Posted on August 6th, 2013 No comments
As someone who had the benefit of working for The Washington Post at the beginning of its digital transformation, I will never forget how I got the news that the Graham family is selling the paper to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. It was through a New York Times news alert on Google Glass, which I was testing out on the Syracuse University campus.
Just a few weeks ago the news would have reached me from a news alert on my iPhone, a few years before that from the Google News home screen or a Google Alert in email, and before that probably from a headline on Yahoo.com or the AOL Welcome screen. That pretty much spans the 17 years since I worked as one of the first online producers for Digital Ink, the Post’s long-forgotten dial-up service, and then the first Washington Post web site.
Notice that nowhere did I mention the obvious: by going to the Washingtonpost.com home page. I helped launch that site in 1996, but it hasn’t been a part of my daily news habit since I left the company. This isn’t because I don’t like the company — like most “alums” and journalists I feel a deep connection with the paper, and dare I say, ownership. I cheered every innovation as if it were my own, and felt the sting of every layoff during its 7 years of falling profits. But just like every other consumer of digital information, I de-coupled news from its moorings.
And let’s be honest, it has been sad to watch as The Washington Post — the newspaper that downed a President — failed financially in the digital age after its owner Don Graham had invested so heavily in innovation. This is the crux of the problem for newspapers and, I would argue, every bundled legacy news organization regardless of medium. The rate of change in consumer media habits has outpaced the ability for most media businesses to respond fast enough.
But that’s not to say that The Washington Post hasn’t tried to change. It was one of the first to jump online even before Internet access was mainstream.
At the S.I. Newhouse School, where I serve as Chair of Journalism Innovation, I often ask students this question question. True or False: Newspapers failed to thrive in the digital age because they didn’t innovate. The answer depends on what you’re measuring. For newspapers like the Post, the answer is false when you look at serving its audience in new ways (web site, mobile site, tablet apps, a digital TV channel), but true when you look at the business model or, to use the non-profit term, sustainability. For reasons that I can only attribute to basic human nature, people responsible for revenue at newspapers have always tried to hold on to the businesses they had — even as they shrank — rather than risk their livelihoods building new, untested revenue streams.
So this takes us to Jeff Bezos, and what I suspect is the real reason that he’s interested in journalism and why Don Graham would say he’s the right guy to continue the Post’s legacy. Through Amazon, Bezos is the only person who has made significant traction in getting people to pay for journalism and non-fiction textual content. You can see the beginnings in Kindle Singles, which are short-form eBooks that often consist of reporting and investigative journalism. This is part of a larger trend of news organizations packaging and selling their most heavy-hitting news packages as eBooks or apps for mobile devices.
In 2012 Bezos gave some insights into his thoughts on the news business in an interview for the German paper, Berliner-Zeitung, and made two very interesting comments. First, he said “On the Web, people don’t pay for news and it’s too late for that to change,” but followed with “people are willing to pay for newspaper subscriptions on tablets.” While he was referring to subscriptions here, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that he sees potential for other forms of payment — such as mobile micropayments from Kindle devices, or even on the Web using Amazon’s payments system.
But is that all Bezos is interested in? In his letter to Post staffers, Bezos didn’t say a word about new business models or revenue, and quite a lot about the need to continue to innovate and “invent.” If this was primarily about revenue, or a benefit to Amazon, I suspect he would have pushed for Amazon to make the purchase directly. It’s about more than that.
After I heard the news I started making a list of what both Jeff Bezos and Amazon would get out of this acquisition.
Benefits to Bezos include:
- Legacy: He’ll own one of the most respected news brands in the world, and if he can make the Post sustainable he’ll also be credited with “saving journalism.” At a time when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has promised to give away half of his wealth before he dies, saving the Post may be the Bezos answer.
- Experience with something new. Maybe Jeff is getting tired of eCommerce? He could also gain some valuable insights into consumer behavior that could inform other products and services at Amazon or elsewhere.
- Washington influence. While Amazon isn’t buying the Post, it’s impossible to separate its owner from this purchase given the Post’s place in Washington politics. I suspect we’ll see this surfaced if and when Bezos, like Eric Schmidt of Google and Tim Cook of Apple, eventually testifies to Congress to defend something Amazon does or fails to do.
Potential Benefits to Amazon, direct or indirect :
- Washington influence, especially for Amazon lobbyists.
- A potential testing ground for new forms of commerce-connected advertising.
- Data! Imagine what kinds of insights Amazon could get from a company like the Post, including comparisons of how people consume news on different devices (especially those not owned by Amazon) to purchasing behavior.
- Finally, it would be interesting to see how Amazon’s global network of warehouses and Print on Demand operations could be applied to the print version of The Washington Post.
All of this is just conjecture, and the reality is that even Jeff Bezos probably doesn’t know what he’s getting into. One thing is for sure: whatever motivations he has will ultimately just be suggestions to the famously independent Washington Post journalists. Columnists Gene Weingarten said it best in his Open Letter to Jeff Bezos:
I think I speak for more than myself when I say that the main reason I have high hopes for your stewardship is that Don Graham said it was the right thing for the paper. He said you are the right guy. That was enough for me.
Jeff, I wish you the best of luck living up to that kind of trust. And if you ever want to talk to the folks who opened the Pandora’s Box in 1996 you know where to find us. We may still have a few good ideas.
Posted on April 16th, 2013 1 comment
NOTE: Since originally posting this, our problem was resolved (but not with help from Toyota). See the update at the bottom of the post. -Dan
This is the story of my love affair with hybrid cars, and the betrayal that could end that relationship forever.
It’s rare that I take my personal customer issues public, but the experience I’m having lately with Toyota — a company I’ve always admired — is so disturbing that I feel the need to share it with others. Given the common circumstances surrounding my experience, I’m sure there are others out there with similar problems (if so, please contact me), and I want to do what I can to save future hybrid car owners from this ordeal.
In late 2006, my wife and I decided that with two growing kids, it was finally time to upgrade to an SUV. We chose to put our money where our mouth was on environmental issues and buy a new hybrid SUV. In addition to lowering fuel bills, we felt that we should do what we could to lower our carbon footprint.
The Toyota Highlander was the first major SUV to offer a hybrid model, and we were happy to pay $10,000 more than we’d pay for a standard car to own one. But we had one concern: would the hybrid batteries last?
We did some research before going to the showroom and learned that Toyota had smartly anticipated this concern by offering an 8-year, 100,000 mile warranty on the batteries for all of their hybrid vehicles. This made us feel better about making the switch, but just to be sure we purchased their Toyota Extra Care warranty that we were told would cover anything else, including a problem with the computer system that controls the Hybrid Synergy Drive.
You read correctly: we had three warranties: the standard factory warranty, an extra 8-year warranty on the hybrid batteries, and an extended warranty on everything else. What could possibly go wrong?
For the past 7 years, almost nothing of consequence happened to the mechanical system of the car. The hybrid system worked like a charm in every climate imaginable, including in the Colorado Rockies and deserts of Utah, and we served as ambassadors to many others who went on to buy hybrids — usually the Toyota Prius. And then, without warning, it stopped working completely. My wife got into the car in a parking lot in between errands, turned the key, and nothing happened. I don’t mean a clicking noise or a stalled start, or even the engine running funny. Nothing whatsoever would work.
We called Triple-A and asked them to tow it to Romano Toyota in East Syracuse, near where we now live. The mechanic we talked to said it sounded like “a hybrid issue” and promptly gave us a loaner car as part of our warranty and said we’d hear back in a day with an answer (the hybrid specialist was out). We felt well taken care of and assumed that with our three warranties, everything would be taken care of. Then we came face to face with our misplaced trust in Toyota.
The next day my wife got a call with bad news. First, the entire hybrid system was shot. Second, it would not be covered under any of our warranties because “someone must have spilled some juice,” and for whatever reason that meant it would not be covered under warranty. And third, the cost to fix it will be around $6,000!
We were shocked, and when I got home my wife was upset and had to take our younger daughter to a piano lesson. I spent an hour going through a folder with all of our warranty information, found the extended warranty and then called Romano Toyota. Shouldn’t the extended warranty cover something as simple as a bottle of juice that spilled, I asked? No, unforunately not. What about the special 8-year, 100,000 warranty on the hybrid batteries? Once again, no, and he went on to explain that “none of your warranties will cover this because any kind of liquid damage voids the warranty. Perhaps you should call your insurance company.”
I called the Toyota Extended Warranty line and was informed that unfortunately, that extra warranty the salesperson told us would cover “everything else” would not cover this, and the representative we were talking to was unfortunately not able to discuss any type of issue other than what is covered under the extended warranty. But he did connect me with another warranty department, which took down all of my information and informed me that “because this is a hybrid issue,” a special team would investigate “what they could offer me” and get back to you by the end of the business day today.
I have not heard from that special team, but in the meantime my wife called our insurance company and was informed that they may, in fact, cover this, although they need to inspect the car and get back to us. If it is covered that would better than having to shell out $6,000, but I have several major concerns about this situation.
First: how is it possible that a simple spill of water or juice in the back seat can disable the Hybrid Synergy Drive that powers the entire Toyota Highlander Hybrid system? Are the batteries not sealed? Is it even possible for what was once one of the most sophisticated automobiles on the market could be that fragile? (Should we be screening the neighbor kids for rogue juice boxes before taking them to the family Y?) The answer to this is that it is that fragile, and worse, the hybrid batteries are sitting under the rear passenger seats completely exposed. Here’s a picture of what they look like, and you can see the mark left by the spill.
Second, if Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system is this sensitive, why in the world would they put the batteries under the only two places in this family car that are most likely to come into contact with juice-toting tots? (For what it’s worth, our kids don’t drink juice anymore so whatever may have happened was years in the past. They’re personally insulted by the idea that they would be caught dead with sippy cups).
Third, knowing that we are surely not the only family with kids that occasionally spill drinks, why would Toyota not cover this common occurrence as part of their hybrid battery warranty? What family would ever buy a car like this knowing that not only is this scenario likely to eventually happen to them, but that they will be left with a $6,000 bill?
And finally, it seems odd that the dealer would be so quick to suggest that I call my insurance company. He suggested this even before saying I should call the Toyota warranty line (which was actually my idea, not his). Perhaps it’s easier for them to work with an insurance company than with their own warranty department, and customers are caught in the middle.
There are still three hours left before the close of business — five if you count the west coast — so I will give Toyota the benefit of the doubt and maybe they will come clean and cover the warranty that they sold us on. If they do, I’ll post an update here and thank them for their honesty and integrity and will share anything they say to me — which in my mind include an apology to all Toyota owners. If they don’t that will also be reported here.
Regardless of the outcome, there are some serious customer problems here that go far beyond my own experience. A company’s brand is built over years of relationships with customers, and the people who trust those customers’ recommendations and advice. It can be lost in a heartbeat through neglect, or in this case outright betrayal of trust. It’s possible that this is a fluke related to the individual dealer, the person I happened to talk to at Toyota Extra Care, or some other random chain of events. But with no other information I don’t know how I could recommend a Toyota hybrid to the next person who asks for my frank opinion.
Updated June 26, 2013:
It has been a few months since I posted this, and I realize that I need to post an update on how this was resolved. Special thanks to a nice woman named Margaret in North Carolina (also a Toyota owner) who tracked me down to find out what happened. Margaret, this is for you!
The good news is that our battery ended up being OK and did not need to be replaced. The problem was caused by liquid not draining correctly out of the casing that holds the battery. Instead of falling out the bottom of the car, it was diverted to the place where the battery connects to the electrical system and that shorted the system out. And why didn’t the liquid drain correctly? Because several years’ worth of cheese crackers, cereal and who knows what else had fallen under the seat and formed the most disgusting type of drain plug you can imagine. I should mention that this situation could have resulted in a complete battery failure that would have required a replacement, but we lucked out.
Also good news is that when the dealer discovered the plug, they were able to order a new part that Toyota has designed that ensures that liquid will be routed away from the battery terminals. In theory, this means we won’t have to worry about this problem in the future.
But here’s the bad news. While Toyota apparently knew about this problem (evidenced by the fact that they’d already designed a new part to solve it), they still didn’t cover any of this work. Our insurance company USAA ended up covering it as “an act of God.” We had to pay a $500 deductible but the rest of the labor and parts were covered. I’m grateful to USAA for stepping in, but I don’t think they should have to step in pay for a problem that Toyota should be fixing for past owners through a recall. Curiously, our insurance adjustor told us that if and when Toyota does a recall for this issue, we could get our money back, and the inurance company could also get its money back. I hope that auto insurers are following up with Toyota on this.
I have turned on comments below if anyone else has had this kind of experience. Feel free to share your own details. Maybe we can put pressure on Toyota to do a recall.
Posted on October 2nd, 2012 No comments
Spotlight on Nonny de la Peña, Immersive Journalist (via Journovation Journal)
I first met Nonny de la Peña a few years ago through the Knight News Challenge. She’d just started her project Stroome, a collaborative video editing tool, and I was about to spin off my KNC project Printcasting into BookBrewer. Nonny is still running Stroome on the side, but has meanwhile taken…
Posted on October 1st, 2012 No comments
I’ve started a new site as part of my new position at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University. It’s called Journovation Journal, and it’s all about journalism innovation. But perhaps more to the point, it’s about journalism innovators themselves.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that technology alone is not what makes new things happen in new ways. It’s creative people who use the technology who are the real heroes. Whenever there’s something unique happening in the world of journalism, the Journovation Journal will put the spotlight on the people behind it.
Here’s more about the site using a cool new tool I found at the Online News Association conference called Repost.Us.
About the Journovation Journal (via Journovation Journal)
Welcome to the Journovation Journal, a publication about innovation in journalism. We operate out of the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University with support from the Peter A. Horvitz Chair in Journalism Innovation. I’m Dan Pacheco and, with a lot of help from research assistant Brian Moritz,…
Posted on August 27th, 2012 No comments
It took a while, but I finally made it to Syracuse and I’m all set up at the S.I. Newhouse school. My first class is called “Creating the Next News Startup.” It will take journalists who have ideas for new products or even companies through the ideation and planning process so they’re set up for success. Here’s the flyer for the class.
Posted on May 23rd, 2012 No comments
One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is its inherent unpredictability. While nerve-racking at times, the very fact that you don’t know exactly how things will unfold is precisely what makes it interesting and exciting. Every day is a new discovery.
Today is one of those moments as I announce something that is a direct result of over 18 years of digital innovation and entrepreneurship, but which I never saw coming. I’ve been offered the Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse school at Syracuse University — one of the top 10 journalism schools in the country — and I just accepted.
In this role, which is endowed by Newhouse alum and newspaper owner Peter A. Horvitz, I will teach new courses that “explore the intersection of journalism and technology” and “work collaboratively to develop new content models and new forms of storytelling” (from the original job posting).
I will also be a professor of practice, a unique designation at S.U. that allows professionals with unique practical experience to bring that into the university without all of the traditional requirements of academic professors. The assumption for a professor of practice is that your experience is tangential to that of a Masters or Ph.D., while still allowing you to work alongside and learn from colleagues who focus more on research. The two types of professors work closely with each other at Newhouse, which is partly what attracted me to the school compared to other universities that offer only academic paths.
Another thing that’s unique about this position is that just as with Google employees, it gives me 20% time to work on other projects in the field. In this capacity I will continue to run my BookBrewer startup, which I’m happy to say is gaining traction with journalists and news organizations, so it’s a good fit for my new role at Newhouse. I will talk more at a later date about how BookBrewer will change, but in a nutshell you can expect it to focus even more on news and information.
I’m deeply honored to accept this job and can’t wait to start teaching my first course in August. I hope to help aspiring young journalists get a leg up on the disruptive “digital now” long before they graduate, and in so doing bring about a new golden age for journalism.
When I look back on my college education I know I would have been able to run even faster after graduation if I’d had some hands-on experience with digital tools — most of which didn’t exist then. But when you look at the pace of change today, where a company like Facebook can take over our lives in the space of 5 years, you can expect everything to change in the blink of an eye — especially in media and journalism. Teaching students how to innovate will be essential to their survival.
I also see this as an opportunity to help students understand and hopefully avoid what Clayton Christensen called The Innovator’s Dilemma. I’ve lived it, and it’s not fun!
Let me explain. Nearly 18 years ago I started my career as a journalist right as the consumer Internet was born through what eventually became the Netscape Web browser. After just one year of serving as a feature writer at The Denver Post, I found myself leaving print behind forever to embrace a bold new future for journalism on the launch team of Digital Ink, which we quickly relaunched as Washingtonpost.com.
A few years later I left the Post for America Online along with a band of others feeling confident in the bright digital future for journalism, feeling we’d gotten it off to a good start. And then something terribly sad happened, or rather didn’t happen. The Post, along with most newspaper companies, failed to innovate in the most important area of all: its core business model. Everything was and still is based on print advertising even as print subscribership plummeted, and the result is a shrinking workforce and weakened brand.
I then learned that disruption was about more than just replacing print with ones and zeroes. I saw it happen again after six years at the purely-digital AOL, which went from being Wall Street’s Internet darling to it pariah. The reason was the same: failure of the organization to innovate and adapt to change as people moved from dial-up to broadband Internet. I can tell you as an insider that this was not from lack of trying. Rather, it was because AOL’s bread and butter business model held the organization back from making hard decisions.
When I saw it happen a third time with The Bakersfield Californian, I started to see this as an inevitable pattern of creative destruction that plagues all industries. During an intense 6-year period, I and a small group of people on a New Products team pushed the envelope of how a local newspaper could serve its audience and advertisers online, bringing all kinds of new ideas like social networking and citizen journalism into the newspaper industry. In that time our social networks and associated print products increased the total audience the Californian reached by 100,000 new people, all in a town of just 300,000. But despite our success in growing new audiences, many of these initiatives ceased or were pared back when the real estate collapse of 2007 and subsequent global recession robbed the paper of revenues it had set aside for innovation.
Lest you think this post is about blaming past employers (it’s not — I respect all of those places), I can also point squarely at myself. Even after getting an $837,000 Knight News Challenge grant to build Printcasting, a new way of creating local print publications, I and my team were unable to innovate around that particular model after our funding ended. We didn’t stop, and instead used our own funds to morph the product into the BookBrewer eBook service. After two years BookBrewer is showing promise with journalists and news organizations such as The Denver Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who are using it to sell collections of stories as eBooks.
I will be the first to say that my resumé looks frenetic or, as one hiring manager once said, that I’ve taken my own path. But from another perspective, if you look at my story you can see the common threads that are independent of any one company or initiative. This is true of every innovator I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years. The ability to embrace constant change as the norm — even when it means completely shutting something down and launching something else that’s better thanks to past mistakes — is the key to innovation. This is what I most hope to impart to Newhouse students.
But don’t be fooled. Innovation and entrepreneurship are hard, and the odds are stacked against you.
When put that way, you may be tempted to think “to hell with innovation – it’s too risky!” And that’s true about the risk. But what I have also learned is that you never know where your innovation ends and someone else’s begins. It’s the tapestry of innovation that is most important, and we need to see more of that in the journalism field.
I received my biggest lesson around this in 2007 when I was invited to talk about innovation at a Grupo de Diarios América (GDA) summit in San Jose, Costa Rica. During my presentation I talked about Bakotopia.com, the youth-centric social network and brand I started for The Bakersfield Californian, which I’m happy to say is still running strong. This was one of the first social networking experiments at a newspaper. Launched in 2004, it even predated the modern Facebook, which was still only accessible to college students at that time.
After I finished a big-eyed Brazilian journalist rushed up to me and said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re the Bakotopia guy! We love Bakotopia!” He then explained how his newspaper, Zero Hora, in Porto Alegre, Brazil had been so inspired by Bakotopia that it created its own version focused on youth soccer. The idea that one little experiment in the central valley of California could inspire a parallel product on another continent was amazing to me.
This happened again a year later when the publisher of El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico approached me at a conference saying that The Bakersfield Californian’s new products had been an inspiration for them. This was particularly gratifying because my grandmother read that paper every day from her home in Puerto Nuevo, Puerto Rico.
I continue to encounter people like this who were inspired by something innovative that I did in the past, and I know that the path doesn’t end with me. Their inspiring projects also serve as the models for others. In this way, every journalism innovator – or Journovator as I call them – serves as something like a neuron in what my old colleague Tim Repsher calls “a dreaming brain” that is constantly reimagining the future of journalism.
But if I could change one thing for future journalism innovators, it would be to lower the risk of failure, which can only happen through practice and experience.
Effective innovation is now a matter of survival, and that’s more true in journalism than in any other field. In 2010 alone more than 1,000 journalists lost their jobs, according to Pew. At the same time, enrollment in journalism schools across the country has been higher than ever. This is a good thing, but not if those students are getting trained for industries that are dying or dead. Just like any digital startup, they need to be trained to think outside the box with content and revenue, and to understand not just how their products will inform communities of interest, but how they will pay for themselves.
So how do you teach the skills needed to be an innovator? I don’t have a pat answer to that, and to be honest I think the approach itself will require constant experimentation and innovation before we know how. But I do know how I learned it: by doing it. The process of trying, failing, trying again, getting some things right, getting other things wrong, failing and getting back up is the real-life school of innovation. There’s no better time to start that process than in college, when the stakes are far lower than when you have a house, possibly a spouse, kids and a dog.
I’ve taught a lot of seminars over the years, including some with “journalism innovation” in the title, but I know this will be a new role for me. I’m looking forward to learning how to teach. Most of all, I’m looking forward to shepherding a new class of journalism innovators who will teach me by all the cool stuff they will dream up.
Posted on April 25th, 2012 No comments
There are some interesting thoughts in this New York Times opinion piece about a class at Stanford taught by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal.
Thiel says most capitalism is just competition. While competition gets people to create better and better mousetraps, it usually doesn’t lead to anything that’s truly creative or innovative. Only those who choose to play a different game and move into an obscure area, then create and dominate a new market, are innovating. (This is just my paraphrase, which I’m sure is inadequate. A student named Blake Masters posted an essay from his notes if you want to delve in further.)
From my perspective this is why most innovations are first seen as trivial and even laughed at. Only when a technology or service has dominated a new market does everyone change their tune and herald it as an innovation.
The best example of this is Twitter, which spearheaded and later dominated the trend of microblogging. Be honest. When you first saw Twitter, did you imagine that it could completely disrupt the way people received information about major news stories, or do a better job at it than blogging — another technology / movement that was initially laughed at? I know I didn’t. My first thought was that nobody could possibly share enough meaningful information in 140 characters to make a difference.
Was I ever wrong there! After the Arab Spring uprisings, we all see Twitter for what it is: a democratized, distributed media platform that’s often more effective than CNN. So much quality information is being shared as tweets amidst so much noise that a new class of companies are creating a journalistic / curation layer on top of it. Storify, FlipBoard and Zite are three of my favorites.
What does this mean for entrepreneurs or innovators within existing companies or organizations? First, we need to think differently about innovation. Are we stretching far enough to find truly new and innovative solutions to real problems, or just being 10% better than what’s already out there?
Second, we need to be comfortable with the prospect of our ideas being initially dismissed, or even laughed at. Once I started my own company I realized how much easier this is when you don’t have to constantly promote and defend your ideas with coworkers. You have to do that in the marketplace — which takes even more work — but the psychological effect of being ridiculed by a complete stranger isn’t quite as daunting as it is from someone you work with every day.
And third, we need to redefine the concept of failure. A failure is only real if you give up when one approach doesn’t work. This isn’t to say that failures in quality should be tolerated or encouraged, but in the effort to drive adoption among a target market and reach profitability, there are always course corrections that need to be made.
It’s an organic process that in most cases doesn’t result in world domination, but you learn a lot in the effort to get there. Eventually maybe you’ll even create the next PayPal — something Peter Thiel did only after he got off the competition bandwagon.
Posted on February 25th, 2012 1 comment
I’ve been invited to participate in the latest Carnival of Journalism, a monthly blogfest in which journalists are invited to post about the same topic. This month’s question, posed by Steve Outing’s Digital News Test Kitchen, is:
“What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?”
Anyone who follows my user-contributed content experiments can guess my answer, but they may not guess the entire answer.
The most obvious first answer is my mind is “eBooks!” For the last year and a half I’ve run a startup called BookBrewer that makes it easy for anyone to create and publish eBooks. The eBook market has been growing at a 300% annual rate for several years now, and it’s only destined to keep up that rate if not exceed it.
The last study of sales from the International Digital Publishing Forum and Association of American Publishers showed eBook sales generating $120 million a quarter. That was 18 months ago, and since tablet ownership doubled from December 2011 and January 2012, it’s safe to assume that quarterly eBook sales are at least in the $300 million range.
I’ve been urging journalists to hop on this trend since November of 2010 (see my original post about that on this blog). I suggested a few topics that would work well as books, including multipart investigative series, stories about major events, “news you can use” and collections of columns by popular columnists.
But now thanks to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, I have an even better suggestion. Leverage the intense interest of your local sports fans to create not just sports eBooks, but full-color Print on Demand commemorative editions. And make those available as Print on Demand titles.
Here’s the story of the Post’s Tim Tebow book. If you think about how this could be done at dozens, if not hundreds of other newspapers around the country, the amount of revenue generated could be significant. It may even save a few journalists from getting laid off.
In January, we kicked off a relationship with The Denver Post that allows them to use our services to publish eBooks and Print on Demand. They said they wanted to do something about Tim Tebow, but weren’t sure how the book would end since the Broncos’ season was still underway.
In a previous era they would have waited until the the Broncos season was over (read: the Broncos had lost their last game), and then spent a few weeks editing a book of stories about the season. They’d make a deal with a local printer to print up thousands of copies on offset presses at an average of $30,000 for the run. They’d get a bunch of boxes of books that they’d then have to sell — usually for $30 or more — and when the interest waned, they’d need to lower the price and sell the remainders at a loss.
We told them that all of that goes away with Print on Demand. We gave the Post a URL that allowed them to take money up front as a preorder. This allowed the Post editors to finish writing and editing the story, and creating a nice print layout. Their online teams promoted a splash page about the book from their web site and social media channels.
And boy, did the sales ever start to come in! The actual figures are confidential, but I’m allowed to say that the total sales now are over 2,500 — most of that for the printed book — and the Post will be getting a first check in the high thousands. Unlike in the past when the Post had to put money down which they then scurried to make up, this time they put nothing down and generated a profit from the outset.
You can see how the sales followed the remaining Broncos game schedule here:
In early February, the final PDF came over from the Post, and the first copies were shipped to customers. For those print geeks out there, they were printed on a state of the art HP T300 variable digital printer run by our print partner Frederic Printing (a division of Consolidated Graphics) at a cost to the post of a little more than $15 per copy (or around $4 profit per copy to the Post, given the $19.99 consumer price). Because the orders are printed and shipped as each order comes in, there’s no need to use more expensive offset printers that require thousands to be printed up front. That leads to a lot of cost savings, less hassle and higher overall profits.
From this experiment we’ve learned that the keys to success are:
- A topic that the newspaper knows its audience is interested in.
- Good content, either original or curated into chapters, that reads well in book form.
- Good cover design and visuals.
- High level promotion from the newspapers’ web sites and social media channels.
When all of those stars align, you end up with a great information product that makes readers happy, and also makes money.
And here’s an interesting note on the so-called “eBook revolution.” We also converted the PDFs into eBooks and distributed them to all the major eBook retailers. But for at least this book, the print sales have consistently outpaced the eBook sales by a 3 to one ratio.
Thus, the second trend is one that I never expected. Print is far from dead — it’s just going through a wardrobe change. You never know if someone will prefer an eBook or print book, but the common denominator between them both is on-demand publishing.
Posted on January 18th, 2012 1 comment
A lot has been said about how SOPA would impact Web sites, but not the nascent eBook self-publishing movement. I’m cross-posting this from BookBrewer.com as part of today’s SOPA protest. Feel free to repost it with attribution.
This morning you’re probably hearing a lot about SOPA and PIPA, which stand for Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. You can read more about them on Wikipedia.
Wait, did that link work? Not if you clicked it on January 18, 2012. Wikipedia has temporarily shut down its site in protest to show what would happen if these laws were passed. They and thousands of other sites that allow anyone to publish content could cease to exist due to SOPA provisions that let copyright holders block sites that they accuse of aiding piracy.
BookBrewer is a self-publishing service, so that includes us.
We’re not shutting BookBrewer down in protest today, but we do feel it’s important to take a stand on SOPA and PIPA with respect to eBook publishing. We fear that SOPA would largely nullify the “safe harbor” copyright provisions that allow us and other companies like us to operate self-publishing services. That could effectively stop the eBook self-publishing movement in its tracks — a real travesty given the proven potential for eBooks to fund content creation.
How Current Copyright Law Makes BookBrewer Possible
BookBrewer and services like it exist expressly to help anyone publish content to sell as eBooks and on-demand paperbacks. Like Wikipedia and Facebook, our publishing tools are set up to allow you to work on your content without external interference. We don’t — and in fact, we can’t — review and edit every book that goes through our system (and you don’t want us to). That’s what makes us a publishing service and not a traditional publisher.
In order to operate such an ecosystem, we require authors to agree to common-sense terms, such as “you agree that you own the copyright to everything you’re publishing” and “you agree that you aren’t engaging in plagiarism.” We take them at their word and only investigate if someone notifies us or files a notice under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) Safe Harbor Provisions.
In our 15-month history we have only received one such DMCA notice, despite having thousands of books go through our system. Following the DMCA process, we promptly removed that eBook from circulation and nicely informed the author of the claim. It turns out she had inadvertently used “Dummies” in her book title (a term trademark owned by Wiley), so she renamed the book and republished it. It was an easy, straightforward and fair process for everyone involved.
How SOPA Would Change Things
How would this story change under SOPA? That one complaint could cause BookBrewer to be labeled a piracy site, and the author as a pirate. Our domain name could be blocked, effectively shutting down BookBrewer, and payments we receive through PayPal could be shut off.
The same could happen to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo and all the places where the eBook is sold. In fact, selling content with copyright violations is even more dangerous than distributing it due to the potential for monetary damages. We wonder if eBook retailers would even accept self-published content anymore.
Say Goodbye to In-Book Links
But believe it or not, it gets even worse. BookBrewer includes an RSS import feature for bloggers that lets them quickly import their blog posts, edit them and publish eBooks from their blogs. That includes the links from the imported blogs.
SOPA requires sites in the U.S. that link to offshore “rogue web sites” to remove those links or face legal action. Since an eBook is essentially a mobile Web site, who’s the pirate in this case, and what’s the Web site? Is it the eBook?
Let’s look at blogger Brad Feld, who agreed to let us use him as an example in this post. He’s published two books in the past (Do More Faster and Venture Deals) through a traditional publisher. His third book about Entrepreneurial Communities will be self-published.
Since the eBook is based on Brad’s blog posts over the years, you can bet that it will include plenty of links to external sites. If he happened to link to something that contains copyrighted material that was used without permission, guess what? Brad’s eBook itself could be considered a party to piracy. Say “Arrrr,” Brad!
To those who say that SOPA applies to Web sites and not eBooks, we beg to differ. Every eBook is essentially a self-contained Web site that you can copy to your device of choice. How many already published eBooks would need to be rewritten to remove hyperlinks? Could we as BookBrewer continue to host them? Could anyone? The legal liability would be too high.
In the End, It’s About You
We’ve explained how SOPA would impact BookBrewer and our business, but that’s not what bothers us the most. We worry about what will happen to you, the self-publishing authors who are redefining what it means to “get published.”
It’s one thing for a startup to get shut down, but even worse for an honest individual to be made out as a criminal. The average self-published author is over 40 years old, and is someone’s mom, dad, grandmother, uncle or teacher. We’re increasingly seeing books from college students and teens, and even a few art eBooks from elementary school kids publishing with their parents’ permission.
We understand that piracy is a real problem for large publishers, but there are more effective and fair ways to deal with it. Tying the hands of honest writers and allowing them to be labeled as criminals is not the solution.
If you agree, please call or write to your member of Congress and let them know what you think of SOPA.
Posted on April 17th, 2011 No comments
This week the University of Colorado Board of Regents finally voted to close the School of Journalism. It’s a difficult decision that makes a lot of people nervous, including me at one time (after which I changed my mind). But now I have to honest. I feel more than ever that this was the right decision, and I’m looking forward to what happens next.
For better or worse, I’m closely connected to this years-long saga. I’m a CU-journalism school alum, and I’m also one of a majority of advisors to the school who signed a letter one year ago recommending its closure. It’s quite ironic given that the topic here is journalism, but there’s a bigger story here that is being under-reported — and in some cases misreported — by trained journalists.
As explained in our original letter recommending closure, the main reason for closing the school was to break up a dysfunctional organization that actively resisted change at every step of the way over many years. We also felt that the school had become too inwardly focused as its own entity and, as a result, was largely unaware of and even dismissive of the digital innovations that have reshaped the media landscape over the last decade. When I say this I’m talking about the school as a whole, as there have always been individuals — usually non-tenure-track instructors or staff — who bucked the trend. But it was the larger trend and culture that had to be changed.
Shutting something down is never any fun, but now that closure is final, the second and far more interesting and exciting phase of reinvention can finally begin. I and others on the now disbanded advisory board have met with University of Colorado Provost Russell Moore and come to believe that the larger goal of interdisciplinary, experiential learning is more possible now than ever before.
CU’s leadership is committed to bringing the study of journalism and media together with other disciplines such as computer science, art and design, marketing, entrepreneurship and even natural science. But more importantly, there seems to be a growing desire to give undergraduate and graduate students from different disciplines more interactive laboratory-like experiences that mirror what students must do to succeed in the real world. That’s music to my ears, and I say “bring it on!”
As someone who started at CU as an engineering student, dabbled in the College of Music, ran the editorial and business operations of the college newspaper, and finally graduated with a degree in journalism, I think CU now has an opportunity to make things easier for the next generation of students. I should not have needed to hop between silos in order to get a well-rounded education in media and technology. Now it appears those walls could fall down for good so that future students can learn the basics of reporting and storytelling while also learning about, say, molecular biology or business law.
In an age when millions participate in the “act” of journalism — whether through Facebook, Twitter or the Huffington Post — I think it’s a good thing for anyone in any discipline to receive the training and experience that is currently only available on an island of a journalism school.
We still need trained journalists, but more importantly we need a more socially responsible and empowered information society. Mashing up journalism training with other disciplines reflects not just where things need to be within a university setting, but where they are in the world today.
So I’m optimistic, but as someone who was trained to be a skeptic, I also have a warning. Those of you in Colorado who care deeply about living in a well-informed society need to pay attention to how CU “walks the walk” it has been talking for the last year. The risk over the next few years is that despite good intentions, budgetary concerns will lead to cuts and consolidations that take things backward.
At our final advisory board meeting, graduate school dean John Stevenson, who is now responsible for the “Journalism Plus” program that will house journalism faculty before the full ICMT vision is executed, said something that characterized this well. Stevenson said, “We’ve basically taken a crisis situation and used it as an opportunity to move forward.” That’s exactly what CU has done here, and its leaders need to be commended. But they also need to be encouraged and supported to continue to move forward.
It’s important to pay attention, but more importantly to get involved. Regardless of your background, if you care about journalism and media and feel you have something to add, let the University of Colorado know that you care and give them your ideas. I think this is especially important for entrepreneurs and technologists. While I no longer have any official connection to journalism at CU, I intend to at least stay informed, and will get involved in ways where I think I can be helpful. If you’ve read this far you’re also one of those people, so join me and do the same.