Friday, December 16, 2011

Aggregators Gone Wild

I wasn't completely surprised to learn the content discovery engine Thoora had closed down after two years in beta. Frankly, with so many aggregators coming to town and Flipboard, Zite and Float rising to the top, I hadn't spent too much time thinking about Thoora. The offering, such as it was, was not entirely remarkable, provided selected topic aggregated from across the web. Techcrunch notes that 'The design was dry and unintuitive, and the content surfaced was often too old or not relevant enough."
Thoora is on record saying the delay to launch was due to the explosion of social media and the need to integrate that function. Compare this to Flipboard's CEO Mike McCue who said in a recent LA Times interview their new mission was "to crawl the social networks." This task has been made easier by Flipboard's acquisition of Ellerdale, a company that has already indexed 6 billion messages from the Twitter firehose.

Joseph Constantine of Techcrunch points to Thoora's "failure to get a working smartphone app out the door" as allowing Flipboard and others to solve the information overload problem. He added: "The shuttering should serve as a lession to entreprenuers; you can't spend forever perfecting your product."

In a way this might be the most useful takeaway from the shuttering. It was not so long ago--say 2009--that publishers were faced with a dearth of digital platforms. The web was not delivering in the business sense. The Kindle was interesting as were others entrants such as Plastic Logic. Behind this fine frenzy of product introductions was a calculus that companies had ample time to perfect their products. I brought at least a dozen companies into the magazine association during the period and the mantra was pretty much the same: we have time to improve the UI and bring an acceptable color screen to market. I recall a spokeman for Skiff, a product of Hearst Interactive, saying that the market would be comfortable in a black-and-white world for the near term. A few months later Skiff was killed and the rest is history.

If two-plus years ago publisher faced a dearth of digital platforms, today they face an embarrassment of riches--and the launch rate shows no signs of slowing down. At the 2011 CES show I examined dozens of devices--smartphones, e-readers and tablets--and most were dependent on robust content for a successful launch. No wonder so many of these devices never made it. That Samsung just appointed David Eun, late of Google and AOL, as EVP of Digital Content, suggests they understand the importance of acquiring content at birth.

Content aggregators have entered this space with a vengeance. I keep an eye on about a dozen and suggest PaidContent as an up-to-date source. Flipboard seem to top most lists due to its $60 million in funding, strong management, aggressive social strategy and top-shelf content partners. It won Apple's iPad app of the year in 2010. Their new iPhone app is getting a lot of attention and raising interesting questions about "flip engagement" on mobile devices.

I have looked at Zite, Pulse, Float, Yahoo's Livestand and AOL Editions. It will be interesting to see what CNN does with Zite. Editions has received praise because it offers a highly personalized content experience, not dependent on AOL per se. The Livestand app utilizes HTML5 with some UI benefits. Float reports 250 content partners and has close to $30 million in funding. From parent company Scribd, this is a serious effort.

The most recent entrant is Google Currents for both iOS and Anroid. Google has said that its initial focus will be on the UI and will pay more attention to advertising and formats later. The company is in a good position to aggregate its trending data and use Google+ as well as Twitter and Facebook. Consumers can link to their Google Analytics account.

The blogs have had a go at Google Currents calling it not ready for prime time and a Flipboard knockoff. I haven't found that to be the case. Google certainly doesn't lack content partners, claiming more than 150 partners from Dwell to TMZ to Al Jazeera English.

The mantra we have been hearing from publishers for the last 4-5 years is that they want to be platform and channel agnostic. The task has been made easier with the introduction of the Nook and Kindle Fire. While business models for aggregators are no so clear, publishers have responded to the challenge with alacrity.

And we are seeing some interesting developments with apps for mobile phones. My6Sense, a mobile app startup, employs what it calls "digital intuition" that requires little of the consumer other than using the app itself. In short the technology lets the user find content in a way that suits the device employing a proprietary form of artificial intelligence.

I haven't played with this app yet but it sounds promising. Given the understandable focus on tablets, the mobile space, for content and enterprise, has not seen requisite attention. Now that we are seeing that consumer flip engagement with apps on mobile phones can be quite impressive, this is sure to change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Agent in the Amazon Jungle

A book agent friend lamented about how much his business is being disrupted by Amazon. He has a penchant for understatement. A better description can be found in Richard Russo's NYT article today, titled "Amazon's Jungle Logic." He is referring to Amazon encouraging customers to go into physical stores and use their price-check app to see if they can get a better deal online. Russo sees this as capitalism gone wild and Amazon as an example of this year's bully.

He has a point. Amazon indeed sells everything. I have family members with two year-olds who buy literally everything on Amazon, including diapers by the truck load. Given the free shipping and the time saved, this seems like a very good deal for young professionals with toddlers. I suspect allegiance to the brand with remain even when the children are potty trained.

Obviously, Russo is not really talking about diapers or the generator I purchased from Amazon before the recent Hurricane Irene. He is more concerned with the independent bookstore and the long term effect on literature. I share those concerns.

This is where I say I have a PhD in Literature, have published extensively with small presses and journals, and from time-to-time provide financial support. It's heartbreaking to see what has happened to the Sewanee Review and The Partisan Review where I published my first work.

Over the last twenty years I have published books with Warner, Dell, Rodale and the Lightning Tree Press, a small publisher that went out of business. The game began to change about fifteen years ago. For my first book I went on a national tour and had some muscular marketing support.  For subsequent books I was largely responsible for marketing and promotion. Since that time more of the burden has shifted to the author.

At the same time it has become increasingly difficult to find a home for mid-list books that sell 25-30,000. Publishers are less likely to use the revenue from blockbuster books to help fund other titles.

For these and other reasons I decided to test Amazon's CreateSpace, its self-publishing platform. To date I have published two novels, Limey Down and the Sirens of Vulture Creek, as well as a volume of poetry, Set Pieces of the Feminine. I am in the process of submitting another poetry book, In the Shadow of the DMZ, about my war experiences and 9/11. I'm on the Kindle for the first three books and also getting exposure in France, Italy and Spain. I plan to take advantage of the option to  be a part of Kindle's Owners Lending Library.

Amazon makes money on these ventures by providing editorial, marketing and promotional services. The CreateSpace UI leaves a lot to be desired and, as I have mentioned to my associates there, I should not have to be a tenured production director to follow their prompts. But this is just the beginning. Titles will languish without a social media campaign.

Amazon just announced that two titles in the 10 top best-selling books of 2011 (The Mill River Recluse and The Abbey) ranked #4 and #6 solely on Kindle sales and were independently published using Kindle Direct Publishiing.

Amazon also announced KDP Select, a $6 million dollar fund for the Kindle Direct Publishing authors and publishers. A week ago Amazon said it plans to acquire Marshall Cavendish US children's book titles. Earlier the company announced a video licensing deal with Disney-ABC television, a UK movie partnership with Warner brothers, and the fifth annual breakthrough novel partnership with Penguin (US).

No wonder Amazon can sell the Kindle and Kindle Fire at a small loss. Content is king but only if you have tons of it.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tablets & the Lake Wobegon Effect

There is good news this holiday season. No more screaming children on planes or in airports! My research indicates that the No Child Left Behind law, a national increase in the Parental Responsibility Index, and the Lake Wobegon Effect--"all the children are above average," have contributed to the rising level of youthful civility. But the primary reason for this change in behavior is the increased use of tablets, especially the iPad, among this demographic group.

I traveled recently through Newark, Denver, and San Francisco airports and heard no sounds of infants mewing and puking in their nurses arms. I boarded various planes and the sweet silence continued. For a moment I thought I was traveling in China where noise pollution, including loud cell phone conversations, is outlawed by the Beijing Criminal Code Z4891.

In San Francisco I stayed with a family with a three-year old. I found it very interesting to watch him spend hours wading through his armada of cars, from a Tonka truck to high-end Porsches, sometimes bent on demolition, then settle in with his iPad to watch Toy Story.  Though he might keep one hand on his garbage truck, he was deeply engaged with the device, suggesting multi-tasking is innate and one less thing his parents have to teach him. But this lean-back experience was a treat to be earned and not a form of baby sitting.

The Econonic Times of India reports that the youth market for the tablet is growing fast. We learned from Forrester than 29% of adults share their tablet devices with their children.  Nielsen has found that the iPad is the most desired gift among 6-12 year olds.  Disney and a handful of startups are developing games and interactive books for this market. As less expensive but quite adequate tablets such as the Kindle Fire become available, there is little reason to think that this demographic will not become an important subset of the overall category with gift written all over it.

Obviously, there is concern about using the tablet as a digital pacifier, much as television has been used since the 1950s.  Parents I have spoken to seem to agree that for children under three it is best to keep their tablet experience to appropriate books.

As is often the case, art is ahead of science. Goodnight iPad, a parody of the popular children's book, Goodnight Moon, is worth viewing on YouTube.  Fittingly this a satire of the devices, the screens, the icons, the pop stars, and the social media shorthand and hipsterism that have penetrated our psyches. Rated R.