This is the third of four posts covering the subject matter of an address I had hoped to make to the Publishers Association in London on April 28 but which was cancelled by the Iceland volcano. In the first post, we explored the nature of change in publishing and I tried to underscore how much disruption technology can cause in media in a 20-year period. In the second post, I sketched a vision of what I thought the communication ecosystem will look like 20 years from now. In this post, I outline what I expect the new prevailing model will become and look for some current efforts that point to it. And the last post in this group will take a more short-term view and discuss some changes we might expect to see in the next three years.
Over the next 20 years, the power to put books on store shelves — or, for non-trade publishers: the power to put “books” into people’s hands by other means — will lose its leverage. It won’t provide marketplace advantage anymore. And furthermore, the channels of remuneration for content won’t be book-specific, so there will be no particular efficiency and probably some competitive disadvantage to being a specialist delivering books, or content in book-length and book-form.
At the same time, and not necessarily connected, content-and-community worlds will become increasingly evident on the Web. An advertising agency in New York called Verso has already seen the opportunity in creating vertical “channels”: collections of 100 or 150 web sites that are topic-specific. Their first thought was to sell publishers on targeted advertising campaigns working those channels. I am sure many more opportunities to market through those logical and topic-selected collections of sites will become evident over time.
What I’m imagining is that web “front ends” will develop to all these subjects. Google is one way to search for Paris, France, and find double-digit millions of possible pieces of content. But the concept of a thoughtful and organized AllParis.com (instead of the ad-driven uncurated link farm you get from that URL now) seems inevitable. Imagine that everything that today has a Wikipedia entry had organized and crowd-enhanced access to bloggers, references, lists of books, related travel information, and, most of all, connections to the people who were thinking, writing, researching, and living out that thing. I believe that’s will we’ll see develop over time, organically and driven by commercial awareness as people how to make money by fostering it.
There are a handful of signposts to what I’m thinking about in our experience already. The most fully developed version of this vision is the Publishers Marketplace community built, from scratch and with no outside capital at all, by Michael Cader. Starting with one of the earliest, and still one of the best-executed, versions of a daily newsletter built on links to the most relevant posted content of the last 24 hours, Cader has built a community of thousands of members paying substantial fees for the benefit of being part of it. I could do a whole series of blogposts on the Marketplace site alone; I won’t. But if you’re a publisher seriously trying to envision a future, you should spend some time with it. And keep two things in mind:
1. He did it with no money.
2. He did it by using content as bait, to attract eyeballs, and he monetized the community.
Michael Cader has a very unique set of personal skills that enabled him to do it with no money. But the process of content as bait to attract the eyeballs and then providing tools, features, and databaes to monetize the community is one we will see replicated many times in the next 20 years to build many brands that will, in effect, be the publishing community of the 21st century.
Another example of doing this right that has recently debuted is from Sourcebooks and it’s called Poetry Speaks. Dominique Raccah, the Publisher (and owner) at Sourcebooks, has published poetry successfully for many years. She’s also navigated the world of sound, selling CD-and-book packages for well over a decade. Maybe that helped, or maybe it was just “vision”, but in Poetry Speaks she’s created a site that is “open” to all poets and poetry publishers. It provides tools and it provides reasons for the poets and the fans of poets and poetry to gather and interact. Yes, the site sells poems and books and audios, but “buy this book” doesn’t hit you in the face. Poetry does.
Our client Sterling Publishing is moving ahead with a web community initiative based on their publishing assets in photography. Joe Craven, who spearheads new business initiatives, looked ahead to the sales decline of their key lists in that subjects. He figured it was worth a shot to put lots of content on the web for free, attract a community, and then try to monetize the community. As a result, there will be a major web effort launching this Fall. Pixiq will use an editorial team already in place to build out a web presence, using legacy content, acquriing content through relationships they had developed from long experience, and leveraging professional and semi-professional connections built over many years of publishing to the audiences of professional, semi-professional, and amateur photographers.
Oxford University Press has just launched a new initiative which represents another way to develop a vertical called Oxford Bibliographies Online. They’re using their considerable academic expertise to delivered curated and constantly updated bibliographies by subject as a subscription product. This is brand new and just announced, but the idea has promise as one that will give them a unique position in each discipline for which they implement it and which can be a component of a vertical strategy in less academically-intense areas. Although the OUP initiative will garner subscribers mostly from institutional library customers, one would think Sourcebooks and Sterling will watch OBO with some interest. Surely, the function of curation being served here will be applicable to Poetry Speaks and Pixaq as well.
Both Sourcebooks and Sterling are aware of the fact that the web activity they are generating to create these communities can also be useful to sell books. But in the forefront of their thinking is “the community”: what people they are trying to attract and what they can give those people that will make them come, stay, create value, and perceive value. The fact that any thought of immediate book merchandising is secondary is what makes these initiatives stand out to me. And both of these sites will, in time, develop real business models that are hardly dependent on content sales at all. That’s already true of Publishers Marketplace.
By creating a brand and a community for their sites which is really independent of the parochial interests of their own publishing programs, it makes it much more likely that Poetry Speaks and Pixiq can, in time, become important components of their competitor’s marketing efforts. Which side of that fence do you want to be on for the most important subjects you publish?