Whither Publishing In The Twenty Teens?

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.” Steve Jobs in interview with David Pogue & John Markoff of the New York Times

Maybe it’s the slew of prediction posts and the ease with which one can now review them over at George’s blog, but whatever the cause, I have been thinking about publishing, what it is, why we do it and how it has changed and how it will change over the next decade or so. Mostly that is because I plan to stay in the industry and function as a publisher, but also because I’d like to have a sense of where we are headed so I can help authors and publishers adapt to the flow of change.

The Platform
If I was to put the question in context for people I would quote the following from Paul Saffo (who is, by any analysis, a genius):

Rule: Change is never linear. Our expectations are linear, but new technologies come in “S” curves, so we routinely overestimate short-term change and underestimate long-term change. “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” From the Long Now Seminar: “Embracing Uncertainty: the secret to effective forecasting

Why do I quote that piece? Because people have become so used to the power of the internet and the world wide web that they tend to see it as an innovation whose impact has happened and is already understood. I think most people are wrong. The Internet IS the platform and we are still struggling to accommodate the long term implications of that.

With the proviso that access is neither free (though it is cheap as in beer) nor, for many in the world, easy (but getting easier as mobile internet spreads with mobile technology an associated and fascinating technology), the internet has made publishers out of everyone on the planet.

The means of publication and distribution have been opened up to many, many millions. Digital printing has been slowly but surely reducing the barriers to print publishing and the impact of that has been felt mostly at the bottom of the publishing ladder as self publishers flourish and wither, succeed and fail not always because of merit or flaws but with impressive determination and in large numbers. But digital PUBLISHING, using the Internet as the platform, this is quite a revolutionary thing.

It is my view that all the efforts by various parties to create ebook readers that part the reader from their hard earned cash and set up some variant of the iPod/iTunes power punch for books, are hopelessly misplaced.

Why re-create the wheel? The challange is not to invent the future (it’s here) the challenge is to make it pay and as to that, I spotted a great description of where we are over on David Worlock’s blog (another very smart man, who I have seen speak previously but never realised he has a blog) last week and I think it offers a clear vision:

We are working within a new continuum, every technology we will use in the next 15 years has already been invented and patented, and what remains to be seen is only the way in which consumers react to which combinations of hardware/software/content to solve which problems in what contexts. And nothing is lost by experimentation.

What This Means For Us?
This reality though has several disconcerting elements:

    1) Value is flowing out of traditional print cash-cows as the economics of those markets change. This is especially clear to newspaper publishers, magazine publishers and to hardback imprints. I suspect that paperback imprints will begin to feel the pressure from the web much more keenly in 2010-2011. This will happen as more heavy book buyers begin to engage with web reading driven as they will be by more mobile access (especially when Google Editions launches) and better, more compelling offers from technology companies and publishers.

    2) Total value is spreading across a lot more players. In some cases this is driving revenue per unit towards zero as competition drives down the value of each individual piece of information or content. As players with little hope of getting paid anyway charge little or nothing for their content, the overall value of the market is reduced.

    3) The emerging supply chain structure does not favour content oriented companies who do not have scale and efficient ways of delivering that content cost-effectively or a specialist niche that makes their content more valuable. If you are not one of the newly emerging content power houses like Demand Media (Some thoughts on demand: PoynterReadWriteWebWired) unless you don’t charge the economic cost of your content, in which case you are lifestyle business, or your content has another purpose than making you money directly. On the other hand, there is no new normal and the supply chain will surely be a web rather than a chain, with room for all kinds of innovative structures.

    4) As the volume of content explodes, the average quality drops. This seems to me incontestable, if only because many people are not good writers and many more are only mediocre at best. I do not exclude myself from these groups. This will provide opportunity.

    5) Most people will not make money from content.

Do I Have Any Predictions?
A few but they are not confined to 2010:

    1) Ultimately ebooks and ereaders will fail in favour of access to content paid or free over the internet, perhaps through apps on multi-use devices. That content will be text, graphics, video, audio, games and maybe new formats I’ve never even thought of it, won’t really matter, what will matter is what the customer wants to spend their attention (and possibly money) on.

    2) At some point, ISPs will be forced to share more of the money they are making in the back of all this content with the content producers, just like they have been forced to by ESPN (Wired story). It amazes me that they have escaped this for so long.

    3) Quality and curation will deliver rewards (so firing editors may be self-defeating) in the long-term, if you survive the shakeout. Given the proliferation of poorly written/created content, acknowledged quality will be a valuable feature as will good filtering capabilities (as we can already see).

    4) Survival is by no means certain for publishers, because the system does not EXPLICITLY need us to operate, we need to create a new ecosphere or at the very least a new reason for existing. I don’t think this is impossible. For an interesting analysis of how supply chains change and adapt read this article by Paul Saffo.

    5) Big authors and small authors will become vibrant self-publishers in digital and print, the middle ranks of writers will suffer frustration and pain as they exceed small ambitions only to have their larger dreams dashed on the mountain of content and the inability to scale it (I say writers but I believe this will be true of everyone who creates content of any type).

This may seem gloomy, and perhaps it is, but facing the facts of the digital revolution in the face put you in a better position to think strategically about how to react and how to change. Failure to change has only one outcome and I don’t believe that extinction would be to my liking.


9 thoughts on “Whither Publishing In The Twenty Teens?

  1. like some of the ideas and the whole ISP thing is something I missed. I can’t see it happening though as more and more providers are moving to a free model. I think free access to the internet is the future and how you charge within that is the future.. surprise surprise Murdoch may be right again.

    • Thanks Colm,

      I’ve never understood people who bet against Murdoch!

      On the ISP point, the free model is unsustainable given the growing demand for capacity. There’ll need to be new investment in capacity soon enough to meet that demand, especially as the speed of access demanded goes up.


  2. I don’t see these as being gloomy at all. Realistic, yes, and thankfully so.

    Your third point is the most critical, IMO, as the decision publishers have made there over the past couple of years (and continue to make) will have serious long-term effects on their ability to be competitive in the future. Tech evolves, devices and retailers come and go, but at the end of the day, if the quality declines, it’s game over.

  3. One thing which concerns me about the future of digital publishing is the nature of the archives. Today, we can always go back to printed and even handwritten texts. What happens if a publisher or magazine goes under, i.e. how do we guarantee that future generations have access to a writer’s work?

  4. Hi Eoin,
    Sci-fi writer and tech journalist, Charlie Stross, has some interesting points to make about the problems of making money from digital publishing, and ensuring quality. He isn’t a great believer in Murdoch’s model, because of the way Google is creating a completely different model of spreading information. One that doesn’t automatically create an environment that demands quality (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/01/the-monetization-paradox-or-wh.html). And I don’t necessarily agree that an iTunes for stories wouldn’t work. Given that iTunes is looking at a subscription model, I could see that being the way publishers need to go – though it could mean we all end up writing serials.
    First though, publishers would have to give their brands a proper online profile so that people recognize them as filters of quality and come to them looking for the good stuff. This is still the main reason writers need publishers in the real world, but the recognition of the publisher’s brand, to date, has only needed to extend as far as the reviewers and booksellers. Now that consumers are starting to bypass traditional retail outlets, that brand recognition – that of a provider of quality material – has to reach all the way to the reader. Otherwise, the publishing industry will merely become a service provider to writers who can afford to use it, and we’ll be swamped with gigabytes of free-of-charge, stream-of-consciousness ‘reality’ writing, following in the wake of television.
    I think there’s a danger that the publishing industry could be shunted aside because the readers are busy writing for each other. So there HAS to be a place to go for people who want something more.

    • Oisin,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Love Stross’ point of view, mainly because totally agree. The real advantage news orgs still have is that they have brands and reputation. If they’d only reduce their exposure to legacy distribution and employ more journalists doing real work, they might justify their pay-walls and the value of their content.

      In publishing terms, I agree that they need to move online with gusto and more than likely around vertical communities of interest that engage the audience and their attention. Tor.com is doing a good job of showing how that might work.

      In terms of brand there was an excellent keynote at the Digital book World conference by Shiv Singh on the topic of branding.


  5. Pingback: Seizing the Means of Production – Part 3 » Oisín McGann's Blog

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