Simon & Schuster Chief Digital Officer Ellie Hirschhorn on Inventing the Future of Publishing
By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid
Do you have to be a part of book publishing’s past to help invent its future?
Take a look around at the professionals in any major publishing company and you can see the answer for yourself. The infusion of technology into books has given technologists who may have not been veterans of the book business of old a foothold in the book business of the future.
The best example might be Ellie Hirschhorn, executive vice president and chief digital officer at Simon & Schuster. In her position, Hirschhorn oversees a team of digital professionals that managed to help drive Simon & Schuster’s digital revenues up to 17% of overall revenues in 2011 – a number that Hirschhorn expects to double in 2012.
Hirschhorn, 49, joined Simon & Schuster in 2008 from College Sports TV (now CBS College Sports) where she was the executive vice president of digital media. Before College Sports, Hirschhorn held positions at MediaNet Digital, MTV.com and Time Inc. Outside of media, Hirschhorn has a background in investment banking, where she spent four years of her career before seeking an MBA at Harvard University. In addition to an MBA, Hirschhorn has a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University.
We sat down with Hirschhorn to discuss new bookselling venture, Bookish, digital marketing, and how a large publishing company manages the transition from print to digital.
Jeremy Greenfield: You told me that digital revenues at Simon & Schuster were 17% of the total in 2011 and you wouldn’t be surprised if that number doubled in 2012. What about by 2015?
Ellie Hirschhorn: I’ll hazard a guess, and it’s obviously a bit of a crap-shoot: I’d go a little higher than 50%. I think a lot of it will have to do with technology innovations and the ability of e-tailers to merchandise and promote discovery better.
JG: Simon & Schuster, along with Penguin and Hachette, is one of three big-six publishers that is backing Bookish (a book discovery and sales site). Why do you think Bookish will succeed?
EH: There is still room in the marketplace for a one-stop shop that promotes discovery of books from the best-seller list, the mid-list and the back-list.
There are a lot of interesting ways to promote browsing and discovery that will lead to e-commerce borrowing what’s happening in TV, film and music – in terms of lists and packaging of content.
There are great sites for commerce, great sites for reviews, great sites for community, but there is opportunity for a rolled-up, once-stop shop to integrate all these pieces, and to do it for both mobile and the Web and to be device-agnostic.
JG: Let’s talk digital at Simon & Schuster. How big is the digital department there and what does it do exactly?
EH: We have 27 people on my staff. We have two other pieces outside of my group: a dedicated digital sales team that was once part of national accounts and now they’re dedicated to digital channels; and digital marketing staff we’ve added to each of our imprints – they are charged with facilitating increased title-by-title marketing efforts through digital means.
The centralized group under me is responsible for developing new business models; new channels of distribution for e-books; new products, like enhanced e-books or apps; new tools that we can use internally to optimize our operations; to come up with cross-title, programmatic opportunities that all the imprints can tap into, including corporate social media and content syndication partnerships; and direct-to-consumer e-commerce for print, e-books, audio and e-audio.
JG: Can you give me an example of “cross-title, programmatic opportunities”?
EH: One example is database marketing opportunities. We have amassed 750,000 names where we can do highly targeted marketing to consumers. We can do that on a title-by-title basis or a monthly, customized newsletter basis.
JG: We did a survey last year with Forrester among publishers who said they would be spending more resources on developing those kinds of databases. James McQuivey of Forrester made a distinction for us between an email list and a true customer database with rich information that can be used to sell to a consumer. Which is yours?
EH: We have both email lists and customer databases. The easier thing to amass is limited information like your email. But we can also track your on-site behavior, your clicks on discrete pieces and assets in a newsletter. But the less information you ask of people, the higher your subscriber database will be.
Our database is comprised of people who subscribe to 13 different consumer newsletters and one that is based on format – you can choose between 20 different parameters and you get a customized newsletters with books for you.
The place that everyone wants to get to is a behavioral database where you can really dig deep. We have a number of online book clubs, one targeted to teens, one targeted at romance, and there they have to give us more information to be a member of these communities and to get samples and sneak peeks at content. The more you give the consumer as a reward for their information, the more rich data you’ll get.
Those 750,000 names, we know a fair amount about them. We’re able to send them messages that will be really targeted to their preferences. The more we’re on target, the more we’ll really engage with them.
JG: Speaking of targeted digital marketing, you have some vertically focused community sites.
EH: We’ve developed four discrete lifestyle verticals. We segmented our content to have engagement with niche audiences: tips on healthy living; tips on life and love; money and career; and home and style.
These are effectively blogs where we engage people who are interested in very specific topics. We put our books in front of them in a context where they already told us they’re interested [in the topic]. We are selling directly to these people. Each of these content verticals has their own e-commerce widget.
Tips on healthy living and life and love are both routinely in the top 100 blogs as ranked by Technorati. They’ve been pretty successful and they also serve a second purpose for us which we evolved our way into: as the lynchpin for front-list promotion of titles. They’re able to drive pre-publication and post-publication awareness. Unlike the e-commerce sites, which are about pub-date and a short period afterwards, we’re able to get people excited about a book before it comes out and generate significant pre-orders for it, and then we can extend the campaign.
We’ve been able to present this case to authors and some of them are writing original content for our verticals. They’re also using it as the central receptacle for their social media.
JG: We’ve talked a lot about marketing, sales and discoverability. Changing subjects, what is Simon & Schuster doing about e-books, enhanced e-books, apps, etc?
EH: We digitized the bulk of our back-list and have for four years now digitized all of our front-list [with some exceptions, like highly designed books]. That process started in [a centralized] digital group to get it off the ground, to get the kinks out. Once we got that stabilized, we transferred that into our regular production group. Now, having an e-book is part and parcel of the production process. We now have a holistic checklist for e-books as well as for print books and audio books.
On the product innovation side, we did 16 enhanced e-books in 2011 and the year before, we were an official honoree at the Webbies for the Nixonland enhanced e-book. We think we’ve been at the forefront of enhanced e-books. We’ve worked with our sister companies at CBS to embed audio and video, to do overlays, to experiment with music clips and animation.
The digital group also did more than a dozen apps last year. We’re very selective, because the app store has half-a-million apps in it, very few of which are book-related, so trying to vector people into those apps with all the clutter in the app store is a real challenge. The apps that do well are apps that have existing brand equity.
The bigger opportunity is enhanced e-books because you’re selling e-books to book readers.
Because it’s a great device, it will grow the marketplace, but in terms of the features and functionality, I don’t see any specific capabilities that speak to product advancements. Therefore more people will adopt it and the market will grow.
JG: Give me your crystal-ball view of the future for devices. What’s new and hot?
More, better and more affordable tablets is a big plus for the industry because it just means we’ve passed the early adopter stage and we’re into mainstream. Many of these tablets are being purchased for gaming and for videos and for web-browsing and that will help the entire marketplace grow as distribution expands.
On the horizon, there’s a second class of [book] e-tailers that are going to enter from software companies, OEMs [original equipment manufacturers like Samsung and HTC], and other categories of sellers and agents.
JG: Verizon will sell books?
Yes, and maybe the hardware manufacturers will also sell books. One of Bookish’s priorities will be to be device agnostic.
JG: We recently did a Q&A with Nicholas Callaway, founder of app company Callaway Digital Arts. He said that publishing companies were too busy worrying about managing their existing platform to focus enough, invest enough in new ways of doing things. On the other hand, Mike Shatzkin has told us that the big-six publishing companies are run by the most innovative and creative executives on the cutting edge of digital publishing. What’s your take?
EH: Clearly, there is a migration happening that needs to be carefully managed between the traditional publishing world and the digital world. And that’s a challenge that faces every trade publisher as well as traditional media companies.
At S&S, Carolyn Reidy [Simon & Schuster CEO] was the first to set up a digital group and to have a chief digital officer. We report to her and that suggests there are a fair amount of resources dedicated to this.
A big part of our group’s mandate is to educate the imprints on new digital opportunities, new digital skills, new means of marketing. That’s true for both our imprint colleagues and for authors.
S&S digital wants to offer authors an industry-leading set of tools and services, such as the author portal we expanded in October. We added a new piece to that in March of this year: marketing tips and point of sale information. We run author boot-camps off of that, where every month we have a webinar where an in-house expert will educate our authors on Facebook, blogging and other things.
We want to arm our colleagues and authors with the most cutting-edge, most effective suite of services.
JG: Simon & Schuster just named a new editor-in-chief. How important is working with editorial in the initial stages of content development for creating an effective digital strategy around a book?
EH: We are getting more involved at an earlier stage for many of our titles and we’re looking to do more of that.
JG: What are you reading and on what platform?
EH: An advanced reader copy called Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith [Simon & Schuster, due out July 3], in print.
Electronically, Tom McGuane’s Driving on the Rim [Knopf] on my Kindle. I have one of everything [each e-reading device] for work purposes. I rotate around to check out the latest and greatest. I don’t have a dedicated device for anything.
Write to Jeremy Greenfield