Here’s the choice facing publishing enterprises. You can have profit and cash flow today, or you can have survival tomorrow. It is increasingly unlikely that you can have both.
And that actually understates today’s strategic planning dilemma a little bit because investing today’s profit and cash flow in your future won’t actually assure your enterprise’s survival. Not doing so will, however, assure its demise within the next 10 years.
Why is that? It is because the publishing of 10 years from now won’t look anything like the publishing of today. Many authors and authoring institutions will develop their markets on the Web long before they write a book. Because of the impending ubiquity of the ebook and print-on-demand, self-publishing options will become commercially viable. Centralized press runs with subsequent distribution will become the exception, not the rule. Most of the biggest players in the subsidiary rights process will be Web sites that don’t exist today, and they’ll be purchasing those rights through automated procedures that also don’t exist today.
More books, however we then define them, will be sold through the Web than in stores, and they’ll be presented to the public through literally millions of Web sites, the preponderance of which don’t exist yet. Most of these Web sites will be affiliated with central fulfillment sites, and the players in that sphere might include already-familiar names like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Borders and even Tattered Cover. But that doesn’t reduce the degree to which marketing techniques and delivery modalities will change.
So most of the revenue is going to come to publishers through different channels than it does now. It will be sought with techniques and tools that don’t exist today.
And when we think about the many places where big publisher bucks go today: to warehouse and shipping operations, to pay for and manage book manufacture, to find authors through powerful agent relationships, to call on and maintain relationships with terrestrial retailers, we can see that most of the expenditure will soon be different too.
So how closely will the successful publishing company or book retailer or book club of 2010 resemble the powers of the industry today? Not very much.
That there would be this much change expected within 10 years time is an unprecedented situation. And it leads to the strategic dilemma that today’s publishing-related enterprises find themselves in.
For over the next ten years, as part of the publishing industry, we will dismantle an old infrastructure and build a completely new one for the distribution of entertainment, information, and reference capability that has always been associated with printed books, magazines, and journals. Everything will change, including the commercial arrangements between author and publisher and between publisher and retailer. New roles will emerge in the value chain, particularly for aggregators and experts; roles that would have been too cumbersome to work in the current print-and-distribute world but which will work fine in a distribute-and-print world enabled by the Web.
Today’s successful enterprise, planning to survive and thrive in this new environment, will have to build its own new infrastructure. It will need a coherent vision of the future to do this and a dispassionate picture of which of today’s corporate strengths transfer into this future and which do not. It will need to compete with dot com companies which are financed to accommodate both the cost and the trial-and-error nature of infrastructure-building.
And it will have to recognize that it is on a mission to change itself into something unrecognizable by today’s lights so that it can exist in a landscape which will do the same.