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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16 July 2011

It's Called Transmedia?

About 4 years ago, our creative team built a pretty fantastic little experience for potential gamers at a local gaming cafe. We created a story about a rogue agent and the ‘agency’ sought the help of new agents to locate his whereabouts. The new agents were recruited through social media (which was still somewhat new to many) and as they uncovered bits of clues and solved various challenges, which culminated with finding the GPS coordinates and timing of a live drop. Two weeks into this adventure, we learned that there was a name for our creation - we had created an ARG (alternate reality game).

As a creative firm that has always focused on creating 'experiences' for customers, we approached the task of promoting the opening of this LAN gaming center with an interactive and engaging game that the audience could immerse themselves in, get to know each other through helping one another solve challenges and ultimately lead them to the grand opening of this new gaming center. This just seemed to make sense for the audience we were trying to attract and engage with, so we did it. It was all very organic how it fell into place.

When it was all said and done, our local 'game' or ARG as we came to call it, garnered more of an international crowd, we had participation from the four corners of our planet. And, any hardcore ARG player can tell you where those corners are. We had a few local players though which became the establishments' first 'regulars'. Even though this was done years ago, it still gives this gaming facility street cred with new gamers - at the end of the day, it was the perfect launch for this company, they have built a foundation for their business designed specifically for gamers.

As I said, creating experiences is where our strengths lie. Previous to this small ARG, we developed the packaging for VoodooPC, a luxury computer company that has since been acquired by Hewlett Packard. We created an experience for their extremely loyal following of A list clients that centered around the opening their very expensive and sought after custom built computer - this included sight, sound, touch, smell and taste... all five senses. About a year after producing these, someone, somewhere coined the term 'Out Of Box Experience' or OOBE, which we were delighted to learn as we didn't know what to call it, we just create immersive experiences. We continue to push the envelope with OOBE design for others.

Last year, I co-founded a new publishing company called Enthrill Entertainment, our mission; to engage, to enlighten and to entertain. We all saw digital publishing as having enormous potential for taking a written narrative to new levels of engagement and immersion. We began planning an ARG for Jeff Buick's latest thriller novel called One Child. The deeper we got into the planning the more evident it was that an ARG wasn't right for the audience of thriller novels. We still wanted to immerse the audience in the narrative of the story and give them something more than 400 printed pages of text. We set out to engage the reader in new ways and hoped to capitalize on the advancements that new e-readers could offer.

While planning the immersive experience for the book, news of Apple's new device, the iPad, was making headlines so we began looking at it from a completely different perspective. What if every reader had an iPad? How would we engage them? Looking at all that the iPad could offer we started planning our story. So, we created an immersive reading experience or story world, complete with a cast of 'real-life' characters and lots of online content.

Trying to describe what we were doing before it hit the streets was difficult, we didn't have anything to go by, there was nothing to compare it to. After about a week into our launch we learned that the word transmedia applied to what we had created - cool, we had something to call it!

Just because we had a name didn't help us communicate what we'd done any better to people who didn't the know the genré. Most people, unless they experienced it firsthand had difficulty in understanding what it was about. Of course, a lot of people, after seeing it firsthand became immediate fans or were excited by what now could be done with a narrative.

Some of the interesting elements from One Child:

  • Released in real time over 30 days, live as the story unfolded on a fully customized browser based e-reader, making it available on any device with a browser.
  • Readers who pre-subscribed to the story were sent postcards from characters in the story, some of these made their way online in discussion groups and forums.
  • Characters in the story 'lived' online, with facebook profiles, tweeting, blogging and networking on Linkedin - 27 social media profiles were managed 24/7 over the course of the 30 day release... you could 'friend' a character on Facebook and gain access to their vacation photos and more. Many of the characters were managed by Kristin Reilly, AKA Batgirl, a professional gamer and social media maven.
  • The companies that the characters worked at had web sites with some interesting abilities, you could phone and leave messages for one character and get a returned call.
  • Each new day of the story began with morning news being broadcast from a fictitious radio station merging actual news of the day with pieces from the story. Radio broadcasts written, voiced and produced hours before release for 3o days.
  • Songs from the books soundtrack were released in the browser based reader as they fell inline with the content, in context and helping to set the mood for the story as it unfolded - songs were written by Rick Plester of Black Symphony.
  • Four scenes from the book were filmed by an award winning production company with the video content embedded in the enhanced iPad version of the story as well as reside in other versions of the book.
  • Facebook was used as a discussion platform for the readers, most of which were women and over 40 years old (a good call on not pursuing the ARG, eh?).
  • Nearly 100 people worked on the project.

Even today, it’s hard to describe exactly what we've done without the aid of a white board. Diagrams help, they really do. A video presentation is in the works. We used transmedia to tell the story and to provide additional depth to characters and plot. Some in the transmedia space get it and know what we’ve done, which is really cool. I've always approached my work on this project with an open attitude and will share nearly everything I’ve learned along the way in hopes that these types of storytelling techniques get tried more and refined as the industry progresses. It’s my firm belief that all of us in this industry need to work just as hard at creating awareness of the genré or transmedia category as we do on our own projects. Creating compelling and entertaining content ain’t worth shit if there isn’t an audience. If they don’t know it’s available, how can they ask for it?

It's been a full year since releasing One Child live followed by printed book and ebook and we're still getting comments from people just discovering the property - luckily, we had the foresight that the content would have to live forever and have set up all external elements of the story in such a way so that we have control of the content always. Keeping in mind that for someone to enjoy the full experience five years from now, the content must be time-appropriate so a reader can go through and get the same experience as if it were happening, we’ve set up as much as we could to unfold chronologically for the reader. Now, nothing beat the live roll out, but future readers will also be treated to a near full experience, and with the time frame of the narrative set in the past, it helps puts the additional content in perspective... making it even more believable.

The mixing of fact and fiction in our radio broadcasts combined with the realism of the characters and storyworld had many people wondering what was real and what was made up. Reactions from readers was overwhelmingly positive, as were the reviews from professional reviewers and the media - we achieved our goal of creating an immersive experience for readers. At the heart of all the transmedia was a great story, which always helps.

To be transmedia or not to be transmedia - the discussion around the naming of this genre we’ve found space in is confusing. There’s arguments over different delivery methods and how it should be labeled, the ambiguity of the term itself begs for some whittling before we have anything the public is going to ask for, by name anyways. Quite frankly, I'm not too hung up on it, I think it's kind of funny - I mean, we all know what a story is whether it gets told on TV, in a book or in a movie. It's still a story. Someday maybe the word transmedia will have that same luxury.

For me, well I’m just going to keep creating immersive experiences for brands, for products and for books. Call it whatever you like but me and my team will continue to follow our hearts, tell stories and create things we don't know the names of yet.

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03 July 2011

The Product is the Package

Much has been talked about the publishing industry; the impending downfall of print books, ebook pricing, DRM and so much more, ...so much, that I am reluctant to even add my two cents. Regardless (or irregardless as I sometimes like to say), here is my humble opinion on some of the issues facing the industry.

First, let me clearly state my bias; I am digital publisher with a focus on transmedia storytelling and distributor of digital content. I believe strongly that, barring some global internet shortage, digital is the future of everything... it just needs some sorting out still.

Now, I'm also of the age where I have a massive collection of vinyl, which I still listen to regularly while working in my office (when there's nobody else here). I also have a pretty good collection of first edition print books from each of my favourite authors. So, I have more than an appreciation for analog formats, I still engage with them regularly.

This engagement and tangible experience is why I don’t see print books ever dying. But, I think their sales will decline gradually over the next 5 years as ebooks continue to take off and erode the print market. This will see a rise in exclusive print runs, special editions and fewer and fewer titles seeing any ink at all.

So, what’s the matter with a decline in pulp and an increase in 1’s and 0’s it’s just a trade off, right? Well, no. As this transition takes place, millions of sales dollars are at stake and all traditional publishers are in the same boat. At this time, consumers don’t see ebooks as having the same value as printed books – but it’s the same product, isn’t it? Well, no. Consumers perceive digital assets as having a very low value which is a huge obstacle when selling them something such as an ebook.

I suppose if we can increase a readers’ perception of value we could maintain a price level on ebooks that offers a sustainable environment for publishing as well. Sure, but to do this, we need to really understand what we’re selling and demonstrate to readers a tangible experience worth paying for.

When you break it down, books are nothing more than packaging. No product is. Now, the publisher and author will tell you, ‘the content is what you're buying, not the packaging’. I say this is dead wrong. Most are under the assumption that the packaging is what the content resides in, and while technically that’s true, without the packaging, there’s not much left to sell or for the consumer to connect and engage with other than maybe 95,000 words, and that can be saved as a .txt file.

If 20 years in marketing consumer products and brands has taught me anything, it's that people buy packaging. Sure, some will argue this, including consumers themselves, but in the end this is what it comes down to... people buy packaging.

And, what exactly is packaging?

It's the wrapper, the container, the vessel that the content is presented in. My definition of packaging is a little more vast than that of perhaps a dictionary, or well, you. But, packaging to me includes many things and encompasses everything you are trading your hard earned dollars for. Good product packaging should include some sort of tangible remnant or an artifact of the product and/or allow you to engage with the product, offering you an experience that you associate with that product.

While listening to a good old-fashioned record, I can read the liner notes and marvel at the cover art – this is packaging at it’s best. The better sound quality and this visceral, visual, tangible packaging experience is why artists and record companies are releasing on vinyl again… there’s a premium price attached, but it’s well worth it.

Having just paid $40.00 for the new, beautifully designed Strokes 10 song LP – the packaging was beautiful and the experience of opening it, handling it and engaging with it while it plays is worth every penny spent. Now, as a digital album, it’s $9.99 – same songs, but there’s no further experience or added value… just listenting. It’s priced right. Heck, at .99¢ a song and I’ll probably pick that version up too so I can listen to it in the car.

For 4 times the price, the music publisher has offered me an experience by creating packaging around the digital asset. (and, don’t for a minute think this wasn’t digital first, just as books are typed into a digital environment, then typeset and printed analog in a book, so too is music). The wrapper or packaging of the digital product is where the perceived value is for the consumer.

In the case of the good old print book, the packaging was done in the form of subtle, beautifully designed text, printed on crisp, porous papers that were easy on the eyes but spoke of quality and importance. This was further packaged with stitched eight page signatures and set into a hard back cover, the linen stretched taut, folded and glued with precision - so much so that the average reader didn't give the construction of it a second thought - it just came that way, it was perfectly bound and solid. The linen was hot foil stamped with the title and author's name. Then this is all finished with a gloss-laminated dust-jacket with embossed text and a perforated price tag inside the fold. I think you get the picture, when you fork over $38.00 for this book, it's not for the 95,000 words inside, it's for the packaging.

Without this packaging, what are those words worth?

Surely there is a price to be paid for something that someone has spend so many hours creating. A team of people were involved in the creation of the digital asset, surely their time is worth something. Unfortunate as it is, if the consumer can’t see it they have challenges understanding it’s value.

In the case of ebooks, there is no packaging. Or, rather the packaging that does exist is 'owned' by the digital reader or store front, and that has little to do with the publisher or author. It also has little to do with the reader and the experience with the product is controlled by the retailer or the device, who has varied interests in your experience outside of the text you are reading. In essence, the retailer and devices own the packaging through the digital storefront – your enjoyment and experience is secondary to volume.

So, if this is the case, if it’s true that consumers buy packaging and not the product itself, and what little packaging exists is controlled by the retailer and device, how do you go about pricing something with no packaging, if packaging is what the consumer has been indoctrinated into purchasing?

Consumers expectations sans-packaging are low, which is why digital content has suffered the label of being worth less, but not worthless. They still want the product, they’ll even pay for it, but not at a premium. ‘It's just a digital asset – what can it be worth?’ We've all heard this. Most of us have seen what 95,000 words looks like in a .doc file, some of us have put them there. Take the time spent typing all those words away and what do you have? All you have is text that can be copied and pasted like a funny image on the web, it’s void of value – until you introduce experience and packaging.

The same goes for any digital asset. We need to be inventive to create experiences around digital products to make money with them.

Digital assets are all the same; we used to purchase Lettraset sheets, sometimes hundreds of them for specific client fonts. There was value inherent each time you rubbed out a letter. Fonts used to be packaged – now, you just select a different font from your toolbar. The end product is the same, the experience is different, less valued. Ergo, in the consumers mind, it should be priced less.

In Apple's App Store, the Apps range from free to $899. The device is the packaging, you experience each app though it and the varying degrees at which the software manipulates and displays the data… or slingshots birds. The point is that you are constantly interacting and engaging with this digital asset and that’s the where the perceived value is. This is similar to cloud based apps – maybe you remember when software was packaged in a box with instructions and a CD or two, you may also remember, there was a much higher retail price.

I think you get the point – the product is the package.

Until this issue of packaging gets resolved, publishers have been willing to look at many ways to maintain a price that defies perceived value on the digital asset they call ebooks. They crave a price that is closer to the heavily packaged print book.

Two ways that have been explored by publishers and debated endlessly are DRM and Enhanced ebooks.

Personally, I’m not a fan of DRM, I feel it undermines the trust the author and publisher have with the reader and quite frankly, I’ve paid for my product (or packaging) and I’ll do with it as I please. Jumping through hoops to access content or restricting access to devices does not make for that same carefree enjoyment and experience you get with a physical product. I know why publishers want DRM on their products, but I would rather see them incorporate some ‘packaging’.
I need to applaud the Pottermore project for bringing ‘social DRM’ into the spotlight, a process where the readers personal information is embedded into the product as a way to prevent copy – this is a far less intrusive and acceptable form of protection than anything I have seen so far.
The other method employed by publishers to create more value on their ebook properties is enhanced versions. Enhancements come in various forms, from the inclusion of video or audio and web links or a full on transmedia experience. Enhancement is where I think publishers need to focus their attention. This is as close to ‘packaging’ as you’re going to get in the digital space – creating experiences around the 95,000 words demonstrates value and commands a higher price.

My company has decided to focus on the transmedia storytelling side of things, and with my background in consumer packaging and brand experiences, we should be able to create that elusive engagement with the reader, providing some tangible experience that they will want to explore again and again.

At the end of the day, consumers want to feel good about the purchases they made and purchasing things makes them happy. Packaging is validation of money well spent.

Packaged in this blog, what do you value my 1791 words at?

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