Ringing In The New Year: What’s Ahead for Your Business?
The New Year will be more of the same – and the same will be continued transformative change.
My headlines are that the publishing enterprise structure will continue to become more market driven, more distributive, less intermediated, and less top down. Structural changes in distribution (on line, bricks and mortar) remain destabilizing, trending to both concentration and deconstruction.
The devil, of course, is in the details. And the details concern how you model and build your business enterprise.
The three major industry conferences coming up this winter and spring will explore those details through varied measures of what’s ahead: Digital Book World on January 23 explores where we are going in digital reading media. Tools of Change on February 13, examines a panorama of cutting edge initiatives and ideas. /Book Business/ magazine’s major enterprise event, the Publishing Business Conference and Expo on March 19 at the Marriott in New York City, frames these dynamics as it takes up the challenges to be met in the successful and profitable management and development of your business.
With last year’s passing it will be hard at these conferences not to look back in wonder at the transformations taking place and the continued displacement of our print based business models and reading habits by the new electronic, portable device, internet and cloud-based pathways into the future.
What to do?
This question can be viewed in many ways – those of the reader, author and publisher shape my own perspectives. At base, it is the reader who determines what will survive in the marketplace and enter the culture. It is the author, however, whose drive and vocation brings the story and the content into being and defines the reader’s options.
These two actors are now more than ever in history able to find each other efficiently. Language and imagination remains their currency. The third actor – the publisher – manages that medium of exchange and its means of exchange; it is the publisher’s old ways of managing that are now being disrupted, while their new ways are adding value to the currency.
So, for those in the publishing industry – especially for all of those who manage publishing companies – the times are unsettling to the old and vitalizing for the new. How you organize and shape your company is likely the key to your future.
*The importance of the company role and vision *
The untimely passing of Steve Jobs, nearing the close of this past year, lent dramatic focus to the vitalizing value of new ways. In our age, Jobs, who at one point said nobody reads books any more, has ironically done as much to move the reading of books into the new age as has anyone of our time. He provided a booster rocket to the launch engineered by legions of software, internet, computer and reading device pioneers who unlocked entry to the reading experience from the confines of its print based limits.
Interviewed the other day on C-Span Books (another great enterpise gift to society) Walter Isaacson discussed his biography of Steve Jobs, and made the point that Jobs viewed as his legacy not the devices he introduced, but Apple as a company. The concept that defined Apple for Jobs, he said “combines great creativity and great engineering. For him a great company lived on the intersection of the humanities and of science. “
A company’s founders will always have lifetime limits, Jobs observed, but if they set the direction and recruit a team to carry it forward – one that is able to replicate itself -- a great company can survive many generations and turns in the road shaping its products and services to the times.
Media companies in general, and publishers in particular, are at the core, a fusion of the constant flow of ideas and of systems of delivery. Getting down into the trenches, we survive and thrive to the extent that we can meld these two energies into a profitable venture. In that arena, we are not dealing simply with concept but with application and execution.
Dominant companies as in the past will always emerge, and will need independent startups and target shooters to fuel them, while authors and readers will need them to address their special needs and tastes.
My own interests in the industry have always been with startups and independent publishers, aiming under the radar for targeted markets and distinct expressions. To the extent that we have giants in the industry we can find somewhere in their origins a garage or a living room in which, like these startups, they were first launched.
In the industrial and modern era, there have of course always been giants. However, technologies as well as cultures shaped the extent to which they could dominate or monopolize markets at the expense of innovation and independence. When Jobs and Wozniac first launched Apple in the late 1960’s, there was no personal computer industry and the computer giants of the age -- IBM, Honeywell, Burroughs, RCA, CDC, and GE -- didn’t see it coming.
The field was open, and early start ups such as Kaypro, Osborne, Atari, and Commodore, et al, entered the field. Microsoft, Lotus, Corel, WordPerfect, Aldus, Adobe and others emerged to provide software solutions. IBM paid attention and introduced its PC a few years later. Still not recognizing the powerful market to come, it opened its operating system to adaptation while Steve Jobs at Apple built a closed end line that stood apart, almost to extinction, but then revived when Jobs was brought back in to the company with the purchase of Next, and he went out of the box developing the company we now know.
*The leveling of the large and the small*
Meantime, the book publishing industry had been built in the first half of the last century on small and mid-range enterprises – Harper, Scribner, Crowell, Putnam, Dutton, Holt, Wiley, Houghton, Lippincott, to name just a few-- developed by publishers and printers for whom marketing was not a term that appeared in their organization charts. Until well after World War II, while the industry remained hospitable to small business startups in its old business model, entry was increasingly limited by a complex and many-channeled distribution system that demanded substantial risk and investment in editorial and production labor and in inventory maintenance.
The personal computer, heralded by the Apple II in the late 1970’s, empowered a lively independent and small press industry to overcome these complex management and distribution barriers. In the next twenty years, desktop publishing and the emergence of the internet as a viable sales and distribution portal expanded small press horizons and by force of nature liberated self publishing and gave it credibility. Along side of this, global conglomerates in Europe and Canada began to buy up and consolidate major U.S. publishing imprints, creating the big six or seven giants of today.
Bringing us closer to the present moment, after the dot com bubble there came the irrepressible Amazon juggernaut ready to feed a great leap forward in user friendly portable devices, reader and tablet technology. Amazon, the newest giant [not to gainsay Google], more recently Apple, and B &N.com playing catch-up, along with pioneers who became second tier contenders, provided easy access for readers to download ebooks for use with eyeball friendly surfaces, one stroke finger friendly activation, longer battery life, wifi downloads for instant eBook purchases, software and storage in the cloud, and content management in the browser – not a brick with mortar in sight. Nirvana! And yet but scratching the surface from what I am told.
Now it is the case that, large or small, we all launch our e-book based books into the market and its devices through the same limited number of content aggregators. And e-book formats are touchstones to increasing readership, while demanding strategies to retain margin dollars out of lower prices and distributor-enforced discounts.
*The opportunities and paradoxes ahead*
So, there is now a convergence of opportunity and challenge shared by giants in the industry, independents, target marketers, agents and self published authors, unknown and well known. In my own experience having spent the past four years with a wonderful team of colleagues helping build an online publishing service, I have worked with the realities of pod management, meta data distribution, digital edition uploads and the complexities of e-commerce, transaction and royalty management.
Daunting as they are - they are accessible to both the enterprise minded non-techie author as well as the most sophisticated giants and new multimedia contenders. But the rules of the distribution, pricing, discount and royalty game while they resemble those of the past, are vastly different and still volatile.
The paradoxes built into the current state of affairs are between the ever widening opportunities for entry by gifted authors, agents, targeted and self publishers, and the increasing attraction of the re-seller giants as gateways to lead readers to make their purchases. This is what makes Amazon the virtual arbiter of online distribution practice, and LightningSource the gold standard for POD fulfilment economics. But, as the importance of print diminishes, eBook conversion and distribution is increasingly important. Kindle and Nook make it easy (and apply double standard agency discounts), while Apple has created ingestion hurdles in an attempt to force the use of aggregators for conversion and distribution.
Following its own slower track are the adjustments being made to the bricks and mortar channels of our industry – bookstores and libraries. Just as the internet has multiplied the number and varieties of communities that exist only in virtual form, the bookstore and library are steadily transforming to provide face to face community for human beings whose natural disposition still wants nurturing by social contact.
There is something breathtaking about this panoramic view of the evolution of our industry. I keep thinking of the huge Hoe printing presses that powered book manufacturing plants in the 19^th century, and the elegant i-pad that can now reach into more pages of text than that plant could turn out in years.
Yet, we are still authors and readers, and we are professionals who render the one intelligible and useful to the other. This is known as "being in the business." I don’t see it going away soon – so I say we need to pay attention to the details of how build – or rebuild – our companies by attending trade events, following trade journals, checking on online blogs and newsletters – but most of all finding or building communities that bind readers and their interests to our authors and their books.
What lies ahead? Opportunity as I see it.
Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.