Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Publishers Can Do to Flourish In A Community-Centric Web World

This post, from Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on his Idealog site, and represents a talk he presented at BookExpo America on 5/28/09.

Michael Friedman and I were having lunch and he said to me, “You know Mike, the word is “evolve”.” And that’s the word. So in fact it’s not going to be about how you flourish, it’s going to be about how you evolve. How publishers who create products can evolve into a world that’s going to be about community.

There are a few fundamental premises that really ground this speech that we want to start with, and the first one is Things Will Change, and I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of disagreement about that. So, we can move on to the fact that It Is necessary to have a view of the future to anticipate change. Think, for example, that people in the future are going to look up publishers on the web, and search those publishers for the books they want. Well then you would do things differently to what I’m going to suggest to you, because I don’t really think that’s what the future is. But you have to have a view of the future in order to know what to do in the present.

Another premise that I believe is true is that the market is going to shift in some ways, from now on, between the time you acquire a book and the time you publish it. Every book that is being published now was acquired before anybody had heard of Twitter. And every book that is being published now depends on something that is in Twitter. So that’s going to be normal. And because that’s normal, you’re going to be constantly trying new things. You’re not going to have any choice but to try new things! Because Twitter is a new thing, and things become new, and you don’t have the chance to sit on the sideline and watch how it works and analyze it.

You have to be opportunistic, you have to see what opportunities are out there and you have to try new things all the time, and you have to do that within some sort of framework, within some sort of understanding of the future because we know that there are so many new things going on. We can barely remember them all from the last two weeks, let alone try them all. So if you don’t have some sort of an idea of where you’re going, and where the world is going, it gets very very hard to distinguish between the opportunities.

A Lot Happens in 20 Years

Now, before I describe what I think will be the world of content and publishing in 20 years, I want to make the point that a lot happens in 20 years, because I’m going to describe a world that is pretty different from the one that we’re in, and that would raise a lot of skepticism. Think about this:

In 1968, there were about three broadcast networks that had about 95% market-share. There was nothing else to do with your TV, and there weren’t a lot of things to do other than watch TV. So, half the country or 60% of the country, could watch The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, that kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. By 1988, half the homes in America had cable, and half the homes in America had VCRs. There were five broadcast networks, not three. And there were 40, 50 , 60, 70 channels on the cable. And the broadcast networks knew that that day they had, 20 years before, was never coming back.

I picked 1980 for the record companies because that was just before a huge boom. As a matter of fact it was before two huge booms, because the Walkman 2 was invented in 1980. So between 1980 and 1983, the record companies got to sell me all the records I bought until that time, as cassettes. And then in 1983 or 84, they invented the CD, and they got to sell me all the records they sold me as cassettes again as CDs. And that made the record companies a lot of money. And things looked great for them. And the future was booming. And we know where the record companies were by 2000. 2000 was before the invention of the iPod, but not before the invention of Napster.

Newspapers. Well 1989 was a peak year for newspaper ad revenue. It went down a bit after that, but you know what saved them? In the mid-1990s, classified advertising saved them. But you know what classified advertising is now? Craigs list. It’s not on the newspapers anymore. You know where newspapers are now. They’re threatened. So in 1989 they had a peak year, and in 2009, they’re facing extinction. That happened in 20 years.

Mass-market paperbacks. Now this is something where you have to be as old as I am to remember when book publishers made a lot of money selling mass market paperback rights, and the fact that that was the jackpot. You published that title in hardcover, and then you could sell the mass market rights for a lot of money. I’ve picked 1975 as a starting year there, because the record sale for mass market paperback didn’t occur until 1979. That was Princess Daisy. Remember Princess Daisy? Pretty forgettable book. 3.1 Million dollar sale from Crown to Bantam. That number has never been topped. By 1999, mass market paper backs were where they are now, which is that they are category books. 95% of mass market paperbacks fall into a fiction category. So in 20 years, it went from a business that meant, that mass market books were bookseller, to a business where it doesn’t anymore.

Online Access in 20 years. Well, in 1989, the World Wide Web was in the process of being invented. But you could go online. To Prodigy. Through a dial-up. And now, 20 years later, you carry the internet in your pocket. So, that’s changed a lot in 20 years!

Books. Well, 1989 was before two great booms, sort of like the music business in 1980. Because in 1989 the owners of Borders, and the owners of Barnes & Noble were headed down to Wall St. to get a lot of money, to open up superstores. And all those superstores stocked a lot of backlist. So in the early 90s, publishers were printing a lot of backlist to put into all those superstores. And then Amazon came along. And that, as a matter of fact, got the backlist for the guys who didn’t have enough sales clout to get into the Barnes & Noble and Borders. Their backlist is sold on Amazon. So everybody was moving up. But you know what? The last 10 years, unit sales on books are flat. And bookstore shelf space is now sinking, where it was really expanding. We have gone from a business that was expanding, to a business that is contracting in 20 years.

Read the rest of the post, view the PowerPoint presentation, and watch videos of the BEA talk, on Idealog.

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