A Treatise On The Future of Publishing

Gutenberg proofs the printed piece

To borrow from Douglas Adams, it’s time for the publishing industry to stop worrying, and learn to love the internet. As one thing winds down, so another winds up.

A Little Background,  A Little Context:

The publishing industry has had 500 years to focus on the production of the printed piece. How is it that 500 years of industry could be in such crisis?

About 570 years ago, Johannes Guttenberg invented movable type, and shortly after that the mechanical printing press. With these innovations he essentially created the printed medium that we still interact with today, though increasingly less and less. These were enormous innovations, but beyond printing books and pamphlets this was the inception of something bigger and much more revolutionary. Guttenberg really created what was a superior information distribution system over the laborious production of the hand written manuscript, previously the cutting-edge of information distribution in the 15th century, and a distribution system controlled by just a few powerful institutions. The ease of distributing valuable information to people provided by the printing press was the catalyst to both the Renaissance and to the scientific revolution that followed. It was also behind the Reformation. It stoked a raging fire of literacy in people who had previously had little need for the ability to read, mostly because there wasn’t anything around for them to read. Mechanically printed content fundamentally changed the ways in which we communicate, collaborate, and learn. It changed the ways in which we interact with information, and changed the course of human history as, for the first time in the collective human experience, great numbers of people had access to information and to enhanced knowledge. This tends to empower us. However:

Print as a distribution platform has had a good run, but, as it disrupted the status quo of the 15th century, so it also has been disrupted by change at the end of the 20th century.

The Situation At Hand:

The proliferation of the internet as an information distribution platform has displaced print as the most efficient platform for delivering information to people. Guttenberg would have it no other way, I believe. Yet, in the face of this disruption the modern publishing industry seems resistant to the opportunities that the internet presents. The simple reality is that the pressures and challenges facing publishing have been a slow moving train of change over the last decade, and yet the industry seems to have still been caught unawares. This presents an environment of opportunity for publishers savvy enough to exploit it. Quite simply, here’s why:

Print and publishing are two different things. Print is an information distribution platform. Publishing is an industry that creates and delivers information over platforms.

Today, and increasing at an exponential rate, the platform of choice is the internet. From the perspective of the audience, the end user, the individual, the internet is an ideal platform for finding the information they seek, or for bringing that information to them. It should be an ideal platform for publishers, too. However, unwinding old habits and tradition is a difficult proposition, and this has created the crisis state that many publishers now find themselves in. Instead of innovating, they’re forced to react under duress.

All of this has occurred in an incredibly short amount of time. Yes, the internet as we know it has evolved from a real inception point of about 10-15 years ago, though the ARPANET dates back forty years, but practical and meaningful applications of information and content distribution via the internet have only been occurring within the last five to ten  years or so with the advent of a range of supporting technologies like RSS. Over the last five years, especially, things have changed very quickly, and the internet has disrupted multiple industries at the same time. Think about the challenges to traditional broadcast television presented by online streaming and online video distribution, by the imminent convergence of your television with your computer driven by the internet as a content delivery platform. Think about financial services, and how it is not only possible to manage your finances without ever setting foot inside a bank, but also that we are now more connected to our finances and the surrounding ecosystem of information than we have ever been before, all because of the internet. Similar change and disruption has occurred very visibly in shopping and in the music business. All have been shaken to their core by this still relatively new distribution platform. The publishing business is not special, and it certainly is not immune. The reality is that the internet will eventually replace a great deal of print media. For some publishers, if they survive, it will replace ALL of their printed media. In an interesting example of going back to the future, we are living in an environment incredibly similar to that which inspired Johannes Guttenberg, and for us the internet presents an information distribution platform capable of delivering information qualitatively better to exponentially more people. Without question, it is a superior distribution platform, one that is at our disposal if we so choose, and it is important to remind ourselves that the goal of any information distribution platform is simple, to enable the largest number of people to have access to information when and how they need and want it. Should that not also be the goal of the publishing industry?

As this played out in the 15th century, so it plays out now. For the future, at least as far as most of us can predict, the internet wins. Given this, there is no reason to see declining print numbers and think that the world is ending, the current state of reaction within hundreds of publishing firms at the moment. Declining circulation and subscription rates do not mean the end of publishing and it most definitley does not mean the end of content creation. Actually, it means quite the contrary and is in reality just the winding down of the print platform. What needs to be addressed is the fundamental business model of publishing, and the overarching monetization strategy of the content that is already being created. The three critical elements in a successful publishing business model still exist:

1. Valued information
2. The audience for this information
3. An optimal distribution platform

For many publishers, these three critical elements just need to be connected, and I guess it is rather startling that for many they still are not. While this sounds simple, there’s some important work involved.  Here’s the deal, though, it’s not rocket science. It’s very straightforward, with a few savvy, smart publishers and media companies already executing informed multi-platform strategies that successfully leverage the internet as a central distribution platform. The challenge is in thinking about key aspects of the publishing business model in very different, seemingly radical, ways. It is also the complete embrace of digital while moving focus away from print. There is significant opportunity here if we take valued content and maximize, enhance, and refocus it. The immediate opportunity is in bringing a cohesive, immediately executable, and profitable digital strategy to print focused, and probably terrified, publishing companies, a strategy that is designed to deploy content across multiple devices and enables people to access the information they need and want when they need and want it. Importantly, it will appropriately monetize content based on its utility to a specific audience. This is not limited to your computer, ereader, or smart phone and provides the opportunity for publishers to think and plan beyond the next quarter for the first time in a very long while. It also affords publishers the opportunity to again have a future. This is because the internet is medium and device agnostic. It’s screen agnostic, really, and the valuable content already being created by publishers should exist on whatever device is available and preferred by the audience publishers seek to reach. This is the best, truest manifestation of “be where your customers are,” which seems to be the exact opposite of the publishing business model that has evolved over the last five centuries.

My advice to publishers is to stop trying to protect legacy platforms and legacy thinking. Stop focusing on site traffic and acquiring audience. Get back to the heart of what is of value, refocus yourself on the content that you are creating and ostensibly trying to provide. Understand that our behaviours in how we interact with information have fundamentally changed. This is not a fad, it is the new reality, and the normal you have experienced for the balance of your career will not be returning. The time to accomodate this new reality is right now.

3 Responses to “A Treatise On The Future of Publishing”

  1. Says:

    On first scan I immediately thought of (oddly enough):

    The Paris Review


    New York Review of Books

    Old media content publishers who have moved comfortably into the digital age bringing “thick value” ( ) to what one would imagine is a much broader group readers and subscribers – while staying true to their literary long form roots.

    Thanks for the post, first of many on this topic this in this new year.

  2. Says:

    I agree with the overview of this being a watershed moment in history on the distribution of information to the masses. The challenge for traditional media such as newspapers is finding a way to use this platform and still be able to do in depth and accurate reporting. The immediacy of the medium sometime doesn’t allow enough time for good journalism to get done.

  3. Says:

    The reason publishers don’t want to move to the web is that it’s not as profitable.

    It’s not as profitable because when you sell a book, the profit doesn’t come from the content, it comes from the book.

    People already own computers, so publishers have nothing to sell.

    In addition, the barrier to entry is negligible, and the print industry has relied on a quasi-monopoly on information dissemination. As such, they have built-in organizational inefficiencies that must be addressed before they move to the print industry.

    In other words, publishing will be forced to become a smaller operation. There is absolutely no way the industry can employ as many staff in an online-printing world.


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