Thursday 17 June I attended The Big Money’s “Untethered” conference, all about publishing in the tablet era (0_o). As predicted, it was high in unintentional comedy, with some sessions that I hope are made available online for their unparalleled awesomeness. Be warned: this entry is HELLA LONG but the sections about NPR (awesome) and the device panel where folks were dismissive of the consumer who asked a question about ebook pricing (me) are probably the juicy parts if you want to skip ahead.
Don Graham, CEO of Washington Post, began the sessions by speaking from the perspective of a reader – I have to wonder if being the reader is like establishing street cred. Sadly, I don’t think enough of the reader perspective was prevalent in the sessions that followed, though I appreciated Graham’s impressions of his own perspective.
Graham was an early adopter of the Kindle: “I’ve been reading all my life, and I developed a set of prejudices and preferences I didn’t fully understand. With the Kindle, I noticed what the same, and what was different.”
Note: no one from Amazon was present, and neither was anyone from Apple. So to begin a conference discussing the “Tablet Era” which has been brought about by the arrival of one particular machine that is not from Amazon, and, in my opinion, one particular machine that’s not much of a device for reading, was interesting.
I would have raised a lighter in support of Graham’s statements about how the Kindle changed reading in his opinion. While publishing, he said, hasn’t changed much since the days of Gutenberg, the Kindle was an enormous step forward. Using the device, he could read whatever he wanted wherever he was, without limits by geography. Newspapers from around the world available on Kindle, so if he wants to read a newspaper from China, he can. If he wants to read the Washington Post while he’s in a place that doesn’t receive the print edition, he can. I thought Graham’s examples of the global and local advantages – read your hometown newspaper wherever you are, and read international newspapers wherever you are – was fascinating.
He also brought up the change in reading brought by digital readers like the Kindle that most readers his age welcome? Size of type adjustment. (Oh hell yes!) *Raises lighter*
Next was Sarah Rotman Epps from Forrester Research, and before I recap her much-quoted statistics, here’s my entry for Totally Looks Like:
Sarah Rotman Epps:
totally look like…
OK, moving on.
Rotman Epps kicked off the drinking game with the most-commonly used word in the whole show: “Form factor.” What the hell is form factor, you ask? It’s the physical dimensions of a computer, or, in other words, what it looks like, how much it weighs, what features it has, and how big it is.
The tablet is not a new form factor. There have been tablets since 1993. But Apple makes your content look SO MUCH better, it’s hard to resist. According to their research, the Kindle is a portable device mostly used outside the home. The iPad is used most often inside the home. The iPad expands the use of computers to rooms where they were not so common, like the bathroom. Because of it’s… wait for it…. FORM FACTOR, the iPad is a device you use where laptops are not as common. The question of the iPad is not just how it is used but WHERE it is used.
Forrester predicts exponential growth of tablet pcs, but only slight growth of dedicated ereaders. Desktop users will decline but still be the most predominant device. As Sarah Weinman (aka “The Real Sarah W”) noted in her wrap up Forrester also predicted that ebooks would bring in $7.8b in revenue by 2006. So, as always, a grain of salt is a good thing when looking at statistical predictions – and these are the ones most reported and re-tweeted after the conference that I’ve seen:
By 2012: Forrester predicts there will be more tablets than dedicated eReaders.
By 2014: the tablets will outnumber netbook computers.
Time to print out those TEAM TABLET t-shirts, right?
Not so fast: according to the same prediction set, tablets will still be outnumbered by smartphone users, and PC desktop users as well.
Rotman-Epps also stated that the most common question from publishers: do we need on iPad? Do we need to be on android? Her answer: “Your future is multi- platform and app centric.”
(Later in the day, NPR’s CEO explained how NPR accomplished that goal, with a multi-platform, app-centric connection point for just about everyone who wanted NPR access, so there was some practical application included, too – woo!)
Rotman-Epps stated that last year, more phone shipped with android installed than iPhone, so if she “had to put my money on where tablet market is going, its most likely to be smart phones, not tablets.”
The next panel was about “The Media’s Digital Plans” and featured Sarah Chubb, President of Conde Nast Digital, Matt Jones, the VP of Mobile Strategy for Gannett Digital, Jeff Price, President and Publisher of Sporting News, Vijay Ravindran, Sr. VP and Chief Digital Officer (that’s a cool title) for The Washington Post.
The panel started off with a discussion of one of the points Rotman-Epps made: a multi-device and multi-platform publishing world means print has room, too. There are people who will want static text. And that is fine. But how to do that economically? (SW: This is news? That print has an audience? Holy smoke!)
I *think* it was Matt Jones who began by explaining that customer expectations are high, and it was hard to meet expectations. (SW: I don’t actually think that is true. Confusion of expectations comes from not listening to us.)
Sarah Chubb then explained how they didn’t think so, because they were looking at different groups of customers: “We suspected early on that certain customers (for example, a GQ customer, which is why GQ was one of the early iPhone apps) might not subscribe to a print magazine, but would read digital newsstand copy on their iPhone. The early adopter who loves beautiful Apple experience is our customer.”
So listening to customers and understanding that they don’t all want the exact same presentation of content in the exact same… wait for it… device form factor is key to success? THE DEVIL YOU SAY. Much more interesting statement than “customers want stuff and it’s hard to meet their pesky expectations.”
Jeff Price from Sporting News rocked it. He spoke about sticking to their strengths (which is sporting news for specific sports) and focusing on that information in multiple platforms. The question he is most often asked is, “What platforms are you on?” which led him to make the point that his “future focus is on real time” delivery of data in multiple platforms.
One audience member asked a key question for Chubb: can there be universal subscription so content is in every device for one subscription price? Her answer: They are “working through possibilities.”
I’d personally be very curious to see if someone subscribed to print and digital, or digital on more than one device or platform – like iPhone & web access vs. iPhone and print.
Then the next questioner said, “That’s because consumers want it for free.” I wanted to stand up and yell but restrained myself. No, we do not have expectations of free content. Maybe some people do but I absolutely do not believe we are the majority. HOWEVER, we don’t want to pay for the same thing multiple times.
The next panel could have moved much more quickly: “Will the Ipad Kill Off eReaders?” Short answer: No. By this point the sessions were 20 minutes behind schedule so we could have caught up by giving the answer and moving on to the next one. But if we had, there would have been some high comedy and abject rudeness missed – this is the panel where I dared ask a question about ebook pricing.
It was a panel of unintentional comedy, as Sarah Weiman said. IRex is bankrupt, Spring Design sued Barnes and Noble and they’re sitting next to each other. The entire tone of the panel was defensive, and this seems so counter-productive – because the individuals present – Anthony “Condescension, I has It” Astarita, VP of Digital Products for Barnes & Noble, David Donovan, Sr. VP of Business Development for IREX, Priscilla “It’s not for you, it’s for me” Lu, CEO of Spring Design, and Bob Nell, Dir. of Business Development, Digital Reading Business Division for Sony USA – could have spun the session from negative to positive.
For example: “No, iPads will not kill the digital readers. Here are some features that my/our device has that the iPad cannot replicate (like, um, the ability to READ OUTSIDE).” But no one would discuss product development or future features (which, given the litigation was somewhat understandable) or step away one inch from the defensive tone. The title of the session was unfortunate, but the conduct of some of the panelists was even worse.
Lu spent some time discussing the openness of Alex device and closed platform of Apple and Kindle. She pointed out that the user interface needs to be as good as the closed system ui for any of their devices. Nell also touted the open platform of the Sony, stating that users can get books from a variety of locations, including the library.
The moderator made the point that to a consumer, the closed systems don’t seem closed because consumers can buy one book and read it in multiple places. Mr. Nell’s response cued my question: “Open platforms are very important. ”
I outed myself during the Q&A as a Kindle user by pointing out that I carry both a digital reading device AND an iPad because I cannot stand reading on the iPad. It’s uncomfortable and impractical in locations where I like to read (such as, anywhere the sun shines). Because the panel spent so much time talking about that open platform, I had to ask: when prices are so high and so varied outside of the closed-system vendors, what’s the point or advantage of open? What is the value of an open platform when ebooks cost so much?
My answer was: dismissal, derision, and affront. Why? How much I pay for an ebook is important. To me.
Nell noted that my question was a loaded one (Yes. Yes, it was) and that pricing is something they are grappling with too. He gave a skimming explanation of the agency model, but didn’t really give an answer.
Lu then said, that when she discusses “open platform,” that “open” doesn’t mean open for me, as a consumer. Open is for her as a device manufacturer, not me as a consumer, because their device may be open but the bookstore that uses it may be closed. She then said that her device was for business-to-business use, not business-to-consumer use.
Farhad Manjoo, the Slate Technology Columnist then asked, “Doesn’t that mean that consumer choosing your device will have to pay more for books?” Nell: “Yes.”
Then came my favorite moment. Anthony Astarita said in as snide a voice as you can imagine, “Enjoy your $9.99 bestsellers while you can.”
I outed myself as Kindle user and was dismissed as not worth manufacturer time and spoiled idiot who doesn’t understand prices. If there was any doubt to whether reader is actual participant in development of digital publishing or just meaningless buzzword used by speakers, the response to my question about ebook prices eliminated it. Reader is tangential to irrelevant. Wow.
To add to the iron-y rich atmosphere: I use a Kindle but don’t actually buy that many books from Amazon. I buy mobi files, strip the DRM, and email them to the Kindle. So I circumvent the closed system and don’t access my books on my phone or my laptop, price compare for .mobi files (which are increasingly difficult to find) and use the Kindle because of the ease-of-loading and the screen quality.
But don’t mind me. I’m just a consumer who should enjoy my spoiled price-deluded reading material while I still can. (It was awhile before I picked my jaw up off the floor.)
Then came one of the best panels of the day: an interview with Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR. Oh, if polygamy were legal, I’d ask her to digitally marry me.
NPR decided (WISELY) to focus all their data into an API and therefore build apps faster, customized for each platform. This echoes what Foursquare said at the Mashable conference: they focused on the API, trusting that individuals who wanted apps for specific platforms would build them on their own. In other words, if you build the API, the platforms will come to you.
NPR is unique as a case study (that more publishers should study) because they are a mission-driven not-for-profit: their goal is to have their content available as much as possible. Individual radio stations can use content and localize with their own additions. Developers have created new products for various platforms and as they do, they bring more audience members to their content stream. In one example, a Google developer built the NPR android app as part of his pro-bono hours for the company – and he was motivated in part by the desire to listen to NPR. In another, the NPR iPad app was built specifically for the iPad and developed and released in only three weeks.
The interesting thing about NPR’s customized iPad app is that the iPad is not listening device. (SW: I use it to listen to Pandora all the time – does that count?) Are users approaching the NPR app for listening use or news-reading use? Schiller noted that it was a bit too soon to know how everyone will use the app. While the iPad is not a natural listening device, it absolutely moves NPR to a greater news audience.
And that was the crux of her interview: NPR wants to serve their audience and present their content with fewest number of steps. They want to direct listeners to local stations but all their news is at NPR.org. They want to get their information to the audience. (I was seriously about to swoon and wanted to give a standing ovation when she was done. Not only did she say she was all about the audience/reader/listener but she explained HOW that individual and those groups were served by the various NPR apps and platforms. LE SWOON!)
To answer the question of apps vs web – Schiller noted that we were “two seconds into long history of tablets for media. It’s easier to go to the web but only because there aren’t that many apps designed for iPad in mind. The iPad is not same as iPhone, and NPR recognizes that.”
Schiller also spent time explaining the unique position of NPR: they are predominantly radio. But they are “obsessive” about researching their audience: “what do they want? What are they listening to?” They don’t compete with magazines and tv, because “radio is literally a unique voice.” But 35 MILLION people consume NPR in one form or another, and they’re not out to compete with tv and print – there is room for their voice. Radio isn’t dead and it’s not going anywhere (thank heaven) but Schiller acknowledged that “radio-to-text is tricker than text-newspaper-to-digital-text.” Because of that complex transition, all NPR reports had digital media training made possible by a Knight Foundation grant, so they had to learn the differences and unique factors of digital media vs. radio.
The two most common phrases used in NPR interview: “form factor” and “to the audience.” That speaks, to make a bad joke, volumes because the iPad is unique in it’s style and usage, but the audience is the one who determines how it’s going to be used, and that’s often on a unit-by-unit basis. How I use my iPad is different from how someone else might use theirs, even with the exact same apps in the exact same order. NPR’s focus on their audience development and retention identifies that not everyone is a “listener” – some might be “readers” or “watchers” and they design their apps with purpose, use and device-specific features in mind. SERIOUSLY. I AM GOING TO SWOON if I keep thinking about how awesome she was. And it’s not rocket science. How much could other audience-ignorant operations learn from NPR? Oh, the places they could go.
After NPR, there was a panel on Apps which said nothing of interest because no one would talk about what was coming next. If the panelists kept saying, “We are at the beginning of…” they never placed themselves in the next box on the board game of the tablet era because they wouldn’t discuss upcoming hardware or software, which gave me a massively frustrated sadface.
Then came the CEO panel, where everyone was frantically transcribing the 20 minutes of conversation between Peter Davis, President of McGraw-Hill, Brian Murray, President and CEO of HarperCollins, Carolyn Reidy, President and CEO of Simon & Schuster, David Steinberger, President and CEO of The Perseus Books Group, and Tom Turvey, Director, of Strategic Partnerships for Google.
Mmmmm. That last one is rich in iron-y and (folic) acid.
Moderator Peter Osnos began the session by saying publishing is not in peril. The business model is healthy.
SAY IT WITH ME NOW: “It’s just a flesh wound!”
The key moment for me was Reidy using the example of bundling – print with digital, or print with audio, for example – as ways that publishing is considering adapting to the increasing digital marketplace, but when Osnos pressed her to state that Simon & Schuster were considering those options in the near future, she said they were not: “Bundling is confusing for the consumer,” she said, and it’s “difficult to figure out the royalties.”
Let’s say it again! “It’s just a flesh wound!”
Others, including Cal Reid at Publisher’s Weekly covered the full import of the CEO panel better than I did. All I could think of was Monty Python. It’s just a flesh wound! We don’t know what the consumer wants yet! We’re on the edge of the future! This is just the beginning!
But that didn’t stop me from compiling the Untethered Drinking Game! This was the first of what I believe will be an annual conference, so bring your flask next year and see if you hear any of the following words!
Return on investment of branding: refill needed, then 6 sips
Form factor: 2 sips
App centric: 1 sip
Curation: 1 sip
Sunsetting products (WTF does that mean?): CHUG TO DULL THE PAIN
“We have to focus on consumer:” 1 sip
“We don’t know what the consumer wants yet:” CHUG TO DULL THE PAIN
Core competency: 2 sips
Double edged: 4 sips
Workflow to keep up with uniqueness: 4 sips
“In the eyes of the customer…”: 3 sips
“In the eyes of the customer” followed by something a customer would never, ever ask for in a million, billion years: go get a refill
“To be in all the right places:” 2 sips
“Get your house in order:” 3 sips
“Healthy price for content:” CHUG TO DULL THE PAIN
DICHOTOMY: Weep into your flask to dilute the contents.
Packaging of content: 2 sips
Platform agnostic: 4 sips
Evergreen: 5 sips
Ecosystem: 1 sip
Organic: 2 sips
Enabling content: 3 sips
B to b, b to c: doodle alphabet in condensation on tabletop
Global market not just US: 2 gulps
Derision, dismissal and patronization of question from reader perspective: omg, drink with me.
Game changer: HOLD YOUR FIRE. Your liver cannot take that kind of abuse!
Discovery (as a verb): 2 sips
Transformative challenges: 4 sips
Leveraging based on user ability: CHUG
“Sky’s the limit, and we’re getting there:” TIME FOR A REFILL!
Contentizing with commerce engine: drink until that makes sense. Never mind. It doesn’t.
Harness function of search space: See above.
Architecting device agnostic options: CHUG TO DULL THE PAIN
Media marketing value chain: Just bring a fifth with you next time. This is crazy!
So there you have it, my long-ass Untethered wrap up. I’m not usually one to make product purchase decisions based on one employee’s conduct, but I noticed that, despite the announcement today that the Nook is $149 with wifi and $199 with 3G, I’m completely and utterly not interested because I’m going to go pretend to enjoy my $9.99 bestsellers (that I don’t buy) while I can. Pah.