EXTRA! Q&A: An interview with Brian Napack, president of Holtzbrinck Publishers, on publishing’s digital future.
With a resume filled with shining examples of how to successfully combine traditional media with digital savvy-- from helping to launch Disney Interactive (now Buena Vista Games) to most recently serving as a media and entertainment expert for L.E.K. Consulting--Brian Napack seemed like a natural fit to help steer Holtzbrinck Publishers into the digital era.
After month in his new role as president of the company, Napack, 44, spoke with Book Business to discuss what he has in store for the publishing giant during his tenure.
Book Business: You have a long history working with both digital and traditional formats. How do you see those two coexisting with each other?
Brian Napack: Books are not obsolete, nor are magazines, nor textbooks. What’s obsolete is content delivered by media that’s bound by the formats they’re put out in. All the media companies are managers of brands, creators of content, and above all they’re managers of consumer relationships. It’s about how to provide content to consumer. Those relations become something of value. We’re in the business of delivering to that consumer whatever services that consumer needs--entertainment, educational, informational. We produce content. That content is useful, and we’ll try to deliver it to them in as many texts, colors, shapes and smells as possible. It’s all about finding more ways to sell more things to more people in more places.
BB: What’s an example?
BN: We’re putting out a book now that is based on a blog--a legal thriller based on a blog. We’re putting out the thriller in both book and blog format simultaneously. How do they coexist? They coexist wonderfully if you’re forward thinking.
BB: You delved into providing content on cellular phones in the past. Do you still believe this is a viable new field of delivering content and is this something you would like to see Holtzbrinck’s divisions take a closer look at?
BN: Yes, I just came out of a meeting where we were planning a new product that’s going to be delivered over cell phones in a variety of mobile formats. But I do believe the hype is ahead of the reality in that area. Right now, there’s an enormous amount of interest in putting content over wireless format. Ring tones is a $3 billion business. What I really believe is that the cell phone is terrific and it might end up being a great cross-platform device. What a cell phone is good at right now is being a cell phone. I’m optimistic with the use of mobile technology.
We’re not at the stage with the iPod two years ago. It was that you had this beautiful device and an almost unlimited supply of music at 99 cents a song. We’re not there with cell phones. We’re not yet at a stage where the consumer is going to bring their cell phone into their media habit consumptions. Hype is ahead of the reality. We’re moving in that direction. It’s going to be some time until those markets are as big.
BB—You have a month under your belt at Hotzbrinck. Have you been able to diagnose some of the antiquated ways of doing business? How long do you foresee it taking to really get your digital initiatives prescribed?
BN—The digital movement—the digital transformation is well underway whether we like it or not. (Holtzbrinck has) never been the leaders, nor are we the trailers. We’re fast followers. We’ve very good at that. Each business has their own profile, but each of them is doing terrific, and I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s happening before our eyes. I’m going to add a new perspective and a new spin to it. [As far as] how fast those businesses are going to transform, there is a clear rank of who will transform first.
Magazines—that industry is rapidly becoming a dinosaur. They are in the relationship-management business and their audience is leaving. They’re going to be in big trouble. The audience is on the move, and we have to find them and service them. The role that magazines used to play was a very broad role in the world of a consumer. For Scientific American, our competitors are not magazine companies anymore. It’s the Discovery Channel. It’s Google and Yahoo that are getting the audience.
So our magazines are way out front with the transformation. The college text book business is behind, but they are moving forward. The students and professors are all using technology and integrating in the classroom. It’s definitely happening.
Trade publishing is way behind the curve. The entire trade publishing business is taking some time. We need to figure out new ways of delivering and packaging and selling content, and that process is well underway, but at a much earlier stage of maturation.
BB—Part of your job description as president is pretty open-ended--being in charge of acquisitions, strategic planning and business development.
BN—My role is a general management role, working with John (Sargent, Holtzbrinck CEO). So it’s partially a day-to-day management job. The other part of the job is forward thinking. How do you take these businesses and move them into the new era? These are the things I’m interested in. On the top of my priority list is our establishing Scientific American as the preeminent resource of science. That involves aggressive thinking of strategy. We’re very interested in growing organically, but also acquiring skills and assets.
BB—You’ve worked on start-ups for other corporations, established your own business and worked as a consultant. What’s the difference in working with a well-established company?
BN—At some level, conceptually it’s very different, but it’s really about entrepreneurship. I would not do this job if it was just about care-taking. We’re in a time of radical change in the media markets and the media at large. It’s about finding the opportunity. What is very different is that it is a very big company. It has existing ways of doing things, and I have to work within the construct of how people think, and occasionally they’re very successful with what they do. I would be much more concerted about doing something stupid. We have to be very careful to respect the well-oiled machine that they have. Holtzbrink is very nontraditional. It nurtures individuals. It’s a private company that doesn’t have to answer to Wall Street. We have air cover to do things we couldn’t do if we were Time Warner, Disney or even Comcast.