A book publisher's manifesto - Part V

The weekend brought us a break from my epic article posting marathon, as our network server connection broke down and I could not retrieve the original article... So after a short break, here's Part V. We're nearly there now.  The question really is no longer, “Will consumers read on screens in the future?” or “Will all content be found on the Internet?” The question is rather, “How will consumers read on screens in the future?” and “How will all content be found on the Internet?” And as publishers have been latecomers to the online party, the question lurking behind all of this is what, if any, role do publishers have in the digital future? It’s a future which is not too distant and in which texts are potentially increasingly inter- related, multiple information sources and media types are mashed, and a combination of search and social networks provides the gateway and the guide to content online. Perhaps publishers might position themselves in new intermediary roles: helping authors to write through platforms, or bringing authors and readers together in new and creative ways. However, by and large, on a strictly technical level at least, publishers aren't needed at all for these functions. There is a tremendous amount of available application software online which can bring most of this about. Initiatives such as Amazon’s CreateSpace bring authors and readers together and then apply the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ to ensure that the best and most popular content rises to the top. Perhaps it could be argued that publishers will always be required in order to bear – or at least share – the financial risk of publishing a work, but again, with print distribution out of the equation, and with print on demand offering the ability to print a single copy for each single order, financial outlay in terms of production and product storage and delivery disappears. Publishers need to work quickly to define what the quintessence of publishing is, what the core value provided by the publisher is beyond the technicalities of matching content with readers. When pressed to think about this, much of what publishers have to offer beyond the technicalities is qualitative rather than quantitative: stewardship, consultancy, an imprimatur. Will authors continue to value these things enough to believe that publishers are critical to the publication of their works? An interesting question is that of scale. Should publishers be joining forces to create multi-publisher platforms, to dominate content networks by developing critical mass across content types and ensuring that content is interlinked in the most valuable and rich ways? If that is the case then publishers are probably mistaken in handing off this role to Google. In its current form, Google Book Search is already providing the access key to multi-publisher book content. It is, in effect, creating the online book platform. It does little to interlink the various texts but that would be a logical next step. Any publisher which continues to regard Google as a benign partner helping to bring their valuable content to light on the Internet has their head firmly buried in the sand, but in the Internet space, publishers attempting to stand up to Google is a little like a small shoal of fish attempting to push back a tidal wave. In fact, ‘standing up to Google’ may not be the answer at all, but finding a way to complement Google is difficult, when this Internet giant is so easily able to move and occupy new digital spaces. And Google’s quiet announcement that it will invite Internet users to produce ‘Knols’ (units of knowledge; introductions to topics that will appear when a user searches on that subject) has been widely touted as a direct competitor to Wikipedia, but, more to the point, it firmly signals the search company’s intent to move directly into the publishing space. Perhaps the only way to answer this will be for publishers to focus back on developing specialist expertise around vertical niches, taking advantage of the ‘deep niche’ provided in the long tail world of the Internet, as described so well by Michael Jensen in his article on the subject in the Journal of Electronic Publishing. In this context publishers would focus value around subject or genre expertise and intimate, direct market knowledge, providing editorial and marketing functions beyond the merely ‘technical’. In this scenario publishers would need to move back further into the territory of filter and editorial consultant and to re-focus energies on their (oft forsaken) role as career nurturers for authors (a space currently shared at least by agents in the trade space). They would also need to develop brands around subject or genre niches so that their platforms are able to gain traction over those developed by competitors and to become far, far better at direct sales and marketing. Publishers will need to press further into the retail space, developing direct relationships with consumers of their content, if they are to become an effective bridge between authors and readers. Whatever shape the future holds, it looks like publishers won’t survive unless they regain some of the roles that over the years have been handed off to other partners in the distribution chain.