Originally posted on December 10, 2008
Many pundits pontificate on the demise of publishing (myself included and some others I could mention) and while many of these versions of the future are well intentioned they often lack substance. Today in ComputerWorld - an obvious organ of reasoned strategic discussion about book publishing - is a perspective 'from technology' that decries the effort by Penguin and some others to launch their content on mobile platforms as 'painful'. The author's wider point seems to be that publishers need to place their full content - not just snippets - in as many places as possible so that readers/consumers can access it with as little difficulty as possible. Music publishers did not do that and became the victims of rampant piracy, and some have argued that because electronic access to music content was limited this drove piracy. Had there been easy access and easy payment options perhaps the music industry would be in a different place now. But that is 20/20 hindsight and at the time, you would have to have been a certified genius to have seen that.
Publishers have a different issue. Reading is immersive: We are active readers and passive (music) listeners. 'Pimping' the content so that it appears on a smart phone or a web browser or a flat panel will only ever have limited success. It is tactically important to do this with the current inventory of content that a typical publisher will own, but that's not going to sustain the future of the business. Any publisher who's digital policies and activities are focused entirely on retro-active conversions and the migration of their historic product packaging to an electronic environment will see their market whither. It is possible that some publishers may make a choice to cash-cow the existing content and sell it on every available electronic platform they can. That makes some sense but not if in doing so they believe that model will sustain their future publishing programs built on delivering readers a 250 page novel or a 12 chapter business book with an index limited by the number of blank pages left in the last folio.
Pimping the print compounds an issue publishers have faced for a long time (forever?). They don't really know what consumers want. To paraphrase Wannamaker 'I know only 50% of what I publish sells, I just don't know which 50%' (He said it about advertising). The publisher of the future is going to spend more time understanding the consumer and fulfilling their needs (marketing 101: a need is filled not created) than transferring the current model to phones, screens and digits. If I were heading a publishing house, I would hire a band of 25-30 year old editors/writers, give them a budget to acquire content and have them build a new 'publishing' operation unfettered by print runs, business models and pub dates. Their responsibility would be to create content a target market valued enough to use, to experiment in how to monetize the content and to be able to replicate the model. With guidance - not oversight - provided by the many experienced managers that exist in a typical publishing house the team won't fail. And yes, I would do this TODAY. So forget pimping existing print and think about delivering content consumers need.