Publishing has entered a new and different era

“Describing yesterdays as if they were tomorrows”… That’s how author Hugh Howey recently characterized publishing predictions. There’s more than a grain of truth in his assessment.

Most efforts to forecast the future of publishing start with an assumption that the prevailing supply chain will somehow adjust. Time-honored roles like development and curation are said to prevail, and by extension the next moments will look like the past, just that much more digital.

Some less sanguine assessments predict the demise of reading as we know it. In this argument, gatekeeping – whether through editors, imprints or booksellers – is a service to readers, one that readers will sorely miss when the new order emerges.

Neither of these two endpoints makes sense. We’re moving inexorably toward what I have called a “pre-book world”: a living manifestation of the development, refinement and extension of a particular work. At various points, an object – a book or an eBook, as examples – may be rendered, but it will be a subset of a conversation that includes content, comments, annotations, sources and more.

Impossible in print alone, this “living manifestation” is supported by the growth and ubiquity of the web. The internet shifts traditional publishing from a gatekeeping role, deciding what will be published, to a truer form of curation: managing the communities and conversations that may ultimately inform a rendered component.

The current supply chain was designed to make transactions between a known set of players – publishers, wholesalers and booksellers – as efficient as possible. It was not designed to provide publishers with an understanding of how, where, when and why consumers access and consume content.

Treating the internet as an extension of the old order is a mistake. New technologies don’t just lower transaction costs; they provide new capabilities while eliminating some transactions entirely. Ultimately, eliminating transactions means eliminating one or more parts of the prevailing order.

Andrei Hagiu and Johan Wright described the internet as “a platform that enables users (content seekers) and content providers to directly interact”. In contrast, for decades the primary platform for publishers and their supply-chain partners relied on the ability to exclude writers and supplemental content.

Now, we’re seeing the potential of a platform that includes everything – writers and content alike - and excludes nothing, offering access to markets around the world. In return, publishers can try different content forms, serve global communities and use the social web to discern and meet explicit and latent reader requirements.

In planning Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, Hugh McGuire and I solicited a range of perspectives on what might be next for the book. The contributions fit together more tightly than we initially imagined. Social writing and reading, the “writability” of digital books, a breakdown in traditional publishing silos, a focus on reader experience, and the primacy of readers’ requirements: these are the building blocks for the future of the book.

Rather than debate the future of our prevailing supply chain – “Will booksellers survive?” –  we should consider the implications of a set of scenarios, which I’ve loosely labeled “the inevitable”, “the probable” and “the possible”. I’ll start with the inevitable:

·      The use of bundled media as the dominant form of shared content is ending. This trend has already affected newspaper, magazine and some types of book publishing. As readers look to customize their own content consumption, it will continue.

·      Scale-dependent publishing models are fundamentally broken. Cutting costs won’t fix the old order. Nor will efforts to become more efficient at making and marketing eBooks. Instead, we need to strengthen our abilities to identify, support and sustain communities, growing overall demand for relevant content, not just the content we decided to publish.

The futures that are probable:

·      Boundaries between “types” of publishing will blur. The rise of long-form platforms like Atavist, Byliner and Longreads, as well as the development of multimedia stories like “Snow Fall”, challenge the notion of what a book is and can be.

·      To the extent that they persist, identifiers will tell a smaller part of the story. New and different content forms will emerge, increasingly determined by the reader, not just the publisher. Trends (or fads) like “lean publishing” are an early version of that “living manifestation”, one that may still produce objects, but not exclusively so.

And then there is the possible:

·      Consistent with Frank Chimero’s vision of “what screens want”, we’ll have to adapt content to embrace interactivity. On its own, interactivity won’t spell the end of uninterrupted reading, but a failure to celebrate its potential will certainly shrink the market for traditionally published works. Developing this new order requires something I call an “architecture of collaboration”, one that will be created whether we participate or not.

·      We will find ways to make money creating and selling these new and different content forms. To be fair, I actually think this is inevitable, but it is an opportunity that will probably not accrue to most of the incumbents.

If you believe any (or all) of these scenarios, you’ll find plenty of implications for publishing. Readers require solutions that are lightweight, open and network savvy. Selling access without allowing downloads, locking access through the use of DRM, and refusing to sell components of a larger work are examples of approaches that are neither open nor network savvy.

But our response should not become a lament for the role of editors, publishers, booksellers and other supply-chain partners. Instead, let’s ask an open-ended question: “How can we take advantage of these trends to better serve readers?” That’s how our industry can once again grow.

Reflecting on his own media domain, James Bennet, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, last year noted, “The future of journalism requires a deep understanding of the web, of design, of data, of communities large and small, of all types of media.”

For “journalism”, we could substitute “publishing”, or even “storytelling”, and the claim would still stand. Publishing has entered a new and different era. It won’t look or work as it has in the past. Bucket that prediction: inevitable.

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