Five trends in digital content you can’t ignore

For writers and editors it must stick in the throat somewhat to have the books and articles into which they pour so much labour and expertise lumped together with all the other fantastically indiscriminate outpourings of the internet under the heading of ‘content’. It certainly does for me. But such is the ontological reality of life on the web, and no-one whose livelihood depends on published content can fool themselves that their own particular locus of expertise – be it 19th Century naval treaties or particle physics – can for long remain unaffected by the power laws that govern the digital realm.

Publishers in particular need to pay close attention to trends in digital content – how it is discovered, consumed and paid for – because as Plato said, ‘when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.’

Here we offer five key trends that might not be on your radar at the moment, but which could well be blipping away before too much longer. Forewarned is forearmed.

1. Rise of the all-you-can-eat subscription model

This month, Amazon, designed to make it the Netflix of e-books. This comes hard on the heels of Oyster and Scribd offering similar propositions.

We have talked on his blog before about a comparable trend in the music industry (always a leading indicator for book publishing) as music lovers have moved within a single generation from buying physical CDs to downloading mp3s via iTunes and finally to Spotify, with its similarly omnivorous subscription model. Netflix and LoveFilm have proved the acceptability of this model for films too: could ebook publishing, like music and movies before it, be heading in the same direction?

Unlike startups like Scribd, Amazon certainly has the depth of inventory to make such a subscription an attractive proposition for frequent readers, who will experience a further decrease of ‘friction’ in e-book sales. One of the reasons for Amazon’s huge success in both physical book sales and e-books has been its systematic removal of friction for the buyer in both markets.

Turning to academic publishing, researchers, academics and students certainly come into the category of frequent readers. And although no one publisher has a comparable monopoly over all the books and journals that this target market requires, it is certainly the case that within specific disciplines, there is enough depth, specificity and regularity of need to make many a subscriber relationship fly (the journals market being an obvious case in point).

On the supply side, subscriptions provide ongoing revenues that allow publishers to upgrade their digital products and platforms as new technologies and technical standards come on stream, allowing them so stay in the ‘forever business’.

And we at HighWire have certainly not been alone in noticing the way the subscription model, seemingly under threat from OA, appears to be roaring back. According to Kent Anderson, no less, ‘It just may be the hottest and best business model around’.

2. Access, don’t own

The popularity of subscription models as a way of consuming digital content can be seen as part of a wider trend to at least partially junk the idea of owning content. Collections of physical content artefacts such as vinyl records are nowadays amusing talking points, or style indicators, rather than the mainstream tools of content consumption they once were. Goodbye to CD towers and a lot of other content-related shelving. And books do furnish a room; but in the future is that all they’ll do?

Instead of owning, we increasingly access content – and we do it in variety of ways, not all of which involve direct payment. A lot is free, but provided with constraints on its use (and reuse) that nudge us towards payment (the Fremium model). When we do pay it might be through an all-you-can-eat subscription, as above, or through time-limited rentals, or through ebook loans or even swaps.

E-book rentals (which once seemed a rather skeuomorphic concept to tech-heads) now have a place in this continuum, offering lower price points, and echoing some established physical-world patterns of book consumption. In the last couple of years, rental has become a viable option within the e-textbook market, though it remains to be seen whether this will finally make e-textbooks more popular with students, who don’t seem to like them very much.

3. E-book bundling

Take a peek within any commuter’s briefcase and you’ll no doubt find a variety of devices – laptop, e-reader, tablet, smartphone, along with their respective charging leads – but also at least one print publication, if only to provide for the moment when all the devices have run out of battery life.

As technology gradually adjusts, via the cloud, to our need to have all our e-content on all of our devices, the next bridgehead becomes crossing the species barrier, as it were, and having our print acquisitions also available in electronic form.

Bundling e-books along with print editions has been around for a while as a concept, however the ‘walled garden’ model, with e-books tied to devices, made it slow to happen in reality. At the end of last year, Amazon launched its Matchbook Program, with Harper Collins an early adopter.

There has been some resistance to this from publishers who fear it will reduce their revenues, and from agents who fear it will further impoverish authors. However, from the customer’s point of view it can only be a good thing.

More recently Harper Collins (US) has entered to offer discounted ebook editions of print books that readers already own.

The pilot uses a strangely old-school process to do this, as BitLit’s material says: ‘To claim an ebook, readers write their name in ink on the copyright page and snap a photo using their smartphone. BitLit uses computer vision technology to verify authenticity and avoid the need for receipts or point-of-sale records, thus allowing readers to retroactively bundle their books.’

This allows publishers to offer e-books directly to customers via bookshops, and could be an interesting model.

4. Social search

With Google’s announcement of the ‘Hummingbird’ algorithm change last year, and statements downplaying the influence of Twitter and other social media platforms on PageRank, it seems that the direction of travel in search is to intensify relevance through application of semantic technology (branded as ‘conversational search’) and to continue to play cat-and-mouse with the spammers.

However, a growing sense that Google’s brand of relevance-driven search might be just a tiny bit broken is leading some to approach things from a different angle.

The basic problem is that the war of attrition between Google and the SEO community has created this beast called content marketing which has caused a huge proliferation of searchable content on the web, making it harder than ever to get found, or to find what you are looking for on a search engine. One answer is to look towards the social network to give indications of relevance and authority.

BuzzSumo epitomizes the new generation of social search engines, returning topic-oriented results based on how widely the content has been shared (rather than linked to), with a clean, simple interface. Ultimately, sharing is just as open to being gamed as SEO: as social search achieves critical mass it will become the focus of a similar cat-and-mouse game. But for now, it offers a greater signal-to-noise ratio, and is based around a fundamentally different model of web behaviour: Google is based round links, and content publishers place links in pages, while sharing is done by readers.

We have become used to the idea of one behemoth in search – Google – rolling over and crushing everything else in its category, but change the category and … it is not impossible to visualize search behaviours fragmenting and even Google itself being disrupted.

5. Wearables

We’ve covered Google Glass quite a bit on this blog, but there are many types of wearables on the way, with the next fastest out of the blocks probably being watches.

A straw poll at our last event showed that Evernote is one of the most popular apps with digital publishing change-makers, so If you’re having trouble getting your head around what use a watch computer might be (other than for a Cosplay as the Jetsons) take a look at this Wired article:

‘With wearables, context is key’ says Wired. People have been saying for quite a while now that delivering content in context is what digital publishing is all about – or ought to be. In the case of Evernote, basically a note-taking app, the content is self-generated by users, but not every wearable app will be about that. After all, what is a watch, fundamentally? It delivers context-specific, authoritative information, though about one subject only, time. There’s no reason why a computer watch couldn’t deliver context-specific, authoritative content about other subjects too. Weather is an obvious step on, but what about soil conditions? Land registry information? Bird species?

This will be a familiar theme to regular readers of our blog, with its reference publishing roots, was quick to tip readers off to the possibilities opened up by mobile for offering chunked, context-specific and task-specific information. The trend towards wearables only intensifies these same principles.

One to watch.

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