Book publishing is not commonly identified with the sort of risk-taking that one would associate with, say, the Sergey Brins and Steve Jobses of the world. And, the last company one might expect to see out on a proverbial limb would be a publisher of dictionaries (a tradition-bound format if there ever was one)—yet it was no less a player than the stalwart Merriam- Webster that over a decade ago risked it all, so to speak, by putting its dictionary online for free.
“One of the reasons we [offered early on] our biggest best-seller on the Web is that, if we take seriously that we’re supposed to be the premier dictionary of the American people, then we have to be all dictionaries for everybody, and that includes people who want to get their language information from the Web for free,” explains John Morse, president of Merriam-Webster.
The risk has paid off. While many other companies responded to the emergence of the Web by trying to shield their brand, thereby losing market share to upstarts with a stronger online presence, Merriam-Webster has remained the preeminent name in dictionaries (its “New Collegiate” is the nation’s best-seller, according to the company), effectively girding itself against the onslaught of sites like Dictionary.com.
Such a willingness to experiment, to anticipate trends and even to fail, lies at the heart of long-term success with a multimedia strategy, says Michael Jon Jensen, director of publishing technologies at The National Academies Press (NAP) in Washington, D.C. “The best practices have to do with embracing innovation and being willing to take risks, and trying things that do not seem necessarily obvious—to break the bonds between necessary profitability and any action,” he says.
This may be the most exciting (and nerve-wracking) driver of multimedia strategy—the inability to predict whether an initiative will remain in line with whatever trends are around the corner. Still, Jensen says, taking such risks is nearly always better than the alternative.
“I’m unwilling to say X is the best practice because next year there may be metadata standards for YouTube videos, or everybody’s cell phone is iPhone-like and they are listening to podcasts they phone up and get for free,” he says. “You’ll be seeing a lot of communication possibilities we did not have before, but if you’ve been waiting for something to resolve, you’ve lost any learning you could have had. So the best practice is to … [be willing] to try things out.”
For Jensen, innovation of late has come through in-house production of podcasts and videos. One advantage of these and other multimedia initiatives, he says, is that the upfront costs are relatively small. At the NAP, starting a podcast simply meant acquiring a mixing board and microphone, and assigning the marketing manager to run it.
“Our demographic does not expect to have super-high-definition audio,” he says. “It’s not always true that there’s a huge investment.”
The NAP is now experimenting with doing videos in-house, and may decide to start a YouTube channel—another easy, low-cost way to enter a new multimedia market. Jensen recently purchased a small, no-frills “flip camera,” which provides a half hour of recordable memory and is, he says, perfect for author interviews. The camera is “not high-quality, but you have something where you can practically broadcast from your hand,” Jensen says.
“There’s an exponential rise in cost based on the level of quality that you want,” he adds. “If you want hi-def, you’re going to spend $7,500–$10,000, but if what you’re producing is going to be viewed on iPods, that’s a terribly small screen, and the expectations are much lower in the audiences who are seeing these things.”
Be Nimble and Mobile
Evaluating what works and then applying those proven models to other products or divisions can be as important as experimenting. San Diego-based IDW Publications is applying some of what it has learned from its core business of graphic novels and comic books to a new venture— children’s book publishing. The company has run contests allowing fans to create and vote on content that eventually will appear in print books. It also has posted free “book trailers” on You-Tube by animating the first few pages of a comic book, and launched forums to allow fans to communicate with authors and each other.
“Because we’re a relatively small company, we have the flexibility to respond a little quicker than some of our competitors,” says Ted Adams, president. “Nimbleness allows us to get in those markets sooner than other folks. We keep an eye on what’s out there and jump in as quickly as we can. We also experiment as much as possible.
“Obviously, with kids, you have to be more careful with the social networking aspect,” Adams says of the company’s newest division, Jonas Publishing. “We look at it more as an opportunity to promote and market print products, and not as a replacement of a print product. Reading a comic book online is not the same experience as reading a newspaper or book online. The tactile part of reading it and holding it adds a lot to our product, and there’s a collectible aspect to it. With children’s books, it’s the same thing. Ultimately, if you’re reading a picture book to your kid at bed time, you’re not going to read it off the iPhone or a laptop.”
Along with the Earth Day-timed release of the division’s first title, “Michael Recycle,” the company plans online games and comic strips, as well as “how-to” information for implementing the book’s environmental message. Because IDW is a division of IDT Internet Mobile Group, owner of Zedge.net, mobile content is likely also on the horizon.
“As digital distribution of the content gets better, there will be more interest,” Adams says. “We are in the primitive stage of what it takes to make that a good reading experience.”
Rumblings of what’s to come can be heard from within the venerable environments of Macmillan, where MPS Mobile, a wholly owned subsidiary of Macmillan Publishing Solutions, is rolling out its Global Reader—launched in February—a mobile content solution designed to provide print content to any Internet-enabled mobile phone, anywhere in the world.
“We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible and as diverse as possible—the exact opposite of Kindle [e-book] readers,” says Bob Kasher, director of sales at MPS Mobile. “We’re not requiring anybody to go out and buy a brand-new machine.”
Kasher says he had expected most of the initial interest to come from publishers interested in marketing their titles via mobile means, but his experience thus far with the Global Reader has surprised him. “For the most part, I would have to say that the response I’ve been getting out of publishers has to do with selling content—either pay-per-view subscription, by the chapter, whatever—as opposed to making it available for promotional opportunities, which I find very interesting,” he says. “
When we first went into this, I thought it would probably be the opposite, that publishers wanted to post free content and be able to use that in order to sell hard copies,” Kasher continues. “But it actually turns out that most publishers like the idea of selling digital copies.”
Kasher says the release of Apple’s iPhone helped bring about this emerging consciousness by making everyone much more aware of the potential of Internetenabled cell phones.
The significance of these developments is not lost on Merriam-Webster’s Morse either.
“In the Asian market, this is the dominant way that people look up words,” he notes. Merriam-Webster currently offers a Web-based service through Verizon, but is planning a dictionary application for the iPhone.
“We believe it’s incumbent on us … to be ubiquitous, to be every place that people want information on language,” he says. “As it turns out, that is still predominantly print. Right behind print is the Web site, but behind that and a really important player that we want to move to is dedicated handheld devices.”
The emergence of by-the-chapter book sales is seen by many as a model that, in the near future, will naturally strengthen the market for mobile content.
On the Web, by-the-chapter business models are already well under way.
When Random-House launched its recent pilot project selling individual chapters online, it chose carefully to ensure maximum impact. “The chapters product seems more applicable to non-fiction than fiction,” says Matt Shatz, vice president, digital, Random House. “Business, parenting and fitness all seem like interesting, potential categories. I’m sure we’ll learn more over time about what works well for this product.”
Shatz envisions a promotional benefit to the service, but says Random House developed it with a stand-alone revenue product in mind. “One key criteria is whether the chapter can stand on its own and find an audience as its own print product,” he says, adding that titles such as the business how-to “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath are particularly wellsuited to a pay-as-you-go model.
The ability to harness the distribution of discrete content to the ease and availability of mobile delivery devices seems an obvious win to Kasher, who envisions the format really taking off with chapters, short stories, travel guides, dictionaries and translation works.
What is important, Jensen says, is that publishers think in terms of options that fit customers’ needs, “as opposed to the ones that the publisher wants to provide.”
The NAP offers widget-like code that is easily copied and pasted into blogs, where a picture of a book’s cover shows up with a link to an executive summary. “It’s not a huge traffic generator, but it shows more than double the conversion rate, meaning twice as many people who come from a widget bought a book as opposed to those who come to us from Google or something like that.”
Another example, Jensen says, is Random House’s widget, which allows “instant gratification for curiosity” by enabling consumers to view and share pages.
“While widgets may seem very newfangled, the underlying philosophy is actually a very traditional marketing approach,” Shatz says. “The widgets are consistent with our desire to market our content as broadly as possible online.”
For Random House, the widget is primarily a tool to support the publisher’s digital Insight Service, which contains indexed (and searchable) pages from more than 12,000 of its titles. According to Shatz, the widget was designed to allow people to share book information without having to build their own user interface.
A ‘Frictionless’ Environment
“It has to do with the need for frictionless choices,” Jensen stresses. “If there’s a barrier … [users] will go elsewhere. There is just too much to choose from [on the Web].”
The NAP applies this principle to its podcasts and plans the same level of usability for video content.
“At the moment they are reading a blog or they have something else going on, if there’s an audio version, they can click on it and do the dishes while listening to it,” Jensen says. “That fits their schedule.”
Of course, it’s no secret that the Web offers boundless marketing and selling opportunities, especially if one is willing to accept a lag on profitability. For IDW, the decision to offer free content on Web sites like Wowio.com came as a result, Adams says, of “learning the lessons of what works successfully with YouTube and Facebook”: video promotion, user-generated content and partnering with providers who enjoy a significant Web presence.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to dabble in these things, even though we know in the short run it’s not going to generate revenue,” Adams says. “We are doing a lot of different things from a revenue standpoint. They are all pretty insignificant [in and of themselves], but we hope to make a profit later on.”
Jensen finds it useful to think in terms of blurring the line between marketing and content. Podcasts, for instance, provide content, yet also drive people to a publisher’s Web site. “The percentage of people who visit and are buying is only 0.2 percent,” he says, “ but that can be a big number in the digital environment. The podcast is capturing people who would never have known of [the book] before.”
Ultimately, publishers can be at least partially insured against risk by virtue of what doesn’t change—the central position of great content. “You have to have quality content,” stresses Jensen. “If we’re putting out schlocky content with our podcast, people will not listen to it. Content standards [remain] high even as expectations for quality format have been changing.”
For publishers, the principal challenge is to provide the high-quality material that always has been and remains its stock-in-trade, while putting itself out where readers and viewers are, even if that means venturing into strange and unstable territory.