Yesterday afternoon here at South by Southwest (SXSW) I had the chance to sit in on a panel featuring Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody) and several key members of the traditional book publishing world, including representatives of Penguin and Bloomsbury, titled New Think for Old Publishers. Unfortunately this panel had very little think involved, as the first half of the panel basically consisted of introductions, descriptions of favorite books recently read and attempts to reinforce the importance of the beaurocratic system traditional publishers work in (and why this model is essential for book readers). It wasn’t until the second half of the single hour allotted for the conversation that the audience was told the publishers weren’t here with “new think” but instead wanted to get ideas from the audience. What ensued was quite a show of vitriol from the audience.
Rather than get into the details of the audience discussion (you can get the gist from the Twitter discourse or can get the overview from MediaLoper), I want to discuss a bit the bigger point the publishing industry doesn’t seem to be getting – they no longer hold the keys to the kingdom.
For hundreds of years now, the barrier to entry to create a written work that can easily be duplicated and made available to the masses has relied upon a very closed system, with a very high cost of entry. During those times logistical issues greatly limited the amount of content that could be created (how many printing presses exist, for example) or how many books could really be sold (how many bookstores could exist, and how much shelf space was available). So it was extraordinarily important for any publisher to make very discriminate decisions as to what books they would publish and ultimately attempt to get onto a store’s shelf. During this time they were the tastemakers and ultimately responsible for the continued desire for people to want to consume the written word.
Obviously in this day of low-cost Print-on-Demand, endless digital space to store works, a limitless long-tail shopping experience through places like Amazon, these logistical issues are no longer major barriers. Anyone can publish a book or write a blog, and there is a tremendous amount of content out here for all of us to consume. There is no barrier to entry other than having access to a computer, which really has reduced the ability for the publisher to be the “curator.” Since everyone today has the ability to have a voice both among friends and family but potentially loud enough for the entire world to hear, the people are today’s curators and tastemaker. This is why it was so disappointing to hear with such adamacy at yesterday’s panel that this was a key component of the traditional publishing industry.
The ultimate “New Think” for the publishing industry that I’ve been pushing both in book publishing, as well as in the music publishing industry is to change the mindset that publishers are in charge and the customers should trust them. Instead, publishers need to stop trying to be tastemakers and instead realize that they are ultimately administrators of extraordinarily valuable copyright-protected content that they can build a brand around. Find content or creators that already have a following (and sometimes take risks on ones that have a potential to be big), cultivate those creators and their content with your professional editing staff and then get the content out to people.
But in no instance, think it is your job to decide what is and is not worthy of publication. Yes, you should decide what is worthy of having your logo slapped on it, as you are building a brand – but the concept that it is your job to be the ultiate curator and gatekeeper, as well as to create one single item that people should buy is not going to work anymore.
Give people a quality product, from a respected brand, in whatever way people want to consume it, and you will continue to be relevant. Just keep in mind that people have the choice to ignore you now and go elsewhere too. Remove some of the internal decision process and instead watch trends. Take care of the intellectual property you administer, as well as take care of those who create it for you. The cream will ultimately rise to the top with or without you – so if you want to have a stake in the cream then invest in it and care for it – but don’t for a second think you’re the ones who decide what the cream is anymore.
That’s what this thing called The Internet does for you.