Friday 4 April 2014

If App Developers made Books

After spending millions of dollars training a generation NOT to pay for content, the app industry has discovered that it really needs to understand (and adapt to) its audience if it wants to get any more money from them. In less than six years, a global media sector has been turned on its head – pivoting from Paid to Free, in one irreversible step.
The new business models rely on in-app-purchases (IAP) and adverts for their revenue, but this means they need a much deeper, much longer engagement with their audience if they want to break even. There are many innovative methods employed to achieve this… but what if these approaches were applied to other digital media? What if app developers made ebooks?

It might start simply – a banner ad across the bottom of your Kindle screen, plus a few seconds of streaming video ads, every other chapter. At first, these ads would be fairly generic, but after a while you'd start to notice things. You're enjoying an Inspector Morse novel and the banner ads just happen to include one for London Pride beer and another for a new recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle. You might also find that ads were being delayed, so they'd be less obvious. After all, if you read The Silence Of The Lambs, it's reasonable to expect a few ads for L`Air du Temps… but not today.
From midway through any novel, eerily accurate recommendations for other books would start popping up. Reading on, the ad frequency would steadily increase as you approached the pivotal chapters, culminating in a blizzard of banners and a timely [Pay to Remove Ads] button.

In-Book Purchases (IBP)
Removing Ads has always been a popular in-app purchase and its applicability to all kinds of content ensures its inclusion here. But what else might readers pay for?
Paywalls certainly aren't new – and you could argue that Amazon's "Try a sample" button is effectively just that: giving a few pages for free followed by the option to purchase the rest. But imagine if the book's publisher could set multiple paywalls, wherever they wanted in the text. Rather than appearing after an arbitrary number of pages, the paywalls would be exquisitely placed at twists and cliff-hangers, creating the strongest possible emotional need in the audience before asking them for their money.
If the above seems a bit… well, manipulative, then how about a Pay Per Chapter (PPC) model instead? Readers would be able to audition new books and, effectively, pay an amount commensurate with their enjoyment. If they finish the book, they pay full price; if they can't get into the story, they pay a tiny fraction.
Of course, this approach relies on the book chiming with as many readers as possible. Are there perhaps ways to broaden a book's appeal?

Adaptive Content
Again, it could begin with something simple. You might think it's just a coincidence that it's raining outside while you read the opening chapter with the hero trudging through a sudden downpour… but is it? Context sensitive narrative might easily cross-reference the Kindle's location with weather services, modifying the displayed text to build resonance between the reader and the protagonist. But that's not the only thing that could adapt.
If a book contained multiple versions of the text, then subtle cues (quietly mined from social data) could shift the protagonist's age, gender, religion or ethnicity, to be more compatible with that of the reader.
Authors and editors could watch the behaviour of early readers – identifying where people seemed to lose interest and stop reading. The problem chapters could be tweaked or replaced, with updated versions of the book downloaded automatically. But why stop there?
Using a process called A/B Testing, it's possible to split an audience and measure how each segment responds to something. So at any given time, 10% of readers reading the same book might be presented with a slightly different plot – and whichever version showed the highest completion ratio, or received the best reviews, would become the new "standard edition" of the book.

Social Reach
Last but not least, it's worth considering how a book's social reach might be extended through digital techniques. There was a time when audiences went looking for content but now, increasingly, content has to go looking for an audience. We're seeing more and more innovative methods of publicising titles and it's not hard to predict a time when the amount you pay for a book could be reduced by the number of friends you tell about it. After all, everyone knows the importance of studying the algorithms that drive the digital stores and recommendation pages. But app developers also know that people are busy, that people are forgetful. So perhaps ebooks will start reaching out to readers if they've been gone for a while – a friendly nudge via push-notifications or social media, complete with a one-page reminder of the story so far. Re-engaging the audience is so important… especially if there's a Pay Per Chapter model on the horizon.

Thankfully, the fact that you can do something doesn't always mean that you should do it. True, the above ideas are all based on real techniques from the apps business, but there's no reason to assume that this is the future for ebooks. Although, now that I think about it, the Pay Per Chapter approach might just work, especially for a series crime author like myself. Perhaps even digital clouds have silver linings.

Tuesday 1 April 2014


Plotting. Planning. Researching. This must be how a lot of criminals are caught. Because it wasn't until I'd done a fair amount of prep work on a crime of my own that I noticed just how incriminating my actions were. And the murder I had in mind wasn't even a real one.

I'd been mulling over some ideas for a new novella. The subject had come up during a meeting at Hodder, and my initial thought was to use one of the novel concepts I'd been making notes on for a while. But the more I considered this, the less suitable it seemed. My books always seem to give a lot of narrative (sometimes most of it) to the villain. This is okay for a full-length novel, where there's enough time to develop satisfying emotional links with multiple protagonists, but in a shorter story I felt it could prove difficult to connect with my detective and another principle character. I needed to come up with something different.

So I got a new idea. And, because I always try to base my stories in reality wherever possible, I started doing my research. As usual, there was plenty to do – articles to read, things to check on Google, a day in Bristol to walk the routes and visit the scenes…

…and that's when I started to get that eerie, uncomfortable feeling. Much of what I was doing was what my villain might do in preparation for their crime. If a real investigation were launched, my own internet history would have left an obvious digital trail for the police to follow. My movements around the city would have been extremely suspicious, and I'm sure I must have been caught loitering on any number of CCTV cameras. I could just imagine a grey-haired solicitor peering at me over his glasses and sighing, "I believe you, Mr McNeill, but I'm afraid it doesn't look good."

Of course, I'm not a criminal. But I couldn't help wondering, how long would it be before circumstances aligned to drop some poor writer in it? How long before some unhappy coincidence led to an author being detained by the police for a real crime, similar to the one they were researching? In that position, how would you counter the dreadful burden of circumstantial evidence?

I suppose you just have to make sure you always have an alibi… and maybe write a blog-post like this one, to undermine the prosecution's case!