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Perspectives On The Road Ahead For Publishers (And Publishing)

[The 2015 Publishers Forum featured four conference themes – strategy and goals, the role of information technology, customer focus and new business models. Closing the conference, I moderated a panel that considered those themes from the standpoints of a publishing startup, a digital-only imprint and a publishing innovation lab.

Titled “Outlook: Perspectives On The Road Ahead”, the panel explored what works, and what doesn’t work, for those laboring at the leading edges of our industry. To frame the discussion, I provided a brief overview that returned to my persistent call for a shift in our approach to creating, managing and distributing content. Those remarks are presented here.]

Three years ago, the first time I joined the conversation at Publishers Forum, I gave a talk titled “Context First”. In it, I talked about the ways that moving from a mindset of “product” – a book – to “service” or “solutions” would change at least four things for publishers:

  • The first was a clear call for content to become open, accessible, and interoperable. Adherence to standards is not be an option. The current proliferation of file formats, rights management schemes and device-specific content is unlikely to persist. Consumers (i.e., readers) will increasingly look for content that can be accessed across multiple platforms on a real-time basis. 

    Already we see examples of ways in which content access is provided through cloud-based services. The bulk of what we currently think of as book sales may migrate from product to subscription sales. But, much as professionals look for standard interfaces in database products that they buy today, readers will want and come to expect similar interoperability in the content they acquire (or lease).

  • I then suggested that publishers looking to compete on context need to focus more clearly on using context to promote discovery. I offered a model that identified “reuse” and “chunkability” – the ability to separate content into useful components – as core considerations in planning for and implementating contextual schemes.

    It is straightforward to understand that travel or cooking content can be made “chunkable” with many opportunities to recombine or reuse portions of an original text. However, publishers such as Harlequin have already shown the value of creating full-book context that helps promote discovery and trial. What’s exciting now is our ability to use available tools to capture and market more than just the title-level context. A world full of contextually rich manuscripts could open a new era of discovery. In this era of abundance, digital delight can be the new hand-selling.

  • Because publishers are competing with businesses that already use low- and no-cost tools, trying to beat them on the cost of content is a losing proposition. Instead, we need to recognize that abundance forces publishers to make broader use of content. The current practice of editing content for a single use, even a single format, is expensive and unsustainable.
  • Publishers will distinguish themselves if they can provide readers with tools that draw upon context to help them manage abundance. Although the nature of content repositories is likely to change, abundance will only increase the demand for both context and the ability to leverage it. The skills that have been developed to direct and to teach others how to find content could provide a solid foundation for efforts to provide tools that help manage abundance.

So, that was three years ago.

Two years ago, Helmut von Berg asked me to develop a new talk, “Disaggregating supply”, that built upon some of these ideas. Toward the end of the talk, I invoked the words of a colleague and friend, John Maxwell, who had suggested that “we needn’t take boundedness and completeness as a prescription for what serious media ought to be. Our challenge is to look beyond that.”

Context first” had proposed that we not use containers as the primary source of information. Instead, I asked that we consider them as vehicles to transmit what Hugh McGuire calls an “internally complete representation.” But, “internally complete” is not the same as “complete”.

I argued then that we’re inevitably moving toward what I called a “pre-book world”: a living representation of the development, refinement and extension of a particular work. That’s what we get with the web. At various points, an object – a book or an eBook, as examples – may be rendered, but as a subset of the greater representation.

That trend is easier to see in scholarly or academic publishing, where digital has been the norm for a decade or more. But I think it will grow to include many forms of publishing. As it does, we’ll need to think more about components, solutions and ultimately the potential inherent in disaggregating supply.

Last year, I joined the conversation at Publishers Forum to talk about what I called “An architecture of collaboration” – 12 things everyone here can do to prepare for a web-enabled future. Those 12 things included calls to:

  • Embrace the web
  • Change the role of standards and their governing bodies
  • Collate everything that is being said about a book
  • Encourage commentary, annotation and dialogue about book content
  • Embrace fan fiction
  • Organize communities, not just to be monetized, but to be supported
  • Adopt conversion architectures that help attract and retain audiences – in effect, content marketing for book publishers
  • Think, and plan globally; and
  • Change our approach to copyright

In closing that talk, I returned to 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.

I said at the time that 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 is significant.

We know that supporting collaboration in other settings has grown the size of the market. 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.

I think you can see that the themes that run through these talks haven’t changed much: open, accessible and interoperable content; a focus on making content discoverable; broader use, not lower costs; and providing audiences with tools that help them navigate abundance. For me, that’s the road ahead.

More than thirty-five years have passed since punk poet laureate Joe Strummer sang “If you’ve been trying for years, we’ve already heard your song”. Maybe that’s the case with my ideas, as well. To safeguard against that, we assembled a panel of three people working at the forefront of publishing innovation – a Publishers Forum collection of “courageous new publishers”, including:

A set of questions about the opportunities and challenges inherent in working at the leading edge of publishing guided that conversation. The questions were:

  1. From your perspective, what are the best opportunities for publishers to pursue in the next few years?
  2. What obstacles, including but not limited to culture, skill sets and core competencies, stand in the way of publishers realizing the potential of those opportunities?
  3. In the course of the conference, what have you heard from our speakers that surprised you? That concerned you?
  4. Is there a panel (other than this one) or a topic you would have liked to have seen addressed? Why is it important for you?
  5. If you could change one thing to make your work with publishers easier or more effective, what would that be?
  6. Are there things that publishers typically misunderstand about your work? How do you work with them to create a better understanding?
  7. What does “the road ahead” look like for you? What does it look like for the publishers you work with?

A future post will capture the content of that discussion

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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