I’m doing my holiday shopping this week, and it struck me how in some ways, the changes the publishing industry faces right now are a lot like the changes a family goes through as people evolve and grow.
In my family, we don’t buy for adults but we do buy small presents for little children, and the puzzle this year has been what to do about the baby niece. Her toddler brother is no problem; he’s old enough to have a personality and is obsessed with dinosaurs right now, so we’ll be buying him something dinosaur-themed. But his newborn sister doesn’t have any interests yet, and she has a mama blessed with friends who have given her all the baby essentials she could need. So our gift is a tricky one; we’re trying to anticipate what she might like in the coming months or years, and that can be a tricky thing.
Do we assume she won’t appreciate anything we might buy her now, and buy her something she might like later, such as jewelry? There’s no guarantee she’ll turn out to be the girly type. Perhaps a book I loved, which she might enjoy when she’s older? But how do I know she’ll share my literary tastes? Who has any idea what her interests will be in one year, in five, in 20? There are no clues to go on with a baby this little other than ‘she’s a girl,’ and in today’s gender-agnostic world, even that is not worth much.
* * *
Now, consider the publishing industry. Its problem has been that it’s had a business model that has been stable for several centuries. Publishers were like the Greek gods up there on Mount Olympus, having their same old sword fights and doing their same old thing. And now, they have become mortal …
So, what they need to do is stop looking for the timeless and eternal new Mount Olympus here—the new monolith to replace the one they’re losing. Instead, they need to develop a more nimble and changeable business model that lets them grow with the times. I wouldn’t buy my niece an iPod that she can use years down the line, because I understand that by the time she’s ready for something like that, the tech world will be different. Specs will change, technology will evolve. It may not even be called an iPod anymore. Who knows what tech we’ll have by then?
Sure, I can buy her a stuffed animal she may be ready for in six months’ time, but planning ahead for years is a whole other story. And yet that’s what the publishers seem to be doing: They’re looking for the new business model they can keep forever, instead of looking for the products that will satisfy the market we have right now, and in the near-term.
They need to streamline their systems so that if something new comes along, they can embrace it. They need to think less like the immortal Greek gods who stay the same for centuries, and more like us mortal families who grow and change over years. Yes, there has to be a certain amount of foreword thinking—that’s what gives us the education savings plans and the retirement investment accounts we have in our lives. But there also has to be flexibility. Buying a toddler a dinosaur toy because he’s into that right now is a very different thing from permanently installing a full dinosaur skeleton into your living room. If you did that, you’d have no space, no money, no room for things to change or evolve as he—and his interests—grow.
* * *
It’s not about saying, We had the X and we will replace it with the Y, and then we’ll be done and the problem will be solved. It’s about saying, We did it this way when the world was such that we had to do it that way, and now we will see what the world needs today. And then you have to keep saying that, so that when the dinosaurs are done and he’s into something else, you can provide him that experience … and likewise, when the EPUB file or the PDF magazine or the flash Web app is done and gone, you can provide whatever the new experience is going to be.
If there systems are so formalized and fossilized that they can’t do that, then what they need to learn is not how to make an EPUB error-free, or how to optimize a PDF for Zinio. What they need to learn is how to roll with it a little better than they currently are. Would a parent tell his toddler, when the dinosaur fad inevitably passes, to hang tight for a decade or so while they figure out how to implement the next interest? Of course not. They roll with it, within their means and abilities.
That’s how life goes.
* * *