Jan. 26, Will Google kill gmail?, there’s hope for good content, and the Netflix model won’t work for magazines

Will Google kill Gmail?

This topic is slightly off the beaten track for The Krehbiel Report on Publishing, but it grabbed my attention.

Mike Elgan wrote a very interesting prediction over at computerworld.com on why Google will eventually kill gmail. His argument is that there’s no money in simply being a conduit for information — a “dumb pipe,” he calls it. And that’s pretty much what email is — a service that simply delivers information without adding anything to it. He says Google wants to mediate everything, which is why they keep trying to push people into other services.

I think he makes an interesting case, and he highlights an inherent problem with many online services, which is the disconnect between what the user wants out of the service and how the provider wants to monetize it.

Why, for example, doesn’t Facebook have a decent search engine? I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure it has everything to do with Facebook’s interests in monetizing our cat discussions and absolutely nothing to do with what Facebookers really want.

Email has become a crucial component of modern life, but, if Elgan is right, there is a disincentive for companies to provide it for us without monkeying with it and finding annoying ways to monetize it. Will we eventually have to make email some sort of public utility?

There is hope for decent content

When I was a kid I watched the Popeye cartoon from time to time, and the plot usually went like this: mild-mannered and long-suffering Popeye continues to put up with abuse from somebody (usually Brutus), but there comes a point where he’s had enough.

At that point he’d say, “That’s allz I can standz and I can’t standz no more.” Then he’d eat his can of spinach, his biceps would bulge, and he’d set his sights on restoring proper order in the world — which usually meant pummeling whoever it was who was annoying him.

The lesson is that you can only annoy people so much.

If I might take some liberties with that concept, I’d say it applies to other things as well. For example, when it comes to content, you can only inflict so much unthinking crap on people before they’ll get sick of it and insist on something a little meatier.

Modern art (which, excuse me, but I regard it as unthinking crap) didn’t take over the world. There is still real art out there. “Reality TV” hasn’t taken over our sets. Some new shows are actually worth watching. On that point, see Amazon and the triumph of television.

In the same way, the slide towards clickbait articles and shoddy, typo-ridden journalism won’t last forever. People will get sick of it and will yearn for solid, well-researched, professional content.

Things tend to go in cycles. Hemlines get longer, then shorter, then longer again. People opt for feel-good fluff, then they get more serious, then they get tired of being serious and go for fluff again.

Sometimes I hear a quiet despair among publishers who create good content, as if they can’t compete with the sexy, frilly, fluffy, titilating stuff that’s free on the web.

It’s a problem, and it’s a serious problem, but it won’t last forever.

Magazines are not like TV shows or music

As I said before (follow the link then scroll to “Magazine articles don’t go on a playlist”), efforts to squeeze magazines into a Netflix-type model aren’t going to work.

As of today, there is no evidence that magazine readers are clamoring for Netflix like experience …

See Magzter the latest to enter magazine unlimited subscription business

I’m sure the digital boosters think this is just some kind of lingering Neanderthalishness that will eventually pass and then we’ll all come skipping and smiling into the sunshiny world of “everything on my phone,” but I disagree with that sentiment and that view of the future. I think a magazine is a different sort of thing that, as a general rule, doesn’t translate well to digital, and definitely doesn’t work with this smorgasbord concept.

Jan. 19, supply and demand affects writers too, non-fiction is probably the better career choice, and another magazine repents its digital-only strategy

Maybe it’s not an evil conspiracy

I follow a few indie writer blogs, newsgroups, Google+ groups, etc., and a common theme is that writers feel frustrated with their inability to break into the established publishing world.

Here’s that same sentiment, expressed from the perspective of a new startup.

Susan O’Dell Underwood was starting to get frustrated hearing from writers who were having difficulty getting published.

“I feel that frustration myself, so we thought why not do it?,” she said. “Why not do this with our skills? My husband is a photographer, artist and … I’m a writer. We have summers off and we have never collaborated … this just seemed like the thing.”

Susan, and her husband, David, who are also both professors at Carson-Newman University, have launched a new publishing company called Sapling Grove Press.

Some people want to believe that it’s all a trick, or a game. That you have to know someone to get published. That publishers aren’t giving new writers a fair shake.

When it comes to non-fiction, or biographies, I’m sure there’s some truth to that. Publishers want to get Hillary Clinton’s biography, not mine.

I don’t think the same thing applies to fiction. I’m sure the publishers are perfectly happy to find the next new big writer. The problem is that supply is overwhelming demand. Everybody has a PC and an idea, and it only takes a little bit of discipline to crank out a book. There are simply too many books out there and the publisher’s “slush piles” are full of them.

So it’s not simply a matter of finding yet another outlet for frustrated writers.

Fortunately, Susan and David aren’t trying to do that. They’re pursuing a small market.

… one of the focuses of their publishing company will be the arts and literature of the Appalachian region.

That may have potential.

The world doesn’t need yet another publishing company cranking out generic fiction, but there is a very large supply of narrow interest areas that can be served by people who have a particular gift or special concern for that niche.

Non-fiction is the way to go

Harsh Das pointed me to his latest kindle book, The Art Of Book Marketing, which I’ve just started.

After the first few pages I wanted to write him and suggest that he add a disclaimer that the book might be better suited for non-fiction, but fortunately I restrained the urge for another page and saw that he did just that.

Mr. Das seems to be making a living writing self-help sorts of books — i.e., How to do this, better ways to do that, etc.

Most of my books are fiction, but I have a couple books about homebrewing. I happen to know a fair amount on that subject, I have a lot of good advice to impart (especially to beginners), and I have a concise, straight-forward style.

I also have a lot of ideas about stories that never happened concerning people who don’t really exist.

Now … just take a wild guess … which one do you think is more useful? As you might expect, my homebrewing books are my best sellers.

Escapism is fun. I just read Gone Girl while on vacation and enjoyed it quite a bit. And I’m going to continue writing fiction because I enjoy it, whether or not I get a million readers.

I can afford to do that because I have a real job. If I was trying to make a living with my writing, I would focus on practical, useful, real-world help on tangible things.

The continued non-death of print

1105’s Ed Tech Magazine Returns to Print After 2 Digital-Only Years

“When the decision was made to cease the publication in print, it was based on indicators that digital-only strategies were growing in popularity with advertisers,” says 1105’s COO, Henry Allain. “We discovered that may be true in some markets, but clearly not in the K-12 ed-tech space. This segment of the market continues to have a vibrant print offering…We needed to be back as part of the mix.”

Krehbiel interpretation: troublemakers and “business development” types who can’t tell the difference between early growth and long-term trends talked this company into an anti-print strategy that didn’t pan out the way they expected.

Jan. 12, Board games in the digital age?, what’s wrong with “print under glass”?, a new kind of iPad, and when everybody wants to be a rock star

Who but a Luddite would create a board game in the “digital” age?

Didn’t you hear? Everything is digital these days. If it’s not on a smart phone, it’s just not … not …. It’s just not! It’s wrong. It’s “old thinking.”

At least that’s what some would say.

While it’s true that video games have eclipsed board and paper games, sales of tabletop games “rose 15 to 20 percent in each of the last three years.” See High-Tech Push Has Board Games Rolling Again.

Those same kids who walk into telephone poles while texting their up-to-the-minute (empty) thoughts still play “Cards Against Humanity,” beer pong, poker, and maybe even Dungeons and Dragons.

“Digital only” and “digital first” is the stuff of keynote speeches, not business reality.

“Print under glass” is a good thing!

In his What to Expect in 2015 (and Beyond) article, Joe Wikerts seems to sniff at the idea of “print under glass” — that is, simply duplicating a print book in a digital format.

… the Kindle is now more than 7 years old and the majority of digital content revenue still comes from “print under glass” format. We’re still basically consuming dumb content on smart devices, regardless of whether it’s a book, a newspaper or a magazine.

Yes, I know, the Kindle was supposed to change everything. Or was that the iPad? Or the Segway? I can never remember.

Tuesday night I came in from the snow and sat down with a warm drink and Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear. I have The Complete Sherlock Holmes, so I hefted the large volume and dug right in. The cat appreciates when I read a hardback because he likes to rub his face on the sharp corner of the book.

I also read books on the Kindle app on my iPad, and if I didn’t have the story in print I would’ve gladly purchased the ebook. If I had done that, I would have expected and wanted “print under glass.” I didn’t want games, or trivia questions about Sherlock Holmes, or anything else that “takes advantage of the device.” I simply wanted to read the text.

There are situations where it makes sense to change format, but sometimes it seems that people believe we should change format just because.

‘BYOD’ in education needs a new device

The second prediction on Digital Publishing predictions for 2015 is that education publishers will need to format content for any device — including smart phones — because it’s not reasonable to expect budget-strapped schools to buy iPads for every kid.

I agree that the country is probably not going to spring for an iPad for every kid, but I don’t think the solution is to get kids to work on their smart phones. As I understand it, smart phones are the enemy at schools.

Rather, there might be a market for a new “in school” tablet — with limited functionality and some very strict controls.

When everybody wants to be a rock star, sell guitars

You can either kid yourself and think that you’ll break through the pack and become the hot new rock star, or you can note that everybody in town is a wannabe rock star and provide them with the equipment and services that they need. Guitars. Guitar lessons. Silly outfits. Etc.

Nowadays everybody wants to be an author. You can be silly, like me, and give it a try yourself, or you can provide services to wannabe authors.

A whole lot of new services have taken the smart route and are helping the millions of wannabes. There’s editing services, cover design, help with formatting, help with marketing, etc. It’s probably a good business to be in right now.

Jan. 5, the future of social media in publishing

A curmudgeon’s view of how social media will tranform publishing

For years I’ve been a social media critic, curmudgeon and general doubter. I find Twitter incredibly stupid, the ever-changing rules on Facebook annoy me, and I can never decide whether you’re supposed to wish someone a happy birthday on LinkedIn. There ought to be a social media flowchart with questions like “does it involve cats?,” “is it a picture of food?,” and “are you trying to find a job?”

I’m fairly certain that social media will have a profound impact on all types of publishing, but generally not in the way all the experts have been touting.

For example, I’m a self-published author, and I’ve read several of those books on how to beat the Kindle algorithms and so on. The bottom line is that it’s not enough to write a good book. You have to be good at lots of other things as well — picking the right title, finding the right categories, getting a good cover, using social media to drive traffic, etc. The list of things you need to be able to do is fairly long.

The books say anybody can do it, but the truth is that only very few people are going to be good at all those things. That’s okay, and I’ll explain why.

Think for a moment about music. Some people are really good song writers and some people are really good entertainers. We don’t expect the singer to write all of his own songs.

Or think about comedic actors. Some of them are incredibly funny, but others are just very good at delivering the funny lines that the writers came up with. The actors themselves can be rather boring people in real life.

I’m sure you’re seeing the point, which is that there’s no reason to believe that somebody who is good at creating great content is also going to be good at navigating the twists and turns of social media.

Right now the people who are succeeding are the people who are above average in understanding how to be hip on social media and in how to create worthwhile content. But some people are geniuses at social media and dumber than a mud fence, while others are geniuses at creating content and have the social skills of a potato.

The obvious next step is ghost writing. And apparently it’s happening already. Here’s an interesting story about ghost writers who are glomming on to some person named Zoella. (I had no idea there was such a person until I read this story.)

Apparently Zoella is very popular online, and she’s using that popularity to sell ghost-written content.

The article makes a distinction between legit Youtube sensations and the cheaters. Re: the legit people …

They’ve developed their brands, curated an audience, and created content that is successfully geared towards their demographic.

IOW, they have skills in several different areas. Most people can only do one or two of those things decently. These folk are good at all the elements that make for social media success.

The cheaters, on the other hand, “eat up anything [content creators] come out with” and put their name on it. Even if it’s garbage.

[N]o matter how bad the book is, it’s going to make money

… because it has the celebrity’s name on it.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this is a bad long-term strategy. Once people realize that everything coming out under celebrity brand X is garbage, the brand will lose its luster.

These people are paving the way for the next step in social media, which is to allow some people to be the popular front man — the lead singer, the actor, the comedian — while others create the content, do the market research, etc.

Things have to move this way because there is simply no chance that the best advice on any given topic is to be found from a person who is really good on social media. It’s just not going to happen.

Certain people will rise to the top — maybe because they had a really good first novel, or maybe just because they look good in a sweater, but there will be a subgroup of people who have the moxie to be social media royalty. They will rely on something like ghost writers to provide content. The tasks required for success will specialize.

What’s the business application of this?

First, don’t beat up on content creators because they’re not tweeting, facebooking and getting millions of followers or likes or whatever. It’s a rare bird who is a content expert and a social media maven, and it’s foolish to think any company can create a staff full of them.

Second, realize that it’s not enough to understand social media. I understand the violin, but I can’t play it very well. Companies need people who have that indescribable whatsit (apologies to Wooster) that makes them successful on social media.

That’s still not enough. The social media genius also has to have the humility to “read the lines” from their ghost writers, and subject their social media persona to the goals and brand image of the company.

The way I see this working out is not unlike the way companies do display booths at conferences. There needs to be a game, or a good giveaway, or some beautiful people to draw a crowd, but it’s also necessary to have a nerd who actually knows what the heck is going on.

The future of social media is just like the future of any industry or technology. Tasks will get divided up into specialized niches.

The person who does the video channel might not be the content expert. The best-selling author might need somebody else to run his Pinterest page and his Tumblr blog.

The trick going forward is to find and use talent where it exists, and don’t expect one person to be the jack of all trades.

Dec. 29, Viewable ads, plus CNET and the non death of print

What good is the ad you never saw?

Conversations with online ad salesmen can take predictable paths. I’ve always worked in an environment where we measure marketing by how much it costs to get a new sale or subscriber, so I evaluate marketing spend on a cost per acquisition basis, and would prefer to purchase ads on that same basis. Ad salesmen usually want to sell ads on a cost per click, or even a cost per display basis. I tell them a “display” doesn’t mean anything. Just because the server sent the ad doesn’t mean the browser displayed it or the visitor saw it.

When it is possible to talk an ad salesmen into a cost per conversion campaign, they want to count “view through conversions.” That means the web visitor saw the ad, then converted later. This makes sense because hardly anybody clicks on ads these days, so “cost per click” underestimates the effect of the ad. We all know there is some effect from just seeing an ad — otherwise nobody would invest in road-side signs, or print magazine ads.

Also, it’s not really a “view through” conversion but a “display through” conversion. The ad salesman can’t promise that the visitor saw the ad. He can’t even promise that the ad showed up on a part of the page that was viewable in his browser. (More on that below.)

Counting a “view through” is fair, so that you don’t underestimate the effect of the ad, but depending on how you do it you can easily overestimate the effect of the ad. You do this, first, by counting “views” the user never saw, but second, by the length of time you allow between the metric you’re using (display, view, click) and the conversion event. If somebody sees an ad and buys 5 seconds later, you’re pretty safe attributing that ad to that sale. But what if the visitor saw the ad four days ago, or a month ago? The cause and effect chain gets a little shakier.

If you’re buying ads on a “view through” basis you need to watch that time lag very carefully. The ad salesman will try to stretch it out. Keep an eye on what standard they’re using to “count” a conversion, and make sure you have a way of seeing the gap between the event and the conversion.

One part of the tangled mess of online ads is getting a little less tangled. New standards on viewability require people who serve ads to distinguish between the ones that are viewable and the ones that are not. (For example, an ad that is “displayed” down the page where the visitor never scrolled.) There are still some details to work out, but it’s a good development, and it makes the math of ad buying a little more direct.

Marketers would like to be able to track sales to a specific cost so they can calculate the ROI, but as I mentioned in the discussion above, it’s never as simple as that. There’s always a certain amount of guessing and fudging involved. Allowing ad purchasers to only pay for ads that are “viewed” (i.e., on the viewable area of the screen) is a step in the right direction.

Digital magazine launches print product to expand its reach

I’ve covered this before and I don’t mean to harp on it, but anyone who says “print is dead” should be politely escorted to a nearby sink and invited to soak his head until the fever passes.

Tech website CNET is launching a print magazine to expand its reach.

“There’s a different audience on every platform,” said Holt. “It also gives you an opportunity to do different stories. Print’s a better medium for providing context and longform journalism … So there are plenty of reasons for doing it, you grow your audience, you grow your advertising opportunity [and] it gives you a better opportunity for certain kinds of storytelling.”

Wow. Sense.

Everything is not going digital. There is still a place for print, and smart publishers will keep that in mind.

Dec. 22, Talk to your customer-facing employees, “media trends” v. niche publishing, and the advertising addiction

Instead of dreaming up crazy strategies, talk to the people who deal with your customers

I recently read an article about how Barnes & Noble could re-energize the Nook. I’m not linking to the article because it didn’t seem to have any clear recommendation, but it got me thinking about big picture, grandiose business ideas. That is, the kind that might succeed spectacularly or fail spectacularly. The kind some “genius” comes up with.

Rather than relying on geniuses and betting the company on a throw of the dice, I think B&N management should take a more careful approach. Talk to the people who manage the Barnes & Noble bookstores and coffee shops. Talk to customer support for the Nook. Listen to what customers are saying.

They are probably doing this already, but I suspect the information is being fed into the “genius grand idea generator.” Some VP is going to make a Big Decision that will either save the company or ruin it.

Instead of relying on the Big Genius at corporate HQ, they should allow individual business units to come up with ideas and then let them experiment. The goal is to try lots of things and fail quickly and small in pursuit of the good idea(s) that can win big.

The idea that one uber genius is going to find the exactly perfect strategy is far less likely than that somebody among the company’s ordinary creative people will find something good.

They should also bear in mind the advice I heard at an industry conference recently, where the speaker bucked received wisdom and said you should never listen to your customers — rather, you should watch what they do. For example, most restaurant customers are too polite to tell you that they didn’t like their meal, but you can see if they finished it.

A thousand customers telling you that they’d love to have such and so doesn’t mean much. What matters is if, when there’s money on the table, they’ll actually do it.

The implication for B&N is to look at user data on the Nook.

The path should be (1) gather anecdotes from customer-facing employees, and maybe do some surveys, (2) look at the data on actual customer behavior, (3) give managers access to that information and allow them to come up with ideas, then (4) do lots of small experiments.

The future of publishing is in niches

A friend sent me this article — Michael Wolff on digital media in 2015: ‘A deluge of crap’ — which has some interesting observations about big picture media.

On the big picture scale, media is all about click bait and catchy titles and slideshows and traffic. Or, as Michael Wolff puts it, big picture media is all about a deluge of crap.

But that’s just what the kids do, not what real people with jobs do.

Real people with jobs have to worry about real things. Prices. Regulations. Facts. Processes. The latest buzz feed click bait is just a distraction.

People want help with their jobs. E.g., how do I fire somebody without getting sued? What’s really going on with natural gas prices? How do I get the best tax deduction?

People also want to be a part of a community where they can get to know and learn from their peers.

These needs won’t be met by digital crap that’s designed to get clicks and page views, and these real-world needs represent business opportunities for niche publishers.

Pay no attention to the people who want to steer your business on the basis of some kind of grand “the world is heading ___” blather. (Unless you’re Buzz Feed, I guess.) The list of “next big things” touted by industry experts and explained on fancy power points at industry conferences is very long — and, like clickbait, it’s a deluge of crap.

Instead, find out what people need in their niche and provide that.

Foregoing short-term ad revenue for long-term gain

The Sorry State of Online Publishing makes some very good points about how websites are sacrificing long-term gains to get more ad revenue.

As Jon Stewart recently told New York magazine, “It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

All of us have been fooled by those ridiculous articles. The catchy headline promises something, but the content doesn’t deliver. That sort of strategy might get a website more traffic, but when it continues to not deliver on the promise then visitors learn it’s not a trustworthy site. Also, when the site forces the user to load ten different pages to read “ten amazing things about X” — just so the site can get more ad impressions — the reader goes away mad.

I think everyone knows that this is an awful way to treat people and an awful way to run a content-based business. The problem is that publishers have become addicted to the ad revenue. If they change their site to a more reader-friendly design, revenue will certainly plummet. At least in the short term.

I suspect that a company that respects its readers — without the deceptive links, excess of ads, unnecessary page reloads, etc. — will win out in the long term. But who’s willing to take that risk? Who’s willing to give up the revenue today on a bet that respecting the reader will result in more revenue next year?

Dec. 15 — Should magazines bother with a digital edition, is a magazine an inherently printed product, and crowdsourcing your story list

Is a digital edition even worth the trouble any more?

A major magazine advertiser has allegedly decided that it will no longer count digital editions towards rate base. (Rate base is the guaranteed minimum number of copies of a magazine the publisher promises to deliver.) See Major Ad Buyer Tells Magazines It Won’t Buy Tablet Circ Like It’s Print Any More.

Note that some people think this is just a negotiating ploy. We’ll have to see how it all turns out.

However this particular issue resolves, digital editions have been a big disappointment, and this kind of thing only makes matters worse. Digital editions make up less than 4% of magazine circulation, and if advertisers insist on treating them separately that means a different sales process and, worse, different production for a small fraction of the audience.

If this stands, it’s one more reason for magazine publishers to wonder if they should even bother with a digital edition.

There are still reasons to publish an online edition of a magazine, the most important of which being that customers expect it. But it’s not a clear win, and “going digital” is certainly not going to save a title or a publishing company.

Is a magazine an inherently print product?

In my Dec. 1 issue, I asked “what is a digital magazine?” and said that in many ways the very word “magazine” is intimately tied to the printed page.

David Pilcher took that one step further and said “A magazine IS a print product. Period.” See Hyperbole and Hysteria in the Magazine Industry

His article is well worth your time. It ties together a lot of thoughts I’ve had over the years, and the headline is completely on target. There is far too much hysteria and hyperbole about “digital” and “the death of print.”

Scouting out the best content for your readers

Amazon has started a new venture where kindle readers can preview unpublished books. The readers vote on which stories they like best, then Amazon picks their favorites from that collection and offers the author a deal. It’s a way of crowdsourcing the slush pile. See Amazon’s crowdsourced publishing venture Kindle Scout goes live.

This is interesting to me because I’ve published a few titles on the kindle. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

I’ve often wondered if a similar method might work for B2B publishers. For example, as editors are working on their story list for the next issue they could post something on the order of “these are the stories we’re looking at” and allow readers to mark the ones they are most interested in.

There would be no need to promise to follow the stories the readers pick, but it seems like a good way to get feedback and to tailor content to subscriber needs. It would also help in establishing on online community around the publication.

Dec. 8 — Make a bigger pie, swimming in the outrage pool, and you can’t spotify magazines

Attract more readers

If the book market is a zero sum game, then any advance in ebooks means a decline in print books. The different formats are competing for larger slices of a static pie. (Although there is a small group of people who buy the same title in print and as an ebook.)

If, on the other hand, it’s possible to make books more relevant to a larger audience — maybe in different situations or for different readers — you can make a bigger pie.

That’s what this article is about.

It reminds me of something I recently read about younger readers and books. It’s not that they’re reading less, it’s that they’re reading in smaller chunks. I don’t know if that’s true, but it stands to reason that “readers” is not some inflexible demographic that is always X% of the population, and always consuming content the same way.

It’s not as if people are disinterested in content, but the how and the when and the why is changing all the time. People may be shifting away from 300-page novels to 75-page novellas they can read on their phones, and maybe one day people will be reading one-a-day serials they get by email every morning. Many of our famous novels started out as serials. The point is that publishing shouldn’t be wed to a particular style or format. Publishers need to be flexible and change in response to the market.

Is social media worth your time?

I’ve been a social media skeptic from the start, and when people started responding to “what’s the ROI of social media?” with “that’s the wrong question,” my skepticism burned even hotter. I think companies have wasted a lot of time and effort trying to be hip with the mean girls, trying to cuddle up to socially inept jerks with keyboards, to appeal to the lonely hearts or to navigate the assorted closet weirdos that run loose in social media.

Social media is a place for fandoms and strange causes. It’s a place where news stories get distorted and issues are prejudged and demagogued. It’s not a serious place.

So I chuckled when Mollie Hemingway spoke of comments that were “posted on Twitter where the social media mob fed their hankering for constant outrage.”

Outrage is like crack on social media. Calm, considered voices are boring and therefore don’t get as much traction.

Companies need to protect their brand, and that includes monitoring the wackos on Twitter. There are also some smart ways to use social media for customer service, and I’m sure there are other niche uses here and there. But generally speaking I think it’s a silly distraction.

Magazine articles don’t go on a playlist

Nextissue is an attempt to treat magazines the way Spotify treats music. You sign up for a subscription and you get access to any magazine you want. They’ve just raised $50 million.

It’s an interesting idea and I think it will have some limited success from tire kickers, but then it will fade away because it fundamentally misunderstands what a magazine is, and it has no clear benefit.

A magazine is not just its content. It’s not a collection of articles, pictures and ads. It’s a peculiar sort of package, both in its content and in its presentation. It’s also a lifestyle choice. It’s a way to brand yourself. A magazine is a form of self and group identity.

You don’t subscribe to Field and Stream just because you want to know how to get a trophy buck. You want to think of yourself — and you want others to think of you — as that kind of guy. You want to feel a part of that lifestyle. You want the people who visit your house to see Field and Stream on your coffee table and know a little more about you.

The idea that consumers will grab GQ this month, then Entertainment Weekly, then People, then Better Homes and Gardens …. It seems like a flawed premise to me. A reader might browse those things in the barber shop while waiting for a chair, but this undifferentiated mass of magazines is not a compelling sale.

If you want to sell Better Homes and Gardens there’s a solid pitch to be made. Have a nicer home! We’ll show you how, and all the great stuff we’ll show you is more than worth the paltry subscription price. Plus you get all these premiums!

What is Nextissue selling? You can read … uh … all this stuff … and, uh … whatever it is that you like you can … well … you can read it on a tablet, like no one else in the world is doing right now. (Despite the hype, tablet sales of magazines are awful.)

There’s no clear benefit to an identifiable group of people who want a discrete something — except for a group of people that simply doesn’t exist, that is, people who want to read an undifferentiated mass of whatever on a tablet.

People simply aren’t getting on board with the digital magazine thing — even with titles they like that have a clear audience and a clear benefit. The idea that it’s possible to water down the benefit, target an unclear demographic and sell even more digital magazines is not a business model I would bet on.

We’ll see, but remember — you heard it here first.

Dec 1 — Print books outsold ebooks, Blloom tests a new model for eBooks, the danger of LinkedIn groups to your brand, and what is a digital magazine?

How print refuses to die

Print Books Outsold Ebooks In First Half Of 2014

According to Nielsen’s survey, ebooks constituted only 23 percent of unit sales for the first six months of the year, while hardcovers made up 25 percent and paperback 42 percent of sales. In other words, not only did overall print book sales, at 67 percent of the market, outpace ebook sales, both hardcovers and paperbacks individually outsold ebooks.

After the launch of the kindle, ebook sales took off, with double digit growth year after year. Some people thought that meant the end of print, as if you could take the growth of ebooks in their infancy and project that same rate for the following years. Of course nothing works that way, and you get silly conclusions when you try. For example, if you charted temperature on a summer’s day from 5:00 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon, and then projected that trend out for another 20 hours, you’d think we were all going to bake to death.

eBooks have taken over a niche, for sure, and many people love them. Many others don’t, and it seems that ebooks and printed books will exist side by side for quite some time.

A membership model for eBooks?

Blloon Re-Invents Subscription Model for eBooks

Under this new service you can sign up for free and get 1,000 pages, then earn access to more pages as you review books or invite others to join the service. If you don’t like all that gamify stuff you can skip it and just pay a subscription fee.

As an aside, I think it’s a good idea to offer alternatives to gaming models. Some people love to play games and collect points and such. Others hate it.

I’ve been waiting to see models like this for a long time. When cable TV first came out there were proposals for innovative revenue models for watching movies. One person might watch a show for free, with commercials. Another might watch a show without commercials if he agreed to take a survey about a product, or watch one extended commercial. Another might simply pay.

There are any number of ways to monetize content and it’s usually pretty easy to come up with them. Making them work is another matter entirely. They need to fit in with your fulfillment service and your web store, your accounting department needs to understand what’s going on and your company culture needs to adopt it. You might also have issues with your credit card processor. Coming up with a new idea is child’s play. Making all the pieces hum is the hard part.

Start-ups have an advantage when it comes to new revenue models because they don’t have to reconfigure legacy systems. This often gets interpreted as “new blood” v. “old thinking,” but that’s a naive way to look at the issue. Old businessmen have ideas too!

Is your LinkedIn group damaging your brand?

Or, to put it another way, do you want the members of your LinkedIn Group sending messages “from” you?

I recently got an email “from” a company. The email had a subject line I don’t think that company would have liked. How did this happen?

The company has a LinkedIn page that I follow … or joined, or … whatever the lingo is for LinkedIn.

Some other member of the group — not an employee of the company — posted a discussion on that group with the offending headline. LinkedIn sent an email “from” that company to everyone in the group.

I’m a fairly savvy guy and it took me by surprise for a minute until I figured out what was going on. Imagine what this company’s less savvy followers were thinking!

Social media can give people an opportunity to hijack your brand and make it seem as if you’re saying things you wouldn’t want to say. Monitor this carefully!

I hope LinkedIn has a way to manage this sort of thing in their group settings. If they want to be “Facebook for business” then they’d better.

What, exactly, is a “web magazine”?

My friend and SIPA colleague Ed Coburn has a very interesting and helpful article on web magazines here — More Clarification: What is a Web Magazine? Ed is trying to help publishers think past the idea of simply replicating a magazine on an electronic device.

I posted the following reply in a thread he started on the SIPA LinkedIn page.


Interesting thoughts, Ed, but I wonder if the question itself is part of the problem. We have expectations about a “magazine” that go beyond how the articles are formatted or where or how people read it.

For example — this may sound trivial, but it’s really not if you think about it — most people think that a “magazine” is something you can display on your coffee table, or put in a rack. They think it’s something you can browse in the check-out line at the grocery store, or pick up before you get on an airplane. They think a magazine is something you can easily skim, or look at “just for the pictures.”

All those things are deeply ingrained in what we think of when we think of a “magazine.” The very word has associations and implications that simply don’t transfer to an electronic format — no matter how well you do it.

So I wonder if the right way to proceed is to forget about creating a “digital magazine” altogether and look at the question from a few different angles.

  1. If someone has the print magazine, how would they want to view the same material in other settings?
  2. Forgetting all about the print magazine, what’s the right way to present this material in other settings (and on other devices)?
  3. Why is this particular collection of articles (which we included between two covers) sacred? Is there a different way of dividing / organizing / presenting it that makes more sense to a different audience?


Another thought occurred to me later. The concept of an “edition” is key to a print magazine, but it doesn’t seem necessary in an electronic presentation.

Nov. 24 — What does “digital” mean, should digital teams be “free,” and the resurgence of print

We need to stop talking about “digital”

The imprecise language people use about the “digital transformation” of publishing is getting frustrating. I just read an article that says “Hearst got a late start in digital.” Gee, thank you very much. That tells me almost nothing.

Saying that a publishing company has increased its investment (or revenue, or staff or whatever) in “digital” is about as helpful as saying that a farmer has increased his investment in plants. We need details.

“Digital” can mean so many different things. Is that website traffic? Is it desktop or tablet or smart phone? Is it on the publisher’s site or is the publisher syndicating the content elsewhere? Is it on social media? Is it in an app? Is it ad-supported or subscription-based? Is it data or articles? Or how about video?

For that matter, print on demand could be considered “digital” in some ways.

“Digital” means nothing because it means everything.

Imagine three companies. One is going great guns with a subscriber-only website. Another doesn’t have a website at all but sells 50% of its subscriptions through Google Play. (Remember, we’re imagining.) A third has ad-supported, free content that it serves on its own site and syndicates out to lots of other sites.

All these are “digital,” but they are very different models.

The confusion when people discuss “digital” with reference to magazines is almost comical. Many people read about increasing “digital revenue” with magazine publishers and they assume that means people are buying the magazine through Magzter or Apple. No. Only seven or eight people actually do that. Most of the “digital” revenue that magazine publishers report is from ads sold against content on a web page.

We need to find ways to be more precise. We should distinguish subscription, ad-supported and sponsored revenue. We should separate periodicals (or issue-based publications) from the daily stream of online posts. We should separate sales on the publisher’s terms (their own app or website) from sales in someone else’s walled garden (on Apple or Amazon).

The world of publishing is incredibly fragmented, and it’s going to get more fragmented. To keep our heads we have to be clear what we’re talking about.

Free up your teams, but maintain a common strategy

This article about goings on at Hearst includes this little comment: “their digital teams needed to be freed up to act independently.”

I think that depends on what you mean.

There are different rules and expectations on different platforms. You can’t expect tweets to follow AP style, on the one hand, or require your shy expert who sits in his corner and cranks out brilliant copy for your weekly newsletter to become a social media butterfly.

However, sometimes there are radically conflicting visions of the business of publishing between the print folk and the “new media” people. To take a somewhat extreme example, some internet-only folk are suspicious of copyright and have a “content should be free” attitude. A publisher simply can’t afford to allow that sort of perspective to warp his business practices.

It’s also easy to create conflicts over the use of your resources. Should you sell your site’s banner ad to the highest bidder, or should you use it to promote your own products? That may depend on your business model, but you want to make sure the decision is made to the benefit of the company as a whole and not only to the benefit of the people who sell ads on the website.

In short, departments should have the freedom they need to function in their niche, but it all has to tie back to a consistent strategy for the company as a whole.

New magazine launches defy “print is dead” mantra

Mr. Magazine says there have been 862 new magazine launches in the last year. I’m not sure how that compares with other periods, but it sounds like a lot to me.

The whole “print is dead” meme was aided by two things. First, the 2008 recession, which shoved advertising sales off a cliff. Second, breathless excitement about the appearance of lots of new toys — ereaders, tablets, smart phones, etc. — which had everyone staring into bright little screens.

Now that we’ve caught our breath it’s obvious that reading isn’t some monolithic thing that will all, collectively, “move to digital.” It will vary by niche. Hardly anybody looks in the paper for job postings — that transformation has been almost complete — but magazines seem to be stubbornly print-centric — not because of publisher recalcitrance or “old school thinking,” but because readers like print magazines.

Publishers can’t start with a “print is dead” mindset. They need to listen to customers and be prepared to deliver content how the user wants it.