Re-in­vent pub­lish­ing?

The Insider - - CONTENT - By An­dreas Pfeif­fer

There are ba­si­cally two ways of ap­proach­ing what is hap­pen­ing in me­dia (in gen­eral) and in pub­lish­ing (in par­tic­u­lar): ei­ther you con­sider that dig­i­tal me­dia is the fu­ture, des­tined to push any other form of con­tent onto the con­veyer belt to­wards obliv­ion—or you take the ap­proach that dig­i­tal con­tent is in­deed a for­mi­da­ble force that trig­gers enor­mous changes in pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of con­tent, but that ul­ti­mately, me­dia is some­thing that goes well be­yond con­sid­er­a­tions of dis­tri­bu­tion and pro­duc­tion, some­thing that hap­pens on many dif­fer­ent plat­forms and takes a great va­ri­ety of forms and shapes, some de-ma­te­ri­al­ized, oth­ers which have a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion. The whirl­wind of tech­nol­ogy rev­o­lu­tions that have shaped the past two or three decades in pub­lish­ing has a cu­ri­ous side-ef­fect: we tend to fo­cus pre­dom­i­nantly on what we gain when a new tech­nol­ogy comes around, and of­ten dis­re­gard and un­der­es­ti­mate as­pects we lose in the process. When e-books were the lat­est craze, there was a deep-rooted con­vic­tion, both from the tech­nol­ogy providers and pun­dits, that within a few years this new (and on some lev­els much more con­ve­nient) way of pub­lish­ing books would in­evitably sound the death-knell for the printed va­ri­ety, do­ing away with book stores in the process. A brave new world of pub­lish­ing where books were only a click away and your en­tire li­brary could live on a hand­held de­vice. What was there not to like?

Less than a decade later, how­ever, printed books are do­ing quite well, thank you very much, re­duc­ing e-books to a con­ve­nience for­mat that is at­trac­tive and use­ful, but, as re­cent sur­veys show, doesn’t seem to be able to re­place the at­trac­tion of printed books for a ma­jor­ity of con­sumers (not even the pur­port­edly print-pho­bic mil­len­ni­als.) And just if you had any doubts: Ama­zon, in­ven­tor of the most pop­u­lar e-read­ing de­vice and book­store-slayer supreme, opened a brick-and-mor­tar out­let in late 2015 - and is plan­ning an en­tire chain of stores for the near fu­ture. So much for dig­i­tal re­plac­ing ana­log...

What is so strik­ing, how­ever, is how ob­ses­sively me­dia pro­duc­ers th­ese days fo­cus ex­clu­sively on the dig­i­tal and on­line vari­a­tion of con­tent, play­ing con­stant catch-up with a tech­nol­ogy evo­lu­tion that is chal­leng­ing even for the best­funded start-ups. In the dig­i­tal realm, com­mon knowl­edge says, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is ev­ery­thing. Don’t be shy we are told: try out wild ideas, and it­er­ate quickly. It is ob­vi­ously sound ad­vice—but what sur­prises me is how few pub­lish­ers ap­ply the same logic to their tra­di­tional busi­ness. If we can prob­a­bly all agree that pub­lish­ing is about us­ing your ed­i­to­rial acu­men to de­liver value to your read­ers, couldn’t the def­i­ni­tion of value in­clude non-dig­i­tal prod­ucts as well? Oh, right, I for­got: print is dy­ing…

But is it re­ally? Or is it only that a younger gen­er­a­tion is bored with print prod­ucts that have been bla­tantly con­ceived for their par­ents and grand­par­ents? There is no rea­son why “think­ing out­side of the box” couldn’t mean out­side of the big and small screens that seems to have be­come our unique rea­son for be­ing.

In fact, if you look more closely, a lot of this is al­ready hap­pen­ing, even if it is easy to ridicule some of th­ese ex­am­ples as fringe trends. Per­haps they are, but maybe we should re­mind our­selves that rev­o­lu­tions usu­ally start at the fringe, not at the cen­ter. Just look at sales of vinyl records: af­ter hav­ing been dis­missed as a lu­di­crously niche phe­nom­e­non, they make up al­most 30% of phys­i­cal mu­sic sales now—and cre­ate more rev­enue than free mu­sic stream­ing.

Even in pub­lish­ing, the move out of the vir­tual into the real world as a rev­enue gen­er­a­tor is hap­pen­ing. There is a rea­son why so many news­pa­pers around the globe are in­vest­ing heav­ily in the event busi­ness: it is a rev­enue­gen­er­at­ing way of giv­ing your loyal cus­tomers real-world value and en­coun­ters—in­stead of share­able vir­tual bits of news that are for­got­ten as soon as they are viewed.

And print? Well, even if Amer­i­can pun­dits tend to see it as the di­nosaurs of the me­dia busi­ness, en route for cer­tain ex­tinc­tion, some form of print is do­ing very well.

Just ask Cos­mopoli­tan or TheE­conomist: they are cer­tainly em­brac­ing dig­i­tal—but print is at the core of their busi­ness. And there is a groundswell of in­de­pen­dent mag­a­zines (such as the ex­cel­lent Bri­tish pub­li­ca­tion, De­layedGrat­i­fi­ca­tion) that are in­creas­ingly suc­cess­ful with ex­actly the tar­get au­di­ence that is meant to shun print: mil­len­ni­als...

And in­creas­ingly, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the phys­i­cal world is also bring­ing busi­ness suc­cess. Take Die Presse, for in­stance, one of Aus­tria’s old­est dailies (it has been around since 1848), who is do­ing very well with ded­i­cated, spe­cial­ized mag­a­zines that draw upon the in-house ed­i­to­rial know-how and decade’s worth of archives. For Die Presse, print has re­cently been at the core of an ag­gres­sive bid to in­crease mar­ket share and rev­enue - and it clearly seems to pay off, even though—or per­haps ex­actly be­cause—it dares ex­pand the uni­verse of this highly re­spected news­pa­per be­yond the ex­pected bound­aries…

What all this means is quite simple: yes, it may in­deed be a good idea for strate­gic de­ci­sion mak­ers in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness to take a longer view. And to dare ex­per­i­ment. Af­ter all, we do live in a phys­i­cal world…

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