Authors, Business Models, Technology, Tools, World of Tomorrow

Game Over, Man — Has the Disruption of Publishing Already Occurred?

Entropy ≥ Memory . Creativity ²
Image by jef safi (‘pictosophizing) via Flickr

A provocative post by Fake Steve Jobs about a possible Apple tablet content device takes publishers to task for a lack of creativity, calling them unflattering names and stating things like:

We’ve invited [the big guys in publishing] in for meetings, and while we’re talking we sort of give them a little quiz, in the form of a very simple question: Where do you think publishing is going? Most of them can’t see anything other than what they’ve done in the past. To them this is all just another blip, a little shift in their business, like going from black-and-white newspapers to color, or going from broadsheet to tabloid.

But that’s not it at all. We’re talking about an entirely new way to convey information, one that incorporates dynamic elements (audio, video) with static elements (text, photos) plus the ability for the “audience” to become content creators, not just content consumers.

The funny thing is that the publishing guys still consider themselves the “creative” side of the business, even though they’re the ones with no vision. In their minds, we techies are just a pack of drones. And they wonder why, in this new digital age, we’re reaping most of the financial rewards.

(A computer company is now the #1 music retailer, remember.)

Brian Lam, in a related post on Gizmodo, talks about the possibility of an Apple tablet and how it could give Apple the pole position in the e-reader space:

The eventual goal is to have publishers create hybridized content that draws from audio, video, interactive graphics in books, magazines and newspapers, where paper layouts would be static.

This continues to bang on the theme of disruptive innovation, I’m afraid. Incumbents are too married to their old markets, habits, cash flows, and management pathways to not be vulnerable. Meanwhile, new entrants are inspired, customer-focused, acquiring talent and skills right and left, and happy with smaller initial revenues and margins.

But it goes deeper than that. Companies like Apple, Amazon, Smashwords, Adobe, Automattic (makers of WordPress), Sony, and the hundreds and thousands of feeder firms and millions of users of the communication tools and platforms they’ve built would probably already dwarf the publishing industry in aggregate revenues, and certainly outflank us in strategic clarity, funding capacity, and engineering capabilities. It’s especially obvious when you consider that publishers used to specialize in the technology and distribution systems of publishing. In fact, moreso than with content, things are what traditional publishers monetized (“. . . the publishing world is not genuinely concerned with ideas and authors, it’s concerned with selling objects (books, magazines, etc.)”). People paid for professionally finished goods (skeptical people might want to know how antagonistic people are of blogger journalists even if they’re the same people they believe in print), and advertisers paid for broad, reliable distribution.

Now, customers pay for different packages (software programs and data services), and advertisers are shifting to more efficient forms of distribution.

So maybe this isn’t about disruption that’s going to happen. It could be about disruption that has already happened. Perhaps we’re already on the other side of the breach. Even certification is shifting from journals to search engines, linking registries, and other sources of apomediation. Our customers are slowly realigning their world views to match.

So, while it will take a while for the full effects to be felt in niche areas like STM publishing, the power, capacity, money, talent, reach, and ambitions of these large companies might mean that the point of no return has passed. The frog in the warming pan of water may already be cooked. Or, as someone once so eloquently stated (warning: contains a swear):

Game over, man. Maybe we can build a fire and sing songs.

(Thanks to DC for some pointers.)

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are my own.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Game Over, Man — Has the Disruption of Publishing Already Occurred?

  1. As someone who used to work FOR a big publisher and now works WITH a big publisher, I don’t feel any creativity happening. The ideas are seeming to come from our society members, but they can’t quite articulate yet what they want; they just know they want something different.

    Posted by Kerry O'Rourke | Oct 2, 2009, 9:58 am
  2. Just for the sake of accuracy, it should probably be noted that Fake Steve Jobs is the fictional alter-ego of Dan Lyons, and that while he hasn’t actually met with publishers as noted in his satirical piece, he is a writer for Newsweek and is a published book author, so he does have his finger on the pulse of both industries. Also, he wrote a similar piece at the request of the Huffington Post.

    Posted by David Crotty | Oct 2, 2009, 10:01 am
  3. Among STM book publishers, I think the challenge is the curse of legacy content, a lot of which is substantively excellent. STM publishers are making tremendous efforts to repackage what they already own, but it’s not as simple as the old cliche — pouring old wine into new bottles. With STM legacy content, the old wine can’t quite take on the shape of the new bottles. I’m seeing some authors who have some ideas for genuinely new wine to fit the new bottles, and now the challenge is how to adapt STM business models to sell the new wine.

    Posted by Rich Lampert | Oct 2, 2009, 10:23 am
  4. They have one advantage over us and one advantage only. They can think on their feet.

    This is what Steve Jobs originally said about Apps on the phone (In Jan 2007):
    “You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” meaning that anyone can write applications for it and potentially gum up the provider’s network, says Jobs. “You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.” (Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16566968/site/newsweek/page/3/print/1/displaymode/1098/)

    Originally it was web browser type apps only. But they were very quick to spot the App opportunity and arrive at a solution that works. By the way every other pda/smartphone provider just totally failed at the job.

    Agile thinking wins. That’s the basic take home message I think. Apple have taken to heart what General Patton said: “A good plan, violently executed today, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

    I believe that was Ripley’s approach more or less.

    These folks are not geniuses. Really. But they can monetize their byproducts and they never stop looking for ways to do so, and they are totally outward looking for opportunities to respond to.

    You can learn how to develop a technology strategy. That’s not the problem. The culture of agile is the issue here. That’s the environmental factor that has changed. It’s an Agile World.

    Evolving is the only answer.

    Posted by David Smith | Oct 2, 2009, 12:05 pm
  5. I think it’s the job of publishers, especially STM publishers, to get creative. But unfortunately most publishers, as mentioned just want to fit old formats into new and resell them. I don’t think personally that we’ll be reading ebooks on mobile phones – they’re not the right device for that – I’ve tried and it’s inconvenient. But there’s lots of other ways of providing information that not the traditional flat file book model. We need to innovate and think about how customers may use the information we can provide to them. We have the resources and access to markets to do this if we can think laterally for a change.

    Posted by Mark Lord | Oct 2, 2009, 12:09 pm
  6. John Wilbanks was a keynote at SSP’s IN conference last week, billed as the “new kind of conference” that was going to “provide a framework for approaching innovation in scholarly publishing.” Unless he was just window dressing, his message should be taken seriously by the publishers in attendance, because he addressed the real change that ultimately may parboil scholarly publishers before they realize it. What he said (what he has been saying in one way or another for years now) radically challenges current scholarly publishing practices: the journal, article, and book are no longer the relevant “containers” of science; the web itself has become the ultimate container, and publishers in that environment need to change their business models from certifying and marketing journals, articles and books—the “content layer”—to selling the value to be added to the “surrounding layers,” by facilitating the “integration, annotation, and federation” of scientific research, which is more than articles and books, is ultimately the dynamic online conversation and collaboration of scientists in whatever form it comes. That’s the big change, “the other side of the breach,” and publishers are nowhere near it yet.

    Posted by Ted Freeman | Oct 2, 2009, 3:12 pm
    • To be fair to publishers, it’s not like anyone else has found a way to sell those surrounding layers in any other fields as well. If you or Wilbanks can point to specific success stories that we can learn from, I’m sure most here would appreciate it.

      Posted by David Crotty | Oct 2, 2009, 4:10 pm
      • Well, it will be a tough nut, and so you have me there. I’m not suggesting that anyone–least of all me–knows how to manage the changes that are coming, or beginning to heat the water, to return to that metaphor. We all know that the current scholarly publishing system has very powerful and unwieldy momentum and strong resistors. Wilbanks would be the first to admit that. The point I wanted to make was that publishers have not been “disrupted” yet. Clearly they are still about journals, articles and books and other remnant architectures and systems of print, which are being replicated online. I’m being much less critical of that fact (which I understand the reasons for) than I am the notion that we have in any sense passed through the “disruption” represented by Internet-related technologies and come out on the other side. Far from it.

        Posted by Ted Freeman | Oct 3, 2009, 1:51 am
  7. It should be noted that publishers (and other content creators) are entering the fray, if belatedly so. Hulu, owned by several television networks, has been wildly successful and has probably put a large dent in iTunes sales of television show episodes. Now comes word that several magazine publishers are creating their own service for selling digital subscriptions, cutting the Amazons and Apples out of the picture. The challenge for Hulu is to move to being a paid service. This new magazine venture faces the same hurdle and others, particularly:

    They’ll have to create content consumers want to buy. The new product can’t simply be a digital version of the magazines they’re already printing: That’s already available on the Web, and consumers have shown almost no interest in paying for it, and advertisers haven’t fully embraced it either.

    Posted by David Crotty | Oct 3, 2009, 2:15 pm
  8. We’re seeing a lot of creativity coming from tech start-ups. Literally dozens of them seem to be trying to build their business on the backs of scholarly content. They see the value of the content, aren’t trying to duplicate that. They are creating services and e-commerce around it instead.

    I think that high-quality, well-vetted content will remain of value and may, in fact, rise even more visibly to the top the more noise there is out there. But it is up to publishers to figure out new ways to package, disseminate and monetize. That’s where perhaps our creativity is most needed.

    Posted by Kristen Fisher Ratan | Oct 6, 2009, 1:21 pm

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