Sunday, November 21, 2010
Digital Publishing Observations and Conclusions
Today we look at the major underlying changes that are reshaping publishing.
We would like to introduce three observations which help explain the challenges and then explore how these will impact and reshape publishing.
The first observation we would offer is about observation itself.
When you look through a window into a house you see a room. The view will be different, dependant on which window you look through. If several people look at the same house, but through different windows, they will each see something different. It is the same house but each window is rendering a different perspective. It is understandable that they may all form a completely different view of the house based on what that they view thy have observed.
Unless you are an architect, builder or tradesman, we often take for granted the building’s fabric. This holds it offers common services in the various rooms and protects it by a common roof and walls.
We would suggest businesses are no different and often we focus on the individual perspectives and ignore the framework that supports them.
What are the core elements that are the fabric and provide common services through publishing and are these fit for purpose in this new digital world?
The second observation comes through our experience within the oil industry.
The oil industry is ‘vertical’, with at one end, the upstream activity of acquisition and exploration though to production, and at the other the downstream activities of refinery, distribution and retail. There are always specialists operators in all areas but the Mobil, Shell, BP, Total, Elf are vertical operators who have build global and vertical brands that are capable of transcending sectors and providing vertical authority. These companies may be viewed by some as very rigid organisations, but are in fact very flexible and dynamic in their internal structures and operations. Most oil fields are operated by one company, with their competitors and others being joint venture shareholders/investors in the same field. These organisations understand collaborative ventures and that these mitigate risk, in a very high risk business, strengthen each operator’s ability to deliver and shares the spoils often across a number of ventures.
Today the oil giants no longer view themselves as solely in oil but are redefining and repositioning themselves in the energy industry. They are still vertical but the width of their focus just got a whole lot wider.
Are there true publishing verticals that are flexible and who are now expanding their brand to a wider market?
The third observation goes back to that famous 1979 Andy Warhol quote, ‘Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.’
We have seen the dramatic rise in social networking and the new age of communication. The technology has in effect made everyone a journalist, photographer, social commentator a would be musician and author. Youtube, Facebook and Twitter have each started to reshape social interaction and provided the platform for the democratisation of creativity.
Yesterday our generation watched TV, listened to music, played games and read books, but there now is a new generation who, make TV, music, games and books, but do not always share our values with respect to the rights and permissions we observed before. They now often want to often ‘mix’ or repurpose old material to create new works. The new environment is fuelling this and spawning a generation where many can enjoy and attain their 15 minutes of fame.
Conclusions: These observations help us understand some of the challenges publishing is facing today. The question is how it is positioned to now meet them?
Publishing is a rights business.
It is these rights that define its rules, relationships, processes, the reward structure and can shape the content itself. Rights can be seen as the fabric, utilities and services that make it a house.
However imagine you have returned to find that the new occupiers have moved the rooms around, what was the kitchen is now a study and the loft is a new master bedroom with a new view through a new skylight. Alternatively, the rooms may have remained but the furniture and look has been completely redesigned. It’s not enough to understand the rights as they were.
Rights have to adjust to new demands, new owners and merely expecting every occupier of the house to maintain the status quo is naive. Publishing rights must adjust in both use and time and not straight jacket us into the past. We must respect that houses don’t last forever without maintenance. The house now requires new digital services.
Publishing several industries joined by a common format – the book.
Some of these have clear vertical positions and brands and these are visible today in professional, scientific, academic and educational segments. These markets are dominated by a few organisations that have already made great digital inroads and some have repositioned themselves, their market relationships and are capable of widening their offer.
However, when we look at the general trade the opportunity is far harder to envisage.
We may have major publishers and major retailers but we only have Amazon that today is capable of being vertical in a major sense. It has built brand, grown global reach, acquired companies and started ventures right across the publishing life cycle and value chain. Niche players may build vertically but still think horizontally and often believe the world revolves around them, when often its around others and they are merely playing a part.
When it comes to direct sales many publishers are often buffered from the consumer coal face and often haven’t the list and relationship management skill set they think they have. This again is truer in the general trade environment than in the other more vertical ones.
The traditional retailers are having their legs chopped off as supermarkets and other retail giants take the easy mass market volume sales and are likely to compete hard for the emerging digital market. Many believe that Apple and Google are the competitive threats, or opportunities to compete against Amazon, but we also have to throw in WalMart, Tesco, Costco, and even local players such as Sainsburys.
The author is an often overlooked vertical opportunity who has the brand and up until today needed the publishing infrastructure to be heard and sell volume. However, the new world will offer some, the opportunity to follow the Ian Fleming estate and do it themselves
Finally, reading is not a social experience but books are.
Social Networking has opened up our world to wider connected communities. We no longer are restricted in how, what and when we communicate and who we communicate with. We still have the immersive reading experience but now are able to share this with others in ways that we just impossible before.
Academia has long been pushing back these social boundaries and clearly has common interest in doing so at many levels. However, readers are very eclectic in their interests and reading taste and therefore creating a Facebook for reading would appear a questionable route and one far from proven today. Niche interest groups will always flourish, but they will be limited to their area of interest and community. Do we recreate Facebook or use Facebook to create reading groups? We have to recognise that sharing our personal thoughts and recommendations often starts with friends not strangers.
There is no silver social networking bullet but there are lots of experiments, baby steps, community bridges to be built. Anyone serious about doing business tomorrow can’t afford not to be trying many routes. Some will prove useless, some limited and some may open up new opportunities and growth. This is not restricted to publishers but is equally relevant to authors, resellers, today’s reading groups and libraries, in fact everyone.
Today everyone wants to have the potential to be heard and publishing has to understand that this in itself will have a dramatic impact on everyone within today’s value chain and isn’t about selling more books but about connecting people and context with content,