Things will get worse for publishers as they currently exist!
The increasingly wonderful Publishing Perspectives caries and editorial by Richard Eoin Nash*. It is a nice tight piece that makes a number of clear points:
1) This is an industry based on a hobby:
The book business is a tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby. But rather than celebrate and serve the hobbyists, we expect them to shell out ever more money for the books we keep throwing at them (a half million English-language books in 2008 in the U.S.).
2) Our distribution system suits publishers, not readers or writers:
Instead of using the ever-increasing array of cheap and free tools now available to offer new ways to structure the writer-reader relationship, we’re using the technology to either thwart the readers (see: DRM) or to hustle them, using social media to move product, not have a conversation.
3) Publishing needs to change to a service type model:
For-profit publishing should not be saved — it should figure out new business models, ones that offer services that both readers and writers want and are happy to pay for.
4) And in the words of The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine, we are all writers now:
We’re also going to have to recognize that reading increasingly is writing — readers are writing back in all sorts of ways, commenting on books, re-mixing books as in fan fiction, or creating from scratch, and publishers, rather than barring this activity, or hiding from it, need to embrace it and find ways to serve it.
One area I disagree strongly with him on though is the idea of service. I feel like there have been a glut of ground claiming posts recently mapping out a future for publishing, Nash like Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly seems to be pointing firmly in the direction of Publishing as a Service (PaS) (although to be fair to Savikas, he does say Content rather than publishing), the idea that if publishers want to survive they should adapt to become facilitators of the people who are creating and consuming content (I know people hate that word). Mike Shatzkin on the other hand seems to think the focus should be on curating those niches and in re-engineering a publishing portfolio around a vertical segment.
Now that might sound like splitting hairs, but in fact if a publisher only chooses one of these options (or over emphasises services to the detriment of the content) they lead to different scenarios, one which sees publishers create a set of tools to facilitate conversation and engagement and the other whereby the publisher focuses on changing their list and reinventing their content into a package suited to a niche in which they have credibility. in space one they have become software engineers, in space two they remain publishers.
Reinventing the wheel
When I read that first concept I cannot help but think that those tools exist. There is WordPress, Blogger and Typepad and even Ning. There is LibraryThing, Shelfari and even to a certain extent Amazon. Why recreate the wheel?
Publishers are not coders and we probably never should be. Personally, I don’t think that most publishers should spend their time creating design software or better printing presses, leave that to the odd genius who happens to also be a publisher or the software programmer? It would be a stupid investment. It isn’t our specialization, far better for us to spend time curating and filtering content, because filtering is what the web needs.
That doesn’t necessarily mean gate-keeping, we may be facilitating the filtering by readers within a community, rather than choosing what floats. The point is that spending money creating tools seems a waste when they exist already and are owned by people with much deeper pockets in many cases. Spending money curating the content, packaging it however seems like a good investment, using the existing tools and new tools as they emerge to distribute content , engage with an audience and promote good material sounds like a publisher’s job and is certainly something we can do.
Ditch the tool creation idea, lets look at tool usage and author/community development
I think that Nash actually sums it up better than in this editorial on his About Page on his website when he writes:
Basically, the best-selling five hundred books each year will likely be published like Little Brown publishes James Patterson, on a TV production model, or like Scholastic did Harry Potter and Doubleday Dan Brown, on a big Hollywood blockbuster model.
The rest will be published by niche social publishing communities.
That short phrase encapsulates the changes I see coming to the world of books and reading. Communities of Interest (with readers at various degrees of engagement from Obsessed to Mildly Taken with a genre/niche) that are deep and to which publishers add value and thus gain respect, credibility and leadership of a sort that allows them to curate and (hopefully profit). There is a danger though, as discussed on Twitter with Peter Brantleythat this role would be limited to publishers and in many niches, single individuals might wield enough power to curate a niche. It sounds plausible but I DOUBT they would remain independent forever as some publisher hoovers the niche operations in a particular segment up to re-balance their portfolio.
Nash goes on in his about page to suggest that those communities (niches) need an infrastructural base:
Now is time to build their infrastructure. Let me know if you’ve the time or money to help.
But as I say above the idea of publishers as a provider of tools I think is flawed, sure we can advise on what tools to use for certain platforms, which blogging engine we prefer or social networks we find work for what genre, but actually making those tools is too far beyond our reach and represent foolish dreams rather than real ambitions.
There is a lure to thinking of publishers as some kind of technological innovators, but it is a call of the sirens, it will end in tears. I’m with Shatzkin in encouraging a concentration on the best quality niche content mediated through the existing and developing tools in a credible way to create and curate a community of interest around a niche.
Yes that means slicing, dicing, repackaging, up-selling, giving away and generally bashing content from place to place in the most platform neutral way, that still requires good enough content for them to think it worthwhile.
All of this is a long way to say that Richard is right in the overview but I’d be concerned on some of his details!