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The Voice-First Future Of Book Discoverability

Audiobooks, podcasts, and voice assistants are converging, setting the stage for a new paradigm of book discovery. This theme of Digital Book World 2018 has made it into the most anticipated publishing event of the year.

As I described in an interview with Len Edgerly last week on his longstanding Kindle Chronicles podcast, the convergence within the publishing world of audiobooks and podcasts, with voice assistants and smart speakers, and the interplay that sits on top of the very primitive AI and machine learning we as a human race have developed thus far, is not widely understood.

Yet, nothing is more important to the future of book discoverability.

Think about how we discover new books today:

- someone tells us, in person, about a new book

- someone tells us, via social media, about a new book

- a media outlet tells us about a new book (product placement, or endorsement)

- an advertisement tells us about a new book

- an algorithm tells us about a new book, within the context of an existing purchase ("buyers of this book often bought this other one here"; "an author you purchased from previously has other titles available, which you haven't purchased - here they are")

In the not-too-distant future - less than one year from now - we can add another important method of book discovery to the mix:

Voice assistants will tell us what books we'll like.

The basic queries people make today to Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant, Apple's Siri, and others - turn off the lights, set an alarm, show me a recipe, play me a song - will evolve, in what will seem like the blink of an eye, into much more conversational, extended dialogues.

We will trust these assistants, despite all the noise about privacy and security. We will trust them deeply, with very personal information, which will give them unprecedented context they will use to answer questions we ask and provide information.

If you wonder how that's possible, consider how many people still use Facebook, a demonstrably untrustworthy company, simply because they provide a service that adds value to many people's lives in a way you can't get anywhere else. We talk a good game on privacy, but we trade it away without hesitation - humans always have, and always will, for the sake of both convenience and belonging.

Publishers, small and large, across all types of publishing, will be confronted with the reality that many people will find their next book by saying the words "Alexa, what book should I read next? Download me something good to my device!"

Of course, that's a little simplistic. In actuality, there will be a vast array of types of context-dependent conversations people will have with their voice assistants that will serve as the vehicle of book discovery:

"Siri, in the audiobook I was listening to on my commute this morning...what other book was that they mentioned? Please download that to my device - I want to read that tonight after work."

"OK Google, are there any books that discuss podcasting as a marketing device? Find me a good one and go ahead and buy it."

"Alexa, show me a list of books I might like to read next week at the beach. Make sure it's along the lines of ones I read last year on vacation."

Whether through Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, Bixby (Samsung's voice assistant), Mycroft, or any others, the premise is the same: book discovery increasingly will bypass all the known methods of today, and will become reliant upon the AI sitting underneath these popular voice assistants.

Why is voice technology - or, more properly, voice-first technology - the future?

When we're born, all we have is our mother's voice.

And then, we develop an inner voice.

It always stood to reason that, as computing evolved, the arc of its evolution would be toward voice-first interfaces.

Screens will be there sometimes, possibly most of the time, and then sometimes they won't. But you'll soon be engaging with computers using your voice, first, and then other input methods (QWERTY keyboard + mouse, touchscreen, etc) second, if necessary.

Brian Roemmele coined the term "voice-first," and is considered the ultimate thought leader on voice technology, consulting with numerous large Silicon Valley companies in-between being a modern-day Thomas Edison, inventing new technologies out of his garage. And, of course, he'll be at Digital Book World 2018, part of a panel within the New Media Book World breakout track, presented by Amazon, that will be well worth attending if you find anything in this post of interest.

What does all this mean for publishers?

It's not a bad idea to create an Alexa skill or Google action - the vernacular both companies use for voice applications created for their ecosystems - as you can use tools like Alexa Skills Blueprints or Storyline to do so right now without having to know any code.

Using these tools, you can create voice experiences out of your content, whether you're Penguin Random House or whether you're the much smaller Bleeding Edge Press (both of which will be at Digital Book World 2018, among countless other publishers).

This will allow you to get your content into these ecosystems, and allow learning to take place that will help you understand the changes in metadata, the changes in production, and the changes in marketing that voice-first experiences will require.

What will also become apparent is the interdependence with audiobooks and podcasts. Content from audiobooks can be used in podcasts; podcasts can drive traffic without much friction to download audiobooks; and both podcasts and audiobooks can be activated and engaged with via voice assistant in ways that will surprise and delight users right now, today. And all of it lays a foundation for your content being available in the new world of voice search.

If you're an executive at a large publisher, your understanding of this technology is essential.

If you're an independent publisher (whether solo author or small company), voice-first technology represents your potential advantage over larger companies.

If you're in scholarly publishing, or producing an academic journal, this technology will revolutionize your field. Same goes for any other type of educational publishing, including textbooks.

Every corporation is studying voice-first technology right now, learning as much as they can.

This affects everyone.

The wrong answer is to ignore the sea change that is happening all around us. Now's the time to start learning, and not get so far behind the learning curve that it becomes hard to catch up.

Digital Book World 2018 will feature significant and unique expertise across audiobooks, podcasts, and voice assistants, which will enable small and large publishers alike to be ready for what's coming. It's a rare chance to stay current on a technology shift, in real time. Don't miss it.

Bradley Metrock is CEO of Score Publishing, which produces Digital Book World, The Alexa Conference, and The Voice of Healthcare Summit, and owns and operates VoiceFirst.FM, a podcast network listened to in over 50 countries worldwide.

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