ENTRIES TAGGED "community"

We need incognito book purchasing

There are valid reasons for wishing to purchase a book without being tracked

In the physical realm, purchasing a book without revealing one’s identity involves little effort beyond proceeding to a store one does not usually patronise and paying in cash. Unless one is seeking illegal volumes, which are unlikely to be obtained at neighbourhood booksellers’ anyway, these obvious techniques are nearly guaranteed to throw friends, banks, and marketers off the scent.

Alas, there is no such thing as an incognito shopping trip in the digital world. Not only are our transactions permanently etched into our credit card records, they are carefully logged and scrutinised by the stores themselves. Any purchase on Amazon, to name but one, forever hounds us in the form of recommendations, obvious or otherwise. Emails and pages are subtly optimised to highlight content related to our past acquisitions, whether in style, length, or subject matter. While we may be given opportunities to decline outright suggestions, there stops our control of the process — and we must provide a reason for declining, which further enriches our personal file.

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Digital publishing and the loss of intimacy

The cognitive overhead involved in reading a book has increased tremendously

Reading used to be an intimate experience. Even Amazon, the pioneer in digital publishing, branded its Kindle with a child reading alone under a tree. Books were specially designed to disappear into the background as much as possible, helped by a laundry list of conventions as to language, punctuation, format, and structure, thus allowing readers to direct all their attention and cognitive powers to the text at hand.

The first digital platforms made a decent job of emulating the traditional experience. Certainly, the overhead of managing an Amazon account is something readers could do without, but allowances had to be made. Black text on a white screen was still the reference, and great pains were taken to ease users into this new experience: options were few, and the physicality of the book was heavily reflected in the shape and size of the device.

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The book as a standard of quality

It's time for the industry to agree on maintaining certain standards

Publishers have long commandeered respect for the quality of their work. Traditional processes may be cumbersome, reliant as they are on an infinity of minute, specialised steps, but they have helped maintain consistently high standards, at ever-lower prices. Authors may sometimes hold fantastic positions, but publishers have largely upheld their part of the bargain: giving them a clear, intelligible voice.

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Learning from a video game publisher’s demise

An over-reliance on one customer, one business model or one market segment is toxic to a content company

So, it’s done. After years of speculation, THQ went under the Chapter 11 auction hammer, most of it going to rival publishers, with the majority of the remaining employees losing their jobs. (THQ’s letter to its employees, along with who got what, is here).

First up – a disclaimer – I’m an outsider looking in. Without being there, it is hard to discern what led them to make the decisions they made. Also, I had friends at THQ, and what has happened to them is lamentable. Those employees have had no input whatsoever into this post. In addition – there has been a lot of press on this case, do check out this link or simply Google “THQ bankrupt” to find all manner of opinions and “facts” on what really happened. Without having access to the books and interviewing staff, it’s difficult to point fingers or truly understand what happened.

However – we can look at the decay in a wider business sense, with some key takeaways as to what really takes to keep a content company afloat.

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Five key takeaways from TOC NY 2013

It's still early, startups rule, and ecommerce follows community

TOC NY 2013 is a wrap and based on the feedback I’ve received so far I think it was one of our best. When Kat and I closed the event Thursday afternoon we both shared thoughts on the most important points we came away with. If you weren’t able to join us last week, here are my top five lessons learned and discussed at TOC NY 2013:

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Don’t Build Social – Thoughts on reinventing the wheel

It's still wise to focus on what you do best and outsource the rest

For the publishing community, social reading has been the hot topic of the year. Since 2008, in fact, social features have spread like wildfire. No publishing conference is complete without a panel discussion on what’s possible. No bundle of Ignite presentations passes muster without a nod to the possibilities created by social features. I understand why: in-content discussion is exciting, especially as we approach the possibility of real-time interaction.

Granted, I’m biased. Running a social service myself, I think all this interest is great. The web should take advantage of new paradigms! Social discussion layers are the future! However, there is one important point that all the myriad new projects are ignoring: unless it’s a core feature, most companies shouldn’t build social.

That’s right. Unless social discussion features are the thing you’re selling, don’t build it from scratch. What’s core? Your unique value proposition. Are you a bookstore or a social network? A school or a social network? A writing community or a social network? A content creator or a social network? The distinction is often lost on a highly-motivated team trying to be all things to all users. For all these examples, the social network is just an aspect of  the business. It is an important piece of the experience, but most of the time it’s not worth the incredible investment in time and manpower to build it from scratch.

Services, APIs and the Complex Web

We’ve seen this happen again and again on the web. If you’ve ever heard of Get Satisfaction or UserVoice, you’re familiar with the evolution of customer service on the web. Ten years ago companies built their own threaded bulletin board systems (and managed the resultant torrent of spam), so that they could “manage the user relationship.” There were some benefits – you could customize the environment completely, for example. But it took the greater portion of a week to build, and a lot of work to maintain. Today that kind of support can be up and running in an hour with third party solutions. Just ask forward thinking companies like Small Demons and NetGalley, who have embraced these services.

The same can be said of newsletters. For years newsletters were hand-coded (or text-only) and sent from corporate email accounts. Unsubscribing was difficult. Getting email accounts blacklisted (because they looked like spam) was common. Today everyone uses MailChimp, Constant Contact, Emma, or a similar service. Even if you hire an agency to design and manage a system, they’re likely white-labelling and reselling a service like this to you. Companies no longer build a newsletter service. Now you just use an API to integrate your newsletter signup form with a third-party database. Design your newsletter using one of their templates, and let them do all the heavy lifting for email management, bounces, unsubscribes, and usage stats.

There are other examples. Who stores video and builds their own player? Instead we upload it to Vimeo, Brightcove or YouTube, customize the settings, and let the service tell you who watched it, handle storing the heavy files, push player upgrades frequently, etc. Even web hosting itself has become a service that people sign up for – in many cases setting a project up on AWS (Amazon Web Services, essentially cloud computing) is faster and easier than acquiring a real hardware server and configuring from scratch.

The rise of these third-party solutions are a testament to maturity and complexity of our digital world. Specialization makes systems more stable and dependable. Sure, any time you partner with a service there are risks. But I’ve seen so many publishing projects with social features miss their launch deadline or trash their social features before launch because they found they couldn’t get it built, that it’s hard to watch them spin their wheels over a perceived need for control. That’s a mess of work for something that isn’t the center of your business.

Publishing Focus and Third-Party Opportunity

This move to third-party social solutions should start happening with all the education, journalism, authoring platforms, writing communities and publishing projects currently in development. Although it sounds simple to just add discussion into content, the devil is in the details. Obviously the front end – the process of adding a comment – takes some work, and the estimation for that is fairly straightforward. But what about the paradigm that people use to connect? Are they following people in a Twitter paradigm, or is it a group-based, reciprocal model, like Facebook? Who can delete comments? What can you manage with your administrator dashboard? Are servers ready to scale with peak activity? What kind of stats can you get on how your audience is interacting with your content? Most of these issues don’t relate to the core business.

In the end, it comes down to the project definition. Is it a bookstore or a social network?  I’m guessing nine times out of ten it’s a bookstore first, with additional social features. Focus on controlling the content and making the sale, be unique via curation and selection, and add the rest of the social features in using APIs and third party solutions. Then tweak the experience based on what those third-party services can tell you. That way you have the freedom to experiment and tweak the social options you offer your users, but still focus on your core offering. Everybody wins.

TOC Trifecta: This week’s trio of must-read articles (Sept. 6, 2012)

Membership, Building a direct relationship with customers, and a Dumbed-down DOJ brief

  1. Membership has its privileges — This piece was aimed at the newspaper industry but it’s very much applicable to the book publishing world as well.
  2. Community vs. commodity — Another article aimed at a different industry (television) but the one-to-one relationship it describes is equally important for books; think “direct sales”, people!
  3. Let me draw you a picture — Here’s how a 55-page DOJ brief gets boiled down to 5 pages…in comic strip format.
Each of these articles were featured in this week’s TOC newsletter. They’re the best of the best. We spend (way too) many hours reading every publishing article, blog post, and tweet so that you don’t have to. If you find our filtering of the content fire hose useful be sure to sign up here for your own subscription to our weekly newsletter.

The future of publishing lives on and around the web

Richard Nash outlines his gameplan for uniting audiences and content

Richard Nash is passionate about the web’s ability to connect audiences and authors with the topics that excite them. Connections can be fleeting and the revenue model is in flux, but there’s a lot of opportunity in this model. What Nash discusses in this short video interview could very well be a blueprint for future publishing businesses.

Lessons from Digital Disruption in the Music Business

Last week's On The Media (mp3 download here) devoted the full program to challenges and changes during the past decade or so in the music business — from the unanswered legal questions about sampling (check out Girl Talk for the genre taken to the extreme) to the shifting economics of concert tickets and promotion to the changing role of…