Saturday, June 23, 2012

BIC 2012: Rethinking The Future

This is a presentation i gave to the BIC New Trends Seminar 2012 on 20th June in London.

The one thing that is certain about tomorrow is that it will be different to today and anyone who says that they have a clear and defined long term digital strategy is someone to be avoided and treated with healthy scepticism. We can all spend too long looking backwards to spot trends, But the future is not a linear journey. Trends merely tell us where we have been, not our destination. However, history teaches us that much is cyclic and what comes around goes around albeit differently. Change as we have all witnessed, can and will be, very disruptive and there will be many digital ‘black swans’ moving forward.

Richard Charkin recently said that publishers need to now think and act as start-ups, which is a hairy prospect for many and will not suit all.

I believe that the future is often born out of understanding the past, recognising what is different and identifying the enablers that make change happen and for us to do things smarter.

Today, I want to share 3 stories that help present just one perspective of the future. These are merely three stories which weave together to present just one argument. Just one piece in tomorrow’s digital jigsaw.

The first story is about finding needles in haystacks

A couple of years ago I found myself in Ludlow market looking at a pile of old books. I bought three, two by the same author and one featuring an artist I admired. The first two were cloth bound and published in the late 1930s by Country Life and the author went on to be; an author, artist, environmentalist, TV personality and wildlife campaigner. I wanted to share with others; the art, the wildlife, the environmental perspectives, and their insight into life in a bygone age and of course the man himself. 

I started to think about reprinting them. I established the direct market potential, the audience and was confident it was viable as a quality two volume collector’s slipcase edition and so I started to research the rights to the works. However, tracking the rights to 80 year old works quickly became a challenge. Eventually with the help of friend, who is somewhat of an expert in orphan and public rights, we tracked down the estate’s owner and there the issue sits today. The exercise proved that even with a well know author and clear publication history, tracking down rights, be they orphans or just old works, can be a testing exercise.

Imagine tracking down a less notorious author’s work from even 50, 40, or even 30 years ago? 

I was one of the first to stand up against the audious Google Book Settlement. My opposition was and remains primarily over the proposed ‘land grab’ or adoption of orphan works. Does my quest to adopt an orphan damper my opposition, or push me towards the ‘nationalisation’ of orphans or mass digitisation some propose today? The answer remains no.

Thinking about a rights business reminds me that some ten years ago I was invited by the BBC to attend a special conference on their future. It was to be attended by all senior figures from the Director General down.

On the day I found myself joined by a group of what appeared to be students and teenagers complete with street clothing and undaunted by their surroundings. I felt somewhat out of place and wondering what on earth was happening. We were ushered into a room and ask to sit on tables with senior BBC executives. After a couple of speeches the most illuminating dialogue started around each table. It was all about technology, software, games, gadgets, viral events and the latest things, some of which I had never heard of. It was about how the BBC should engage and what they should do next. The BBC learnt a lot from that exercise. Interestingly the BBC was starting to recognise that they weren’t so much in the broadcasting business as in the content and rights business.

That fundamental realisation has helped them shape their BBC Worldwide commercial arm and changed much of what and how they work today.  

Publishing, be it; music, film, games, books, is about content and rights. It is a rights business from acquisition, development to trading. Yet it is somewhat ironic that we remain wedded to rights terms which would appear to be inappropriate to the digital world, stuck in the print world. We find ourselves now moving in that digital environment without a rights registry.

It’s like going into combat today with First World War technology – it’s plain just dumb.

The one thing Google would have at least given us was a registry and without one some would suggest that we are flying blind in the eye of a digital storm.

The second story is about that extraordinary man Charles Dickens

A couple of months ago I visited the Dickens exhibition at the London Museum. What is interesting is that Dickens lived through the great literacy revolution where the masses were able to read and his penny fiction was a way of feeding their new habit in a digestible form. Dickens was many things not just a writer of great novels. Dickens was a performer, a journalist, a letter writer, a pamphleteer, a theatre producer and a self publicist extraordinaire.

He not only wrote many works by the chapter, he also delivered them as ongoing works. He used the ‘penny press’ to presale the stories by instalment. In 1837 he was selling some 50,000 copies of his Pickwick periodicals at a shilling a time. These contained one chapter sandwiched between pages of adverts. Many of these adverts had little to do with books or even the subject matter of the story. In fact the adverts demonstrate the diversity of the audience. The journals appeared either weekly or monthly and given the number of chapters and volume of sales, plus the advertising revenues, should have earned him a good return. It is claimed that when Great Expectations was published in weekly instalment in 1861 it had weekly sales of some 100,000 units a week. Interestingly they didn’t diminish his book appeal but fuelled interest in the finally work.

The Victorian engineering, transport and communications revolution of Dickens’ time was, on reflection, as great as that we have today with our technology and communications revolution. The new railways, telegraph and postal services enabled him to travel extensively and communicate to a wide audience and between 1858 and 1870 he gave some 472 readings of his works in the UK and US.

In Victorian times the novel was often also enhanced by illustrations. Dicken’s ‘Sketches by Boz’ was illustrated by George Cruikshank and as with many Dickens tales the reader was able to picture both in words and in imagery the story as it unfolded. Today, we have often lost the imagery of yesterday, but does the new ebook now enable us to once again enhance and illustrate the book?

It is not hard to see the relevance of Dickens to today and why it is somewhat ironic that 2012 is the 200th celebration of his birth.

Some have adopted the short story and instalment model and Keita digital novels continue to be a huge success in Japan. In the West Stephen King and others have also ventured down the digital short story and instalment route. But why hasn’t a publisher grabbed this digital opportunity by the throat? Are we stuck in the economic 75,000 words, 256 page format of the print rendition?

When we have done digital short stories, we have even bound them into digital collections. It’s as if we missed the iTunes moment when singles were reborn. We continue to ignore the shortening attention span and channel hopping culture in which we live.

Has the publishing and editorial process got in the way of the instalment and short story? 

Short stories and instalments may also unlock further the democratisation of writing. Some would suggest that they may have greater potential for consumer engagement than the enhancing today’s somewhat stretched physical content model with digital media for media’s sake.

If we want more people to read then give them something exciting that they can quickly appreciate and value.

The third story is about the creation and development itself - the publishing front office.

In the late 90s as part of the research programme ‘publishing in the 21st Century’ , Mark Bide, Mike Shatzkin , John  Wicker and myself went to HarperCollins in Manhattan. We were doing research into the digitisation of the publishing front office and the objective was to look at an Editorial system that they were using.  The system looked impressive and acted as we would expect but I felt there was something not right about it. A few questions later and what appeared to be a good system was turning into a dog.

To cut a long story short it was built like a transactional system and not as a content one. It lacked that intuitive feel needed by creative people. What workflow that did exist was ridged. Editors were being asked to enter other people’s information for little perceived benefit to them. The final blow was that a number of Editors had refused to use the system.

I remember saying, ‘if the customer service clerk refused to use the system you sack them, if the editor refuses to use the system you sack the system.’

Have we moved on in the last decade?

Well the answer is yes and no. Systems have been adopted but the divide between content and context and transactional information still exists. People still see production systems as often financial and transactional and somewhat divorced from the content. Marketing, promotional and bibliographic information is still often in parallel silos and not drawn directly from the content itself. There is still a gulf between content and transactional information.

This is not true in some sectors, such as education, where the complexity of the works and digital has demanded better tools. However when you look at others such as the development of some academic monographs, you can see huge opportunities for radical improvement which are not being taken today.

I would ask you to consider that the argument that these three stories give us is that tomorrow will be heavily influenced and shaped just as much by the changes that will happen upstream in we acquire, develop, repurpose, store, curate, and market content and rights as it will be downstream in how the promote, sell, distribute and trade them.  It is about understanding and getting back to the basics, what has worked in the past, what could work tomorrow, adapting and understanding the total environment.

Digital is not just about pouring physical books into digital containers. If we think that is what it is about we have missed the plot.

There are many pieces to the digital jigsaw and there is no one piece that fits all.

To date we have been digitally obsessed with devices, DRM and formats. Thankfully these are now relatively irrelevant and yesterday’s issues

·         Devices are evolving into platforms, content is becoming agnostic, and finally moving to being cloud based on demand

·         DRM is at last past its sell by date. But before we all run out and drop DRM it it is worth thinking about rights and permission, collective commons registration, and the ‘first sale doctrine’ . Some would suggest that not to do so may be as short sighted as when we got rid of the NBA without thinking about returns

We do have some exciting challenges downstream, such as:

·         working out what the difference between ebooks and apps and associated usage rights

·         moving from outright sales models to new models, which most probably will be subscription and rental based

·         redefining and creating tomorrow’s libraries

·         exploiting the rapidly evolving social networking environment and helping readers find a digital needle in a digital haystack, or as it is now called ‘discoverability’

·         working out how we audit the sales ‘honesty box’ environment we have created

Returning to basics.

There are only two people that count in the value chain – the author, creator who puts in the IP and the consumer who puts in the cash. Everyone in between adds cost, but more than ever has to add value. Digital publishing isn’t just about the downstream activity and the consumer it is about the life cycle of content, context and rights from Author to reader.

I believe that the argument I have presented today can present one piece to tomorrow’s jigsaw and new opportunities which themselves could be significant and impact the downstream market, provide long overdue development productivity and rights governance and, may even offer a opportunity that doesn’t just cannibalise existing print but can compliment it.

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