Why pyramids?

In “The opportunity in abundance“, I described the prospect of people not engaging with our content a manifestation of what Jane McGonigal calls a “super-threat“, not just to publishing, but to the way we function as a country, an economy and as a part of a world order.

I went on to say that we have a responsibility to address this threat, not just so that we can make money, but because we’re the ones with the ability to solve it.

Other industries facing an uncertain future have banded together to solve big problems on a macro level. The Gas Research Institute, for example, was authorized in 1976, at a time when the natural gas industry was highly fragmented among producers, wholesalers and distributors.

By 1981, GRI was spending $68.5 million on research and a total of $80.5 million on oversight and R&D. This represented about 0.2% of the wellhead price of gas that year, valued at the time at a bit more than $38 billion. Funding, drawn from a surcharge on sales as well as some government grants, accelerated to something north of $100 million in the mid-1980s.

If you look across all of publishing in the United States, it’s about a $40 billion business. Imagine what we could do if we could create and sustain an organization with $80 million a year in funding. This is the opportunity in abundance: a fighting chance to remake our industry and ourselves in a way that reflects, to borrow the phrase, our better angels.

Individual publishing companies are often described as “silo’d”, with distinct functions and departments that sometimes operate in a way that blocks communication and leads them to miss opportunities. But publishing as a whole is also silo’d, represented by dozens of industry associations whose charters are specific to an narrow set of issues or a component of the supply chain.

They are also underfunded. The Book Industry Study Group, the association with perhaps the broadest charter, has an annual budget well under $1 million, and it is bigger than some of its sister organizations.

The funding argument contained in “Abundance” has sometimes been interpreted as a call to support existing organizations more fully. While I don’t want to deny these organizations bigger budgets, I don’t think that expanding the existing, silo’d organizations is the right solution.

Consistent with my recent post about “life during wartime“, we need to develop and fund an organization that looks at content creation, management, dissemination and preservation (*) as an integrated whole. It needs to span all aspects of the publishing value chain, and it should look across multiple markets (trade, education, scholarly and academic publishing and the like).

And … it should be measured by outcomes that improve the extent to which content is usefully consumed. The objective here isn’t just efficiency (though that is important); it’s ultimately our goal to place reading at the center of a social and civic conversation.

Building something bigger than ourselves can motivate in ways that a litany of conferences, trade shows and confabs never will approach. Most of us came to publishing, to libraries, to book selling, to writing because we love what this business could do in the world. Now’s the time to make that a sustainable reality.

(*) Edited on January 31 to add “preservation”, with thanks to Sheila Morrissey for the suggestion.

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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