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The Smartest Thing in Publishing Is to Be Flexible

05 Nov 2012 in international | questo post è lungo 1401 parole

Kassia Krozser

_Kassia Krozser consults with publishers about digital publishing opportunities at Oxford Media Works, and writes about current digital publishing trends. _booksquare.com | @booksquare

The only certain thing in publishing nowadays is that everything moves really fast. If you should describe the actual situation with three adjectives, which ones would you pick and why?

I'm not so great with adjectives, but here are three words I think describe the current state of publishing:

Uncertain. Nobody knows what the next year will bring, much less the next ten years. In 2007, people were brushing off digital as "less than 1% of our business". Or, it wasn't something that needed serious attention. Today, trade publishers (U.S., particularly) are seeing approximately 20% of their business coming from digital sales. The thing is, the changes in the print/digital selling mix are uneven.

On top of that, nobody really knows how big the digital marketplace is. If you poke around outside traditional publishing, you know self-publishing is seeing huge gains. But what only gets attention is a small portion of that self-publishing market. Beyond the stories that make the headlines (or invite scoffs and skepticism among certain ranks of publishing insiders), there is a a massive marketplace. Now maybe most of those people aren't making a fortune, but they are disrupting traditional publishing channels.

Exciting. Technology is making it possible for us to reimagine storytelling. It's also allowing us to get books and other things we read (the list is so long) into the hands of more people than ever before. Right now, I am particularly interested in how innovation plays out in the world of education. The State of California is making a huge push toward open source digital textbooks. This is going to encourage new entrants into the marketplace, and, if history holds true, they won't be thinking of textbooks in the same way established players do.

Entrenched. One major problem I see across all types of traditional publishers is a desire to maintain business as usual. This is completely understandable -- this digital thing is so new, so uncertain, and, frankly, the print model is still working very, very well for most publishers. But, as you note, everything moves really fast these days, and if anyone is stuck in the mode of "that's how we've always done it", they will be left behind.

That sounds harsh, but the publishing industry (as we know it) doesn't control "publishing" the way it once did. Or maybe it never did, but it seemed that way. Either way, there are smart innovators out there ready and able to fill voids left by publishers who are too busy standing in place to take advantage of how this market is changing every day.

Could you point out an example of innovation in publishing that is worth to look at in the next future?

Linked data, I believe, is the next big thing. I'm sure others have their definitions, but here's mine. The connections in books, between books, between books and other media, between books and the real world. An example of the last two comes from a company called Small Demons (smalldemons.com). They are connecting the people, places, and things in books with the people, places, and things in other books and other media. It's an addictive rabbit hole... once you start exploring, you discover all kinds of new things (or, if you are me, it's an expensive proposition as I tend to buy more books!). (Full disclosure: the Small Demons folks are friends, but I'd be cheering them on regardless.)

At Books in Browsers 2012, Ricky Wong demoed Mobnotate, and he really struck a chord with me (and others) as we realized he was talking about something so obvious, yet so important: connecting books with books. His example was the Steve Jobs biography, and his belief that it should be easy to get to, oh, Steve Wozniak's biography was just "Oh yeah. Of course. And look at him. He's showing us it's already doable." I really hope many people take notice of what Ricky's doing (full disclosure: I know him, and am happy this is resonating with people).

A third area I think is severely lacking is the simple linking of an author's books to one another. For example, let's say an author has written, over time, a twenty book series. Because publishers so often take the print edition/file as it was when the first book was originally published, the listing of connected books in the series is missing in the ebook. By the twentieth book, we, of course, have a complete listing – but that doesn't help the ebook reader (or, to be honest, the print book reader!) buying the first book today. Why not have those earlier editions updated to reflect new books in the series and/or new books by the author?

Think about it: people who love series really want to know what book comes next... and the best things publishers can do for readers and themselves is make sure that kind of information is up-to-date.

My point, of course, is there is so much information beyond the book. The richer the experience, the better for readers. And, of course, readers are used to the Web and what it offers. We expect linking, connections, completeness.

Which are in your opinion the three unavoidable steps for publishers today?

Flexibility. As I noted, nobody knows what the future will bring. From my perspective, the smartest thing everyone in the publishing food chain can do is be flexible. This means publishers, authors, distributors, marketers, and service providers. I omit readers from this list because, based on my observations, they are already pretty flexible.

The last thing anyone in publishing wants to do right is invest in systems that lock them into platforms, processes that make no sense. For example, I've spoken with publishers whose accounting systems only allow semi-annual statements. Getting money to authors in a more timely manner is going to be a huge competitive advantage for publishers.

Systems need to be flexible enough to accommodate radical changes in the business. As rapidly as is practical. Of course, it's not just systems and processes that need to be flexible... everyone in the publishing world, from the CEO to the office assistants, needs to be flexible.

Worldwide Rights. I am a firm believer in access being a huge deterrent to piracy. I am also a firm believer that making it easy for people to buy books when those books being heavily promoted. I get frustrated when a book is only available in the UK, yet is getting all kinds of publicity in the United States. Think of all the books published around the world -- and think of how many books will be made available to me between now and the time a publisher deigns to bring out that book in my territory.

(As a side note, I believe this will lead to acquisition of rights on a language-basis versus territory-basis. Having, for example, Italian language rights benefits a publisher in different ways than having Italy, Austria, etc rights. This will be an interesting challenge.)

Rethinking Pricing. For better or worse, self-published authors are changing the (trade) book economy. And, for better or worse, traditional publishers have not articulated a great case for themselves.

I am not advocating for cheap books, but I am advocating for cheaper books. More thoughtful pricing. More consideration of the audience. More attention to quality (which we now spell "qaulity"). Instead of thinking about pricing from the print perspective, rethink it from the perspective of the digital world.

A fourth thing I would add is fearlessness. We talk a lot about publishers experimenting, but there isn't a lot of truly experimental ideas coming from publishing houses. Having spoken with people at all levels of publishing for many years, I know this isn't because of a lack of imagination or vision. I think it's a fear of the unknown. But pushing the boundaries of reading – or even getting publishing as we know it into the same realm as the web (where people already are) – requires taking great leaps into the unknown.

These don't have to be expensive experiments. In fact, I'd wager these type of experiments are better if they're done inexpensively and on an iterative basis. Try something innovative (or just different!). What works, what doesn't, how can it be made better?

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