22 July 2011

Bespoke Ebooks

In a previous blog I said that printed books were nothing more than packaging for the story. And, ebooks are the exact same story, sans packaging. I touched on the challenge facing digital publishers is one of consumers perception that the digital asset is not highly valued. It is casual if not insouciant – a file is a commodity, and although the contents may be revered, guarded and even highly valued, the fact is it’s just a file. This lack of packaging in ebooks makes the negotiation of a profitable transaction a bit of an obstacle.

So, I explored a couple of ways that are being implemented currently to give ebooks a bit of ‘packaging’; transmedia and DRM. I’d like to expand a bit more on these and introduce a couple of other examples including our bespoke ebook.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m no fan of DRM, at least not in most of the forms we’ve been ‘treated’ to so far. Having said that, the social DRM, imprinting the purchasers’ personal information into the delivered file, seems to be one method that I can get behind. It offers little friction in the buying and reading process and puts the onus on the reader to not share it by way of an implied deterrent. I like this.

Transmedia storytelling is an area that I have been focusing on as a way to enhance the reading experience and add value – not just to the ebook but to the story overall. When I say transmedia storytelling, I’m talking about using several forms of media to TELL the same story – not to promote the story. This is a bit of a grey area however as readers experience a transmedia story, they will share it with others – so the experience of the story becomes the promotion.

I’ve heard the adding of video to a book being called transmedia. This is not correct. I think the term they struggle for is just simply, enhancement. And, there’s nothing wrong with enhancement – this is another form of packaging for the e-book and a necessary one in my opinion. Adding value to the content and giving a little more to the reader in return will be the key to accessing the readers’ wallet with greater success.

The way I see it, enhancements such as interviews with the author (video or audio), trailers and readings from the book are going to be commonplace among ebooks, if for the only reason to retail the ebook at or near par with the printed book. Without enhancements, I think it will get tougher and tougher to retail ebooks over the $10 mark in the coming years.

I think everyone can agree that book pricing is going to fluctuate over the next year as publishers try to find the sweet spot in the growing online store. Last year was a completely different shop for consumers than this year – titles are added in bulk everyday to the hoards of online selling points and the amount that readers can choose from, just in this last year has multiplied at alarming rates. Many of the publishing companies (for various reasons, mostly rights based) haven’t even begun to touch their backlist and OOP titles. All of which has to impact the price. Doesn’t it? The demand is increasing, but this increase is being outstripped by the supply.

There are some that have speculated a ‘Netflix’ model for books may be in the future for ebooks. I have to agree. Subscription based services are taking hold in music and video – why not books? Some find it hard to imagine it working, but think of it in terms of a book of the month club. For titles with no enhancements or ‘packaging’, I can see this being a good fit. This model is ideal for publishers and authors looking to connect with a potentially huge audience through their backlists. I was very hesitant of this type of model when I first heard it discussed, however the more I think of it – and the more I use Netflix – the more I see the potential for the book industry. It's not the 'solution', just another channel to sell content.

Of course the subscription model wouldn’t work for all ebooks, new releases would be excluded from this one would assume as would ebooks with ‘packaging’. Ebooks with packaging have more to offer and will be valued at a different level, by the authors, publishers, retailers and ultimately readers. I know this is a sales model, but the subscription model relates to packaging vs. non-packaging as it’s potential and possibilities illustrates clearly where ‘packaged’ ebooks and non’packaged’ ebooks would or wouldn’t fit.

So, what other ‘packaging’ methods are there? Bundling – putting an ebook together with a print book, pre-sales – pre-selling a much anticipated release, re-sales – for an additional fee, allowing ebook purchasers to re-sell the book (putting controls on the resale market) and how about special editions - multiple versions of the same story? These are all forms of packaging that ebooks can employ.

When we released One Child, our online story was slightly different than our printed book as it included small edits throughout to coincide with actual events that were happening in the world as the story was released in real time. This meant that you could buy the print book after reading online and get a slightly different experience – the story was the same, but some of the details were changed. This would be equivalent to the directors cut in the movie industry… a great way to connect with fans wallets on multiple occasions with the same story… How many versions of Star Wars are there? How many do you have at home? I know I’ve got a few… don’t even get me started on Lord of the Rings. So, are books any different? Right now the answer is mostly yes, but special editions are easy to do in ebooks… at least I think so.

But, what if every single reader got a different experience from the same book? What if every single book that was purchased was different? What if it was personalized for each reader of the book? That is some powerful digital ‘packaging’ on an ebook. Margaret Atwood touched on personalization and value at the TOC conference in February, on her last slide (a scan of an illustration she drew and coloured) - she asked the audience how much the image on the screen was worth on the internet (free?), how much was the original worth (a lot more?), what if she signed it (a hell of a lot more?). This interesting concept added fuel to the fire of my thoughts on digital asset valuation and what personalization adds to the mix.

Creating original content en masse has not really been thought of as a feasible venture. If something is personalized or customized, it’s typically a one-off, expensive and takes time to get/make. Creating digital content for one person at a time is possible… completely doable and we’re working on it.

Introducing the Bespoke Ebook.

I’d like to think that the next iteration of packaging, at least what we’re working towards is the bespoke model. Creating stories tailored for the reader, highly customized with reader input – creating one-off stories. This compliments the transmedia storytelling experience and is an area that we are exploring with great delight and enthusiasm. We have an opportunity to do something really different and creative with our next thriller novel and we’ll be looking at ways that offer a more immersive experience as well as a number of ways to promote and monetize the story. I don’t want to tip our hat too much, becauase we’re in the exploration phase right now and will likely do some testing before launching it publicly. Everyone is excited by the possibilities it has to offer, the business side likes the upside of having a ‘packaged’ product that could yield more dollars and the development team likes that fact that we’re breaking down new walls.

I’m looking forward to sharing information on this at the Books in Browsers Conference in October.

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