To state the obvious, book publishing – content publishing – is on the cusp of a huge transition now made real by the arrival of the iPad, but which has been long in the coming. The more I talk to people in and out of our industry, the clearer it is that we do not yet have the alchemists who can take our content and apply it to the iPad technology and turn it into gold.

As a result, we rightly spend a great deal of time looking at those who have been through this transition already to learn from their mistakes.

When we look to other industries we ordinarily look to those with the closest affinity regarding content and consumer, like the music, magazine or newspaper industry. The explicit message being that they are best placed to teach us the mistakes that they made so that we don’t make them for ourselves. We also spend a lot of time looking at each other and either copying or ruing the fact that we were not the first to the market. The Nick Cave and Jamie Oliver apps are just two high-profile examples.

But what about other industries? Who is making the most of the technology revolution? There is much of interest that comes out of Japan – QR codes are nothing new there – which we can adapt to our industry, but there is one industry above all others where, by virtue of the nature of its content, it is constantly reinventing itself.

Put the nature of the content to one side and you see an industry that is now completely led by technology and the web. As well as being content providers they have become technology developers themselves to anticipate where the market is going next. It is an industry that has twice been through a revolution similar to the one we are facing. Once in the 1970s and again today. They are also well ahead of us in making serious money out of the changes that we are facing too. And yet, I have still have not met anyone who has come from this background into publishing to show us how to follow their example. If we are serious about adapting to a new digital, interactive environment and embracing new technology to both enhance the experience that we give our existing consumers and attract new ones then theirs is a story worth re-visiting. I am talking, of course, about the adult entertainment industry.

This is their story and some examples of what they are doing with new digital technologies.

A history

Much of new technology we’ve come to rely on in the past 30 years has been fuelled by the adult film industry. Trace the evolution of many new advances in home entertainment, and you’ll often find they played a big hand in establishing that technology in the marketplace.

The film Boogie Nights is, in part, a story about the shift from cinema theatres to home entertainment videos. Jack Horner, the character played by Burt Reynolds, is reluctant to embrace the new technology fearing that by adopting it they will be cannibalising their existing and very lucrative market.  While the industry made the switch, Hollywood resisted, taking very much the Jack Horner line.

The results were astonishing and immediate. Until VHS, films for cinema cost anything up to $500,000 to make while the cinemas themselves were being shut down through various obscenity laws. Film production budgets fell through the floor, dropping to $5-10,000 per film. They were able to push out massive volume and charge a premium price for the content, and since they were dealing directly with wholesale distributors there were fewer people taking a cut. By 1983, in the US, ¾ of all video sales and rentals were adult films.

But the lesson here is not just about the embracing of new technology in the face of a declining market. The industry had a key role to play in the VHS-Betamax format war. Betamax, produced by Sony, was the better technology and had been on the market a full year before VHS, drawing inevitable parallels, in my mind at least, between the Sony eReader, Amazon Kindle and iPad since the common story here is about cost of production and what the technology can do for the consumer.

VHS was adopted by the adult film industry firstly because it was less expensive to produce, but most importantly because it had a longer recording capacity – 2-4 hours over the 1 hour for Betamax, which they deliberately restricted to maintain the quality of the tape. While the common understanding is true that VHS won out because it could record a full American football game on a single tape, the underlying factor came down to the one industry that embraced it first. ‘Every step of the way, when there’s a new technology, we explore it,’ says the CEO of Private Media Group. ‘In the adult business, many times the traditional venues are not available to us, so we have to be innovative to get our content to the consumer. With adult content, you need to create your own solutions.’

And this is the key – the very nature of their content has forced them to innovate, to look for new solutions. In a declining market, publishers – all content providers – need to be creative about how to deliver their content, how, as publishers, we convey the premium nature of our offering – make people value it more, either by re-conceiving it as a new proposition that is technology or device-led, or one that appeals to the way in which it will be consumed.

In 1988, the industry reinvented themselves again with the advent of the DVD. While mainstream Hollywood did not take to DVDs until the mid-90s, and even then they did so while keeping the VHS format, the adult film industry had undergone a wholesale conversion. And perhaps this is where the parallel runs out. Even the most techie-mad publisher would be hard pushed to say that the printed book will disappear forever in favour of fully electronic content.

The downside, for the big players, was that the number of people making the films exploded from five or ten companies to thousands. No longer did you need huge budgets to produce or distribute your films. The change in technology meant that those who had been on the fringes of the industry could become major players. When the social media commentator Mike Shatzkin predicts that in 5, 10, 15 years the publishing world will become more specialized, more focused on targeted markets, here is an industry in which we have seen it happen already. With technology devaluing content, the successful publisher will be the one that owns a niche community. This is a community that is not necessarily content-centric, but one that is monetizable through control of access to networks of authors. This is where smaller specialist publishers who deal only in sci-fi or knitting or military history have a ready-made advantage. And it shows how bigger publishers need to adapt to a more vertical publishing model. By specializing publishers, imprints – all producers of content – will stand out for the consumer.

Today it’s impossible to discuss the growth and maturation of the Internet without mentioning the impact the adult entertainment industry has had on the catalogue of innovations that publishers are trialling in the digital era: file-sharing, Usenet groups, streaming media and video downloads, cloud technology, video gaming. Everywhere that publishers look, the adult film industry has been there already. As we enter the new phase of digital publishing and talk about interactivity and putting the consumer first, including features where the reader can play around with the content, add their own stories, select screens and commands – they have been doing it for years.

For example, Digital Playground – one of the pioneers of the adult entertainment industry – released their first interactive DVD way back in 1999. It has become one of the top selling adult DVDs of all time. It is these innovations that have led to virtual computer games, 3D PC games. The industry is now heavily involved in the actual development and propagation of the technology that we now rely on: cable and DSL connections, and they will undoubtedly challenge the frontiers for high-speed 3G data services.

Unsurprisingly, the industry sees the smartphone as a dream come true and the perfect device for the next generation of content provision. The size of the screen, speed of web access and the ease to use simplifies mobile access and streamlines the process of tailoring sites for optimal views. To put this in context, in 2007, the international market for mobile adult content reached $1.7 billion. Before the new iPhone was announced, Juniper projected that revenue from mobile adult content would rise to $4.6 billion by 2012. With millions of 3G iPhones in the market, Juniper’s principal analyst Windsor Holden says, the number could grow far larger. ‘A huge portion of the $13 billion adult market has been reliant on physical distribution,’ says AVN Media Network. ‘That business model is shifting to downloadable and streaming content.’

While we consider the best way to re-conceive our content here are some examples of technology developments that are being made by the industry right now:

Augmented Reality

Pink Visual is the market leader in augmented reality technology and developing software to let viewers pretend to be in the film. The rudimentary use of augmented reality via user’s web cams is based on Adobe Flash Player and controlled for now by the user holding a card printed with a Pink Visual logo icon up to their laptop. Their iPad site heavily uses CSS and leverages the same video-streaming technology they use on their well-established iPhone site.


A company aptly named Bad Girls in 3D (BGin3D) was claiming to be the first firm to offer consumers a turnkey digital 3D viewing system and a 3D content subscription service for in-home multi-dimensional films. This is technology that they have developed and has now been embraced by the world’s leading display manufactures like Panasonic, Sony and Mitsubishi.

Subscription models

Several companies have launched a service that lets iPhone 3G users choose from a library of more than 1000 adult entertainment clips for a flat fee of $10 a month for the iphone. For $9.95 per month users can get unlimited access to full-length movies and more than 1,000 adult entertainment clips.

Cloud computing

Private Media Group has developed the technology for cloud computing to store a customer’s videos. In effect an equivalent to iTunes – and an online service that lets users buy and access a personal collection of videos via their iPads. They started working on ways to take advantage of the iPad the day it was announced in January. By the time Apple released the device in early April, the system was ready. They have also developed a proprietary mobile solution enabling users to instantly stream over 15,000 movies initially available on smartphones but will be available on all handheld devices from a globally accessible platform allowing consumers to purchase and consume Video on Demand instantly wherever and whenever they want.

What does this teach publishing?

These innovations will mean different things to each of us and the shape of our business in 3-5 years, but the underlying lesson is the same. Almost all the questions we are asking ourselves about how to make money out of the changing landscape of our industry have been asked and answered by the adult entertainment industry. From the way we re-conceive content and put the technology first to how we monetise the user-experience and re-evaluation production and distribution costs, the adult film industry has been there and done it first. In my opinion we would service our authors and readers well if we follow the next chapter of their story closely.

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