Publishers often feel that they’re taking “the long view” as they cultivate authors, develop multi-year plans, and reassess their catalogs and offerings.
But could that long view be an illusion? Is it just focusing on the far end of the box they’re inside? The box that seems to be cluttering up everyone’s information basement these days?
Are they inherently set up to fail the future?
What happens when changes threaten deep disruption? Do publishers have the tools and approaches they need to respond with a truly long view?
A recent blog post in The Atlantic’s “Ideas” area touches on the problem facing book publishers — that is, instead of cultivating new talent and finding ways to adapt to modern reading habits, they’re hunkering down and creating a business with an over-reliance on blockbusters, essentially milking what’s left of their existing model.
The upshot? Instead of modern-era Faulkners, Hawthornes, Bellows, or Vonneguts doing interesting e-book syndications or mixed-media experiments with long-term publisher support, incumbent publishers are rejecting authors and manuscripts at a much higher rate than usual, shunting those people elsewhere, feeding new-style competitors by basically handing them talent.
The option offered by the Atlantic blogger — create a tax subsidy to offset risk in cultivating new authors — seems to echo faulty “save the planet” rhetoric. Claiming that societal interest in books means publishers have to be saved is backwards and imprecise in the same manner as “save the planet” is. Publishers’ self-interests should be sufficient to align their activities with society’s interest in reading — if publishers held a truly long view of the situation.
Meanwhile, players outside publishing — Google, Amazon, Apple, and others — are taking more experimental views and investing in long-term plays in our space. (That’s the 1976 Apple I in the photo above. Imagine if that had been a first draft of a novel these days. We’d never have seen the iPhone.)
I think that’s part of the reason we sometimes get so distraught by some of the new players — they’re thinking of things and doing things that we should be thinking and doing, and finding ways to fund and take a truly long view.
The same problem may face us soon as we move forward into the social media era. In an interesting post at the Community Roundtable, Rachel Happe talks about how expectations of current business can lead to underinvesting in future business:
CxOs want and need to see these new approaches replace the volume they currently get with traditional methods. The problem? Current methods of marketing investment are linear – you spend X in direct response marketing and you get y in return… and there are fairly robust benchmarks to indicate whether you are on target or not. It also scales up and down predictably – if I spend twice as much I get twice the response rate. Communities look more like hockey sticks. Initially they require a lot of investment – and have disproportionately low returns. From a measurement perspective, they look like failures for a long time before they look like successes. Over time however, communities see geometric returns that you simply can’t achieve from traditional methods and that is when the costs start dropping dramatically relative to the returns. But that gestation period is different for different types of communities and it requires an act of faith to invest heavily in something for a long enough period to see those returns start to happen.
Facebook and Twitter are able to operate more purely out of vision, bankrolled by venture capital funds meant to take them far enough to realize the returns while publishers (newspaper and book publishers, in particular) are saving themselves poor by failing to invest in getting ahead of the change that threatens to ultimately undo them.
Unlike The Atlantic author, I think the future they’ll fail isn’t society’s future. Narratives, news, and social media will flourish even if some short-sighted players or current approaches to delivering these fall by the wayside. So I don’t feel let down by newspapers or traditional book publishers.
In fact, I think they’re failing themselves, and nobody else.