Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Digital Book Clubs

A few months ago there was a burst of enthusiasm for Twitter book clubs. We participated in some of the excitement around the Wossy bookclub. Like a lot of good ideas, this one seems to have fizzled. There have been other Twitter bookclubs, but like the Jonathan Ross experiment, it seems that they quickly need to invoke the aid of a more substantial platform (wossy went to a news forum), Facebook or an email list. Perhaps Twitter with its 140 character limit doesn't really have the bandwidth for the conversation engendered in a proper book club. That may be part of the problem....

But a more serious, and remediable problem with these book clubs is that it is very hard to share the reading experience through the web if the club is using a print book or even a traditional eBook. eBooks dont generally facilitate straightforward citations and bookmarks. This is of course where a platform such as Exact Editions (or the pre-eminent Google Book Search) come in. Such digital editions can be easily shared and precise passages cited and even excerpted by their book club readers. It would seem to us that there is big scope for the revival of the book club idea through the web. This could either be the informal 'reading group' style of book club that has become so popular with readers in the UK and the USA in the last decade, or the special interest type of book club for a relatively mass market, which was the foundation of Bertelsman's fortunes in the 1950's and 60's.

Such book clubs would work well with a subscription service which gave their members access to a book for a period of time. Our interest in this idea was sparked by a suggestion that the Guardian is planning to create a readers club. That could well be the basis for a valuable subscription service: valuable both to the Guardian, its readers and the publishers and authors of books who might be very willing to grant the Guardian very favourable leasehold rights.

But in some ways the most obvious sponsor for a new wave of digital book clubs will be found amongst publishers. Publishers could now launch digital book clubs (for a small annual fee, say £9.99 per annum) which would give limited access (a month or two) to books, 3 or 4 a month, with rights that they control and with audiences which they can develop. The advantage of a private book club for a publisher are several:

  • It can become a premier layer in the catalogue (a title which is selected for one of the slots each month) is gaining additional promotion
  • Providing full access to some books, to club members for a month or two is in most cases not likely to preclude sales of the title to club members (but perhaps the lightest forms of fiction would not be suited to such temporary loans).
  • Selling print copies of the books that are on digital loan for a month or two would be a key objective
  • As would be the option of selling digital subscriptions to those titles. Sales direct and indirect would be encouraged by promotion through a digital book club.
  • Publishers who have a direct sales operation in place will be particularly interested in these opportunities.
  • Bookclubs will foster word-of-mouth success. Digital book clubs will merge into digital word of mouth (even as some of the book choices inevitably die through word-of-mouth).
  • The publisher who develops his direct links to a reading audience is well placed to develop other attractively 'social' elements of the reading experience (Twitter, Facebook, Myspace etc)
  • A key value of a book club is the proposition of membership. The publisher who can boast of having 5,000, or 10,000 or 40,000 members in his history book club is going to be in a very strong position to attract new authors. And new members.
  • Choice, but 'limited choice' is also a key value, both for the members and for the publisher in negotiating rights (and negotiation will be needed, not all authors and agents will immediately recognise the advantage of having their new book out with 4,000 members on a 2 month loan)
  • Publishers like propositions which develop their unique role as a builder of lists. It is the publisher with a strong and coherent list, or strong and coherent lists, who can most successfully launch and possibly 'twig' such book clubs. But above all publishers should like this proposition because it is non-exclusive. Developing your own bookclub is not going to stop you selling books via the Guardian book club, the Tesco bookclub, or the Walmart bookclub if and when they come to pass. It certainly is going to help you sell eBooks to Amazon or Sony if you can point to some of the opinions that have surfaced on your own readers' comments and reviews.
'Book clubs' are an attractive idea, and as the web becomes more social and more content oriented, their time will come again. The concept of a book club is so much more attractive than the concept of an ebook, or a digital edition, don't you think? But I suspect that the bookclub may be a key part of making ebooks that flourish.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Athletics Weekly Branded App

Earlier this week Exact Editions release through the Apple iTunes App store a branded magazine App for the UK's leading sporting periodical Athletics Weekly. If you have an iPhone and work in the magazine business you really need to treat yourself to a short subscription to this publication. Direct link.

To speak frankly, this is a breakthrough for the magazine industry and it has not yet been properly noticed. One key point: on the iPhone, a magazine is an enjoyable read in just the spatial arrangement and layout in which it is printed. Exactly as printed. The text is readable, column by column, and of course can be expanded or shrunk with the touch gestures that iPhone users love. We were lucky that the App became available just as Usain Bolt produced his amazing runs in Berlin:

Even more important than the readability of the magazine text, is the new shape and potential for digital browsing. In its iPhone implementation, 'pageflow' encourages rapid browsing of the whole magazine. Here is a still shot of the coverflow feature (comparable to the coverflow with which iTunes users survey their CDs).

Pageflow is a crucial step through which digital magazines can benefit from the quality and the design values of the print magazine. Pageflow in action gives the digital reader the quality, the artwork, and the design built in to print magazines. Magazine publishers have for too long worked on the assumption that it is their task to adapt the magazine to the web by 'repurposing' its content and its design values. Nonsense. The web, or at least an iPhone rendition of the magazine, gives the publication its full visual quality. Perhaps even better than in print (though I would rather be judged on this claim once Apple has produced its new Tablet device. The 10" tablet with a digital magazine will be more sumptuous than many printed versions).

Finally, the key point about a magazine App is that it is for sale. This is commerce: the iPhone is a way of selling subcriptions which simply are the whole magazine and as much of its archive as the publisher cares to offer to iPhone subscribers. Athletics Weekly offers subscribers access to over 100 back issues, which makes the weekly subscription price, of £1.19 amazingly good value. From the magazine publishers point of view, the key thing about a branded iPhone App is that this is a way of selling magazine subscriptions. Athletics weekly is now being offered through weekly or monthly subscriptions and readers are buying subscriptions and making in-App purchases for renewed subscriptions. The Apple iPhone App-ecology is working. This is some really good news for the magazine industry. Sell subscriptions to iPhone users and iTouch users. There will soon be over 50 million such digital customers waiting for their magazine subscriptions.

The sad truth is that much of the magazine industry is so stunned by the way that advertising revenues have collapsed that business strategists are finding it hard to think about anything else, about anything positive. But the community of iPhone users is a huge market to which magazine publishers should be selling subscriptions.

It is amazing how slow the industry has been to see and to seize this potential. We know of no magazine which currently makes itself commercially available in its entirety through the iPhone App store. Athletics Weekly is the first magazine to show how it can be done, and it came through Apple's unpredictable approval process in the very week in which Usain Bolt showed us that 100 metres can be run at lightning speed. Some of our biggest and best magazines are slow off the mark!

We have a short video which provides a brief overview of the way this App technology can work for a magazine. Note the way that telephone numbers become call-able off the page. There can be no doubt this is the way that magazines should behave on an iPhone. All phone numbers should be callable from digital editions that work on phones. This is another big step for the industry, and one that has key potential in reviving those advertising budgets.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lessig on the Google Books Settlement

Lawrence Lessig contributed a 40 min discussion to the Berkman Center's seminar "Alternative Approaches to Open Digital Libraries in the Shadow of the Google Book Search Settlement”. (In the 'shadow' of the Google Settlement -- doesnt this make it sound a bit ominous?)

He opens with a comparison between Tiger/Kitten and Tiger/Tiger. Google has to be the Tiger. So although not explicitly anti-Google, his rather mournful assessment of the Google project is moving away from it. Watch out for the claws. He recognises that the GBS Settlement may represent progress and have some positive results, there are even so a lot of downsides: "We need a framework to encourage experimentation"; "We should not trust our culture to kittens that turn into tigers"; There is a tendency in the extraordinarily complex settlement agreement "against the ecology of free access which we have had since the invention of printing".

Lessig's position is not hard and fast, and tries to avoid being anti-Google. There is something rather soft, touchy-feely, about his extreme example of what is happening to books: it is far-fetched, in my view, to suppose that books will be as ham-strung with temporary permissions as documentary films. It is not clear what his recommendation really amount to. The 'appropriate or the best ecology of access' is a vague idea.

But Lessig is putting his finger on some of the tender issues in the Google project. There is a worrying tendency for the Google Books project to dissappear in a vastly complicated and centralised network of permissions, concessions, exceptions, pettifogging access restrictions, content omissions and database-driven implementation decisions which may yet stifle the project. Or, at the very least, cramp its style. With Google Book Search, code is very much becoming and making law, but not in ways that Lessig can welcome. Something looser, more rounded, more democratic and multi-polar is needed. The ultimate and inevitable failure of Google's project as it is currently shaped is that it is not putting books in the centre of its intentions. Books are not being given room to breathe.