Six Implications of Digital Vertical Niches

Promises made, must be kept!
I promised I would post notes to go with my Pecha Kucha speech from TOC FrankFurt at the start of the week but it has been quite the week, so here, a little later than promised, they are!

For those who attended TOC Frankfurt the notes give some more detail on what I said (or would have liked to say) at the event and fill in what I couldn’t fit in.

Pecha Kucha
I want first, to say a few things about the format:

    1) It is great fun
    2) It is very hard
    3) I tried to do too much
    4) I learned an awful lot
    5) I’d do it again

So to my actual thoughts
I think that digital change is fundamentally altering the world of publishing. Like a glacier it reshapes the geography that it passes over. But in many ways that’s not very useful to a publisher, what is useful is to think about how you might react to this change and what specifically you need to be thinking about.

One of the ways to react is to develop vertical niches in product categories where you are, as Dominique Raccah put it at TOC, “Essential to the conversation!”. A vertical niche is a community organized around a particular type or genre of content, for instance, Irish History, Military History, Science Fiction or Cookery. I’ll leave it up to you to find the niches and communities that suit your market, you might even decide that you can do better than the existing ones (if there are existing ones), or indeed you may need to create some because they do not exist yet.

But what do you need to be thinking about in order to achieve a digital vertical niche or a community? I highlighted 6 things, there are more implications and perhaps these 6 are not even the most important but they are the 6 I wanted people to think about.

    1) Sales Channels
    2) Brand
    3) Content
    4) People
    5) Education
    6) Time

Sales Channels
Creating a community changes drastically the ways and opportunities for selling. For one thing it changes publishers, traditional Business to Business companies into direct to consumer companies. So your sales channels will change. That is okay though because the types of products you’ll be selling will change too. Publishers need to think about how community will change their niches/market segments/genres. If you are a publisher of computer books for instance, it seems to me that some kind of partnership with O’Reilly’s Safari is inescapable in the medium to long term (40 or so publishers agree). I strongly suspect that Tor.com have created a beast of a similar nature. Competing against it may well be folly, so how do you engage and use it as a sales channel? If your segment does not yet have its Safari or Tor.com, how can YOU create it?

Brand
I used to think that we could as easily dump the plethora of imprints that major publishers control and develop a more streamlined brand much as Thomas Nelson did recently. But recently it has occurred to me that many of these imprints can be rejuvenated as niche brands, focused exclusively on single vertical of content, filled with meaning and relevant to consumers. Of course this would require a new way of thinking as well as new honesty with readers too and a willingness to allow imprint to develop an identity of their own.

Content
If your thinking about how sales channels, products and brand are going to change then the way you look at, commissioning and using content will alter completely. In my speech I gave this quote from Mike Statzkin and I think it brings into focus the kind of thinking publishers need to do about their content offering:

The bottom line is that we can expect to see reshuffling as publishers trade off areas they can’t afford to market to for others where they’re going to expend the marketing effort and want to have the most possible content to dominate the niche and from which to extract a payoff for their efforts.

You need to double down in the niches where you can add value and create a community. Otherwise you will spread yourself too thin. That may mean allowing imprints to develop as stand alone companies, trading lists, shuttering imprints or simply commissioning tonnes of new content in a niche you already dominate.

People
If your are going to develop a community around your content then you need to consider people. Not just editors, authors and readers, but community members and the crucial voluntary leaders of those communities. How do you intend to grow an authentic community without recruiting readers and community leaders? Does an audience exist online to do that yet? How can you grow this organically? In a digital community, your content will be worthless without people and engagement. Without people your brand will not grow and your newly thought out sales channels will yield no revenue.

Education
So assume you have the right content mix, your brand has succeeded in attracting attention and you have successfully engaged volunteer community leaders how will you keep other readers interested? The key readers are new arrivals to the community. Do you have the content to hand to lure them in, is there a receptive atmosphere that encourages participation and education of people new to your topic area or genre? Or does your community intimidate newcomers and leave them cold? You need to think about how you will draw those newcomers in and educate them. This will be hard.

Time
All of this is going to take time. And a lot of that time is going to look very unproductive. You need to be ready for that. If you work in a publisher with a decent editorial staff, you’ll be used to that in any case. Of course, once you have a functioning community and so long as you don’t undermine your community and lose it, the community will be easier to maintain than to build. It will be as they say defendable and will create something of a barrier to entry* in your genre.

And that, was pretty much what I wanted to say. I know it didn’t quite come out that way, but you live and you learn Pecha Kucha!
Eoin

* Though my thinking on this is that if you have a truly open community, new publishers will be part of it either as partners or as members. Either way they will add value and ensure that your members see more reason to stay in your community or vertical.

Some Thoughts On: Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is) An Editorial by Richard Eoin Nash

Eoin Purcell

Johan Gutenberg (Thanks to Flikr user robert Scarth: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robert_scarth/)
Johan Gutenberg (Thanks to Flikr user Robert Scarth: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robert_scarth/)

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.

Stake-claiming
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!
Eoin

Planning for 2008

Eoin Purcell

Overambitious

So I foolishly announced that I would lay out a plan for blogging in 2008 in response to Bloglily’s tag. Thinking it over it sure offers a challenge. Such a big challenge and the world being so terribly random and unpredictable* that I think I made a foolish promise. So I need to do something else. If I cannot predict the blogging year, I can at least offer some thoughts on what I see playing a role in my year ahead and about which I will probably be writing a great deal.

1) Digital projects & technology

– In the next few weeks Mercier Press will be launching one of its first major digital efforts. I’m not going to talk too much about it right now but the basic idea will be to capture digital content online and take that into print. It is an experiment for us and I can see the short term element proving to be a successful precursor to a much longer term goal for us.

– What is more, 2008 sees the start of something very exciting for Mercier. We will be launching our first blog to book product. The wonderful Murphy’s brothers from Murphy’s Ice Cream will launch a book that build on their blog Ice Cream Ireland and offers all Irish ice cream lovers what is going to be a very beautiful book. There will be more of these types of books in the future (not just from Mercier) as blogging makes real talent more visible and findable on the web.**

– These are not the only reasons I think this area will be a huge part of my year in 2008. If you have been following the links both on the blog and on my linkblog at Google Reader ***, you will have seen that these issues are looming large in my thoughts. If you fail to be inspired by these I suggest you check out a few of Snowbooks videos on using Onix data to make life easy. that ought to bring the point home forcefully.

– Mercier have just started the process of moving to an integrated system (Using Anko’s Publishing Manager). it will be tricky as so much of our legacy information is in people’s head and not digital systems, but once we have finished the process we will be in a great place to make much better use of all our content.

– And then there is this, e4Books, which will probably be honoured more in the missing of the target than in the achieving it.

2) Books: reading & commissioning

– Ha, I’ll bet you saw that one coming! The To Be read pile is now insane. Though again I’m feeling a little better about that (thanks NTT). I do try. I read a good few books this year but not nearly as many as I had hoped (closer to 60 than the 100 I had planned). Spending too much time online and reading for work perhaps.

– Of course the other aspect of books will be the process of publishing and building the list here at Mercier. 2008 is now more or less to bed and it is time to get cracking on commissioning 2009. It is nice to be in a more relaxed place with this commissioning but I am conscious still that the competition is hotting up in Ireland with the arrival of an Irish based Transworld office. This side will definitely make for an exciting year.

– And while we are on the subject of books, I need to mention that Litlove has just published one, The Best of Tales From The Reading Room (you can buy it here). A collection of her very, very fine essays from her excellent blog: Tales From The Reading Room.

3) Events & Trends: the unpredictable

– Who knows what will happen to prompt a blog post. Sometimes I have been inconsistent in covering topics here and I have no doubt that will continue. One area I know I have yet to really write much on is the effect that the iPhone is having on the world of mobile devices and online reading. Apple’s OS X has taken a lump of market share in this space very rapidly implying firstly that iPhone users browse the web more than the users of other smart phone/mobile computers and also that consumers are not put off by mobile internet they just want it to be user friendly.

– Here is a list of words that I suspect (but with no real level of confidence) that we will see much more about this year: Onix, Community, Digital Publishing, Online Reading, Ebooks, widgets, content, micro-chunking, CS 3, XML. Of them, for publishers I think XML is going to be the big one! But Community will be too. Just check out Authonomy and see what I mean.

So there you go BL. I hope that my lack of planning is up to scratch.
Pleased with the outcome
Eoin

* And my reading of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan is sure not helping me remain confident of my ability to predicate anything reliably, though it is making me much more comfortable with that. More of that soon when I finish the book and process my thoughts.

** Hint! Hint! Authors, start blogging if you don’t already!

*** Who also have a shared items page which I find a it confusing.

Scribd looks cool

Eoin Purcell

Multi-authored Text
Experiments with wiki-text, networked books and multi-authored texts have been going well. Penguin have had the most high profile effort with their Million Penguins wikinovel. Last week I highlighted Ficlets which takes the idea of multi-authored texts to a news slick level allowing prequels and sequels to already written shorts [Speaking of which this one on Caesar caught my eye]

The future is Scribd
Techcrunch carried an interesting piece today discussing the early success of one of the more interesting new arrivals to this space Scribd. You can upload, search for and read documents on Scribd and it also allows for an embed function but I cannot seem to make that work on wordpress.com. What it lacks is online editing of documents. I can see how this seems a retrograde step in some regards but will certainly encourage people to post their content. Techcrunch also has some interesting points re copyright. It is a fascinating site with very nice features. One I found on DIY Book Binding is worth a look as is so much more.

Enjoying the break still
Eoin

Even digital aint safe

Eoin Purcell

Future History
Last week I mentioned this article that was conerned over the future of non-commercial items trapped in non-digital formats. This weekend the FT has an really excellent long feature on protecting our current digital heritage. From the piece:

Like Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, love-letters between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, and John Lennon’s scrawled first draft of “Ticket to Ride”, these superannuated machines, and the equally venerable computer files boxed next to them, are now part of the world’s greatest library collection. Digital texts – whether e-mails, research projects or literary drafts – are easy to create and even easier to discard. But as John, the library’s first curator of digital manuscripts, is aware, they constitute an increasingly large part of our cultural record – treasures which, if not properly archived, could soon be lost to future generations.

It’s a sobering thought that the Domesday book, written in 1086 on pages of stretched sheepskin, has lasted more than 900 years. Scholars with a permission slip and a sound grasp of Latin can visit the public records office in Kew, leaf through the book’s pages and decipher its inventory of the manor houses and livestock in William the Conqueror’s Britain just as they did in the 11th century. But the BBC’s attempts to create a new Domesday book chronicling British life in 1986 – capturing fleeting historical records such as adolescent diaries and a video tour of a council house – was more problematic. The £2.5m project, stored on huge laser discs and readable only by a brick-like, mid-1980s vintage BBC microcomputer, became obsolete within a decade. Both the laser- disc player and the software it relied on have long since been abandoned. A specialist team from the national archives had to spend more than a year rewriting the software to rescue it from oblivion.

Go read it!
Eoin