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September 2016
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An Interview With the WOWIO CEO

Some Background:

We’ve talked quite a bit here in the past about the potential for advertising entering into digital book media.  The convenience provided by eBooks, both for readers in easy acquisition and for publishers in terms of easily and instantly updating an “edition” of a text without need for the delay of printing and shipping, is undeniable and provides all sorts of potential for advertisers.  Intuitively, it would seem like you’re more receptive when doing something relaxing like laying back with a Kindle than you would be while watching the nightly news’s depictions of the day’s horrible political gaffs or crime sprees, wouldn’t it?

The big roadblock, so far, has been the reader response.  Readers seem to absolutely hate the idea of ads in books on principal.  In the interest of being fair, I’ll admit that I used to be of the same opinion.  Over the past several years, however, I’ve gotten some great eBooks at discounted rates through sites like WOWIO at times when books would have been otherwise out of my budget for whatever reason, and I’ve been impressed with how they handle the ad insertion.  It’s tasteful, unobtrusive, and doesn’t interject into the reading experience in any way.  All the things you wouldn’t think advertising likely to be.  And it made my books cheaper, which I like.

After I commented on the site a while back, our editor Andrei, actually got invited to do a little Q&A session with WOWIO CEO Brian Altounian.  Needless to say, the opportunity was more than welcome.  Here’s the result, for your enjoyment:

The Interview:

Please describe how WOWIO does its business and what sets it apart from other online book stores?

WOWIO isn’t so much a book store as an online destination and community that serves as a digital media distribution marketplace. Through our family of sites which includes WOWIO.com, DrunkDuck.com, WEvolt.com and PopGalaxy.com, we provide opportunities to create, share and consume digital media content, including comics and eBooks. Our goal is to provide the best, most entertaining content possible while helping generate revenue for creators and publishers.

The thing that really sets WOWIO apart from others is our business model. We’ve developed a model that is driven by advertising which allows us to reach the 18-35 year-old audience, and we’ve proven that this model can work. We’ve worked with several major partners such as Maxim Magazine and Fandango.com to bring rich, interactive content to our customers.

Another differentiator is our mobility. While some eBook providers limit where their customers can access their content, we allow our customers to access libraries over multiple devices and screen sizes. Since our library is synched to our website, as long as you can access the web you can access your content.

Lastly, our members are not just consumers, but also creators. They are a very vocal and creative community that provides insight and new, sharable content that similar online content providers cannot match. For example, budding comic book writers can upload their strips to DrunkDuck and allow others to view, comment and share the work.

What made you decide to go into eBook business?

I knew that media was headed in a digital direction, had watched the challenges faced by traditional media in making that transition, and saw an opportunity to establish a model and content experience that could scale appropriately for publishers, authors, creators and advertisers as this convergence occurred. We wanted to create a better business model that could change the landscape of eBooks and I think with our patent issuance and some of our recent advertising programs, we have begun to realize that vision.

In addition to the advertising subsidized model, we wanted to establish industry innovations around the blended media eBook “reader” experience – we add other forms of media, such as audio and video, into the text – to enhance levels of engagement, creativity and immersion and are on pace to set that bar again with some of our forthcoming projects.  Basically, we saw a lot of needs that would emerge in the traditional publishing space as the digital transition occurred and felt that we could accelerate the gap between technology emergence and content provision through our family of digital distribution sites.

DRM-free is highly supported by book readers but it is not a popular idea with the publishers. How do you find the balance between the two? Do you believe that more good has come from it than harm for WOWIO so far?

I think more good will always come from increased solutions to digital innovation in the publishing space. The good thing about WOWIO is that we are fans, readers, publishers and creators, too – so we get perspective from all sides, we welcome healthy debate, and make the best decisions we can on behalf of our creators, publishers and customers.

People inherently have an attachment to the products they purchase and the DRM-free model allows us to fulfill those goals for customer experience. Customers will buy more books and go deeper on the list once they experience an author. Customers do not feel disconnected from a product they purchased and this model provides a sense of customer experience and loyalty to the product. It also rewards authors and publishers that provide a great reader experience with new and recurring customer bases.

Many consumers have strong negative attitude towards ads in eBooks because they fear that ads will be intrusive and disruptive to book reading experience. Has it been a problem for WOWIO so far? Do you foresee it being a problem in the future?

We understand the concerns consumers have with ads in eBooks but we’ve created a model that not only avoids the intrusion so many fear, but one that allows users easier access to their favorite content.

For example, ads do not pop up throughout the book. There is an ad at the beginning before a reader starts a story and one at the end when the book is completed. And since we use an ad-supported business model, that means ads help make the titles more affordable or even sometimes completely free. It also provides an additional source of revenue for our publishers as well as an opportunity to get their content into the hands of more readers.

The feedback on our model has been very positive so far. But we think that others jumping into this space will need to be mindful of how the ads are presented because if the ads are too intrusive or take away from the reading experience, it will have an extremely negative impact.

Ads in books have been tried before but with little success. What makes you believe that eBook ads will be more successful?

One of the reasons this model has not worked before is that the ads were presented in a very obstructive way. The ads got in the way of the content and discouraged people from finishing the book.

Ads in eBooks present a different kind of opportunity for publishers, advertisers and consumers because the new technology allows the ads to be presented in completely new ways. We can ensure that they remain unobtrusive but we can also include additional elements to enhance the user experience, such as outbound links and video content.

Also, the ads placed within eBooks on WOWIO allow us to offer our books for free or at a discounted price making them much more attractive to readers. For example, in the deal we did with Fandango, they provided a free copy of Gulliver’s Travels on WOWIO for users that purchased tickets to the recent Jack Black film through their site.

But the only way it will work in eBooks is if publishers and advertisers keep the experience simple, clean and refrain from ruining the reader’s experience.

Current ads in sponsored WOWIO eBooks are static and pre-defined when the book is published. Do you have plans for dynamic ads or ads that are more targeted to a specific user?

Absolutely. The technology allows us to insert multiple forms of advertisements, such as video or animated content. But our ads are not pre-defined – the type of ad and the titles that include ads will depend on the sponsor, the publisher and sometimes the author. We work with all parties involved to determine which titles are best suited for ads, how long they run and what content is included.

What devices do customers use to read eBooks sold by WOWIO? Is Amazon Kindle a popular choice?

Amazon Kindle is definitely a popular choice, probably due to the compact size and ease of use. Users can take it and access their library anywhere. But what’s great about WOWIO is that our customers aren’t limited to a specific device. So if your Kindle’s batteries are low and only have a laptop available, or if you don’t own an eReader at all, you can access your library and continue right where you left off.

Where do you envision eBook industry and your company in five years from now?

I see WOWIO emerging as a leading blended media distribution provider. WOWIO will continue to serve as a leader in eComics and eBooks, bringing on leading publishers in both comics and traditional publishers.

The publishing industry is going to change several times over the course of the next five years, all of which will be impacted by our patent, our advertising model and, most importantly, by our innovative blended media immersion approach. It will be an exciting space that we look forward to helping define with great end-user products and experiences in the years to come.

And in Closing:

Admittedly, this was a fun one for me, so maybe I’m slightly biased.  Not going to try to deny that.  To me, however, the points made here make sense.  If you can provide a customer with something they will enjoy for less money than they would pay for it elsewhere, they are likely to buy from you even if it means flipping through two pages of ad material.  Kindle books can make this happen in a way that print books never could, which seems to me like it makes the use of ads inevitable.  The only fear is that people new to the concept will take it too far rather than knowing where to draw the line and avoid damaging the reading experience.

To be honest, this solution even works out better for publishers than the current DRM model does.  If you can provide an eBook cheap to free, people are unlikely to bother pirating it.  And let’s be honest and say that it takes far less work to remove the DRM protection on your average eBook than it does to edit individual pages from said book.  What’s in there is staying there unless it’s truly obtrusive or offensive.  Publishers love security.  There will always be a large portion of the audience who would rather pay more for an untouched copy of their book, but this is going to happen in order to make a connection with everybody else.  Let’s hope that a company that really does understand their audience does play a big part in defining the future of this aspect of the industry.

Ads in Kindle Books a Possibility?

As eBooks gain more popularity, it can’t really surprise anybody to see advertisers trying to cash in.  Does this mean we can expect to start seeing ads in our Kindle books?  There’s no real push that way yet, but it only makes sense, really.  If offsetting some of the cost of a new book by putting up with a few pages of ads is possible, I doubt most people will mind.

Before anybody gets too up in arms, I should probably point out that this isn’t precisely a new and innovative concept.  Off the top of my head, the earliest example of ads in books (and I’m not making any claim of this being the actual earliest example by any means) would be in Victorian serials, such as most of the Dickens releases.  In more recent years, not much has changed.  WOWIO, a popular eBook marketplace, has proven that it is possible to provide free books to interested consumers without taking sales revenue away from the authors by allowing advertisers to adopt specific titles and “wrap” them with ads at the front and back of the book.

The only question is what format the advertising is going to take.  We’ve discovered over the years that the internet, traditionally a primarily textual medium however much that is changing in recent years, didn’t exactly encourage people to stick with your average magazine ad equivalent.  Pop up ads, obnoxiously loud talking ads, animated gifs, flash animation, and more have all become pretty much a staple of internet browsing.  Let’s be honest and say that there’s not much that could destroy the reading experience more effectively than these things manifesting in the middle of your book.

Overall, there’s a lot of potential here, both for great things and for unpleasantness.  My impression is that a lot of the reason advertisers avoid books is that they sell in small numbers, compared to other forms of media consumption, and they last too long to be useful.  What good does an ad do for somebody when it’s in a book I bought five years ago, right?  Well, with devices like the Kindle, there is at least some potential for periodic advertising updates in books located on their servers, right?  Sounds unpleasant, but it ends up being all about the implementation.

The only place where I’m really leery of what might happen is on the many Kindle apps, and possibly future hardware offerings, which are capable of displaying video and playing sounds.  It’s neat to be able to play integrated video in your eBooks, but if that means that ads can be inserted that will take advantage of the same capabilities, it’s not worth it.  For now, at least it’s nice to know that the Kindle device itself is safe, and that authors are given enough control over their works through Amazon, in general, that this will likely not be something that sneaks up on people if or when it does come around.  When it does, who knows but that we might really appreciate the opportunity for some great new free or cheap eBooks in spite of the ads?