“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
― Douglas Adams
“An app is a pretty serious investment,” said Yamaguchi. “You have to put something in the app that people will want on their device.”
In and article called Innovation In The Digital Space at Knopf Doubleday on Publishing Perspectives Dylan Foley gives a nice overview of some recent multimedia ebook and app projects at Random House including their new Julia Child Mastering The Art of French Cooking app but it also reinforces the biggest problem facing multimedia ebooks - the vulture needs a carcass to get fat. By that I mean those publishers with the best library of preexisting media content are going to be the most successful because the profits on these multimedia ebooks and apps aren’t high enough to justify original production of video, audio, animation, interactivity and the like. The 30 videos in Mastering The Art of French Cooking are from The Way to Cook, video based on a completely different cookbook and shot in the 80s.
I am not saying we shouldn’t be experimenting with formats but making an app that is sold at wholesale through Apple and Barnes & Noble middlemen leaves such thin margins when you’re done with the discount and author royalties it is near impossible to sustain a P&L that involves producing new content. Unless the publisher can eliminate the middleman and find other ways to broadcast this content to consumers that generate revenue, the pool of content for interactive books will remain existing and repurposed content.
But no matter what you spend on content, is packaging Julia Child (one of the worlds greatest cooking content silos) as an app only for sale through two retail locations (iBookstore or Barnes & Noble) and viewable on just two devices (iPad or the Nook) really innovation? It seems more like trying to force web content and functionality into an old brick and mortar book retail format.
Publishers MUST start thinking more clearly in terms of content and discovery. They must begin innovating in distribution and navigation. If publishers want to survive they have to think of the reader and audience and not retailer and store. The internet hates a middleman. Middlemen are just one more obstacle in between the content and the user. Publishers instead have to begin building a direct path to the user and begin thinking in terms of audience segments instead of print runs.
Random House published (with WGBH Boston) Julia Child’s The Way To Cook VHS tapes in the 80s and then re-released them in DVD form in 2009. WGBH broadcasts content, Random House packages product as content. They saw each other as separate businesses. But in today’s world of screens giving us instant access to content anywhere we need it is there a difference between the two? Erasing the boundaries between format and what is expected of a publisher is were we need innovation.
The internet is a wonderful thing and like Midas its power can generate lots of money for content providers but like Midas there is a catch. Everything the internet touches becomes web content. Publishers have to begin looking at themselves not as product makers but content distributors. When a person decides they want information they instantly pick up the most convenient screen and type a search term. If you type in Julia Child into Google this is what you get:
To the left you see Google’s list of most popular sites dealing with Julia Child. The first link to a site with a book is for Amazon and that appears below the break on a desktop screen. A link to Barnes & Noble did not appear for 15 pages (after that I gave up). Apple’s iBookstore didn’t appear in my search at all. On the right of the screen you can see Google trying to help the user by curating some core content that would usually require navigating through a few screens to find. If you click on the first book you are taken to a screen listing sites selling the book and Barnes & Noble appears on the first page (though still below the break). Click on the B&N link on that page and you are taken to their page for the the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking but on this page there is no mention of the Mastering the Art of French Cooking app for the Nook. Even if you click on the Nook edition link it is just for the epub version of the book and has no mention of the app. If I go to Barnes & Noble’s main page and enter Julia Child into the search field I get a list of 30 Julia Child books for sale but no mention of the app. All that “serious investment” by Random House in a multimedia app and even on the actual webpage of one of the only online retail stores on the web selling the app you have to go to the main page and search for it by name. But it gets more complicated, Random House and Barnes & Noble have chosen different names for the app with B&N calling it Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking: Selected Recipes making the only way to find the app entering Julia Child into the B&N search field but to not hit enter and instead choose the first choice in the drop down.
If you happen to go to Random House’s Knopf imprint’s main page you find a nice banner add for the Julia Child app but I have no idea under what circumstances a consumer would find themselves there. The best description of the app is on the Random House Digital site but again, not were one would expect a consumer to look.
So we have a retailer, Barnes & Noble, whose only way to get your product in front of the customer is to get them to search for it. And a publisher whose own websites though they plug and promote the book, are not designed to attract an audience. It’s clearly in the best interest of both to have the customer find the app but they are frozen because in the old world the main way a product was found was on a table or shelf in a physical store. It was no ones job to build an audience, the book lover just came to the store to see what was new. The publisher didn’t have to worry about the audience, they just had to get the book in the store and out of the box, shelved in the proper section. But now that the store is just a big shopping cart and there is no longer a reason to just go and hang out everyone assumes building an audience is the other persons job. Neither side knows how to do this but the thing is once you have the audience it is very easy to sell them the book.
Publishers like Random House, arguably with more resources available to it than any other, have been slow to pick up on the importance of their own web presence and direct distribution capabilities. One reason may surprisingly be cultural. In a recent press release interview with Thomas Hesse on his new role as President, Corporate Development and New Businesses at Bertelsmann when asked if anything surprised him since his return to the German office he responded,
“If there is one issue that did surprise me, it’s how totally mainstream the Internet is in the U.S., i.e. at the center of society, and how relatively less this appears to be the case, by comparison, from a purely German perspective and experience.”
Bertelsmann has all the assets and expertise Random House needs to create their own content silos, from RTL Goup’s TV and radio production to Gruner + Jahr’s newspapers and magazines and under Hesse they seem to have gotten it now. They just invested a seven-digit sum in Returbo, a Berlin-based e-commerce startup with Amazon-like backbone and Random House has signed a deal with Freemantle Media to launch Random House Television. But “getting it” is half the battle. A shift in focus like this for a big multinational company is like turning a ship 1,000 times the size of the Titanic. Not only does the top leadership need to “get it” but each division has to go through its own transformation and learn to cooperate with its sister companies rather than compete for their position in the Annual Report.
But so far this kind of innovation has been few and far between. Its hard because you have to understand how every aspect of the pipeline works. You need to know your sister companies business model as well as your own. But instead in order to make our shrinking margins work we are building assembly line workflows. Instead of getting out of our cubes and going to other departments and and other floors we are hunkering down and handing off to the next chap in the supply line.
I have seen from the inside companies small enough to be nimble and with rich content assets across all kinds of media squander opportunities to lead because of divisional rivalry, mistrust and lack of confidence. We know we have to swim but we are afraid to leave the shallow end of the pool where our feet can touch the ground. The water is rising fast, faster than we expect and we’re not altogether sure from where yet. But we will all eventually be forced to swim and those that learn first are going to swim farthest and fastest.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Selected Recipes is a very good app. Random House is blessed with a huge amount of content and the resources to experiment with lots more apps like this. But we need, really need to be innovating how we distribute content so we can better reach our audience - because if the audience for these books can’t find them then isn’t making innovative apps a little like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?