A Vanishing Target

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-02-01 Print this article Print

The media giant's publishing arm broke all its books into thousands of digital assets. But was it too late to win over the rest of the company?

A Vanishing Target

The biggest setback to the Book Group's original plan was that the key target market—e-book readers—didn't materialize. Dedicated e-book devices like the Rocket reader sold poorly and are no longer marketed in a significant fashion.

Another casualty was AOL Time Warner's own e-book effort, iPublish.com, launched in May 2001. IPublish shut down in December 2001, after losses reported at $13 million. Other e-book publishers, including Random House's AtRandom.com, also bit the dust. Electronic books may still develop into a viable market, albeit on tablet PCs and personal digital assistants. But when is anyone's guess.

Yet while iPublish was a driver of the Book Group's digital asset project, it did not define it.

Through iPublish, the asset group got involved with ONIX, a standard for online information exchange (such as electronic data interchange) in the publishing industry. The system also moved quickly to support the automatic conversion of Quark files, popular with designers, to the PDF format, which is easier for distributing and reading documents electronically.

And that type of efficiency is the first payoff from digital asset management. "Work process is our big win so far," the Book Group's Gore says.

Leung, for example, got seven business days of productivity added back to her work at a busy time of year. Jobs like pushing sample chapters out to retailers and marketing sites are easier now that the samples exist as digital assets, as does the entire book in the portable document format (PDF). "That's an asset we never had before," says Leung.

That, in turn, is creating opportunities to boost revenue by better marketing the existing products via tools like Amazon's "Look inside" feature. With the newfound time, Leung was able to think ahead to spring and summer, preparing parts of 2003 books for Amazon and other online outlets.

But "synergies" can happen at a meaningful scale only when files from each AOL Time Warner division are available to each division—or whatever divisions may be left after a breakup.

Yet since the merger, the online, magazine, cable and movie divisions have been largely at cross-purposes. Even if Case's stepping down indicates longtime Time Warner executives are in charge, the operating units are so large and varied, and the amount of data involved is so enormous, that a single corporate system seems impractical. Says Accenture's Polishook of AOL Time Warner's approach to reusing its digital assets: "I'm not sure a single DAM capability in the sky makes sense."

Still, the day can't come soon enough when that live Rolling Stones concert on HBO is turned the next day into a downloadable video file combined with a narrative of the 40-year history of the group and its roots by Time magazine writers. It also can be tied to 40 MP3 files of individual Stones songs from the Warner Music catalog and (maybe) a specially commissioned autobiography of Mick Jagger, from the Book Group—all at a package price or in a la carte pieces, sent to hard drives everywhere.

For beleaguered AOL Time Warner, with or without its Book Group, efficiency may be the first return on investment. But new revenue from digital assets can't arrive soon enough. Think AOL Time Warner Book Group is spreading author James Patterson a bit thin? According to some industry observers, he's already ubiquitous. Click here to read a profile in a recent edition of Book Magazine.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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