Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Future is Not Binary - Part 1

Publishing is a diverse and complex industry. Some would argue that it is many industries that have merely been brought together by a common format the book. These industries are diverging as a result of opportunities such as print on demand (POD) and digitisation (ebooks). Some would say that this heralds the end of the generalist publisher and retailer and promotes specialists both in terms of the development of content and rights and their sale to the channel and end consumer. Some may box the different publishing models and predict which will fail and which will succeed in the future. Publishing is and will remain diverse and complex and the one thing that is certain going forward is that there are no silver bullets and that its future is not binary.

If we look at POD, we have to understand that it is about manufacturing, inventory and distribution. We all know that it is not suitable for all, but that it is suitable for many. Its suitability is not always at title level and may even only be at a certain stage in the life cycle of a title. Some have long understood this and have successfully used POD to manage their production, inventory and distribution of their back list, retaining titles that would have been uneconomic to do so in the old model. Some have been able to do this because their rights model enabled them to effectively exploit the sunk cost and move fee based titles across. Many publishers who work on a royalty based model may find that their contract prohibit this approach.

POD is all things to all people. For many today, it represents short cycle print runs and enables them to reduce inventory. To others it is print on demand, sell one make one. To some retailers it offers localised printing and just in time not just in case stock control and responsive customer service. But by itself it is just digital production.

One of the most successful POD publishers is Cambridge University Press, who through their vision have built up a significant POD inventory of some 10,000 plus titles. Has this been economically successful? Yes. Has it been operationally successful? Yes. Is their model applicable to all even within their sector – probably not? I remember sitting down with three major publishers and two industry bodies at the advent of POD. The objective was to look at the systems and process implications of POD and establish the common way forward. The publishers could not even agree then of the definition, let alone the business model and processes.


June said...

The publishers could even agree then of the definition, let alone the business model and processes.

Is there a typo in there Martyn, should it not read "could NOT agree". It seems to me as if some still can't.

Anonymous said...

Good point Martyn, it IS a compound industry and traditional publishing will likely de-bundle under the influence of the new technologies, while the big communications companies will take the opportunity to integrate even more activities. It is surely only a matter of time before Amazon starts acquiring editorial imprints. As for POD, you're right, it's not the next big thing, it's just another technological option like the paperback. I still think the NBT is the eBook. The sluggish start means nothing. A conversion of this kind has to grow gradually--even the telephone took decades to come into general use. Once the industry agrees on a universal format portable e-readers will become as ubiquitous as iPods. I thought the British Library's estimate of 2020 as the time publishers will cease using paper was too conservative, but now I'm beginning to think it's about right after all.