While traditional books are standalone products, marketed separately and designed to inform without context, their use in academic contexts can be very different. Students use large amounts of digital content in a specific subject area in a short time. Their research, their writing and their pursuit of a degree are focused on a limited number of domains, and they need access to a large number of resources and tools for managing all their content.
Platform solutions offer a way to address the special needs of a specific knowledge domain, and they make it easier to bundle content and achieve higher value transactions. Platforms are also better suited to unique content that might not work in EPUB format. Selling unique content as part of a platform-based bundle can help avoid commodification and elevate content above consumer expectations for EPUB price points.
For academic users, platform solutions deliver convenience, overall cost savings and higher utility. Professors and institutions can standardize on high-quality digital content libraries with a single recommendation (or institutional purchase), and professors know that students will have access to a large library of content without worrying that any student chose to skip buying a specific recommended resource. Students get everything they need through one portal without having to make, or weigh the value of, individual purchases.
Ancestry.com is an example of a subscription-based publishing platform for a very specific knowledge domain: genealogy. While traditional book publishers might think of Ancestry.com as an online tool for building family trees, it is really a domain-specific digital library delivered on a specialized platform. Subscribers to the site get access to thousands of ebooks as well as millions of data records.
While it might be possible to value the ebooks in Ancestry.com’s collection, the data records, document scans and community-created family trees represent a valuable collection of content that is immune to commodification, price comparison or being devalued by simplistic ideas like “All ebooks should cost $2.99.”
My company, Faithlife Corporation, offers more than 80,000 ebooks related to Bible study. All of these books work with Logos Bible Software, a highly-specialized tool for working with Greek, Hebrew and the standards and conventions of Bible study. The ebooks are connected to the toolset and to each other by dozens of specialized content databases that add annotation, organization and connections to the traditional content. Distance education curriculum was specially developed to take advantage of the large digital library, smoothly integrating required reading with video teaching segments.
Schools like Dallas Theological Seminary have standardized on this platform to ensure that every student has access to the same large library and powerful tools. Participating publishers saw a large number of simultaneous unit sales, and the introduction of so many new users to a single, focused platform created a new direct-to-consumer channel for content in this knowledge domain.
The same platform technology behind Logos Bible Software was customized into a platform for scholarly work in the humanities, under the name Noet. In this case, special support and unique content is provided for platform bundles around Shakespeare, Philosophy and classical Greek and Latin.
Some tips on creating a platform solution:
Connect your content. Connect your content to a standard ontology with links of annotation. If an appropriate ontology doesn’t exist, create it.
Bundle content. Content that is cross-referenced and linked to ontologies exhibits network effects; each piece of additional content creates a non-linear increase in value. Bundles also have higher price points, making for more efficient marketing and lower customer acquisition costs.
Cross publisher lines. Few publishers have all the pieces needed to deliver a definitive tool for a knowledge domain, and readers don’t exhibit much publisher awareness or loyalty. License content in or out as needed to build a compelling bundle for the end-user.
Create databases. Create some content that would not be useful as an EPUB. Build databases that complement your ebooks but aren’t directly comparable to them. Build the processes needed to continually improve and revise these databases. This new content may never replace a book, but it can add value and create a stronger reason for your consumers to stay connected to you directly.
Help the reader accomplish their task. Standard EPUBs delivered through generic reading devices or apps are not well-suited for academic use. Specialized platforms can provide superior search tools and integrated self-testing, and they help cite works and create bibliographies. Don’t just offer up information; offer help in accomplishing the reader’s actual goal.
Academia needs lots of books, but its use is significantly different than the trade market. Platform solutions require more thought and planning, but they can deliver a superior experience to the academic user while protecting the value of the academic publisher’s content.