This is what’s happening now. Almost all successful consumer media companies in the 20th century had two characteristics: they were horizontal in their content reach — that is, they were broad — and they were format-specific in their delivery. Think New York Times, CBS, HarperCollins.
We’re going to start with a view of what digital technology could mean to the overall world of communication over the next decade or two. What the history of the Internet seems to be telling us so far is that we will see a growth in niche organization — what people like to call “community” on the web — and a corresponding decline in horizontal media, which is much more threatening to magazines, newspapers, and broadcast than it is to us in the book business. But it will change us too.
But in the 21st century, the net is reorganizing us into vertical communities. Something in the news seems to confirm that shift on almost a daily basis. You might have seen in yesterday’s Times that new ad networks are forming to aggregate cable TV opportunities by subject niche, to offer advertisers more eyeballs. I have a baseball web site and we’ve just been signed up by two different aggregators pulling together baseball sites, or sports sites, to do the same thing.
And on the net, format doesn’t matter. A file doesn’t care if it is words, pictures, sound, video, or a game. Web publishing is about delivering files. We are seeing a pronounced impact of this change already. Publishers have been producing more and more podcasts and vodcasts and last week BN.com announced an aggressive program to put more and more non-reading content on their site to sell books.
New tools are being created to allow communities to sort, tag, rate, aggregate — let alone slice and dice — all content. Crowd-sourcing for information has gotten a lot of attention in an age where the video from your cell phone could end up being seen by millions if you happen to capture a news event. Crowd-sourcing is being put to use by established media in new ways. Two weeks ago the Dallas Morning News mounted a slew of content related to November 22, 1963 to enlist their readers’ help to go through it and find things that might be significant.
It isn’t just content purveyers who are driving vertical organization. Nike announced last month that they would henceforth organize their company and their marketing efforts around the sport, not around the product. This is eminently sensible: after all, when you’ve sold somebody a tennis shoe, you are next more likely to sell them a tennis shirt than a basketball shoe. But it also means that Nike is suddenly able to really USE content for their communities because they are making their site visitors organize in ways where non-product content can really be relevant.
The horizontal media are atrophying and dying. It used to be necessary to be horizontal to have a successful newspaper or magazine. It helped aggregate audience — remember that NY Times TV ad where the husband went straight for the Week in Review while the wife grabbed Arts and Leisure? Different sections sell each print publication to different people, and very few people read any of these things cover to cover. But that foils any attempts at targeting by advertisers and, in this day and age, forces people to buy, carry, and dispose of lots of paper that has no particular use to them. Before the net, that idea sold. It sells less and less today.
The flight from horizontal even affects the net. AOL — as horizontal as any 20th century media — is a dead man staggering. And the most recent report from the UK says that Facebook suffered its first reduction in page views last quarter. Facebook is horizontal too.
The fact that Nike is reorganizing in a way that makes using content both more possible and more likely is a good thing for publishers, because the horizontal media they relied on in the 21st century is disappearing. The reduction in book review pages in daily newspapers is a focus of our industry, but it is just one of many signs that local daily newspapers are disappearing. Local TV talk shows preceeded them; those author promotional opportunities have already dried up.
Horizontal retail — general trade bookstores — have been the key to the trade book business. But we know the big independents are gone or endangered. And how confident can we feel about Borders, which has unveiled a new “concept” store that might work (or might not), but would cost a fortune to roll out across hundreds of outlets. Unlike Borders, B&N is on very solid financial footing, but we all saw the impact on their stock price last month when they announced that 2008 would be a tough year.
Another factor making life tougher for publishers is that competition is coming from places it didn’t ten or twenty years ago. The Long Tail is great for retailers and great for consumers — we can get books we couldn’t imagine finding ten or twenty years ago and some retailer gets to make the sale — but it is not such a good thing for publishers. Many long tail books come from used books, for one thing. Or they come from publishers who couldn’t otherwise compete for the consumer, because they don’t have a big sales infrastructure. All that just makes it harder for the publisher putting a new book out today.
And we have that nagging concern about the texting and Manga generation: will they be sitting still to read a long book when we need them to replace their parents and grandparents in the market ten or twenty years from now?
All of these challenges really compel today’s book publishers, but most emphatically today’s GENERAL publishers, to re-think their businesses. Here’s a starter list of approaches to do that.
First of all, think beyond the book. A book is both part of a larger conversation that includes other books and other non-book content and it is made up of many discrete bits that could stand alone, which in the modern parlance we call “chunks.” This is even true of fiction; it is more clearly true of non-fiction. Publishers need to start thinking of their content in those contexts.
Second, if you haven’t already started playing with audio and video, get going.
Third, it doesn’t work anymore to deal with your audience entirely through media and retail intermediaries. If you’re really big in a subject niche, you might be able to build your own communities. But if you’re not, you better be looking at the communities out there that are suitable and be thinking about how to be a respected member of them. They are increasingly going to be the key to your marketing success.
Fourth, use your authors. We could spend a whole conference on that topic alone but just take on board that the royalty relationship — where an author might work for free today in hopes of a payday already built into a contract — is a unique strength of a book publisher’s economics that other media do not share.
Fifth, you must have an online marketing infrastructure. That means you have to know the web sites that matter to your niches, but it also means you have to offer your content in ways that allow tagging and viral activity by your audiences.
And last, you should be using all possible sales channels for your intellectual property. That means every book should be an ebook, and just about every book should be loaded for print-on-demand. POD is not JUST for end of life; for many books, it can be critical during mid-life.