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Is trade publishing’s situation more like the newspapers or more like the advertisers?

27 February 2013

From veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin:

It has been an important tenet of my thinking about digital change in the book business to understand that books are different from other media — music, TV, movies, newspapers, magazines — as we try to anticipate the future.

. . . .

But while book publishing people tend to focus on the changes enabled by Gutenberg, Gray’s newspaper-centric view makes the high-speed rotary press, which enabled publications cheap enough to be daily purchases by masses of people, the seminal moment.

High-speed presses made all print cheap for the incremental copy. In the case of radio and televison, of course, the incremental copy is free. So all these media, as well as movies, which used scale in a slightly different way, were about amortizing the costs of content creation across “mass market” consumption.

If Karl Marx had been writing a bit later than he did, he might have seen that controlling the “means of distribution” had become as important as he saw controlling the “means of production” to be.

. . . .

And that’s what the Internet has blown up. Because now the distribution mechanism for expensive-to-create content is precisely the same as the distribution mechanism for any content. In the book business, we’ve been tracking that as “purchased in stores” (which is, in itself, expensive and pretty much restricted to expensive-to-create content) as opposed to “purchased online” (which is a channel open to all of us).

Gray calls this a change from the “mass media era” to the “infinite media era”.

. . . .

But that micro-targeting might affect newspapers and magazines and radio and TV stations far differently than it affects book publishers. And that’s because, when it comes to advertising, book publishers are, in a way, on the opposite side of the fence from these other media.

Those media don’t build an audience uniquely for every issue the way book publishers do for every new book (and that’s somewhat true even for vertical publishers). They’re trying to sell captive audiences; we in book publishing are trying to corral disparate audiences. That makes us more like the newspapers’ advertisers than like the newspapers themselves.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

Mike Shatzkin

10 Comments to “Is trade publishing’s situation more like the newspapers or more like the advertisers?”

  1. I could be wrong, but publishers have focused for so long on selling to distributors rather than readers, that I’m not sure they remember how to market to readers–especially with how the book market is changing.

    They’ll have to learn how to sell books to people who want those books, rather than picking a few blockbusters and trying to convince people that’s what they should be reading/buying. With publishers tightening up on the number and variety of books being published, that’s going to mean changing how they’ve become accustomed to running their business in some very fundamental ways. Trade publishing five years from now, whatever it looks like, is going to be very different from what it is now. It will have to be.

  2. The essence of Big Pub fail in one simple idea:

    build an audience uniquely for every issue the way book publishers do for every new book

    It’s not just that no one can succeed with that mission, it’s that it explains most of the pathologies of traditional Big Pub:

    1. Focus on celebrity authors
    2. The wholesale jettisoning of the mid-list
    3. The inability of Big Pub to build brands
    4. The appeal of price-fixing
    5. The failure to understand online selling
    6. The obsession with the completely fake concept of “discovery”

    I’ll probably think of more later.

    • William, I mostly agree, but question #6. Is discovery really a fake concept? Isn’t the issue really that in their estimation the means for discovery are browsing bookshelves of curated items when in the new environment there are better ways to promote discovery at a more personal level?

      • If you really press the industry insiders about what they mean when they say “discovery”, what they describe has nothing to do with discovery at all. It’s really about the inability of their marketing muscle to command readers attention. That’s why Shatzkin thinks that the publishers are in the same boat as newspaper advertisers. In his view, bookstores are the newspapers who formerly captured all the “eyeballs” in a locale.

    • About #3, I wouldn’t say it was so much an inability to create or build brands, but a failure to maintain the ones they’ve created over the years.

      I had a quick browse of the books I’ve collected over the years, & I’m amazed how many publishing houses that had a brand value with me either are out of business or have failed to keep themselves visible. For example, Random House used to have an imprint “Vintage Crime/Black Lizard” that published classic Film Noir mysteries (e.g. Jiim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, David Goodis), & had enough titles to let the reader know just what it offered: I haven’t seen that imprint in I don’t know how long.

      It’s another case of the MBAs deciding an imprint wasn’t making enough money & liquidating it, ignoring the veteran wisdom of leaving it alone so they could use it to market specific books to an established audience.

      Stuff like this makes it hard to feel any sympathy for these corporations going out of business.

  3. Every disparate thing is different from every other one, so any comparison is going to have some differences and determining how those differences will be reflected can get tricky. However, I’m convinced the best comparison is music. The old way was based on a best seller system (big promotional dollars aimed at the least common denominator with smaller niches largely ignored by the big players) and both required significant investment in production and distribution. Those are the biggies although the similarities go on and on. The big players are also making the same mistakes in adapting to the changes.

  4. I often get the impression that five years from now, when much of this “revolution” has become the accepted norm, Mike and the Big 5 will still be studying the problem.

    They need to get moving. They could start with the six items William listed above, but they have to stop talking and actually DO something.

    The horse left the barn already, stop trying to figure out how the door got open. Whats next? Posts about what happened and how it wasnt their fault?

    (I’m sure that I’m not the only one to notice that NOBODY has even commented on his post. What does that say?)

    • One of Big Publishing’s problems is that it is in shrink-employee-numbers-to-maintain-profitability mode. So they have fewer people to do anything about this challenge.

      Additionally, if they’re filled with publishing veterans (which they are), they don’t have the right people to do anything useful with these new technologies and opportunities.

      • Exactly PG,

        If the savior they desperately need should ever show up to rescue them I’m sure he wont be a grey-haired one.

        If they did have the right people within the ranks I’m sure they were shown the door long ago. I imagine if any were brave enough to speak up and point out the problem(s) they were identified as a problem and gotten rid of.

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