Friday, July 31, 2015

Real Innovation - What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?

We talked about "enhanced books" on #futurechat today.  Whenever that subject comes up among publishing professionals, I always end up chewing through a steel filing cabinet in frustration.

I mean, Friday's chat was actually a pretty interesting one. (Check it out here -- it's a twitter chat, so be prepared to click and scroll to try to find the various threads of the convo.)  Publishing people are not a dumb crowd.  It is always an interesting conversation.

But the thing that makes me chew steel and spit nails is that the whole conversation tends to be based on a false premise.

No, really, listen...

What is innovation?

Problem solving.

That's it. That's the critical foundation element of innovation.

If someone presents an innovation, the first thing you ask is: "What problem are you trying to solve?"

And, um, just a hint: when you are talking about being innovative with a product or service, you are talking about the CUSTOMER'S problems, not the producer's problems.

And whenever we talk about enhanced books, we never talk about that.  Publishing peopel keep talking about their own problems instead.  How do we keep from being marginalized?  How do we compete with games and movies and the internet for our customer's attention? 

And yes, the correct answer to those question is INNOVATE!  But then you have to actually BE innovative, and that means:

You have to focus on solving the customer's problems, not yours.

The customers do not have a problem that is solved by enhanced books.  They have all the shiny, push-button-y, video- and audio-enhanced everything in the world they can want.  They're not bitching and moaning about not having enough bells and whistles.  If they feel the need for that, they have PLENTY of products that fulfill the need.

(Although, if you have a project that calls for bells and whistles, sure, go ahead and create it to be the best it can be. Just don't call it innovative.)

So what is the customer's actual problem? What are they bitching about?

The answer is the thing that really makes me grind steel between my teeth: the biggest, most obvious problem of the customers in publishing is something that publishers have always considered core to their business:

Content and Curation

Seriously.  I know that those of us in the Indie Publishing Revolution have been screaming "Destroy the gatekeepers! Ça ira!"  And as readers we are SO glad to get rid of the old curation system where books would go out of print, and series we love would be cut, along with authors we loved.

But we hated that because, under the old system, curation limited our choices.  We don't want limits.  We don't like 'em.  An no, we aren't drowning in a sea of crap, thank you very much.  After 20 years of internet, we're all pretty good at filtering crap.

But we still have problems that relate to content and curation.  For instance....

The Naughty Regency Romance and the Old Hippie

I have been disgruntled about my choices in mystery for decades (see my screed on The Murder of the Mystery Genre), but I think an even better example of a customer with a problem is a friend of mine. 

At first glance, it seems a simple enough problem: She's been frustrated trying to find a Regency Romance that isn't full explicit sex.  And at this point, she'll settle for a "clean" romance -- but that's not actually what she's looking for either.

She's not a church lady.  She's not Christian.  She's an old hippie lesbian who swears like a sailor. So she's not looking for "clean" in the way that a church lady would.  She's not looking for conservative values or clean language or a whitewashed world.  She's just looking for light entertainment, and she's not that psyched about the physical aspects of boy meets girl.  (And even if it was girl meets girl, she's not reading the romance for that element.)

What she wants is the deep interpersonal part of the romance (sexual attraction can and should be a part of it, but please draw the curtain as she doesn't want to see it), intelligent banter, funny turns of plot, maybe a little intrigue, suspense and even magic, with good old fashioned justice that people of all political perspectives can enjoy, and a Happily Ever After ending.

She's re-reading old classics, because everything new she tries is too sexy or too Christian.

In the meantime, we know that those readers of clean Christian fiction have been complaining about having to be in the Inspirational Ghetto.  They can't always find what they want either.

And I can't find that exact mix of Hitchcockian suspense, madcap comedy, clue-based whodunnit, and with characters I love, and emphasis on their relationships (romance or not).  Preferably with a serious thematic undertone that doesn't interfere with the comedy.

Folks, this is an opportunity.  Not just for the writer to write what we're looking for, but for the curator to help us find it!
This is what you guys in publishing and bookselling do.  Right? Isn't it?

But it doesn't work to do it the way you used to.  You need to innovate.  To change how you do that curation thing, that content nurturing thing. You need to change how you think about your existing role.

Because there are other people working on it.  That's the way it is with actual pressing problems.

Amazon is doing it the automated way -- using algorithms to leverage customer behavior patterns -- and they would really like it if someone else were doing hte heavy lifting.  This is why they bought Goodreads and Shelfari, and why they have Affiliate Programs that support the bloggers who try to act as curators.

But their content curation is crowd-sourced, so it will always be weirdly averaged.  Different authors and publishers will use the same keywords on very different books -- because the line between, say, romance and erotica varies widely from person to person.

It works, but it still leaves us frustrated and looking for a solution.

A real innovator in the field is Netflix. They have a more reliable system because they actually use content experts to watch and tag movies with keywords based on things real customers are looking for.  Not just genre, but subtlties.  I'ts robust and deep, and best of all, consistent.  They may have different standards than I do, but because those standards are applied across the board, I know what they mean.

So, if you want to innovate?

Here is is, a burning problem that really matters to your customers. 

Your old solutions won't help, but your expertise will.  In a world where every kind of book is available to every kind of reader, help the unique customer find the unique book they want.  Not the book you want to sell them, not the book you think is good for them or deserves more attention, or the book that everybody else is buying -- the book that will fulfill their dreams.

You could do this in big ways (a unified repository of professionally key-worded and tagged books) or in small ways (nurturing micro-genres for niche audiences, or exhaustively cataloging such a small niche).

But if you want to innovate... solve MY problems, not yours.

See you in the funny papers.


Kyra Halland said...

Good post. I agree, the problem with bells-and-whistles ebook ideas is bells and whistles aren't what most readers are looking for in a book, they're looking for the kind of story told in the way they like with characters they'll enjoy. That's where the opportunity is for indie authors; there's an audience for pretty much every kind of book you could ever want to write. The problem, and where we do need new innovation, is in connecting readers with the right books. One solution is iAuthor which lets readers and authors list books not just according to genre but also according to themes, and you can even start your own themes. Not many people seem to know about it, but it's a step in the right direction.

I understand the frustration with trying to find the sweet spot between "clean" and detailed sex on every other page. "adult" isn't the right word since that word's already been co-opted by the erotica and porn sectors; maybe "grown-up" would be better :-D

The Daring Novelist said...

I use "grown up" all the time. People get insulted. (Often the same kind of people who like "adult" fiction.)

Although I think that's because some people who are into "adult" fiction have a chip on their shoulder about how ALL fiction should be explicit. Those are the ones who get offended because they like to tell people to "grow up!" if they aren't interested in taking things to the limit.

(Hey, if they'll give me back "adult" for non-explicit sophisticated fiction, then they can have "grow/grown up" back for their insults.)

Elise M. Stone said...

Lots of interesting ideas here, Camille.

I agree that enhanced ebooks are a solution looking for a problem. Most of what I've seen in this area reminds me of text adventure games. A game is different from a novel. And, if those touting enhanced ebooks would do their research, they would find that, while there are many afficionados of text adventures, no one's made a profit on them since Infocom.

Re curation/recommendation, I have to disagree. Amazon does a much better job of recommending books to me than Netflix does movies. Every time I rate a movie and Netflix asks me that "How often do you watch X," X is rarely the aspect of the movie that caused me to watch it.

The Daring Novelist said...

The thing to remember is that the Nexflix effort is extremely rudimentary. I'm not even sure they are trying to use the data they have gathered yet (or know how). Comparing what they're doing now to what the technology could be is like comparing Amazon's first efforts at an algorithm to what they're doing now.

The point is that there is a well identified need, affecting a large customer base, for newer and better discovery tools, and Netflix is thinking outside of the box on that.

The biggest hurtle, I think, is (and will continue to be) that true innovation tends to come from those who aren't motivated by their own immediate success. Either they are far-sighted like Bezos (who develops things now to succeed ten years from now) or they are people jazzed by solving the problem and worry about making money later.

Both of those groups are rare -- and so pretty much all discovery innovation ends up a mass of spam. Discovery innovations will only break through if they include the competition, and not if they are limited to the products of one company or group of companies.

(It's the era of game theory, baby. Cooperation rules the day.)