When customers love the product, but hate your mission, it’s time to change publishing

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a vision for the future of publishing to a group of publishing professionals in New York. Can’t say where it was, yet, but suffice to say it was worth saying and that the message was well received by the thoughtful, albeit skeptical, audience.

Despite the increasingly rapid changes in reading due to technological evolution, the folks with whom I was talking rightly believe that they should not revolutionize their business simply for the sake of revolution, and I was perceived, unfortunately, as a revolutionary. They represented publishers, distributors, supply-chain enablers and book retailers, all of whom need to embrace changing roles as they constantly refine those roles in response to greater information about what is in a book, how books are used and what readers think about the books they purchase, borrow or steal. Having worked in publishing—in many forms and markets—for 25 years, and for several huge publishing companies destroyed by the failure to change, I think my perspective is one of pragmatic realism. Certainly, the publishing industry I arrived in as a newspaper/magazine reporter is largely gone, victim of its failure to evolve with the times, with the reader’s habits.

Darnton 2So, it was ironic, I thought, that my opening remark, that the future has never been brighter for publishing (in this, I completely agree with Seth Godin’s remarks about the future of publishing here—I only wish I was a good a presenter at Seth), was greeted with a sense that I was trying to paint my revolution the color of the audience’s fears about the future of their individual business models. Sure, they were thinking, it’s bright if you don’t have to fire people, change the workflows at publishing houses, in composition and printing shops, and so forth.

Books are healthier than ever, really. According to Bowker, publisher of Books In Print, more than 900,000 books will be published worldwide this year. The United States produces more than five times as many titles as only a decade ago. Moreover, the breadth of the titles has never been greater, with genres and subjects exploding in their complexity. Just as the desktop publishing revolution produced an explosion of magazines and newsletters that transformed the periodical business in the late 1980s, print-on-demand and Web technology, including e-books, have multiplied the number of books, about every conceivable topic. Worldwide, the growth of titles published is growing faster than in the U.S., as it becomes infinitely more efficient to address language and geographically specific marketplaces with printed or electronic books.

Moreover, with more than $100 billion in local U.S. media spending in play because of the fall of the local newspaper, the opportunity to connect revenue with books that engage and sustain hyper-local communities, has never been greater. Succeeding in this market, however, means changing the entire book value chain, eliminating the value chain’s focus on distributors and retailers, turning it instead to models predicated on what the reader wants and values. Reader-centrism is the only viable basis for revivifying existing publishing companies, because every new player in the publishing market is starting their business based on close identification with their customer, the reader.

Now, I want to keep this short, and go on in future postings with more detail. But let’s look at the most recent description of what a publisher does that I was able to find, in Robert Darnton’s new book, The Case for Books. Darnton, the chief librarian at Harvard and an accomplished author captures what the publisher does as completely as possible:

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

This is the mission of publishing from the time of the scriptoria until the turn of the 21st century, a risk-defined mission based on the high cost of making information available. It is not what readers want today, even though they do still count on many filters to help them choose what to read. The financial risk of publishing today is perceived as minimal, even though it is still quite risky because publishers are clinging to the hit-driven model that requires a book to sell tens of thousands of copies to be a “success.” Let’s consider Darnton’s definition of publishing through the eyes of a reader who can browse the Web, Google Books and myriad other sources of textual, audio and visual information. These people still love books, but they no longer honor the mission that produces many books, as evidenced by widespread dislike of the ideas highlighted in the following version of the quote:
“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”
Let’s break that down in terms of the networked marketplace.

Gatekeepers are no longer valued, they are despised by people who feel they have the ability to judge information and ideas for themselves. As Jacques Rancière puts it in his latest book, The Emancipated Spectator, “There are not two sorts of intelligence separated by a gulf” in a truly democratic marketplace of ideas, there are different perspectives that demand free rein and resent gatekeepers.

No one entity or person can/needs to control the flow of knowledge when everyone can do their little part by tagging, rating, reviewing and commenting on parts of the data flow; this is “crowdsourcing” in the fully positive sense, free from the stain of mob mentality, which can play an important role in an unbridled cataract of information.

Customers, not sellers, decide what will sell—they always have, but industrial production tended to limit the choices and create the appearance of successful planning, which in many cases is exactly what produced bestsellers, though at the cost of diversity, which people value, too.

Professional expertise is, unfortunately, despised because of knavery on the part of pundits, who claim expertise without the hard self-criticism that is applied by professionals. We do need people to help us select what to pay attention to, just as we have always relied on guidance from others when coming into a new environment. That advice can come from friends. However, it often comes from the loudest knaves in the mediasphere.

What reaches readers in a connected networked world is everything and anything that can be transmitted, but few would surrender their opportunity to think for themselves in exchange for a truncated view of reality—let us remain optimistic about people’s judgment and intentions here—but readers don’t want to admit they rely more on experts today than ever before, because they don’t see the world as information overload, rather they perceive they are seeing it all for the first time without restrictions, which is exhilarating, the very source of growth, egalitarian opportunity and the unexpected. That sudden sense of having options is why more books than ever are being produced and sold.

Given that readers today still love books, in more forms than ever, what is a publisher to do? That’s the subject of the next couple postings in this series.

Cross-posted to ZD Net.

Thinking about LibreDigital’s $15 million funding

LibreDigital this week brought down a $15 million B-round, adding Triangle Peak Partners to first-round investor Adams Capital Management, and signaling a potential flurry of investment in e-book distribution plays. The company facilitates file conversion and delivery for publishers of books, magazines and newspapers. Based in Austin, Texas, and founded in 1999, LibreDigital has evolved and suffered with the publishing industry, to which it sells content conversion, warehousing, browsing and distribution services. Now that it has $15 million in new capital and the burgeoning e-book industry on which to hang its marketing, LibreDigital is getting its day in the sun. The question is, is that sun rising or setting?

LibreDigital’s clients include major book publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, newspapers including The New York Times and USA Today, and many magazine titles. With e-book sales exploding, albeit from a very small base, LibreDigital seems poised for growth.

The company’s emphasis on helping its publisher customers experiment with marketing programs and pricing strikes me as on target, because only a wide range of options will help differentiate electronic titles from their paper counterparts. Price, of course, is only one dimension of value, though it is the one getting the most attention right now. Alas, another continuing problem is the rights management question, which LibreDigital appears to solve primarily through application-based restrictions, for example, these terms for the downloading of The New York Times. In other words, DRM is the main defensible feature of the distribution system. The solution offered by LibreDigital through Newstand.com does allow printing (no copying) of files rather than locking the data to electronic format.

There is no record of patents or patent applications by the company, a search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database suggests. What, exactly, then is the company selling? Service, though they are described as products. The careers of the management team point to expertise in process development and management, exactly Continue reading

Writing improv as service

Name Your Tale, a site operated by writers Nick Faber, Jeremy S. Griffin and Jenny Nicholson, introduces a novel approach to engaging readers: They write stories in response to suggested titles submitted by the audience. It’s improv performance brought to the (Web) page.

The group writes 100-word stories for audience titles including, at this writing, “I’m Banging a Chinese Chick,” “Her Hair Always smelled of Crayons,” and “Laser Heart.” The writers also promote “microfiction” and “flash fiction” at the site. I’m not a fan of the “flash” label for fiction or groups, since they are simply forms of improvisation brought to new media and venues, but they can call it whatever they want.

It is easy to imagine on-demand books generated by a session at the site or by readers who assemble their favorites, including titles they suggested, for permanent collection in a paper book. I’ll be writing more about this “event publishing” this afternoon.

Clever idea. I think they can grow this into an interesting and strange imprint.

via GalleyCat

Vertical markets, services and the challenge of many media

Mike Shatzkin, taking on some ideas posted by Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly, in “Vertical” versus “service”: semantics, nuance, or dueling metaphors?

The clinching metaphor in Andrew’s piece is that we aren’t actually buying food when we go to a restaurant (because, if we were, we’d just buy it at the grocery store.) This is tricky, because, indeed, you do want that hamburger cooked and served on a bun and you want a place to sit while you eat it and maybe some ketchup supplied. So, in fact, you’re buying both food and service. You wouldn’t patronize the restaurant if they didn’t give you the food, so it seems a bit of a stretch to say it isn’t what you’re buying!

The clinching metaphor in Andrew’s piece is that we aren’t actually buying food when we go to a restaurant (because, if we were, we’d just buy it at the grocery store.) This is tricky, because, indeed, you do want that hamburger cooked and served on a bun and you want a place to sit while you eat it and maybe some ketchup supplied. So, in fact, you’re buying both food and service. You wouldn’t patronize the restaurant if they didn’t give you the food, so it seems a bit of a stretch to say it isn’t what you’re buying!

Savikas makes the mistake, I think, of conflating “content” with “creativity” when he writes: “This is not just about using free digital content to sell physical goods. It’s an acknowledgment that what you’re selling as an artist (or an author, or a publisher for that matter) is not content. What you sell is providing something that the customer/reader/fan wants. That may be entertainment, it may be information, it may be a souvenir of an event or of who they were at a particular moment in their life (Kelly describes something similar as his eight “qualities that can’t be copied”: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage, and Findability).” All content is equal in this argument, ignoring the hard-won reputation that great creativity earns in the marketplace. Moreover, several of the “qualities that can’t be copied” apply to any form of creativity—there is another, not mentioned, Authority, which we attach to a source based on previous experience with them.

In short, engagement with a writer or artist is the ephemeral feature of this commercial relationship that is being shoe-horned into the category “service.”

Further on, in comments, Savikas argues that The Economist magazine seldom publishes “news,” which he apparently equates with “breaking news” or “scoops”, because it is printed on paper. He says he “pays for the preparation” of the magazine, which utterly misses the value of the time and research that go into deep reporting about issues rather than simply reporting the new. Analytical thought requires more work, but the output, if measured in terms of letters on a page, is exactly the same as any other printed information. Savikas’ equation leaves the creator of the work out of the value-chain. And, surely, as Mike Shatzkin points out, Savikas is speaking from his experience of working as a publisher.

Shatzkin argues that the difference between “service” and “vertical,” as in “vertical market,” needs to be acknowledged:

Rarely can”service” be delivered broadly; it has to be targeted so vertical be comes a sine qua non. And anybody really trying to build a vertical will do it by offering service and tools, which they would hope would also lead to the ability to sell content.

This, too, reduces the question of the future of publishing to a paradigm that doesn’t bend, but breaks, when applied generically. Specialization, the essence of the divisions of labor that create economies of scale, is not sufficient to establish a brand without “service” that engages the customer for the full life of the value in information. We go to the restaurant because we want food and service, and we buy a non-fiction book by an author because they promise to make us experts on a topic. In the quick-to-obsolescence world of real-time information, ongoing service may be required to engage a customers’ interest and to provide the full-range of expertise, because some insight only appears in the give-and-take that evolves out of published work.

The useful metaphor stretches further when “service” and “vertical” are tempered into a useful alloy. It allows authors of entertainments—true, some genres are vertical markets unto themselves, but entertainment is also a generic quality attributed across many genres—to offer engagement after the initial text is finished. It could be a signed book, a sort of avatar for having a relationship with the author, or it could include ongoing access to notes and other musings by the writer, simply because the buyer enjoys the experience.

Services and verticals define a variety of market approaches. We’ll be experimenting with the resulting alloys for many years. Which is better, watching Picasso paint or looking at the painting? In our world, both are possible, both are inevitable. Neither is exclusive, though each mode of viewing stands alone.

Where games are going, books will follow

Follow the gamers, they know. Electronic Arts COO John Pleasants told VentureBeat: “If you believe all games will eventually be services — as I do — then the idea of game teams that make a game, ship it, and then do something else goes away. They will now ship and day one begins when the customer gives feedback to the live service. The way you distribute will be different. The way you charge will be different. There will be more permutations in pricing. Merchandising will be much more important. Co-marketing will be much more important. You have to have persistent identification and entitlements for a user, no matter where they are or in what game they’re playing.”

This is the prescription for book publishing. Not all books will be online services, but all books can tap Web services to connect readers to more than just the text. Think Books-as-a-Service (heck, let’s call it “BaaS” and go fishing).

Authors can accomplish much of this on the Web Continue reading