In 2013, Magnolia Media Network (formerly Future of Ink) listed online courses among its top ten digital publishing trends. That same year, the Independent Book Publishers Association mentioned Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in its Independent magazine as a rapidly growing industry. The article went on to suggest that publishers embracing online education were likely to see less disruption in their textbook sales. And then again in 2014, Digital Book World’s Ten Bold Predictions for Ebooks and Digital Publishing mentioned verticals in general as a viable way for publishers to become known for specializations.
For those who need a reminder, “verticals” refers to vertical markets, which are business models that allow publishers to use their existing content and expertise to create new revenue streams in an effort to further engage their current community while reaching a new audience.
An online course is only one example of a vertical, but it’s one that has become increasingly more common. Shambala started offering online multi-week courses in October 2013. Simon & Schuster launched its online class website, Simonsays.com, in January 2015. Rodale launched Rodale U in March 2015. Hay House launched Hay House Radio, which airs live seminars, in 2005, and later launched videos on its website, Healyourlife.com. Wiley also offers online courses for some of its titles. F+W offers webinars and courses through its Craft University and Artists Network TV.
The difference between a webinar and a course, F+W President Sara Domville clarified for me, is the length of time. Webinars are generally 60 minutes and offer an introduction to a subject while courses are more in-depth and for a longer period of time, e.g. multiple sessions over a 4-8 week period at F+W.
Thought Industries CEO Barry Kelly told Publishing Executive that he believed publishers began developing online learning programs because their access to the content, the credible sources, as well as the built-in marketing and distribution channels made it an obvious plan for success. Even more importantly, the program ensures that “learners are engaged longer and are getting a high-quality experience with the brand, publisher, or even a product,” thereby boosting the reputation of the author and publisher.
However, one of the major drawbacks of building a vertical program of courses is that it is a big time commitment, from both publisher and author. Gail Gonzales, recently named Associate Publisher at Rodale, helped launch SimonSays.com during her tenure as Simon & Schuster and has further experience with verticals from her previous position at Hay House. In an interview, Gonzales explained that the process of acquiring an author, negotiating a contract, shooting the course, and developing a marketing plan could take as little time as 3 months if the publishers’ website is already up and running. It’s a little bit of a longer time commitment on the author’s end of things.
A major realization of the 2015 Digital Book World conference was the redefining of “author” as a profession, according to Jon Reed in a Diginomica article. He wrote that “the author will increasingly be expected to participate in ongoing activities pertaining to the book topic.” Courses are one such example in that they require a large time commitment from authors. Domville said that when an author commits to teaching a course with F+W, they are committing to 2-3 weeks of initial creation time, plus time for pre-production and for filming, not to mention the time that author would take to create lesson plans as well as providing weekly feedback to the students taking the course.
Online classes have proven worth the extra time by having positive results for both publishers and authors. For publishers, these classes can help them accrue emails for direct marketing. HarperCollins Christian SVP of eMedia Eric Shanfelt told Reed in another Diginomica article that with every email to its subscribers, the imprint Faith Gateway can see a “lift in retail of 20, 30, 40, 50 percent.” He added, “I will take one email name over ten Facebook followers over a hundred Twitter followers over a thousand page views.”
Shanfelt isn’t alone in seeing this publishers’ perk. Gonzales said, “Not only does the online course start to generate additional revenue, it also provides another marketing channel to push through for book launches, etc.”
Additionally, publishers are further developing their brands and those of their authors by becoming experts of a particular subject. Domville said, “The authoritative brands are key and to be able to supply content in a channel-agnostic fashion gives the consumer the content they need. At F+W our communities are run by enthusiasts so there is a natural bond with the consumer and a trust in the brand. . . creat[ing] a long term value proposition.”
For authors, this is a chance to increase their fan base through the creation of an online community that keeps fans active and engaged between book releases. “Then, once the book comes out, you can re-market to those who have purchased an online product…you’re basically creating a new segment to market the book to,” Gonzales said.
Beyond growing the audience for the author and providing marketing opportunities for publishers, online courses and other verticals offer an opportunity for a deeper partnership between publisher and author. Gonzales said “If you [the publisher] can help the talent/author grow their brand, find new revenue streams, and grow their audience – you have created a publishing partner rather than just an author/publisher relationship. This makes it harder for another house to come along and poach an author…because as the publisher you’ve proven that you can think outside of the book.”
With so many benefits for the author, the publisher, and the author-to-publisher relationship, online courses have emerged as one of the more worthwhile vertical business models in the past years of the ever-expanding book industry.