When customers love the product, but hate your mission, it's time to change publishing

Summary:I recently had the pleasure of presenting a vision for the future of publishing to a group of publishing professionals in New York. Can't say where it was, yet, but suffice to say it was worth saying and that the message was well received by the thoughtful, albeit skeptical, audience.

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a vision for the future of publishing to a group of publishing professionals in New York. Can't say where it was, yet, but suffice to say it was worth saying and that the message was well received by the thoughtful, albeit skeptical, audience. Despite the increasingly rapid changes in reading due to technological evolution, the folks with whom I was talking rightly believe that they should not revolutionize their business simply for the sake of revolution, and I was perceived, unfortunately, as a revolutionary. They represented publishers, distributors, supply-chain enablers and book retailers, all of whom need to embrace changing roles as they constantly refine those roles in response to greater information about what is in a book, how books are used and what readers think about the books they purchase, borrow or steal. Having worked in publishing—in many forms and markets—for 25 years, and for several huge publishing companies destroyed by the failure to change, I think my perspective is one of pragmatic realism. Certainly, the publishing industry I arrived in as a newspaper/magazine reporter is largely gone, victim of its failure to evolve with the times, with the reader's habits. Darnton 2So, it was ironic, I thought, that my opening remark, that the future has never been brighter for publishing (in this, I completely agree with Seth Godin's remarks about the future of publishing here—I only wish I was a good a presenter at Seth), was greeted with a sense that I was trying to paint my revolution the color of the audience's fears about the future of their individual business models. Sure, they were thinking, it's bright if you don't have to fire people, change the workflows at publishing houses, in composition and printing shops, and so forth. Books are healthier than ever, really. According to Bowker, publisher of Books In Print, more than 900,000 books will be published worldwide this year. The United States produces more than five times as many titles as only a decade ago. Moreover, the breadth of the titles has never been greater, with genres and subjects exploding in their complexity. Just as the desktop publishing revolution produced an explosion of magazines and newsletters that transformed the periodical business in the late 1980s, print-on-demand and Web technology, including e-books, have multiplied the number of books, about every conceivable topic. Worldwide, the growth of titles published is growing faster than in the U.S., as it becomes infinitely more efficient to address language and geographically specific marketplaces with printed or electronic books. Moreover, with more than $100 billion in local U.S. media spending in play because of the fall of the local newspaper, the opportunity to connect revenue with books that engage and sustain hyper-local communities, has never been greater. Succeeding in this market, however, means changing the entire book value chain, eliminating the value chain's focus on distributors and retailers, turning it instead to models predicated on what the reader wants and values. Reader-centrism is the only viable basis for revivifying existing publishing companies, because every new player in the publishing market is starting their business based on close identification with their customer, the reader. Now, I want to keep this short, and go on in future postings with more detail. But let's look at the most recent description of what a publisher does that I was able to find, in Robert Darnton's new book, The Case for Books. Darnton, the chief librarian at Harvard and an accomplished author captures what the publisher does as completely as possible:
“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”
“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”
This is the mission of publishing from the time of the scriptoria until the turn of the 21st century, a risk-defined mission based on the high cost of making information available. It is not what readers want today, even though they do still count on many filters to help them choose what to read. The financial risk of publishing today is perceived as minimal, even though it is still quite risky because publishers are clinging to the hit-driven model that requires a book to sell tens of thousands of copies to be a "success." Let's consider Darnton's definition of publishing through the eyes of a reader who can browse the Web, Google Books and myriad other sources of textual, audio and visual information. These people still love books, but they no longer honor the mission that produces many books, as evidenced by widespread dislike of the ideas highlighted in the following version of the quote:

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

Let's break that down in terms of the networked marketplace.

Gatekeepers are no longer valued, they are despised by people who feel they have the ability to judge information and ideas for themselves. As Jacques Rancière puts it in his latest book, The Emancipated Spectator, "There are not two sorts of intelligence separated by a gulf" in a truly democratic marketplace of ideas, there are different perspectives that demand free rein and resent gatekeepers.

No one entity or person can/needs to control the flow of knowledge when everyone can do their little part by tagging, rating, reviewing and commenting on parts of the data flow; this is "crowdsourcing" in the fully positive sense, free from the stain of mob mentality, which can play an important role in an unbridled cataract of information.

Customers, not sellers, decide what will sell—they always have, but industrial production tended to limit the choices and create the appearance of successful planning, which in many cases is exactly what produced bestsellers, though at the cost of diversity, which people value, too.

Professional expertise is, unfortunately, despised because of knavery on the part of pundits, who claim expertise without the hard self-criticism that is applied by professionals. We do need people to help us select what to pay attention to, just as we have always relied on guidance from others when coming into a new environment. That advice can come from friends. However, it often comes from the loudest knaves in the mediasphere.

What reaches readers in a connected networked world is everything and anything that can be transmitted, but few would surrender their opportunity to think for themselves in exchange for a truncated view of reality—let us remain optimistic about people's judgment and intentions here—but readers don't want to admit they rely more on experts today than ever before, because they don't see the world as information overload, rather they perceive they are seeing it all for the first time without restrictions, which is exhilarating, the very source of growth, egalitarian opportunity and the unexpected. That sudden sense of having options is why more books than ever are being produced and sold.

Given that readers today still love books, in more forms than ever, what is a publisher to do? That's the subject of the next couple postings in this series.

Cross-posted to BooksAhead.com.
Part Two of this series, Challenging publishers to change isn't the safe path, is now available.

Topics: Enterprise 2.0, Google, Software

About

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran journalist, media executive and entrepreneur. He was editor of the ground-breaking Digital Media newsletter in the 1990s and a frequent contributor to ZDNet over the years. He led development of the first Web audio/video news network at ON24, sat on the board of Electric Classifieds Inc. and Match.com, and wor... Full Bio

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