What About The Readers?

This article, by Hugh McGuire, originally appeared on The Huffington Post on 2/25/09.

To get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions.

Book publishing has many conundrums to solve in the coming decade, and not a week goes by without a long, thoughtful article in some major magazine about the impending collapse of the industry and its myriad causes: ebooks, Youtube, greed, television, gaming, big advances, returns, amazon, pirates, the Decline and Fall of Civilization.

The articles all revolve around this central and troubling question: "How can publishing maintain its financial viability when fewer people are reading books? Especially when everyone wants everything for free?"

This is going to be a tough question for publishers to answer, but it misses a more fundamental question, which is: "What do readers want, and how can we best provide it?"

I don’t mean: "What books do they want to read," but rather, "What can we do to help people read more books?"

Tools of Change … for Readers?

I recently attended O’Reilly’s Tools for Change in Publishing conference, a yearly gathering of publishers, technology providers, developers, thinkers, visionaries. The TOC conference is built around technology, with an objective to help "decipher the tools of change in this industry and help cut through the hype for a more profitable future in publishing." In 2009 the focus was decidedly philosophical, not technological: what is the future of the book, and how might publishers build successful business models around the coming changes?

No firm answers came from the conference, but there were many glimmers of possible futures, with highlights from Peter Brantley, who examined books in the network, Jeff Jarvis who postulated about the Googly book, Cory Doctorow who skewered DRM as bad for readers, bad for business, and Sara Lloyd, who brings a reasoned and forward-looking publisher’s perspective on digital.

Still, one thing that worried and puzzled me was how rarely the reader was mentioned at TOC. There was talk of the future of the book, the network, Google, and self-publishing models. And of course DRM. But the reader was largely absent.

Tools of Change … for Readers?

One of the problems for publishers is that they have never had much to do with their readers. Their clients, traditionally, have been book stores, who in turn managed the relationships with readers. In a time of limited media choices and abundant readers that probably works. But now that book reading is competing against so many other information-based leisure activities (the web and the Wii, to name two), the makers of books need to have a more intimate understanding of what readers want. Outsourcing your relationships with the people who are your reason for existence is probably a bad idea when your business is in turmoil.

What kind of business runs without constantly questioning how it can best serve it’s clientele? The answer, especially when consumer choice has never been so great, is probably: a business that’s going to have trouble surviving.

Read the rest of the article on The Huffington Post.