Digital Directions: Quantity = 1: Customization's Unfulfilled Promise
Digital content enables distribution on a massive scale. A few examples:
- the ability to inexpensively and instantaneously spam the known universe;
- the ability to distribute video content to audiences that a small cable network would find attractive; and
- most importantly, the ability for Ashton Kutcher to keep a million of us abreast of his every move in real time (via Twitter).
Digital platforms remove the friction of the physical world, enabling distribution at great scale and speed.
The obverse is also true, however: Digital publishing enables not just the macro, but also the micro, by making possible the delivery of customized versions of content, unique to each recipient. Custom publishing is practical only in a digital world. This is enabled not just by the frictionless nature of digital delivery, but also by the intelligence inherent in software-mediated distribution.
Intelligent customized delivery is not limited to scenarios in which the delivery format is digital, but also applies to physical delivery in the form of custom physical printing–on-demand (POD).
While it may lack the sizzle of an e-book reader, innovations in printing technology that are rapidly narrowing the cost gap between digital printing and offset are as important a driver of change as the Amazon Kindle, by making custom printing economically feasible. Even though the final delivery is physical, POD is very much a manifestation of digital distribution, since it is enabled by the availability of digital content—in real time—to the printing process. Therefore, POD benefits from the same potential intelligence in delivery.
There is scant evidence of publishers exploiting this customized capability in digital programs—be it e-book or POD. In either mode, publishers appear keenly focused on adhering to the delivery of the standard work, to emulate the mass-produced, offset volume.
There are clear benefits of these modes of digital distribution. Kindle offerings drive incremental sales through the near-perfect pairing of frictionless commerce (via wireless connectivity to the Kindle Store) with frictionless delivery. POD can eliminate many of the headaches associated with managing inventory, as well as exploit “long-tail” opportunities.
While these are all solid business cases, none of these arguments touches upon the potentially transformative capabilities of customized product delivery.
One market segment that has made measurable inroads into custom publishing is higher education. Educators demanded increased flexibility to mix and match content. Further, students demonstrated increasing resistance to textbook prices. Publishers responded with digitally based custom publishing programs.
There may be lessons to be learned from the higher-ed marketplace, such as not waiting too long—and allowing your market to contract—before offering such flexible options.
There are factors that may explain the hesitance to embrace custom publishing. Such a business model requires changing some fundamental aspects of delivery:
- If every sale is unique, the use of ISBNs must be changed or replaced.
- If pagination is dynamic, then page referencing also must be dynamic or replaced by another referencing mechanism, such as section headers.
- Pricing models must change.
These hurdles are daunting. But perhaps there is another reason for hesitance: a fear that a delivery model in which every book is unique may erode the form of delivery itself, losing its “bookness” and clouding the market’s view of what publishers provide. Therefore, publishers embrace and protect the organic unity of the book.
Customized delivery opens many new possibilities, such as the ability to provide customized collections of poetry or short stories. Traditionalists may react to this as heresy, insisting that the compilation of collections and anthologies are exclusively under the providence of the editorially anointed, not the domain of mere readers. Market backlash may be the result of too rigid an adherence to this position, as consumers are clearly voicing a demand for an active role in content delivery.
Some may consider that such a delivery model—in which the reader creates a unique work by combining smaller units of content into a larger whole—is not practicable, or that it is either not desired by the market or is beyond a book publisher’s role.
The market will speak for itself—and in the case of education, the demand is real. As to whether it is the appropriate role of the publisher or not, if the market values such a delivery model, someone will fulfill that role, whether that is a publisher or a new entrant to the information marketplace.
Media delivery in all forms is in a process of reinvention. It is crucial that publishers play a hand in this reinvention and rebuilding potential delivery models, and manage associated digital content and marketing programs accordingly.
If publishers don’t reinvent publishing, somebody else will.
Andrew Brenneman is founder and president of Finitiv, a provider of digital content solutions. He has been leading digital media initiatives at major media and technology organizations for more than 20 years. Contact him at Andrew@Finitiv.com.