'You are the destination': Aerbook's 'native commerce' for publishing

'You are the destination': Aerbook's 'native commerce' for publishing

Editor's note: As my colleague Lisa Campbell reported at The Bookseller, it was announced last week during Digital Book World in New York that HarperCollins has "created an ebook preview programme for social media users." As HarperCollins' press release has it, this is "a pilot program offering previews of top-selling books to web and social network users on both mobile and desktop devices via Aerbook." Founded almost five years ago, Aerbook operates in "native" marketing. I asked Aerbook's founder, Ron Martinez (pictured below), to write an article for us about his company's concept and its development. I'm particularly taken with how he describes the consumer -- digital publishing's reader -- as "the still point in a moving stream of media organized around interests or relationships." -- Porter Anderson

Aerbook was designed to help publishers and authors find readers and sell their books anywhere, and especially on the social Web. Putting the offer and transaction capabilities at the point of interest and engagement is what we mean by the term “native commerce.” More than yet another buzzword, “native” is the natural and indeed inevitable form that marketing, advertising, and retailing take on in what’s become a predominantly mobile and social marketplace.  

Marketplace Issues During the development of the service, and a forthcoming major extension, the Aer.io Retail Network, we spent a great deal of time with a range of publishers operating in this very changed and changeable marketplace. There is now certainly a common understanding of the significant upheaval the traditional supply chain has undergone. Our 2014 London Book Fair conversations were a particular eye-opener, foreshadowing much of the front page industry drama to follow later that year.  

As we see it, (and to be clear, these observations are our own and don’t necessarily reflect the viewpoint of any publisher we may work with) the main issues or root causes that give rise to a set of challenges, are these:  

  • Real (or threatened) loss of control to retail platforms
  • No customer information or relationships
  • Unhelpful destination retail models in a world of mobile/social streams
  • No usage data
  • Insufficiently mobile/responsive user experiences

I’ll go into a little detail later on. But to provide some context, here’s what Aerbook does to address these issues.  

What does Aerbook do?

Aerbook makes it easy to share, preview, and sell books within any social stream or app, or anywhere else on the web. A link to an Aerbook shared on a social network expands to the “native post” format of that network, making it display richly in the social stream where the potential reader has found it.

Tapping on a link further expands the Aerbook into a browser-readable ebook preview that’s equipped with marketing, commerce, and social sharing capabilities. The Aerbook has been specifically designed as a fully responsive experience for mobile, tablet, or desktop.

Collecting a large number of books on one network can create, without any additional software development and using everyday posting methods, a richly graphical “browsing table” on networks where tens of millions of people spend their time.  

Aerbook delivers direct, nearly instant fulfillment of ebooks with Social DRM and watermarking in multiple formats. And Aerbook can also be used to direct buyers to other commerce destinations. See, for example, how HarperCollins uses Aerbook to direct buyers to its purchase page.  

Building customer relationships and mailing lists, with customized calls-to-action and the gathering of email addresses with user contact permissions subject to very specific privacy policies, is a core service available to every book in the service.  

How does Aerbook address marketplace issues?  

Here is a little detail and dot-connecting to see how this set of product capabilities addresses the issues.    

Real (or threatened) loss of control to retail platforms 

This has played out in the press and in the boardrooms of publishers both large and small, and has even propagated out to indie authors. As they say, show a gun in Act I and it will be used in Act III. We’ve all now seen the gun.  

Direct-to-consumer marketing and sales sets up an alternative to any centralized, overly-empowered supply chain actor. It’s not a magic pill, of course. It takes effort to put books into social streams, manage email lists, and develop marketing programs. Even if you don’t intend to sell directly.  

A smart friend once said, “Every rabbit needs two holes.” It’s never too soon to start digging that safe, second way out into the world. And it’s certainly not going to dig itself.    

No customer information 

Traditionally, this hasn’t mattered all that much because the supply chain economics worked. Publishers could move books into retail channels, assured that everyone was playing by more or less the same rules. No actor in the chain would seek to devour the profits of the others. But when some retailers elected to sell at zero profit, in effect turning an entire category of cultural expression into a loss-leader in order to capture customer preferences and billing relationships, the game changed.  

The customer relationship and its lifetime value demonstrably outstripped per-unit revenue priorities, and the marketplace became unbalanced, perilously concentrated in the hands of a few. Retail competitors in need of at least some profit were forced to drop out.  

Clearly, in this new game, direct relationships with customers, even if only for marketing purposes (let alone direct sales) is moving rapidly from a nice-to-have to a got-to-have.  

With Aerbook, publishers (or authors) can ask for email addresses if they choose to, configuring a popup call-to-action to appear at a specific page in the freely shared sample. Supplying an email can either be optional or required in order to continue reading. The same call-to-action can be set up for downloading the sample in ePub or Aerbook-generated .mobi format for the Kindle.  

It’s worth noting, by the way, that downloaded samples contain a link back to the book’s online purchase page.  

Unhelpful destination retail models in a world of mobile/social streams 

The original desktop web has usually been thought of as a medium of pages and linked documents, but in fact it was modeled on the physical, spatial world. You, the user, navigated on the information superhighway to a destination site, a location with an address (a URL), a front door, maybe found via a mall-like collection of other front doors in a portal. You visited this destination as one would in the physical world, went inside and looked around, found things, maybe bought them, and left for other destinations.  

This is the world Amazon was born in, the paragon of the destination retail model. It’s the world of Yahoo! and even Google Search, driving people to visit established destinations. This marketplace model, a kind of skeuomorphic metaphor, has served quite beautifully for overlaying a physical supply model for book distribution and sales atop the highly decentralized and distributed Web.  

The concept of “skeuomorphism” is useful here: using the visible structure and cues of the physical world to make a new technology-based experience understandable. Simulated “pages” in ebooks are considered to be skeuomorphic. In the same way and in a larger sense, we’ve held an encompassing skeuomorphic market model for ebooks as well: get your books distributed to and stocked at destination retailers, same as it ever was.  

Now that retailing is overly concentrated in the hands of a few and unnecessarily opaque (there is no technical reason not to have more visibility into customer and usage data), this model is distinctly unhelpful. And destination retail doesn't need the help and the ongoing reification our continuing along on an unexamined premise affords it. Authors and publishers who would like to find and connect with readers and sell books, which is to say all authors and publishers, are in need of the additional approaches that alternative market models can provide.  

Fortunately, with the advent of the social Web, the natural form for media on mobile devices, you the user are no longer a visitor to a destination. You are the destination, the still point in a moving stream of media organized around interests (as in Twitter and Pinterest) or relationships (as in Facebook).  

It’s no surprise that native advertising is the fastest growing category of advertising, because it puts ads–promoted tweets, sponsored posts–where the people, well more than a billion of them, are every day: in social streams and apps. Aerbook does the same for books. And it’s worth noting that an Aerbook is very useful for such native, highly targeted advertising. A graphically rich, commerce-equipped Aerbook is a ready, conversion-focused media experience that can be easily delivered as the payload of a sponsored tweet or promoted Pin.  

How important is all this destination vs. the stream business? This can be answered with a question: how important is it to put your products where the people are? Because, as analyst Benedict Evans, now with the venture firm Andreessen-Horowitz has shown, most people spend most of their time on mobile devices, and predominantly within apps on those devices. Since an Aerbook is designed to travel through streams and readily expand for reading within in-app browsers, it’s possible to put your book where the potential readers are, for whatever business purpose you may have.  

No data 

User Data and its macro buddy Big Data have broken into the popular consciousness as the devices, apps, and networks we use become central to our everyday lives. Like customer relationships, unambiguous data about how our books are being used is essential to understanding the online marketplace. But unless you put your book or some portion of it onto the network in a readable form, you have zero visibility into its use.  

How nice it would be if, like any purveyor of cat videos, book publishers (and especially marketing and sales personnel) were able to see how their products are shared, sampled, mentioned, when and how often and on what devices, and more.  

Every book in Aerbook has its own Dashboard. Among other capabilities, publishers can see stats like those mentioned. The publisher can also take advantage of numerous inexpensive social marketing and analytics tools in addition to Aerbook’s own data, tracking mentions, engagements, expansions of posts, clicking or tapping of links.  

Insufficiently mobile/responsive user experiences

 The PDF-originated “look inside" we’re all familiar with, featuring static snapshots of pages, is also a creature of the original desktop or laptop Web. It fails terribly on mobile devices.  

We have seen a great deal of work done by publishers to make their sites and product previews great experiences. Sometimes, though, it’s plain that the smartphone, where most people spend most of their online time (and which is, in fact, with them during all waking hours, unlike the desktop) is an afterthought.  

Aerbook was designed with a “mobile-first” sensibility. If something can be made to work well on a smartphone, it can be expanded for the desktop. Going the other way is not quite so easy, and frequently is never done at all.

Beyond Aerbook: Coming in February

We’re very pleased to be working with great publishers like HarperCollins, Severn House, Chronicle Books, Frederator Books, Stone Bridge Press, Dover Publications, Voyager Japan, with investor and service partner Ingram Content Group, Newsweek Insights, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and many others, as well as with independent authors.  

But we also know that not every publisher or author has a meaningful social team or presence, or even much Web site traffic. So the question we’ve asked ourselves is, how can we create a network of retail points-of-engagement that publishers can push their books into, places where potential readers are already gathering around shared interests?  

The answer is our forthcoming service extension, the Aer.io Retail Network. Aer.io enables any person or company to create, customize, and curate a fully mobile/social storefront that can be dropped into any Web site with a line of code–as easily as embedding a YouTube video. And as for Aerbook, all products in that store can be sent out onto the social Web for preview and in-context purchase. Delivered in collaboration with launch partner and investor, Ingram Content Group, the service lets Aer.io store operators draw from a catalog of 2 million print books, DVDs and Blu-Rays, audiobook and music CDs, graphic novels, ebooks, and more, to curate an inventory that may be priced and sold profitably, with full access to opt-in customer relationships. The service will initially be available for store operators in the US upon launch, which will be in early February, 2015. We’ll follow up with availability in the UK and in other territories thereafter.  

What works

Aerbook was designed to help publishers and authors find readers and sell their books anywhere, and especially on the social Web. We’re interested both as individuals and as businesspeople in contributing to a diverse and decentralized cultural marketplace. We ourselves are authors, technologists, designers, artists, inventors, and independent publishers.  

One design principle we’ve noticed over the years, whether designing a widget or a marketplace, is that frequently the best thing you can do is the only thing that will work.  

Replicating the success of big box, online destination retailing really cannot work anymore. That hill has been taken.  

But the world around that destination has changed. It’s more diverse, decentralized, and media-rich, running in streams organized around interests and relationships, carried around with us during all waking hours. Making commerce at the point of engagement in these mobile/social streams is now very achievable. We believe it may very well turn out to be the only approach that will actually work.

Ron Martinez is c.e.o. of Aerbook.com and Aer.io Retail Network.

Main image - Shutterstock: zimmytws