The publishing industry's new product categories

(This is the first post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A while back it was popular at many of the bigger publishers out there to release apps that they called ‘enhanced ebooks’. Some of them were branded as ‘book apps’, but that name too suffers from the same basic idiocy.

Enhanced ebooks is quite possibly the worst possible name that anybody could have thought of for a piece of media. It misses out on the one thing that is that particular genre’s greatest strength: it isn’t a book, not in any way shape or form. It’s an app.

And by virtue of being an app, it can have a structure and form that is entirely unlike the book, gaining in the process the business model flexibility that ebooks don’t have.

The state of play

The publishing industry has a set of standard bling that they use in place of interactivity whenever they implement something ‘enhanced’ or app-like. (Video, maps, slideshows, 3D widget crap, etc..)

Some of these approaches are confusing to say the least. Others are just plain dumb.

Commercial interactive textual content is a genre without direction. Everybody seems to be throwing stuff randomly against the wall to see what sticks.

Which would be fine if they didn’t keep picking up the spaghetti strands that didn’t stick just to try them again.

—Maybe I didn’t throw it hard enough?

Or, you just picked the wrong thing to throw.

—No, really. Jack over there is doing the same thing. I can’t let him get a lead in case this turns out to be a big market. I just need to throw harder.

No, you really don’t. Jack is making a mistake.

—Are you absolutely certain he’s making a mistake?

No, of course not. It’s impossible to be certain here, there are too many unknowns.

—Ah, so he could be right! Okay. I’ll try my best to throw harder next time. [Bends to pick up a cluster of spaghetti strands that hadn’t stuck to the wall and pitches it at the wall again.]

Nobody wants to be left behind so they all run as fast as they can in the wrong direction.

What to do, what to do?

Before you run, you first need a direction. Before you start an interactive project, you need to decide on what sort of project, and don’t just jump on whatever bandwagon you think others in the industry are on.

I don’t really care what your ‘why create’ reason is. As far as I’m concerned you don’t need a reason to create. But, if you want to create and if you want to do it on a regular basis, you need two prerequisites:

  1. You need projects you can figure out how to make.

  2. You need to have a sensible idea for how to fund project after project.

Costs and revenue. Two things that, at the very least, need to balance out.

If the projects are simple enough, then you can make them yourself and funding won’t be much of a problem. This lets you experiment and iterate your way towards discovering a genre, form, or medium you like.

But, a lot of the time you can’t do that. Especially not if the ‘you’ in that previous sentence is a corporation whose owners need it to stay relevant in a changing world.

There are three ways to slice the problem of deciding what to do.

  1. Look at the genres of interactive content (all of them, not just the crap publishers release). See if you find a few that inspire ideas.

  2. Look at the individual bits and features that make up the genres, go more granular than just looking at apps as a whole. Sometimes the approach and style is more important and inspiring than the whole.

  3. Look at your means and capabilities. It’s not a question of staying within your comfort zone but of making sure you don’t stray into mediocrity. If your ambitions vastly exceed your own capabilities, then you need a plan for how to grow them yourself, without outsourcing them to somebody who doesn’t give a damn and is just out for a buck.

(Yes, this is a lot of work even before you start planning the project. What did you expect?)

Finally, once you have a set of ideas and aspirational projects, you need to whittle them down, or at least prioritise them. That means you need to look at the cost-revenue balance for each one. And to do that you need to figure out the business model, often from scratch because, unlike print, interactive media doesn’t come with a business model attached.