The topic for discussion today is Network Realism, which is a somewhat nebulous and imperfectly formed theory and I’m certain no one’s really understood completely. It was coined by James Bridle as we all know.
What is Network Realism? For that we’ll need a cursory idea of what Realism implies. I’m sure most of you have an idea already.
Realism was an art movement, which enjoyed a long period of patronage particularly of writers and critics in the late 1800s. It was realism because it bore a close relationship to the material reality of its time. The time factor is significant because unlike most other movements in literature, it did concern not itself with any mythic or grand historical themes; it was very much entrenched in daily life in and of its time.
Right, now that we have realism sorted, we can try to understand Network Realism, but before getting into that, I’m going to contextualize it using my own vantage point.
There was this book that I’d read a few years ago: It was called White Teeth. It was by this British author Zadie Smith. I was very taken by the book, in particular this character of a Bangladeshi immigrant. About a few months ago, I was reading up on the book and it came to my attention that the character I was talking about is actually based on a real person who was known to Smith. This person is a well known public figure. And this was very ambivalent for me because here you have a character from a book who’s literally come to life and is a real person. And yet, I felt that this person was more real inside Zadie Smith’s fictional universe rather than in the actual physical world.
That’s probably just me but I suspect it’s not an alien feeling and I think this approximates my own relationship to the internet or the network and how it bears upon my understanding of reality as we know it.
I realize this is turning into a discussion on metaphysics but I do think that it’s important to not take the network for granted and understand how it changes our notion of reality. There is a French philosopher. His name’s Jean Baudrillard and his work on Simulacrum and Simulation is, in my opinion, a good framework of reference to understand what’s happening here.
Simulacrum is essentially a copy or imitation of what one might call the real thing. Baudrillard believes that all of reality has been replaced by simulacra; that everything, including our conception of reality is just an imitation.
He uses this parable, it was originally a short story by John Louis Borges, the Argentinian writer. The story goes that there was an empire and it was covered by a map that was drawn to scale. It’s a simulacrum of the empire. This map was as big and as detailed as the very territory that it was covering. It was an evolving map so that every time, the empire acquired or lost a new piece of territory, it would change accordingly. Overtime, people began thinking of this map as the empire itself. The map itself became their notion of the empire that they inhabited. Their spatial position was on the map and not on the actually physical territory of the empire. They began living in the map, so to speak and eventually could not tell the difference between the map and the physical territory that it was covering. And in time, they were unable to comprehend that there was ever a territory beneath the map.
I think the internet is sort of like this map; it is the ultimate simulacrum because it is a real-time and constantly evolving representation of the world and by the world. People actively participate in modifying and making changes to it.
In effect, as happened in the case of the empire and its subjects where they started seeing the map as the actual territory, we, too, with our increasing engagement with the network, are losing touch with reality from which the network used to be absent. It is like perpetuating a myth without knowing that there is a myth in the first place. The internet, in its initial days, used to be thought of quite abstractly because such a thing was unprecedented. Now, we are slowly reaching a position where we don’t find ourselves looking at the network as the other or as anything remotely foreign or unnatural to the human experience.
And none of this is strange to us because we created the network; it is us, collectively, who are the network.
We are spending more and more time on the network. We trust the network, for the most part; our thoughts, conversations, fears, feelings or points of view are either informed, trained or directly shaped by it. The network is our window to things that our far removed from our offline experience. The empire’s map was created to make its citizens understand the geographical contours of the empire. The internet was our guide to the world but it is becoming its own reality.
And the reason why that is is because it’s an irresistible reality. It is an infinite reality where, by virtue of what you search and what catches your fancy, you can change and choose your reality. There are no limitations, you can vicariously be what you want, be in the presence of anything you want. The limitations of your offline existence do not apply here. We spend our most curious hours online. It is a distraction to which we, without much resistance, volunteer our attention.
This, of course, is by no means a novel theory by any stretch. There were similar anxieties about television when it first came along. But, I think, the situation with the internet is a game-changer and since we happen to be in a publishing class, despite all evidence to the contrary, we can make some sense of it by looking at fiction.
“Turn off the computer. Write by hand!”: Will Self
“I keep Word open on top of Firefox”: William Gibson
We all know Will Self, the bane of the novel. William Gibson – I’m sure most of you’ve hear about him – is a science fiction writer who actually happens to live in Vancouver.
So, now we have two entirely opposing schools of thought. Will Self, who’s all about disconnecting and locking himself up in French garret to write the next great existential novel. And Gibson, who probably spends more time on the internet than all of us combined.
Now, the reason I suspect Gibson spends so much time on the internet is because his novels show it. James Bridle talks about how his novels are turning less and less futuristic over the years. Science Fiction itself seems to be in a crisis because lately it just does not seem to be able to imagine futures that seem too distant. This might be because we are living in an age of inexorable technological advancement. But, there’s more to it. James Bridle gives us this example of flying penguins, which appear in Gibson’s recent novels. They’re basically like surveillance drones that appear in one of the chapters. And, of course, this is bizarrely fantastical and a perfect imagining for a science fiction novel but a few days after Bridle read the book, someone Tweeted him a link to a company that actually manufactures these aerodynamic penguins. This can’t be mere coincidence; Gibson definitely found them online and worked them into his fiction. In fact, he seems to be doing this more and more. There are actually forums on the internet where users are annotating his texts and looking up digital footprints of his narratives. Some of these are actually very good and they’ve managed to trace Gibson’s Google history from start to finish.
And Gibson is very much a miner of information on the internet. A lot of the anxieties that Will Self has about net usage have a full-blown effect in Gibson’s novelistic imagination. He compares trawling through the internet to rummaging through the forefront of the global collective mind.
And Gibson has somewhat acknowledged that as well. He says that he gets plenty of ideas from his Twiiter Feed.
What’s obvious is that none of this would have been possible had it not been for the network. It’s a hyper-connected labyrinth of links.
And that’s Network Realism. Network, because like Gibson’s fiction, it comes from the network. It was networking that introduced him to the Flying Penguins. He would have had scarce chance of seeing one of those from his window. It was the network, as a simulacrum, as a psychic remove from immediate reality, which made it possible. It’s Network because it is from a place in the network which was a copy of an objective fact. It was a copy of a copy.
It’s realism because it’s real-time, it’s entrenched in the moment; Bridle read it and only days later found it trending on Twitter.
That’s Network Realism.
And Gibson already has a term for it. He calls it in the endless digital now which is made possible by this extremely heightened level and volume of communication that takes place on the internet. It’s like being in an arena where half a billion voices are being heard in simultaneity. This is an unprecedented pace and degree of information dissemination; It’s never been seen before and it does have an implication on temporality. It as if our Present Tense is being infinitely accelerated.
Rather it is as if time itself has been flattened. The Future is a notion. But nowhere more so than on the network which pulsates with millions of connections every millisecond. The Future already exists in the network’s present; to someone like Gibson and his ilk, who’re the first to receive information, there is only the present; The rest of us have to wait till they share the information and it trickles down to us. Their present is our future. The Future has arrived; it’s just that it’s unevenly distributed.
Today’s technology makes it possible to track people’s actions to an extent that used to only be restricted to fiction. Unlike in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, people today are being watched by numerous companies and agencies, not just one Big Brother. Nearly all of one’s actions are constantly being tracked and measured in some way by one entity or another. In the last couple of years, the manufacturers of popular e-readers and apps have added reading habits to the long list of behaviours on which data is being collected. All of the major e-reading devices – including Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and the Kobo eReader – are capable of tracking which books users open, how long they spend reading them, and how much of each book they actually finish. [1, 2, 3, 8] The Kindle’s data servers are even known to store users’ highlights, bookmarks, notes, annotations, and the last page they read.  Presumably, every e-reader is capable of doing this by design.  In its 2014 report “Publishing in the Era of Big Data,” Kobo attempts to educate publishers on the value of analysing such data as the completion rate of titles. It states: “We now have the opportunity to act on engagement, not just sales, which over time should lead to a stronger, more viable list overall.”  Surely, there is an argument to be made there, but this assertion should not be accepted as fact — or at least not yet.
This paper will argue that today’s trade publishers have little editorial insight to gain from knowing the completion rates of their nonfiction and general fiction titles because, firstly, there is often a lack of correlation between such data and other measures of a book’s success; and more importantly, current e-book reading data offers a very narrow understanding of the general reading habits of present-day book buyers.
Proposed value of reading data analysis
There are many who share the belief that analysing e-reading data can prove to be a useful tool for publishers. Micah Bowers, founder and CEO of e-reading services provider Bluefire Productions, sees great potential for the applications of reader data analysis: “[it] can have an impact on decisions across a publisher’s business . . . whether its search engine optimization, or content structure, marketing or who you give that next big advance to.”  Acting upon this potential, Kobo’s 2014 report aims to provide publishers with “a practical guide to data analysis [by laying] out some key methodologies and [explaining] which conclusions to draw from them.”  One highlight from the report is Kobo’s assertion that hidden equity and bestselling authors can be found among books with low sales, but high completion rates. It also states that e-reader data can help guide marketing and publicity strategies, and provide publishers with useful insight for negotiating advances and multi-book deals. Furthermore, it concludes with the statement: “Publishers have the power to both create and define culture; the books they create are the stories we tell ourselves about our time, history and the future. Big Data is a window into what truly resonates.”  This is a powerful yet highly questionable statement because what can be viewed as ‘catering to the masses’ may help generate fads, but not classics. Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet Canada, supports the idea that “the ability to collect data about how people read has the potential to revolutionize the industry by helping publishers tailor books to their audiences.”  Nevertheless, he agrees that it’s also important to publishing classics that resonate with readers for “50 years, 100 years, and those successes are harder to predict.”  Length is one factor that Kobo has attributed to low completion rates.  Publisher Jonathan Galassi told The Wall Street Journal that, “We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it.”  However, if some publishers start taking e-reading data too seriously, there should be a real concern that it could compromise the quality of literature in the future.
More valuable measures of a book’s success
At a Digital Book World 2015 conference panel, Kobo’s president and Chief Content officer, Michael Tamblyn, echoed what is arguably the core message of Kobo’s 2014 report, stating: “Before you had basically two ways to evaluate success. There is the critical response, and unit sales. [Data] brings the reader into the picture.”  This statement seems to fail to recognize that direct reader response and feedback have actually been a measure of a book’s success for a long time through online reader reviews, surveys, and fans’ interacting with authors. Tamblyn points to the two traditional measures of a book’s success: sales and critical reception, which includes literary awards. These should undeniably remain the most important factors for trade publishers to track, since one determines their financial success and the other strengthens their reputation. If analysing e-book completion data can help authors and editors create bestselling titles, then today’s most popular books should have the highest reader engagement. However, the e-reader data released to date has shown that the titles with the highest unit sales have actually had low completion rates. According to Kobo’s 2014 data, the majority of readers didn’t finish some of the year’s bestselling titles. For instance, The Guardian reports that 44.4% of Kobo’s British readers finished Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-wining bestseller The Goldfinch and only 28.2% made it to the end of Solomon Northup’s megahit Twelve Years a Slave.”  Since e-reader data isn’t matching up with other clear measures of success, it’s logical to question its accuracy.
Tamblyn himself concedes that readers “may not always read one book from start to finish before jumping into the next great story.” In addition, as he says, they “may wait days, months, or even until the following year to finish certain titles.”  This undoubtedly affects e-reader completion data, as does the fact that some people jump between reading the same book in electronic and print formats. As writer Francine Prose proves through her own experience, there are still those out there who prefer physical books and have a habit of reading the e-version of a book out of convenience when they’re on the go, and continuing where they left off in their print copy when they get home.  These potential causes of e-reader data inaccuracy show that sales and reception continue to be the most effective ways to evaluate a book’s success.
More accurate perspectives on reading habits
Analysing information from a single e-reading platform offers a narrow perspective on how consumers interact with e-books, since there’s evidence that a number of users are regularly reading on more than one device. According to Jared Friedman, cofounder and CTO of Scribd, the company has found that “10% of Scribd users read on three devices or more in any given month.”  Meanwhile, David Burleigh, the director of marketing and communication at library e-book lending facilitator OverDrive, has stated that 40% of their users read on more than one device.  These statistics indicate that analysing data recorded on one e-reading platform, such as a Kobo, can lead to inaccurate analysis, since it doesn’t provide a complete overview of how readers engage with e-books. Even more importantly, it currently provides a very narrow look into general reading habits due to the continued popularity of print books. According to BookNet Canada’s market research, print books are still significantly dominating the Canadian book-buying market. BookNet reports that e-books only made up 15% of all book purchases in 2012 and plateaued at 17% in 2013.  Assuming this means that over 80% of titles are still being read in print, how could publishers let e-reader data affect their editorial decisions? It’s clear that they shouldn’t – at least not in the case of nonfiction and general fiction. Genre fiction provides a unique case in which publishers may find it worthwhile to take e-reader data into greater consideration, but this is a topic that’s too large to be discussed within the scope of this paper.
Although publishers and authors may be curious to see how readers interact with their books, they would be wise not to attribute too much importance to the completion rates of their e-books. Since this data is not as useful as it may seem, e-reader manufacturers should not be looking over the shoulders of often unknowing readers and tracking their behaviour simply because they have the technology that allows them to do so. This constitutes an unnecessary invasion of privacy for e-reader users, many of whom may not even realize that their behaviour is being tracked. [5, 9] As author Francine Prose writes, “solitude is and has always been an essential component of reading.”  People should have the right to keep it that way. Although she recognizes that data is currently being aggregated to disclose patterns of group behaviour, she expresses the rational concern that “Today ‘the information’ is anonymous; tomorrow it may well be just about us.”  Although it is possible to disable the tracker on Kobo eReaders, few users know this because the option is not overtly presented to them.  If publishers and the major players in e-reading technology want to experiment with analysing reader data, all users of e-reading platforms should at least be given a clear and direct choice of whether or not they want their reading behaviour to be tracked.
- “Publishing in the Era of Big Data,” Kobo, posted December 25, 2014. http://www.pdflibrary.org/pdf/publishing-in-the-era-of-big-data-home-kobo-cafe.html
- Andrew Albanese, “DBW Panel : Can Publishers Take Advantage of Reader Data?”, Publisher’s Weekly, January 15, 2015. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/conferences/article/65290-dbw-can-publishers-take-advantage-of-reader-data.html
- Alexandra Alter, “Your E-Book Is Reading You,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2012. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304870304577490950051438304
- Rich Bellis, “Kobo Gives a Data Lesson,” Digital Book World, October 13, 2014. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/kobo-gives-a-data-lesson/
- James Bridle, “Digital reading: not so discreet after all…” The Guardian, August 11, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/11/digital-reading-privacy-problems?et_mid=632149&rid=234308373
- Alison Flood, “Big e-reader is watching you,” The Guardian, July 4, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/04/big-ereader-is-watching-you
- Alison Flood, “Ebooks can tell which novels you didn’t finish,” The Guardian, December 10, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/10/kobo-survey-books-readers-finish-donna-tartt
- Francine Prose, “They’re Watching Your Read,” The New York Review of Books, January 13, 2015. http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jan/13/reading-whos-watching/
- Mika Rekai, “Your e-reader is watching,” Maclean’s, November 26, 2012. http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/your-e-reader-is-watching/
- Kayla Smith, “Ebook Sales and Pricing Trends,” Booknet Canada, March 27, 2014. http://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2014/3/27/ebook-sales-and-pricing-trends.html#.VQHVWYF4qFV
“Audience is king” should be the motto of anyone who is in the business of producing and selling books in today’s digital age. In a virtual environment undergoing constant disruption, understanding the needs of multiple audiences has increasingly become a key aspect of the process of creating and marketing content, and an essential part of any successful publishing enterprise. Since the rise of digital publishing, the online marketplace has been flooded with a massive and ever-growing volume of titles, with the resulting problem of finding an effective way to achieve and maintain product visibility – in other words to connect a specific title to a specific audience. In 2013, in the United States alone, nearly a million new titles were published . Before becoming “visible,” however, as obvious as it might seem, a book has to be found. In an age where books exist outside their physical container, this issue – the widely debated discoverability problem – assumes critical importance.
Whereas in the brick and mortar book kingdom, the reader, exposed to the view of hundreds of titles in one single space, is more likely to accidentally “bump into” their next read in the form of a serendipitous discovery and convert it into a purchase, in a digital environment, the chance of this to happen is extremely small. As industry veteran Laura Dawson has observed “ebooks face a discoverability problem that print books never have: they are only discoverable online and by word of mouth.”  With the shift from print to digital, publishers can no longer rely as heavily on bookstore displays as a powerful force in driving sales. Rather, they have to find new ways to cater to their audiences so as to ensure that their titles appear in the more limited set of choices available to online readers. But what are these strategies, and how can publishers benefit from them?
In the course of this paper, I will attempt addressing this fundamental questions, by giving an overview of some of the techniques that publishers should employ in order to better engage, grow and monetize their audiences –or, in other words, make their titles stand out in an ever-increasingly crowded marketplace.
Discovery vs. Discoverability
Before proceeding further, however, I feel compelled to clarify the notions of discovery and discoverability in the context of book publishing. In fact, although the terms are often used interchangeably, they define two different sides of the problem. Andrew Rhomberg, founder of JellyBooks, explains the distinction clearly. Discovery identifies the moment when readers become aware of a book; discoverability has to do with marketers’ efforts to reach the right readers by making them aware of that book. In discussing the steps that publishers can take to maximize the visibility of their titles in a context of ever-increasing abundance, therefore, I will be addressing the problem of discoverability rather than that of discovery . As Brian O’Leary from Magellan Media simply but effectively puts it, “People can always find what they want; the opportunity lies in delivering what they want in a way that minimizes the work required to get there.” 
Strategy I: Delivering Search Engine Optimized and Audience-informed Content
In a recent blog post, publishing guru Michael Shatzkin wrote on the importance for publishers to focus and intensify their research efforts to better understand and build their audiences . In April 2014, together with Peter McCarthy (former VP of Marketing Innovation for Random House and Penguin), he co-founded a company called “The Logical Marketing Agency,” a business devoted to helping publishers and authors alike to overcome the daunting challenges of online marketing. Two keystones of their philosophy are: 1) title and author optimization: 2) book metadata optimization. As Shatzkin explains eloquently:
“… Titles need easy discoverability; they need to be found in the right places, at the right time, by the people who are likely to be interested in them. This often involves a nuanced understanding of search as it exists in environments like Google, Amazon, Apple, and others but can also encompass other means of enhancing a book’s reach into its likely audience(s). Authors need optimized web presences, so that their credibility and personal networks are grown and enhanced regularly and so that their reputation as authorities on the subjects that matter is confirmed on the Internet”. 
Strategy II: Book Metadata Optimization
Another important, often neglected, piece of the puzzle of online book discoverability is metadata optimization. Even though publishers have no direct influence on the algorithms of the major search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo), they can contribute to improving the discoverability of their titles online by providing product, content and enhanced metadata as complete and accurate as possible. Good metadata, in fact, can affect search results and ranking, and are a powerful discoverability tool from which, publishers and booksellers alike, should fully benefit.
Not for a lack of interest and importance, but for a lack of space, the vast and complex subject of book metadata optimization will not be covered extensively in this essay.
Strategy III: Engaging readers the way they like to be engaged
Knowing your audience is only a step – although not a small one – in the process that puts the right book in the hand of the right reader. Easy discoverability depends on publishers’ ability to reach and appeal to specific communities of readers by actively engaging with them. But how so? Rick Joyce, Chief Marketing Officer of the Perseus Book Group, in a thought-provoking interview, shares some interesting insights on what publishers can do to make their voice heard in the noise of today’s cacophonic media environment. With the aim of reaching readers and engaging them in a mutually beneficial conversation, Constellation, Perseus Book’s digital and marketing platform, has carried out several experiments through “websites that look more like blogs and less like catalogs”.  One that is worth mentioning is the coking site Running Press Cooks, a former cookbooks catalogue that turned into something closer to a food blog where readers get actively engaged through direct participation and mutual sharing of opinions and experiences.
Far from merely being a buzzword, book discoverability is a real issue with an actual impact on book sales, and should be addressed by publishers with serious effort, audacity and full openness to change.
1. Andrew Rhomberg, “Discoverability, Not Discovery, Is Publishing’s Next Big Challenge,” Digital Book World, January 6, 2014, accessed February 23, 2015, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/discoverability-not-discovery-is-publishings-next-big-challenge/.
2. Laura Dawson,“What we Talk About when We Talk About Metadata.” In McGuire, Hugh & O’Leary, Brian (Eds.), Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, O’Reilly Media, 2012, accessed February 22, 2015, http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/metadata-laura-dawson.
3. Andrew Rhomberg, ibid.
4. Brian O’Leary, “2 Choices: How to Approach Publishing in an Era of Content Abunance,” Magellan Media, April 17, 2015, accessed February 22, 2015, http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/venture-capital-private-equity/2-choices-how-to-approach-publishing-in-an-era-of-content-abundance.
5. Michael Shatzkin, “Better book marketing in the future depends a bit on unlearning the best practices of the past,” The Shatzkin Files, March 2, 2015, accessed March 2 2015, http://www.idealog.com/blog/better-book-marketing-in-the-future-depends-a-bit-on-unlearning-the-best-practices-of-the-past/.
6. Michael Shatzkin, “Peter McCarthy and I have a new business and publishing has a new digital marketing service,” The Shatzkin Files, April 7, 2014, accessed February 25, 2015, http://www.idealog.com/blog/peter-mccarthy-new-business-publishing-new-digital-marketing-service/.
7. Jeremy Greenfield,“Discoverability and Marketing Are Publishing Company Differentiators, Says Perseus CMO.” Digital Book World, May 30, 2012, accessed February 22, 2015, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/discoverability-and-marketing-are-publishing-company-differentiators-says-perseus-cmo/.
The publishing industry has been pushed around and bullied in the digital world, albeit most of it Fight Club style where the protagonist is his own worst enemy, for years now. The industry that championed the industrial revolution now finds itself in need of a protector; a hero for the digital revolution, and I argue there might just be one on the horizon. You can use any number of old idioms for it: “Fight fire with fire”, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, even “Every cloud has a silver lining”, because this hero of the publishing industry will be born of the digital age: a platform that combines the best of what has been, a vision of how much more a publishing platform can be, along with a philosophy that might be a little idealistic. But hey, that’s what heroes are, right?
For the last year or two, there have been signs of such a hero emerging. Vessel, a startup video subscription platform planning to rival Youtube, might be the newest harbinger of such a hero. Granted Vessel is operating in the video industry, the business model of this startup bears some attention. When examined closely, it doesn’t take much to envision how this model could be adapted to suit the publishing industry. But first, let’s take a look at what online platforms exist for publishers today, and how they have evolved, in order to understand a model that might embody this hero we seek. We need to look at models that provide revenue to publishers from print books, ebooks, and subscriptions.
I’d be remiss not to start with the only major platform that does all three. Amazon, a company that started out with all the earmarks of a saviour to publishing’s diminishing sales by selling print books online. Amazon has moved from selling only print books to becoming an innovator of ebooks, and in July, 2014, joined the ebook subscription race with the launch of Kindle Unlimited with over 700,000 books available. In 2013, Amazon bought book-recommendation startup Goodreads to help better its book search optimization, a key factor in the discoverability of books. Helping connect readers to books is always a plus in the publishing industry. But we all know the story of how this would-be hero turned bully. With its great power, Amazon ended up neglecting its great responsibility to the publishing industry by looking out for number one. But wait a minute. Ideals aside, we live in a capitalist world here. Amazon, even in its monopoly, is entitled to make decisions based on what is best for them, and they do. If publishers thought this movie was going to have a happy ending, they weren’t paying attention to the motives of the main character, played by then-rising star, Jeff Bezos.
Apple iBooks, the second biggest figure in the ebook industry, recently purchased BookLamp, a startup that Laura Hazard Owen, in a 2011 Gigaom article, ‘Can 32,000 Data Points Yield The Perfect Book Recommendation?’ writes “BookLamp is different because it actually analyzes the books’ text. Its algorithm breaks books down into 32,160 elements: ‘StoryDNA’ (“setting” and “actors”), language and character DNA.” This acquisition could be used to better their ebook referral system and help iBooks join the growing subscription model fray should they choose. If they could find a way to incorporate all 2.5 million books in their library, it would instantly make them the largest online book subscription service. But publishers have had their day with Apple too, with a short-lived partnership that ended in collusion lawsuits that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
To bastardize a Jedi mind trick uttered by Star Wars guardian, Obi-Wan Kenobi, “These aren’t the heroes we’re looking for.”
It’s hardly recommendable for even a hero to battle behemoth Amazon and Apple on the big dot.com’s terms, so what does that leave? An area as yet untouched by Apple, and only recently forayed into by Amazon is the ebook subscription platform. In a very competitive market, only Amazon with Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Oyster have emerged as leaders. Though the model has just solidly emerged in the past year and a half, Scribd had been publishing academic papers since 2007 before launching its current subscription service in 2013, the same year as its main competitor, Oyster. Both companies now maintain over a million titles on their sites. While what Scribd, Kindle Unlimited, and Oyster are doing for the industry is good, it’s not heroic.
These ebook subscription sites are based off the success of the Netflix subscription model. In essence, Netflix gives you unlimited movies and TV shows for $8.99/month. The Netflix content is what would be considered by publishers to be “back catalogue” material. The publishers long tail inventory is pretty much what is on these sites. Though major publishers like Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Macmillan are now coming on board, they are only offering their long tail, or back catalogue inventory, to these subscription sites. And all three sites are charging what Netflix is and more. So how can Scribd, Oyster, and Kindle Unlimited justify their membership fees? For Netflix, it’s easy for the consumer. One boxed set of the TV show Supernatural retails for $206.00 on Amazon so $8.99 a month seems like a steal. Let’s look at ebooks that would be considered publisher’s back catalogue and three novels selling on Amazon right now: Catcher in the Rye ($4.28), The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes ($1.99), and Goldfinger with James Bond ($0.99). One would have to be a voracious reader to come up with the same perceived value Netflix offers. What Vessel has done is create not only something closer to a better perceived value for its subscribers, but it operates on multiple business models where members can also sign up for free. You don’t get what the $2.99/month Vessel subscribers get, which is 72-hour early release videos, and ad-free content, but this way anyone can be part of their growing network. And growing a massive network will be the key for our hero.
Now that we’ve developed a small picture of what’s out there for publisher’s and see that none of the current players fit the bill, what will this hero need to look like?
Like mentioned earlier, it will have to be all the best parts of what is out there now. It will need to have an unrivalled book-search optimization to best BookLamp, and flawless navigation with curation that includes moderators who can act as librarians. Like Vessel’s unique multiple-business-model format that has sparked an interesting shift in how subscription-based platforms operate, this hero will need to pursue various options to drive revenue and grow its network as quickly as possible. It will need big backing with big money for marketing. Fanfare will be important. Before it can solve the discoverability of books problem for their readers and publishers, it first has to solve the discoverability of its website. It will have to be different enough to raise eyebrows.
Our hero will also need to have a vision of how much better an ebook subscription site can be. The first challenge will be to find the perfect perceived value for subscriptions. It has to fit between the competitors $8.99-$9.99/month, and the free costs of writing sites like Wattpad that offer readers access to millions of stories, but they are for the most part unedited, poorly structured pieces often written by authors not yet out of high school. Is the $2.99/month that Vessel charges the ‘sweet spot’ for ebook subscriptions? Hard to say, but it has to be a throw away number; a cost that readers won’t worry about coming off their credit card every month even if there is a lull in their reading. What we’re looking for here is a number that even mild readers would be willing to pay in perpetuity for the ease of knowing they can read a book anytime anywhere without having to do anything. There is a cost associated with digital subscriptions, and figuring out the break-even point (which is a complicated calculation) would be critical, but it’s not rocket science to know that the more subscribers you have, and the longer you keep those subscribers, the more your costs like Customer Acquisition rate and Churn rate decrease. Without a network of millions, even tens of millions, our hero would be like Thor without his hammer, or Iron Man without his suit of armour.
This leaves the final component our hero will need. It has to be based on two philosophies: first, a goal to get as many ebooks to as many readers as possible. This isn’t a philanthropical stance, it is a matter of building up a network of tens of millions of subscribers. Providing a platform that creates a greater perceived value and that outdoes its competition at all levels to ensure that network. Secondly, it needs to provide a community not only for subscribers, but for publishers as well. One thing ebook subscription platforms have so far failed to do is to get publishers to relinquish their front lists (new books). Our hero will have to change that. Can you imagine a site that had just about any book you could want on it? Including newly published works? For only a few dollars a month? One could only imagine how quickly, and how vast that network would grow. But the crux: how to get publishers on board? Why would they be interested in taking a share of $2.99/month when they can have a share of $9.99/month? Why would they give up their front lists where they make most of there revenue? Again, it comes down to numbers. Netflix has passed the 50 million subscriber mark mainly because of its perceived value. If an ebook subscription could grow to half that, traditional publisher’s would have far fewer worries on their hands. Add to that, the ad revenues from the free subscription business model and you’re looking at over $100,000,000/month in ebook revenue alone. If we use Vessel’s example, 70% of that goes to publishers. As an additional part of forming a community with publishers, this platform would provide links to publishers’ sites for direct-to-customer print sales along with helping to promote new releases. The site has to have a perceived value for publishers as well; in fact, it will likely be harder for our hero to win them over than the readers. The good news is that ebooks within the subscription platform don’t carry a direct price, and, in the publishers’ eyes at least, shouldn’t devalue the print price like selling an ebook version for .99 cents does. Our hero will need to stand with and stand up for the publishing industry, but the publishing industry needs to stop beating itself up as well, to be heroic, it needs a Rocky moment, where after getting beat down, it picks itself off the mat and comes back with a vengeance. But unlike Rocky II to Rocky VII, it can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again with diminishing returns. It needs to shed its preconceived notions of traditional revenue gain, of readerships, of sales channels and of networks (something they have little experience in), and stand up for themselves alongside our hero.
As it always does with heroes, it comes down to heart. The heart of our hero must be as much cultural conservationist as it is hyper capitalist. Like Neo in The Matrix, it must believe it can stand up the Mr. Smiths (Amazons and Apples) of the world, and like John Carter, Warlord of Mars, it must band together the warring races (HarperCollins, RandomHouse/Penguin, et al.) of a planet. Only then will our hero win the day.
Hazard Owen, Laura, “Can 32,000 Data Points Yield The Perfect Book Recommendation?” Aug. 16, 2011, Gigaom, web, https://gigaom.com/2011/08/16/419-booklamp-uses-32000-data-points-to-find-your-next-read/
Gessen, Keith, “The War of the Words” Dec. 2014, Vanity Fair, web, Fri. Feb 27, 2015.
Shanahan, Matt, “How to Calculate Breakeven Point for Digital Subscriptions” Scout Research, web, Thurs. Feb. 26, 2015
Upbin, Bruce, “The Surest Way To Build A Billion-Dollar Internet Company” Apr. 2014, web, Thurs. Feb 26, 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/bruceupbin/2013/04/03/the-surest-way-to-build-a-billion-dollar-internet-company/2/
Bellis, Rich, “Looking Beyond Ebooks, Scribd Bulks up” Feb. 11, 2015, Digital Book World, web, Wed. Feb. 25, 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2015/looking-beyond-ebooks-scribd-bulks-up/
Bellis, Rich, “Macmillan Tries Subscription Ebooks as Major Players Stake New Ground” Jan. 13, 2015, Digital Book World, web, Tues. Feb. 24, 2015.
Pantoja, Andrew, “8 Ways Oyster Books Can Rule the Ebook Subscription Market” Mar. 2014, Publishing Perspectives, web, Thurs, Feb 26, 2015.
Hazard Owen, Laura, “Apple acquires BookLamp, which was once a great book recommendation site” Jul. 2014, Gigaom, web, Thurs. Feb. 26, 2015.
Nicks, Denver, “Amazon Just Launched ‘Kindle Unlimited,’ a Subscription Service for E-Books” July, 2014, Time, web, Sat. Feb. 28, 2015. http://time.com/3004637/amazon-kindle-unlimited/
O’toole, James, “Netflix passes 50 million subscribers” July, 2014, CNN, web, Sat. Feb. 28, 2015. http://money.cnn.com/2014/07/21/technology/netflix-subscribers/