving from one thing to another as that they’re fine-tuning what they do — when, where, and on what device.

This requires publishers to embrace the reality that their customers are going to be doing things their own way. You can’t force them into something.

Another aspect of these developing niches is that different behaviors and expectations seem to predominate. People behave differently on iPads than on smart phones, and on Pinterest than on Facebook.

Adapt your strategy

These new niches require successful publishers to adapt their efforts to all these different mediums.

The people who subscribe to your publications and the people who visit your website may be two very different audiences. Same with Facebook, Twitter, desktop vs. smart phone, etc.

This is enormously frustrating because the publishing model is essentially “write once, sell many times.” In the past that meant finding a happy medium that appealed to all the elements of your audience and creating one product.

What the digital revolution has brought us is fragmentation. Now, all the subgroups in your audience are doing their own thing their own way, and they expect you to serve them in a way that’s appropriate to that medium.

The good news is that you have the opportunity to reach new people in each of those niches, but that may mean uncomfortable changes. If you choose to stick with a brand image that doesn’t work in some of the new niches, your competitors will steal your business in that niche and you’ll be left with an ever-decreasing audience.

Listen to your customers

Listening to customer needs has always been important, but it’s even more crucial now when you have to serve all these different niches. This may mean that you have to change the way your brand is perceived.

The more options the consumer has, the easier it is for him to just pick up and go elsewhere. You’re not the Soviet Union and you can’t force people to stay with you. You have to make your customers happy or they’re just click away.

It’s always been true that products have to start with customer needs, but now the expression of those needs has become far more complicated. It’s not just “I need this information,” but I need it this way, this time of day, so that it integrates with this other thing, so I can have it in my pocket, so I can read it while I’m getting my coffee, etc.

The good news in all this is that fragmentation can mean more sales. I’m sure General Mills is selling far more Cheerios now that they have a million different versions of the product. But I’m sure the transition from “all oats all the time” to sprinkles and jelly beans and whatever else they put in there these days was very tough.

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There is no digital transformation in the publishing industry

August 7th, 2014

For the simple reason that there is no publishing industry.

This article — Is Print Really Killing Publishers? — makes the point very well.

There is no such thing as “the” publishing industry, only publishing industries.

“Digital transformation” is a chameleon term in the publishing industries. It can be about web sites, digital editions, apps, e-newsletters, or shiny new object of the week.

He’s exactly right. Any generic talk about “digital transformation” in the publishing industry is misguided and bound to mislead. Radically different rules apply to news weeklies, romance novels, art books, legal services, etc., and it’s very important for publishing professionals to keep things separate.

The fact that lots of paperback readers have moved to kindle does not mean that lots of magazine readers will move to iPad. Different rules apply.

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Remember when it was apps, apps, apps?

August 1st, 2014

Beware the flashy trends, especially when they are mostly promoted by developers who want you to spend money with them.

A few years ago everything was “develop an app.” If you weren’t developing an app you weren’t one of the cool kids. You wouldn’t be allowed to sit at the right lunch table. You were just so backwards. You were infected with “old-school thinking.”

“Old-school thinking” means things like looking before you leap, and expecting a return on your investment.

Well, apps have generally turned out to have been a waste of time and effort.

Publishers have their doubts about the App Store reinforced by tales from other app developers.

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Tweak the failing page on your A-B tests and test again

July 24th, 2014

In optimizing your website, sometimes you want to test something simple, like a red button vs. a blue button, or one kind of product image against another. You should be testing those sorts of things — often.

Other times you want to test a complete redesign. Those are also worthwhile, but it’s harder to know how to interpret the results.

If you’re only changing one thing on a page, any change in response can be attributed to that change. When you’re changing a whole lot of things, you don’t know which element caused the change in response.

Let’s say you test a new design against your current design and the new design loses. You might be tempted to give up on the new design and stick with what you have. But that may be a mistake. There may be one small thing on the new design that’s causing it to lose in the test.

Before you give up entirely, try tweaking the new design a few times. You may find that a small change makes all the difference.

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Match.com for business?

July 8th, 2014

Please don’t misinterpret this post. I am not saying the idea I’m going to describe is a good thing, but I do think it’s a possible way to make a lot of money by doing something slightly questionable. Or perhaps despicable. You decide.

I despise personality tests. Myers Briggs, the little online “are you conservative or liberal,” and all that stuff — they drive me crazy.

Or, rather, they fascinate me, but I despise the way people use them. They’re used to put people in buckets. It’s basically an acceptable form of racism. “You’re an ISFJ, you wouldn’t understand.”

In my experience they are always a barrier to understanding people, not an aid. I have never once seen anything good come from one of those things, but I have frequently seen them abused.

Having said all that, they’re clearly the rage, and it’s fairly obvious why. They combine science and narcissism in a way that’s bound to appeal to the modern person. You can imagine somebody who has no interest in finding a date signing up for one of these things simply to find out what kind of a person he is.

So then, here’s the business idea. Invent an easy, accessible way for a company to use something like this in hiring. Sure, there are things like this, but read on.

First, a little background.

I was at a SIPA conference once where a guy told a story about a bunch of people who went for a job interview with Southwest Airlines. About ten people were sitting in a waiting room, and somebody came in and said Southwest tended to be rather casual in their interviews and offered everyone a Hawaiian shirt. They had a dressing room with shirts in every size, and everyone was welcome to go try one on. Some did, some didn’t.

A few minutes later somebody came in and said all the people who didn’t put on the shirts could go. It was a test to see if they were willing to fit in with the corporate culture.

It seems somewhat unfair, but there’s also something to it. Corporations do have cultures, and some people don’t fit. Some large corporations realize this and work that sort of test into their hiring process, but smaller companies typically don’t have the time or the resources.

Hence, hire-the-right-personality-types.com (or something like that).

Here’s how it would work. All the owners and the existing employees would take personality tests. Management would indicate which employees are the stars (i.e., more like this please) and which are the duds. The service would determine if there’s a particular profile that correlates well with success at that company. Potential hires would take the test, and the results would be one of the characteristics used in making the hiring decision.

I think such a service could make a lot of money, although I hate the idea. Here’s why.

These tests ask things like “when faced with A, would you prefer to do 1 or 2?” Like everybody else, I have my preferences, but I am also willing and able to do things the other way if that is what’s required, and I’m fairly good at figuring that sort of thing out. I can work with pretty much anybody.

But the tests don’t care that much about flexibility. They don’t want to know if you can lead, follow, or get out of the way, they want to know which one you tend towards. They want to put you in a bucket and tell you what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.

Maybe there are tests that take that sort of thing into account, but in my experience they’re more interested in classifying you than in finding out how flexible you can be.

I went through one of these pop-psych management stupidities one time, and the moderator sorted everybody into four groups, then told us how well we would work with the other groups. My group (according to the magical sorting hat) couldn’t work very well with Hufflepuff — or however he named the group to our right — which had two of my direct reports, who were some of my best friends in the company. I worked with them just fine.

Worst still, the CEO spent the next two months treating everybody according to the little groups they had been placed in. It was awful, until he realized it was nonsense and moved on.

Obviously not everyone is as incompetent as the guy who ran our little shrink-a-doo, but that seems to be the way things work.

So, while I hate the whole concept — I think they are destructive of morale and constitute a “scientific” form of racism-by-another-name — I think somebody could make a fortune selling it.

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