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From Competitors To Collaborators: 12 Steps For Publishers In The Digital Age

[This morning, I am presenting a talk, “An architecture of collaboration”, at Klopotek’s Publishers Forum, taking place in Berlin. The content of the talk follows. If you are interested in seeing the full presentation, Klopotek has also posted a video of the talk.]

Three years ago, Hugh McGuire, who spoke at this meeting in 2013, declared that “The distinction between ‘the internet’ and ‘books’ is totally arbitrary and will disappear in five years. Start adjusting now.”

At the time, his claim seemed aggressive, perhaps even outlandish to some. But as Hugh went on to explain in his contribution to Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto:

“While we are in the process of seeing a massive shift in the technology used to read long-form content, to date we’ve actually seen very little real disruption in the structures (rather than the mechanisms) by which people get their books to read. That is, the current structures of getting a book into a reader’s hands (publisher -> seller -> reader) looks a lot like the print world.”

In a few moments you’ll hear from Baldur Bjarnason, who will answer the question “What if an eBook is no option for your customers?” If I could borrow a bit from something he wrote last summer, in a post entitled “Make eBooks worth it”:

Of course ebooks as they currently exist are fine for many people. But those who assume that this is acceptable are also assuming a stable media industry. In entering the digital arena, books (e- or not) are brought into direct competition with not only other time wasters (games, video, etc.) but other forms of reading, namely the web and apps. If the ebook ecosystem cannot support a diversity of content and interfaces, the web and apps will step in to fill the gaps.

Starting with the assumption of a “stable media industry” limits our ability to adapt. At a conference dedicated to independent presses and self-published work, Dana Beth Weinberg presented the results of a survey she had previously conducted for Writers Digest and Digital Book World.

The somewhat controversial survey found that, on average, authors earned more on books published through traditional channels than books published independently. Publishers Weekly captured her perspective this way:

Weinberg emphasized that she wasn’t trying to discourage people from entering publishing either as a self-publisher or by establishing a press, but only looking to point out the challenges ahead. She noted that consumer spending on all books is a “limited pie” and that not every author or publisher can be a winner.

This notion of a “limited pie” shapes a lot of our thinking about books, eBooks, digital formats, subscription models, fan fiction, independent publishing, copyright terms and more. Belief in a static or a shrinking pie puts us on defense, inclined to protect core aspects of traditional models. We think about new entrants and platforms taking share from existing publishers, retailers and others.

Last October, I asked “Can collaborative approaches help grow the size of the pie for reading?” (It’s a question I have asked in a variety of ways dating back to “The opportunity in abundance” in 2011). In framing the question, I consciously avoided using the word “book”, because the traditional format is not the only way we’ll be able to sell content in the future.

Physical supply chains promote efficiency: intermediaries aggregate supply and demand in ways that streamline the market for providers and consumers. But digital media is about more than efficiency: it affords publishers an opportunity to embrace alternative formats, different business models and new discovery mechanisms.

Keeping up with these new options is a challenge. Platforms that started with the likes of Pandamian and Symtext have expanded to include Medium, Atavist, Wattpad, Storybird and many others. Media that was once print, then eBooks, increasingly is web-based, affording both data and dialogue. Business models have expanded to include subscription, licensing, pay-as-you-go and other approaches to monetization. Discovery is tied at least in part to communities of readers that have been organized on platforms like Goodreads, Unbound and (once again) Wattpad.

In this environment, the market for reading may be expanding significantly, but the gains are seen almost entirely outside the prevailing supply chain. Fixed on the creation, management and sale of physical and digital objects, publishers view other forms of writing and reading as potential threats to their established markets.

Before publishers can take advantage of this market growth, they need to develop what I’ve been calling “an architecture of collaboration”. Rather than see new platforms and business models as competition, publishers should explore ways to engage with companies and communities that can help us understand and offer new sources and uses of what was once just book content.

We can grow the size of the pie for reading. Studies like the one presented by Professor Weinberg approach this topic in a fundamentally broken way, with the notion that abundance divides a fixed or shrinking pie so finely that most of us can’t benefit. Instead, we need to examine how the dynamic of a larger writing population might lead to more content consumption, not less.

So what should publishers be doing to develop this architecture of collaboration? While it pains me to say it, I am sometimes criticized for not offering enough specific advice. With this talk, I want to make sure you know what I mean.

So, I have developed a set of twelve recommended actions. I’ll present them today in an order that ranges from easy – “you can do this today” – to hard – “you’ll need to change how you think about publishing”. The first of these recommended actions:

1. Join the World Wide Web Consortium, the w3c.

In a recent post, e-reading advocate Liza Daly called on publishers to join the w3c and its working groups to help shape the future of content creation, management and consumption on the web. In her view, the w3c needs “participation from publishers, reading system developers, ebook developers and other thinkers in digital publishing.”

So in fact, I want you to do more than join. I want you to participate on committees and raise issues that elevate publishing’s voice.

To be fair, both publishers and the w3C need to find ways to make participation both more affordable and more effective. But as Daly concluded, “This is important, high-profile work, and there are some hard problems to solve.” If publishers don’t find a way to fill some seats at the table, decisions about the future of content on the web will be made by people who don’t necessarily represent our experience or interests.

2. Embrace the web.

If you ask most book publishers what keeps them up at night, “Amazon” is sure to be mentioned. In the United States, if you talk to the Authors Guild about significant threats to its members’ interests, “Google” will certainly be named. And if you ask a periodical publisher about the platforms that vex them, “Apple”, with its iPads and iPhones, is likely to make the short list.

What binds these three examples? Scale. Amazon, Google and Apple all compete at a scale that dwarfs any given publisher. In fact, these platforms have begun to approach the size of publishing as a whole.

I’m not a fan of the idea that publishers can or should try to fight scale with scale, but I do think it makes sense to work toward as level a playing field as possible. The open web represents one of our best opportunities to restore that level playing field.

Borrowing a phrase from Jeremy Rifkin, the web provides us with a “collaborative commons”. Freedom of access grows the pool of readers. It is in our interest to preserve the web’s architecture, openness and standards.

That’s why I remain surprised by the silence on the part of publishers about decisions that threaten net neutrality in places like the United States. I wish publishers, ever so concerned with the impact of Amazon, Google and Apple, understood that access to the internet could soon be determined by the companies they fear most.

3. Change the roles of standards and their governing bodies.

Today, most standards are used to make the supply chain more efficient. In a ‘stable media industry’, that made sense. But as both ends of the supply chain open up, collapsing the middle, we need approaches that guarantee transparency and openness.

I’ll start with transparency. Independent authors represent what I’ve called “the single largest experiment in the history of publishing.” But the results of this experiment are largely invisible to us. Why? Consider the cost of identifiers in markets like the United States, where a single ISBN costs $125, while a bundle of 1,000 can be obtained for $1 each.

This discriminatory pricing means that most new entrants are not included or analyzed as part of whatever supply chain we have. We need to make ISBNs and other identifiers universally affordable. We also need to open up access to the data, so that a wider audience can hope to understand and respond to changes in the marketplace.

When I talk about openness, I always start with readers. Here’s an example: Today, publishers have adopted, though not really embraced, EPUB as a digital standard. But in practice, EPUB is close to meaningless to most people who read eBooks. It is a producer standard – publishers use it to create eBooks that are supplied to online retailers – but the retailers almost always deliver those books in formats other than EPUB.

In practice, this “standard” has simply given publishers a common way to submit files to eBook retailers, who then create their own, proprietary formats. These proprietary formats lock readers into specific platforms, limiting choice and denying portability. Our ambition for whatever standards we adopt – and the work with the w3c will go a long way towards determining that – should be reader-driven, and open.

4. Collate everything that is being said about a book.

It’s a big data world; we should be using the tools that can tell us what that data says.

Here, publishers are currently operating from a position of weakness. Much of what is said about a book is retained by others, sometimes behind membership or paywalls. Most publishers track reviews only from known publications, and many stop doing so after the initial reviews are published when a book is first released. Very few publishers follow comments or reader reviews of a book, and it wasn’t that long ago that a cross-section of publishers opposed the publication of reader reviews on sites like Amazon.

Yet the technology exists to collate and help us analyze everything that is being said about a book, often enough in real time. Other industries are already taking advantage of these tools to maintain and improve their customer relationships. Many companies use social-media data to pinpoint problems and improve what they offer. To date, very few publishers do that. It’s a good time to change.

5. Gather and use data on open rates for digital books, the share of the book actually read and how persistent readers are. Ask what this data might be telling you.

Boundaries between “types” of publishing are blurring. The rise of long-form platforms like Atavist, Byliner and Longreads, as well as the development of multimedia stories like “Snow Fall”, challenge the notion of what a book is and can be. These changes in forms as well as formats make it critical that we improve our understanding of demand and consumption of published content.

Selling content on the web provides publishers with an opportunity to look outward and gather information on what readers actually do with the content they buy. A book that is never opened, or one that is opened but barely read, should be the source of significant concern, as its lack of value erodes demand for other work.

6. Use and extend tools that encourage commentary, annotation and dialogue about book content.

An engaged reader provides the basis for a loyal consumer. Publishing is now open at both ends; we need to adapt to that reality.

Earlier this year, McKinsey & Company interviewed Clay Shirky on “The disruptive power of collaboration“. Shirky explained his interest in the “collaborative penumbra”, the areas in which collaboration enabled by new technologies fosters different ways of engagement and interaction.

Claiming that “sharing changes everything”, Shirky used 3D printing and Wikipedia to show how technology has broadened the nature of collaboration:

When I upload something to Thingiverse, or I make an edit on Wikipedia, it’s not like I need anybody else’s help or permission. So the collaborative range is expanding. The tight groups have more resources, and the loose groups can be much more loosely coordinated and operate at a much larger scale. And I think the people who think about collaboration want to know what’s happening to it, and the answer is everything.

As Clive Thompson points out in Smarter Than You Think, the growth of the social web has led to a significant increase in the amount of writing done by adults. We have no collective experience to inform how an explosion of writing, as comments, annotation, blog posts, short stories, works of fiction, fan fiction and who knows what else, will shape our appetite for reading. But … I think we can make a pretty educated guess.

7. Embrace fan fiction.

Within publishing, these writers represent the kind of “prosumer” audience that has broadened the market for things like digital cameras, home theater and more. Online, there is a “flood of amateur collaboration” we can embrace and benefit from.

Fan fiction has also developed a collaborative infrastructure that publishers could learn from. It includes early-stage or “beta” reviewers, a well-understood approach to releasing and refining works in progress, and sincere engagement around reviews of published work. This is already taking place on a massive scale – millions of such works exist, some of extraordinary length.

The growth of fan fiction means that it is likely that new and different content forms will emerge, increasingly determined through a dialogue between author and reader, not just a publisher. In his book Clive Thompson puts it plainly:  “If you want to see the future of collective thinking … watch what fan fiction writers are doing.” For publishers, if you want to see the future of writing, the same advice applies.

Within the publishing community, no one has been a more thoughtful or persistent advocate of fan fiction than Anna von Veh of Say Books. von Veh, who spoke at this event in 2012, has really framed the opportunity for publishers who find ways to support fan fiction. For anyone interested in this growing movement, her work is a great place to start.

8. Organize communities, not just to be monetized, but to be supported.

We can be smarter in groups and communities, if those groups are organized and managed – curated – in ways that promote healthy interaction. Publishers are well-positioned to convene, manage and reflect communities whose conversations start and are nurtured by content.

But we also need to develop a service architecture around the needs of readers. To capitalize on what Clive Thompson calls “the cognitive power of a highly connected audience”, we must see the audience for what it requires: commitment. Simply convening a community to lower transaction costs or more effectively market traditional products won’t work. We need to provide value before we can expect to monetize any investment.

9. Experiment with conversion architectures that help attract and retain audiences.

This is a significant shift in the way that most publishers think about our business. The current focus primarily results in the sale of physical or digital objects. As we move to the web and work to organize communities, at least some of our content will be used to attract audiences to a given digital destination. If we want to compete effectively against platforms that already hold a significant scale advantage, we have to offer potential readers a reason to visit and still more reasons to stay.

As examples of direct-response opportunities, think about using subscription models as a way to test demand for various types of content. As well, consider them an option to measure persistence – how long a reader stays with a book. Having built an audience, a publisher might offer membership benefits to loyal or highly engaged readers.

Direct-response marketing won’t work for every type of book, nor will it work for every type of reader. But it does give publishers who try it the opportunity to interact directly with readers in ways that can refine both the content they create and the forms they use to deliver it.

10. Think, and plan, globally.

I think there are at least two things that will change as supply chains become increasingly global and open-ended. The first is operational: Systems built for one country or region might look like a source of competitive advantage when scaling to publish in other markets. But unaddressed cultural and organizational roadblocks can quickly strip those systems of efficiency or effectiveness.

Local agreements about things like who enters metadata, what metadata formats matter most, when information should be released, the frequency of inventory updates, how many pages appear in a printed book – these seem like details, but they can quickly and sometimes irreparably undermine a systems rollout.

Workflows have always had this interconnectedness, but physical goods covered up some of the problems when mismatches occurred. Incorrect metadata on the side of a shipping carton could be interpreted by someone reading the box or opening it to figure out what books were inside. That’s no longer so easy.

The second area is both an opportunity and a risk, particularly for publishers in smaller markets. Territorial rights are increasingly challenged by the growth of content available through the web. In markets for which rights have not been cleared, readers are often frustrated in the simple act of trying to buy a book. This fosters the kind of consumer behavior most publishers would want to avoid.

World language rights will become more important, both to acquire and market book content. In digital realms, this is an opportunity for books that might never have reached a small, local-language audience with physical products. But it also poses a threat, as publishers in larger markets with better-known works might overwhelm demand for local titles.

As with fan fiction and online communities, I don’t think the solution is to protect a market. That’s a short-term response to a global change. Instead, local publishers can leverage the insight and understanding they already have – or should quickly develop – to provide superior content and support in the markets they can best serve.

11. #HackPublishing.

There’s a movement of sorts in the United States to #HackGolf – to open up what is sometimes seen as a tradition-bound, elitist game and draw in new players and fans. Because I’m in Europe, let me use a parallel analogy and consider the powerful appeal of European football.

Whether I play football in my back yard or in Allianz Arena, I am still playing football. Each form co-exists and gains from the other forms. If I play in an amateur league, I gain an appreciation for the skills and beauty of the professional game. I don’t threaten its existence; I complement it.

Contrast that with the views of someone like Michael Koslowski, editor-in-chief of the publishing web site Good e-Reader. In March he wrote that “Self-publishers should not be called authors”, adding:

Calling everyone authors who puts words on a document and submits them to the public devalues the word so much, it makes it meaningless… I would like to see the process simplified, you are either a writer or a professional author. If you can earn your living from your writing, you are a professional author, anyone else is just a plain old writer. Indie authors and self-published authors who claim they are real authors make me laugh.

Like golf (and unlike football), publishing is too often seen as a tradition-bound, elitist game. Perpetuating that image guarantees that our industry will grow less relevant by the day. To succeed, we need to embrace the wider universe of writing, which is inspired by and will only grow a wider universe of reading.

12. Change our approach to copyright.

We’re operating in a new and open-ended digital commons. Copyright as practiced today limits our vision and leads us to protect what we have rather than embrace experiments that may grow the overall size of the reading pie.

Terms are too long, and the law is used too often to defend business models rather than encourage the creation of new works. Leading associations should embrace new uses of existing work, with reasonable compensation, not prevention, as the fair outcome.

But we need not wait for international reform to change our own mindset. When he launched Cursor, Richard Nash offered authors three-year agreements, ones that could be renegotiated or even terminated after that initial period. Nash argued that the limited term kept both publisher and author engaged with the work, to the benefit of readers and writers alike.

That’s not the only example, either. New models are everywhere, if we look for them.


So that’s my architecture of collaboration in publishing – twelve things everyone here can do to prepare for a web-enabled future. In closing, I’d like to return to the person I started with, Hugh McGuire, who in 2012 wrote:

The market economy and the innovative spirit of the Web are great at rewarding those who find ways to deliver more value to people. There will be immense commercial and creative incentive for new publishers to put books on the Web, because there is just more value for readers there. We don’t know what the business models will look like. Subscription books? Advertising? Upselling other products? Serialized books? Something altogether different? We don’t know yet, but eventually courageous new publishers will find out.

Those “courageous new publishers” need not be exclusively new. But, the hour grows late, and the work we need to do to foster an architecture of collaboration in publishing is significant.

Here’s what we do know: supporting collaboration in other settings has grown the pie. It hasn’t always immediately and reliably generated a business model, and that makes it easy to dismiss collaboration in the near term. As well, at least some of the benefits of collaboration are externalities: My life is made better by Wikipedia, even if the folks running it have to struggle to stay funded.

Still, we might encourage this collaborative chaos, the one in which anyone can write and be published, a bit more, to see where it leads us. I’m guessing that, when we figure out how “sharing changes everything” in publishing, reading will no longer be seen as a static or a shrinking pie.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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