The most important problem for publishers to solve over the next ten years
On Thursday, our clients at the Book Industry Study Group are running a “NEXT” conference which is tackling the question of what publishers (and publishing) should be doing now to be prepared for the world that we’ll be living in 10 years from now. (I love this subject and actually believe Mark Bide and I invented this idea for modern times in 2000 when we staged our Publishing 2010 conference in London on the day after that year’s London Book Fair.)
As it happens, I’m speaking in Ljubljana that day at the World Book Summit in the beautiful Slovenian capital, but I couldn’t resist trying to answer the question posed in Publishing Perspectives in its promotional piece on Monday for the event, which is: “What is the Key Problem for Publishing to Solve by 2020?”
I see that my occasional collaborator and office-mate, Brian O’Leary, is delivering the opening remarks. Brian has been introducing a paradigm with some success to publishers: that they should think of content in a larger context than the “container” (Brian’s word: a good one) they generally sell it in, which for us is “the book.” Brian makes a whole host of points — his is a big thought — and I won’t attempt to summarize because he goes in many directions I’m not addressing here. But there is a point central to his (I’m sure evolving) presentation that is central to this post and to what we’re doing with CCC and BISG.
The hard fact is that it has been, is, and will be, progressively more difficult to monetize content as “a book”. And there also has been, is, and will be proliferating opportunity to monetize content that is in a book in bits and pieces within other projects that follow. Publishers have so far addressed the reality of the increasingly difficult book market by cutting. They cut lists; they cut staff; they cut warehouse space; and, more cheerfully, they improve processes to eliminate waste. This addresses the fact in the first sentence of this graf. It does nothing and, in fact sometimes undercuts, the fact in the second sentence.
I’ve heard Brian express the insight for many years that publishers need to learn how to grow revenue sources for their content. And the thrust of the particular “container” presentation I heard was around how publishers have to think differently and act differently so that their efforts to create and sell content enable unforseen opportunities, both in terms of control of costs and so the publisher knows what they have (and other people can too).
That’s precisely right. And that leads to the answer to Publishing Perspective’s question and to the project we’re working on, which we will report on more fully at Making Information Pay, another BISG conference, on May 5.
What publishers are seeing writ large, as enhanced ebook, new media, and app developers suddenly hit their licensing radar trying to make deals to put some of that old book wine in some new bottles, will be even more powerful writ small, if we let it. The number of web sites and apps and enhanced ebooks that could and would make use of a reservoir of book content, if there were one large enough and if the bits and pieces they needed were priced sensibly and didn’t require bureaucracy and negotiation, will, over time, be in the millions.
But the business that I believe will one day catch fire: a repository of content for just about any purpose which can be subscribed to for a fee based on use and scope (fill in the blanks in the online form) without rights ambiguity and requiring no negotiation, is several steps away. In fact, CCC is on the road to it. But what they can see from the steps they’ve already taken, which are all about aggregating and simplifying rights and permissions transactions in multiple ways, is that too many publishers can’t take full advantage of the services they offer already.
Because the publishers have a huge problem. With very few exceptions, they don’t have the rights they control in a relational database.
In the best situations we’re aware of (except one, frankly), which are rare, publishers have just about all the rights from their most recent contracts in a database and they’re putting all the rights they acquire to new contracts in a database. But even those publishers have research to do to respond to rights requests. And in many companies the function of responding to requests for pieces of books, let alone fragments, is not seen as strategic. It is often seen as a nuisance.
But CCC knows that pre-clearing rights makes content sell better. They also knew, and our research working with BISG confirmed, that simply responding to requests more quickly can make rights sales grow dramatically.
But CCC, or anybody else who might try, is handicapped opening up the mother lode of revenue that a collective licensing solution to meeting the market opportunity in content for web sites (and apps and enhanced mash-ups yet to be invented) could enable. Publishers simply do not have the metadata to put the rights they own and control on sale. I personally see this as an enormous opportunity for big publishers, because it is one of the descriptions and visions of the future that shows a role for the scale that publishers can provide.
Having rights databases that can support the emerging business opportunities is each publisher’s and the industry’s most important challenge. It is definitely the “key problem to solve between now and 2020.” I hope the NEXT conference makes progress on this (and other) issues, but I know the work we’ve done has, and I think we’ll be able to propose some great follow-up steps at MIP.