Hulu For Books Is A Great Idea, Just Don’t Do It Like Hulu

Earlier this week, Mike Cane published a fantastic idea, The Hulu For Books That Never Was.

The formation of Hulu should have been a wake-up call to the Big Six of publishing.

They too should have banded together to form a Hulu for Books.

I’ve often wondered why the major publishers haven’t done something like that. A fragmented offer isn’t going to compete against Amazon, Apple or the rest. On the other hand, I’d be genuinely stunned if they did manage to come together to do it. The TV industry doesn’t seem to have been able to, despite being ahead of publishers in the digital transformation. Why should we expect publishers to do any better? They’re caught in the Innovator’s Dilemma, still worried about projects that might “cannibalize” existing revenues, and everyone knows what that means.

Although this is a great idea, if publishers want to do it, I don’t think Hulu is a good model to follow and here’s why:

Hulu is a joint venture between NBC, Fox and Disney/ABC. I don’t have access to Hulu, because I live outside the United States, but I followed their launch and progress quite closely several years ago when I worked for a solutions provider to the digital TV industry. I think it’s a mistake to consider Hulu as a response to YouTube, but rather an attempt to keep viewers on TV industry controlled sites rather than losing them to piracy. (So far so good as far as the analogy to publishers goes, but wait for it.)

Hulu has hardly been a whole-hearted Internet play. Since the wars with Boxee, which allowed users to connect their televisions, it became clear that Hulu’s shareholders really wanted people to watch shows directly on their TVs rather than on their computer screens. The reason seems clear: advertising was more lucrative on TV than on the Internet. That episodes are now delayed for certain non-cable subscribers, who must authenticate to be able to watch previously aired programs immediately, makes it clear that Hulu is first and foremost designed to be a service that’s complementary to a TV subscription. Of course, there may be other reasons to explain why Hulu blocked Boxee and one could argue as Mike did that Hulu was designed to “preserve the market for conventionally produced TV and movies,” but I’m not sure that’s all there is to the story. Boxee and Google TV are still blocked.

Hulu Plus launched a year and a half ago, which means the growth rate has been about 1 million/year. Of course it will grow, but right now that’s a tiny fraction of the number of pay TV subscribers in the US and not enough to get anyone’s attention. Hulu therefore is not a shining example of success, nor is it the right target, at least not for readers and writers. Netflix has 23 million users and may be a better source for inspiration.

Mike points out that the objective is to make a better store than Apple, Amazon, Google, and Kobo. I was surprised that he called Amazon a tech company and lumped it together with the others. I suppose it belongs with them since Amazon does have the same flaw of tying the store to a single device platform. On the other hand, Google offers books in various formats for different devices (if you live in the US), but it is a tech company.

The idea of offering an API for hardware manufacturers is a great idea to add multiple device support, of course it relies on the manufacturers implementing it. Some of them never will, so there also has to be an easy way to get books onto these devices without requiring the API.

As I was wondering how to make a better store, I remembered an excellent research memo written by MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Alumna Abigail de Kosnik, Piracy Is The Future Of Television. Therein, she described very well the failings of all the legal TV show downloading services (Hulu was one) compared to the illegal offers of piracy sites. Many of her observations were specific to television, but her approach was right because she concentrated on the user experience.

She astutely observed that pirate sites are the only services that provide consumers with what they want, not because the content is free, but because of ease of use, unlimited choice, and device compatibility. She mentioned simple indexing, uniform software and interface, file portability, freedom from commercials and preempting, global access and the ability to create personal archives on pirate sites. Almost none of these features were available on the legal sites.

If book publishers did create a bookstore, they shouldn’t model themselves after Hulu, but rather take a lesson from this paper and focus on the user experience and how the store helps people who love books do things like find books to read and create libraries. Note that all those don’t all necessarily have to happen within the store. Readers don’t care about being marketed to or the look and feel of any particular “store within a store,” they just want to find books they can read on the devices they own. Therefore, any eBook megastore must above all standardize and provide a uniform interface that’s easy to use. Some other recommendations from the TV example might also be good ideas: offer downloading and streaming, strategize for global audiences, offer a premium service for personal archivists.

Mike has written about these types of things before, so perhaps he wasn’t suggesting that publishers model themselves after Hulu’s user experience, but rather that they follow the business example as a way to ensure as continued market for their book content. Anyway, it’s not clear to me that traditional publishers can or will want to do this, but waiting isn’t going to make things easier.

This entry was posted in Amazon, Apple, Books, eBooks, Google, Innovation, TV, User Experience and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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