Transcript: Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing

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Interview with Thad McIlroy

For podcast release Monday, February 2, 2014

KENNEALLY: It wasn’t so long ago that mobile meant the kind of kinetic sculpture that artist Alexander Calder made his trademark. In 2015, of course, mobile is shorthand for a host of handheld wireless technologies that make it possible to live our lives in two worlds – the physical one and the online one.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. In books and across all media, mobile matters. Yet for many publishers and authors, mobile is something of a foreign country inhabited by unfathomable digital natives and littered with devices and technologies. Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing offers a snapshot of the fast developing mobile landscape and the range of mobile strategies for book publishers, both print and digital.

The report author, Thad McIlroy, is an electronic publishing analyst and author based in San Francisco, and he joins me now. Thad McIlroy, welcome to Beyond the Book.

MCILROY: Hi, Chris. Nice to be chatting with you again.

KENNEALLY: We are looking forward to it. And, you know, your site,, is one of the most thorough explanations I’ve seen of the direction that publishing is headed here in the early 21st century.

And Thad McIlroy has provided consulting services to media companies as well as vendors serving publishing. His latest book is The Metadata Handbook, coauthored by Renée Register, who is a past guest of Beyond the Book. And this recent report, Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing, was published in January 2015 as part of the Digital Book World conference and is published by an imprint of F+W Media. The report is available from the Digital Book World store, and we will link to that on our Website.

And Thad McIlroy, there’s a lot to cover here. And really, for practical purposes, you’re looking at the mobile revolution and really trying to help authors and publishers understand what they need – the questions they need to answer, the things they need to know so they can put a mobile plan into action. It’s one thing to imagine themselves on the iPhone or on the Android tablet. It’s another thing to get there. And I suppose the first question everyone faces is this content conundrum, as you call it. What’s the best format? What’s the best device? Take apart that question and help us answer it.

MCILROY: Sure. Just stepping back a little distance from that question is the other part of the conundrum, which is the breaking down the mobile opportunity. And I try and stress that a lot of it has to do with marketing and a lot of it has to do with social media.

But you’ve got to get your content in order, ducks in a row, to be successful with mobile, because now, as you’re making the assumption that your efforts in mobile marketing are beginning to pay off, what are you drawing the customers toward? What kind of content are they going to receive? And given that people are reading more and more online, what’s the optimal format?

And so when we talk about reading online, let’s say two, three, four years ago, reading online meant reading on a Website off of a personal computer. And that was a primary delivery mechanism. And indeed, going back to that age, the e-books were often read on personal computers, which sounds very awkward to some people today.

But as mobile has increased and that means largely smartphones and tablets – two enormous categories of devices – and of course e-book readers – dedicated e-book readers – each of those demand different kinds of considerations in their formatting, if for no other reason because of the size of the screen, because the screen is in just black and white – monochrome screen – or fully colorful screens. So I try and cover that matrix and how to fit different bits of content and different kinds of format into those range of devices.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, indeed, it is a matrix and probably one that leaves many publishers and authors a bit befuddled. Can you provide any direction or insights to what’s the best device for a particular type of content?

MCILROY: Well, I liked your word befuddled because, yeah, sometimes when we’re left befuddled, it’s because we’re not on top of the topic. In this particular case, when you get on top of the topic as to the matrix, you’ll find that your befuddlement is well justified, and you have an honest befuddlement.

I have a chart in the report that came out of a identified source of e-book producers where we look at, OK, if you’re trying to build for an iPhone, if you’re trying to build for a Kindle reader, if you’re trying to build for an iPad – and what about the different sizes and what about a phablet – and then, on the other axis is the different primary formats – OK, PDF – not a necessarily popular format – EPUB, Mobi – different versions of EPUB – EPUB 2, EPUB 3 – the successor to Mobi is KF-8. Isn’t it exhausting just to have me describe it? Well, that is an active matrix, and not everything fits properly into every channel.

KENNEALLY: Well, in fact you even used a term which maybe some of the listeners aren’t familiar with that kind of gets to that point, this so-called phablet, which is not quite a phone or a tablet. It’s a little bit of both. And is that really what, for example, the new iPhone 6 is – something that’s a phone but just a larger format that tries to accommodate text in a way that the original iPhones just weren’t able to?

MCILROY: Yes, well, the phablet right now is the fastest growing hardware device that’s suitable for e-reading – let’s call it that. The iPhone 6 Plus – yeah, indeed that’s a real – you know, probably the best illustration right now of a successful phablet.

Samsung was the company that first really proved that a phablet made sense. Steve Jobs, of course – we always quote him where possible – had said that that larger format would not be a success. And Apple, in the meantime, had the large iPad and didn’t want to do a mini. They came down to mini size and were still denying the opportunity in the larger iPhone. And now it’s a best-selling category, particularly in China.

So this – it’s – we fit into that middle space. You know, it’s not what I think of as the tiny smartphone, and it’s not the large tablet or even a mini tablet. It’s just that extra bit of real estate that, once you experience it, if you’re like me and not fond of using the ordinary smartphone for e-reading, suddenly you’ve got a phone in your hand and you say, oh, wow, this actually – I can read on this very comfortably and I can lose myself immersively, which is what the goal is for good content on a digital device.

KENNEALLY: Right. And in that bit of a pitched battle between the smartphone and the tablet, where do things stand? We’ve just heard news recently that Apple is coming away from a successful quarter – in fact the most successful quarter of any public company in history, and probably a lot of that is because of sales of iPhone 6 at the end of 2014. How well are smartphones doing? How well are tablets doing?

MCILROY: Good question – very good question, Chris. The tablet is – I don’t know if it’s really a case lesson for all of us. We can remember, because it’s only a few years ago – these things change so quickly – that the Apple iPad was the must-have device. And the iPad mini – oh, another great iteration of this must-have device. And now sales have just reached a plateau. They’re no longer increasing. They were decreasing slightly in Apple’s latest report, as far as I could see. And people are asking the question that I was asking from day one, what exactly is it that this tablet is for that is not addressed on the one hand by the smartphone and addressed on the other hand by a personal computer – notebook variety?

And I call the tablet now an accessory. If you can afford it, great to have it. Many of the friends of mine or colleagues I speak to – it’s have you got a tablet? Yes. Do you use it every day? N – no, not anymore. You know, I did for a while. Sometimes I’ll still watch it when I – or use it when I’m going to bed or sitting on the couch reading a book. But it’s already moved from being an essential device to being – do I dare call it a toy?

KENNEALLY: Interesting. But whether it’s the smartphone that people are using and preferring, or it’s the tablet, what has happened – and this is the important question for people in the book business – is that a lot of reading is going on. And perhaps you can give us some information about the amount of reading and the kind of reading and who’s doing the reading. But what is perhaps troubling about all of that is it puts reading right alongside of all kinds of other media-related activities.

MCILROY: Indeed. This is a meme, as we would call it, that was first introduced by Amazon, the idea that’s pressed continuously by their e-book executives and also, more famously, Jeff Bezos has picked up the tune and uses it in the few interviews that he gives in a year, saying that books don’t compete against other books. Well, of course they do to some extent, but that’s not the primary competition for e-books on these devices. The primary competition is compelling videogames, is social media, is texting, is video. YouTube video is, I think, the fastest growing content category on these devices.

And you just have to think of it for a moment. I watch people sitting on an airplane. They’re tired. They’re crowded into the plane. They’re not calmly reading a dense text. What they’re doing is watching a video or playing a game. They’re doing anything to distract themselves. And these devices are perfect for distraction. The book formats, when put directly up against this, is that entertainment? Well, it is for the dedicated e-book reader or dedicated book reader.

Just before I leave this question, another point that came up is, you know, where do you find the most dedicated book readers – e-book readers? Of course those who have bought a Kindle or similar monochrome device – a Nook, something from Kobo. Those things are just so perfect for reading that that’s where the largest, let’s say, consumers of e-books reside, and the folks who don’t just buy them but actually read them cover to cover.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. And you say those are perfect for reading. You also mentioned that other devices are perfect for distraction. And that’s interesting. And it reminds me too of a book title, Amusing Ourselves to Death. And at the time, the concern was television. Now I guess that the amusements can be all kinds of things, as you mentioned, from video to movies to TV shows and short form on YouTube.

But for the book people out there, you are suggesting that the e-reader still has an important place. But what’s the future for the e-reader, would you say?

MCILROY: Again, a big part of my report is tracking the stats on all of these kind of questions, because I think, rather than just my saying, oh, I think e-readers are still good and they’ll be important or other people here saying, oh, well, now with tablets being so dynamic and colorful and good for video, the e-reader is doomed – well, of course it’s something in between there.

Again, as with tablets, the growth of ownership of e-readers, now it’s plateau’d. By one report I saw, it’s beginning to drop slightly. But did Amazon not just release a brand new e-reader a month or so ago? The fact that Amazon is continuing to develop in this space – the leading vendor in this space – reminds us that indeed there is a market for these devices. They last a long time. Once you buy your Kindle e-reader, you can use that for quite a few years.

And all the stats that I see is that there are still somewhere close to 30% of U.S. households that have an e-reader. And the people who use them are – you know, I have one statistic that I show in particular is the percentage of folks who own a particular device, what percentage of those use them for reading? And of course the e-reader really only does successfully reading, so of course that one has a very high percentage. By the time you get down to the smartphone, only somewhere in the 10% to 12% range of folks use them with any regularity for reading.

So for publishers, my advice, OK, the e-reader may no longer be the smart and sexy thing. You ignore it at your peril.

KENNEALLY: Interesting. Well, we are speaking today with Thad McIlroy, the author of a book just published by Digital Book World as part of Digital Book World 2015 conference. The report is called Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing. And Thad McIlroy, as publishers review all these statistics – they see the same numbers you do – they’ve got to make some decisions. And one question that they will ask is book or app? How do you begin to take that one apart?

MCILROY: Well, that’s the million-dollar question – or maybe not quite that expensive. The way I came in to the report was relatively naïve. And I’ve learned a lot in preparing the report. Of course one of the things that sort of you jump to right away when someone talks about mobile, when they talk about smartphones, is that apps – well, we’re going to deliver an app, aren’t we? That’s what you do on mobile. And indeed, yes, many, many, many, many companies do indeed deliver apps on mobile. The total number on last count on the smartphone as well as on the other android system is well over a million apps available.

And now isn’t this something familiar to publishers, the idea that, if there’s a million titles out there or some huge number of titles out there – app titles in this case – how is anyone going to find them? And the stats indeed show that two-thirds of the apps that people use are the ones you’d expect – Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest – those kind of social media apps, and of course then gaming apps and all that. And where’s a publisher going to squeeze into that crowded ecosphere, as I would call it, of preexisting apps?

Further, what you find out is how much money is there in selling an app? And the answer is zero. The most compelling apps are the ones that cost nothing, and the ones that are downloaded the most cost nothing. What people do then is try and upsell a little bit. You download the free app, and they try and upsell. Well, all of this mechanism is far from ideal from the kind of business model that book publishers have.

And so the conclusion I push in the report for publishers with apps is, yes, by all means take a swim in the app water and then get out and dry yourself off because, for the most part, the app opportunity, as vivid as it may seem in front of you, is really not an opportunity for book publishers today.

KENNEALLY: Mm, it’s quite interesting and important to take in. You know, you took me back at the beginning of this discussion, sort of before we get into content conundrum and looking at the marketing question, and the report really emphasizes that mobile marketing matters. And for publishers, this is again addressing an area that they’re not familiar with, working in territory that, as you say, is something of a foreign country. Why does the marketing piece matter? And give us some pointers.

MCILROY: Sure. Again this is something where we – when we start off – when I started off on the report and many of my colleagues, when I talk to them first about mobile, is their sense of marketing with mobile is, you know, I’m on Facebook and people are using Facebook on mobile, so I’m doing mobile marketing.

And I say to them, um, nope. It’s a heck of a lot more than that. There’s – the concept or the real notion that you have to bring in to a plan of mobile marketing on mobile devices is the recognition that mobile is no longer an add-on to a desktop computer or an add-on to I don’t know what device, other than a desktop computer, they were seeing. Because, in the chronology, mobile is sort of somewhere down the road. You might think that you don’t have to prioritize it but the statistics show repeatedly that the universe is no longer sort of desktop to mobile. Mobile is the universe. And this realization, which takes a while – and I try and drag people through it in the report is you can’t – it’s not business as usual anymore.

What you really want to do – and I can’t say have to do because you’re not supposed to do that – but should do, might want to do – my advice to you is that you rethink the whole mobile – the whole strategy for marketing around the notion, what if it was only mobile? What if we could only reach people through the preexisting apps that are on mobile, engaging them through the games and social media that are on mobile? Now, there’s a really interesting challenge. And it’s one that I think book publishers have to surmount in order to revamp the broader online marketing programs that they’re involved with.

KENNEALLY: Well, Thad McIlroy, you don’t want to say what publishers should have to do, but I will. OK? (laughter) And I’ll tell them that they have to get a copy of Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing, a new report by Thad McIlroy, electronic publishing analyst, creator of The book is available – or the report, I should say, is available from the Digital Book World store. And we will link to it on our Website. Thad McIlroy, thanks so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

MCILROY: Oh, it’s a pleasure, Chris. Nice talking with you again.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our Website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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