Brian O’Leary is founder and principal of Magellan Media, a management consulting firm that works with publishers seeking support in content operations, benchmarking and financial analysis.
The only certain thing in publishing nowadays is that everything moves really fast. If you could describe the actual situation with three adjectives, which ones would you pick and why?
The three adjectives I would choose are: disruptive, connected and rewarding. Here’s why:
Disruptive: The innovation that best characterizes publishing over the last 150 years is “sustaining”: improvements that helped publishers, wholesalers and retailers do a better job of creating, managing and distributing physical books. Although people often point to the rise of eBooks as “disruptive”, they are still being sold in a way that mimics what has been done in the past with physical books.
What is “disruptive”, now, is a substantial growth in the ability of anyone to create, manage and distribute both digital and physical forms of content. The “minimum viable product”, which was once a book, now can be much smaller, more targeted, digital-only or sold in increments or as part of a subscription. Publishers that are organized to efficiently create and sell physical books find themselves struggling to compete.
Connected: The current players in the publishing supply chain (authors, publishers, wholesalers, aggregators and distributors, retailers, libraries and more) are all connected to one another. As the industry is being disrupted, they all feel the effects. Figuring out a way forward is not something that any one company, or any one type of company, can do on its own. Greater transparency, information sharing and cooperation is needed to prepare publishing for its future roles.
Rewarding: While the lower barriers to entry are disruptive, they are also potentially rewarding. Publishers now have the ability to reach and serve markets that are distributed globally. They can cost-effectively provide a range of products and services to small audiences that once were unreachable with physical books alone. They can also tap into new and emerging markets, if they learn how to leverage digital networks.
Could you point out an example of innovation in publishing that is worth looking at in the next future?
I think companies like 24 Symbols, which provides a subscription-access model for publishers, and ValoBox, a “pay-as-you-read” option, are good examples of innovation in publishing. They are looking beyond format and asking themselves what can be done to increase the market for reading. Unfortunately, much of the innovation I’ve seen is being created outside of traditional publishing. That gap only increases the risk of disruption.
In your opinion, what are the three unavoidable steps for publishers today?
The first step is making content open, accessible and interoperable. The way that eBooks have been locked into specific platforms, typically through the use of retailer-specific DRM, is a mistake that publishers have yet to unravel. Readers want access to content. They also want to be able to do simple things – cut and paste, share and annotate – that publishers either have not or will not support. That reluctance only increases the risk of pirated content and reduces the total legitimate market for publishers.
The second step involves using that content as a means to build communities of like interest. The Internet helps publishers reach widely dispersed, even global markets in ways that were not possible before. But simply putting content on the web is not enough. There is already an abundance of content, one that will continue to grow, reducing discovery and increasing the cost of marketing. Instead, publishers need to look at their work as “community organizers”, investing in the developing, management and sustainability of groups affiliated by place, purpose or preference.
As a final step (or at least the final one for now), publishers should nurture those communities and providing both goods (physical and digital books, for example) and services (continuing education or opportunities to meet virtually or face-to-face, to name some options) that meet the needs of the communities they serve. This is a significant shift from the roles most publishers have played in the past, although there are some examples (Baen Books in the science fiction community, O’Reilly Media for technology publishing) that can be instructive.