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There is No Publishing Industry

18 January 2013

Insights by John Cavnar-Johnson


Physical books were never really the publishing industry’s product. It was always the stories, ideas, and information contained in the books. Now that there are competing digital containers for almost everything that has traditionally been delivered via physical books, it is imperative that we take a hard look at the different industries which were hidden from view by our once-useful model of the publishing industry. Because these industries are moving to the digital world at vastly different rates and to very different digital containers: ebooks, apps, and the web. In my terminology, an app is a digital container that promotes user interaction with content rather than linear reading; an ebook is a self-contained reading unit mostly without external links; and the defining feature of the web is external linking. To understand the future of publishing, we have to let go of the idea of “the publishing industry” and look at its products based on the needs they fulfill.

Read it all at Digital Book World



22 Comments to “There is No Publishing Industry”

  1. I’ve always said the product is story, not the book, but publishing has focused for too many decades on the physical book and distribution. Authors create product. Readers consume product. The publishing industry stands between the two. It either needs to facilitate that or it needs to get out of the way.

    • Your blog and what you are doing at Cool Gus Publishing was a big factor helping me think all this through. Some the reaction on Twitter has been interesting referring to the piece as philosophical. I see it as inherently actionable. Writers who are storytellers can filter everything that is happening through the “does this help me get my stories to readers” lens. Pundits can understand the industry statistics better. There is a big chunk of the physical book business that isn’t migrating to ebooks, but it is going digital. And publishing companies really ought to be looking at separating their workflows based on the differing needs of these types of books.

  2. Or as they now find themselves, being forcibly removed out of the way.

  3. For those of you who don’t know, John Cavnar-Johnson is my “real name”.

    • You must use a sharp razor, John.

      The publishing “industry” really has only one asset: writers. The care of and response to writers going forward will determine its future. As a “hybrid,” I’d like to see that future be bright. At DBW this past week, there seems to be optimism from execs tempered by a realistic assessment of the challenges. This year will be key.

      • Indeed. If the product is the stories, then publishing is an industry that doesn’t actually create its product.

        • I compare the publishing industry to the oil industry (I live in Houston, Texas). Oil companies don’t create their products either.

          In traditional trade publishing, writers are like oil wells. The publisher spends a lot of money “drilling wells” (publishing unknown writers), hoping to hit a gusher and make up for all the dry holes. When they have a producing well (writer), they ship the output off to a refinery (editors and production staff). From there they distribute to gas stations (bookstores), power plants (educational market), etc.

          Sure, there are differences, but viewing them as an extractive industry helps explain how they treat writers.

          • But oil can’t load itself into a barrel and sell itself. If it could, we wouldn’t have oil companies, other than niche companies for those gallons who didn’t want to have to do the work of marketing themselves to gas stations or painting a logo on the outside of the barrel.

            • Exactly. Which is why oil companies are the most profitable enterprises in human history and publishing companies, well, aren’t.

              [The above is a fact, not an endorsement of that state of affairs.]

              • Michael Kingswood

                Well, there’s also the fact that our modern society would be impossible to achieve without oil. Whereas without books produced by a particular publisher? Not so much…

    • I was about to offer you my services to pursue the blackguard who had so blatantly misappropriated your insights.

      Well, not really. I’m not a litigator. But “Hey, he stole that from William” *was* my first thought when I saw the headline.

    • I guess not enough people read all the way down to the bottom of that web page.

  4. Dear William/John,

    Read the entire post and I really appreciate the usefulness of the 4 industry construct. It does make it easier to understand the different paces and approaches that we are seeing in this time of rapid change.

    M. Louisa

  5. Fascinating!

    Database, narrative, learning, and illustration as separate components (often combined in varying proportions) with varying responses to digital translation.

    I’ll be thinking about this concept for a while!

  6. I really like the four industry construct. It’s a really good way to conceptualize the changes, and the varying speeds.

    Nice article!

  7. Fascinating article, with lots to think about, but for long time followers of this blog, this most important part of the article is this: About John Cavnar-Johnson
    John Cavnar-Johnson is the founder of Friars Lane Digital Services, a startup company dedicated to delivering professional grade tools for digital publishing. Prior to starting Friars Lane, John spent many years designing software architecture and writing code for companies in the Houston, Texas area where he lives. You can find John on the internet under the pen name William Ockham or follow him on Twitter @WilliamOckhamTx.

    Our William is John? Congrats on the gig at DBW!

  8. Great article, W/J. First, congrats on the DBW gig.

    Second, put these insights together with the comment you made on my blog about how ebooks really work, combine that with an article I read today http://toc.oreilly.com/2013/01/are-we-over-thinking-epub.html, and I had all sorts of “mind-click lightbulb” moments.

    I’ve been looking at ebooks from the wrong direction. They aren’t books at all. To continue looking at them as books is self-limiting. It’s like looking at a bowl and deciding, “It holds water,” then spending all my time and energy putting water in the bowl, and nary a thought to all the million and one other things that bowl can do. Or worse, never considering there ways, other than bowls, to hold water.

    • The most important thing to remember is that stories are still stories. Here’s what I mean. EPUB 3 is the worst, if you are a written word storyteller. It literally adds nothing that enhances your ability to tell a story while adding a host of complexities that we can be sure that the vendors will screw up. It will do nothing for narrative industry other than increase costs, drive down customer satisfaction, and create opportunities for finger-pointing.

      If, on the other hand, you are in the learning industry, EPUB 3 may be the greatest thing since sliced bread. A good EPUB 3 device/app would enable a host of new ways to present content.

      The difference is the narrative industry produces “passive entertainment”. This is not a bad thing. It started around the first campfire (if not before). One person tells the story and the rest of us listen. It’s a magical thing that gets repeated with every play, movie, radio drama, tv show, and “books”. Interactive tv is a flop because it is a dumb idea. Xbox is brilliant. There’s a difference between reading the Hobbit and playing D&D.

      The learning industry actually benefits from the “active content” features in EPUB 3. You learn better when you do what you just saw/read/heard.

  9. Is there a movie industry? Is Random House a member?

    Stories may be the raw material, but it’s the acquisition, production, packaging, and marketing that makes the industry. The stories can exist without the industry, but few will know about them. The world is full of stories. Always has been. Every society has them, but not all those societies have a publishing industry.

    • Sure, there is a movie industry. And when you say movie industry, nobody thinks you are including industrial training films. Even if the industrial training film stars John Cleese and is hilariously funny. The movie industry is a narrative industry that is a perfect analogue to what I am calling the narrative publishing industry. Even documentary movies use a narrative form.

      In fact, you’ve given me a great way to help people decide if a particular title is part of the narrative industry. Just ask yourself, “Could I turn this book into a movie script?” It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty hard to seriously say yes to that question if the book is “HTML 5 for Publishers”.

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