I had occasion during this past week to speak at the global strategic meeting of Harlequin. Often when I am asked to speak, even internally to publishers, I am explicit told “we want you to scare the hell out of them.” Since I think of myself as a pretty unthreatening guy, I’m always a bit disconcerted by the reality that I’m doing that. But, of course, my core message is not very comforting to most people in the legacy publishing business. (And, I hasten to say, Harlequin never made that suggestion, nor, as this post should make clear, is it really relevant in their case.)
The message is scary for most because the essence of what I’m saying is that publishers over the next decade or two will have to change the way they think about how they deliver value. Their core asset base will shift from being the intellectual property they own or develop to the audiences they command. Publishers with vertical content offerings have a big head start to making that adjustment and general trade publishers hardly know what to make of the message at all.
I think my argument is pretty simple. It has two principal components.
I posit that the price of content must go down because of the laws of supply and demand. Even though digital delivery does actually increase “demand” (because people can consume more media if they have the means to do so always at hand), it increases supply much more. You used to need a publisher to spend some money and to commit an organization to get content into “supply”. Now you just need an internet connection. So I see downward pressure on the selling price of content going far into the future. This does not mean that eventually all content will be free, but it does mean that everybody will consume more and more free content and, therefore, be generally less willing to pay money for content to augment what is free.
The second component of my argument is that audiences for content will be (mostly) aligned around interests. I call that “vertical”. The most successful legacy consumer media, including all of the biggest book publishers, tried to satisfy a wide range of interests, which I call “horizontal”.
I put those two things together and I say that getting from today (selling content) to tomorrow (selling audiences) depends on using today’s asset to build tomorrow’s. This might sound like something close to insanity if you’re Random House or Simon & Schuster or Penguin. It can make a lot of sense to you if you’re F+W Media or Hay House or Chelsea Green or Cool Springs Press. It seemed to make total sense to the people at Harlequin.
To prepare for the Harlequin conversation, I made a list of “most important things to think about” for them going forward. Here it is. If you’re really a vertical publisher, it should be a useful road map. To the extent that makes no sense at all, it indicates that your company is locked into competition for a pool of revenue and sales opportunity that will shrink, slowly for a while, but only for a while.
1. Use content as bait. When you make the leap that the eyeballs you own are the key to future monetization, not the copyrights you own, then you readily see the value of exploiting the content to attract eyeballs. This means many different things in different contexts, and, of course, the content-selling model still provides most of the cash and will for quite a while, but this is a key principle to apply. The free and freemium strategies you use will be different if your objective is to build a loyal community than if you have the more immediate objective of selling something on the back of the giveaway.
2. Be sensitive to low-overhead competition and be prepared to imitate their new models. We’re heading for the day — actually we’re already in it — when it won’t take a big organization to reach a lot of book readers. (We’ll be transacting half our book purchases online in the next couple of years.) When companies smaller than yours are offering cheaper products with different delivery models — subscription, print-on-demand, whatever — watch them closely and try what they’re doing so you understand it. (Of course, Harlequin was already very much onto this idea. They just launched their own low-price imprint, Carina Press.)
3. Grow! Acquire competitors, or coopt them. Once you’ve defined the audiences you are going after, you have defined the way in which you will seek “scale”. If somebody else is going for the same audience you are, you want first to hope they don’t see it as an audience-acquisition play (and most publishers don’t yet.) While you’re fortunate enough to have competitors who are still focused primarily on monetizing IP, they’ll want to work with you if you have access to an audience that might buy their IP. Then you can use their content as bait to attract eyeballs for your community.
4. Find multiple ways to engage your audience. For community-building, it is not nearly sufficient to deliver product offers online. You have to figure out ways to make your community come to you; you have to figure out ways that members of the community can create value for each other. A key metric for you is how frequently you touch each member of your audience (or, even better, how frequently they touch you). The number of people absolutely guaranteed to open an email you send them will be an important measure of the health of your asset base.
5. Sell everybody else’s ebooks (the recent F+W and Ingram proposition). Almost nobody in your community gives a damn about which books are yours and which are somebody else’s. They want entertainment or information or to solve a problem; if you’re serving them as a community you don’t win by cutting them off from what they want because somebody else published it. A complete (but curated) ebook offering is a first step in the right direction. Ultimately, of course, you want to offer all the print books and all the other “stuff” that is relevant to the community, information-based or just plain products. That’s part of your monetization potential.
6. Build multiple brands with meaning. There are a very small number of companies whose name itself has true consumer meaning as a brand. (In fact, Harlequin is the leading one.) But if you can appeal to a community, you have an oppotunity to build a brand. Brands are shortcuts for consumers; they orient us as to what to expect in products or services, including social cred, quality, and price. For as long as we have robust print delivery (and I think that might be as little as another five years), we have an opportunity to deliver URLs to people offline. That’s not as “efficient” as delivering them online (where the recipient can immediately click through) but it offers the chance to reach a lot of people who might not be online explorers. (I don’t want to give away Harlequin’s trade secrets here, but I was taken aback to hear how many senior citizens are in their audience; people who might well not be available to be pinged online.) But don’t use a book to push people to promote a generic web site where they’ll arrive and say “why am I here?” Deliver them to something relevant, something that will entice them to come back; a site you can, in good faith, urge the reader of a book to visit with the expectation that it will extend the engagement between you and your reader, to your mutual benefit.
When I deliver this message to the general trade community: publishers, authors, agents, retailers, the reaction is often a blank stare. That’s understandable; getting from a horizontal trade publisher to becoming one that “owns audiences” is a long and winding road. It is a totally rational decision to say, “that’s not the business I’m in; I’ll stick with what I’m doing until I’m the last one standing.” But there were no blank stares from the people at Harlequin. They know they have a large and loyal audience that cares about their brand. Even if the game changes from IP to eyeballs, they can readily see how they can still play.