Originally posted on April 29, 2009.
Publishers curate content but they don’t really do it well. And that’s a shame, because curation will be a skill in high demand as attention spans waver, choices proliferate and quality is mitigated by a preponderance of spurious material. That’s why companies such as LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, weread, BookArmy and others like them may be positioned to leverage communities of interest that mimic the ‘siloed’ offerings that larger and more mature publishing companies have successfully been offering their customers in law, tax and education for many years.
Trade ebook sales are only 1% of total revenues and, while they are growing rapidly, they may take as long as five years to reach 5%. In other publishing segments, this growth curve would be viewed as a failure as information and education publishers actively manipulate the market to their advantage to force faster adoption of e-content. In pushing adoption of eBooks, trade publishers do not have many of the advantages that information and education publishers have. Generally speaking, information content is more transactional: Looking up a reference, seeking a specific citation or definition or article. Educational content is modular with material that is created for specific purposes but which can also be “rebuilt” for other purposes. In both cases, the producers of these products exert some control over their delivery and have impressed on their markets a platform for delivery. (I have discussed this platform approach here).
There are several reasons information and educational publishers are able to pull off the platform approach. One is that they have successfully aggregated content around discrete segments: law, tax, financial, higher ed, k-12, etc. This, in turn, has enabled them to clearly identify their markets and build solutions that match their customers’ needs precisely. That is not the case in trade publishing.
Trade publishing can be anarchic and it is not uncommon for a publisher of primarily gardening and lifestyle books to publish three or four mysteries as well. While aggregation into silos of content – becoming the Science Fiction or the Christian publisher (as West and Lexis became the legal content silos, for example) – is possible it may not be likely. While this strategy may appear logical, I don’t believe there is a sense of purpose within trade as there is in Information and Education. And as publishers continue to be preoccupied with their own corporate brands, the desire to focus on content silos becomes less apparent. Since content is the foundation of the ‘platform’ approach evidenced in the other segments, a similar strategy will not apply in trade.
Something similar to the platform approach may take shape in a different way with intermediaries playing the role of curator. This is an approach that companies such as Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Review of Books might have adopted if they had been more prescient. The capability to guide consumers to the best books, stories and professional content within a specific segment (without regard to publisher or commerce) may come to define publishing in the years to 2020. (See Monday’s post). Expert curation can simplify the selection process for consumers, aggregate interest around topics and build homogeneous markets for commerce. As an added benefit to these intermediaries’ customers, publishers will chose to focus intensely on each segment and offer specialized value-adds particular to that segment. As content provision expands – witness the delivery of all the books in the Google Book project – readers will become increasingly confused and looking for help. It seems inevitable that intermediaries between publisher and e-commerce will meet that need.
BookArmy was launched by Harpercollins earlier this year while the other companies have been around for a while. BookArmy has taken a (thus far) universal approach and lists all books rather than those only published by Harpercollins. BookArmy may or may not be successful, and it is intensely difficult to launch a site like librarything or Goodreads that grips the imagination and passion of its audience, but that is what makes these sites ideal incubators for new thinking and new approaches to publishing. In their current states most (all) of the curation is provided by the community and tends to be post-publication focused. Having said that, it would not be too difficult to see a new ‘layer’ of curators emerging who could provide direction and recommendations to readers on forthcoming titles. And, in addition, these curators could manage their subject “silo” to help readers better understand and explore their subject without regard to the publisher. Experiments in this area have started with, for example, LibraryThing working with publishers to provide a reviews program for forthcoming titles.
Readers don’t really care how many books are published in a year but they do care about knowing which titles they should read based on their interests. Increasingly help will be on the way but it is most likely to be presented as agnostic of publisher and curated around logical subject classifications.
See also Brand Presence - some earlier thoughts on publisher branding.