Monday 23 January 2012

On Change 4. And Your Point Is?

In last week's posts I (re)presented some observations on change I originally made at last June's Book Industry Communication summer seminar. In two post this week I’m going to summarise why I made them and in particular what I think there relevance is to people who still put print books into the retail & consumer supply chain, and make money from doing so.

Until recently book distribution has actually meant, “print book distribution”.  Bearing in mind Moore’s Law (cf. last week's posts) and its technological and social impacts, it is obvious that within a very short time the majority of publishers will earn very significant revenues from products and services other than books. In fact publishers have derived revenues from a variety of sources including, permissions, serialisation, foreign language rights, co-editions and so on for many decades. However now is the first time that income has derived simultaneously in volume from multiple products, channels and services through multiple transactional interfaces. Income ancillary to the printed book traditionally derived from a few transactions of high value. That is now being turned on its head to multiple transactions of low value.

Something I’ve been talking about here for years is the fact that most publishers know almost nothing about customer or consumer transactions because they’ve been outsourcing them to intermediaries for decades. As an industry we seem to really like to put people and things into silos. And that’s not the way the world is moving. Empowered, informed consumers expect instant answers to all their needs and questions, so woe betide us if we haven’t anticipated them correctly. Publishers with diversifying distribution mechanisms for their content need to have a much more detailed understanding of their individual consumers: who, when, what and how. 

At the 2011 O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York Brian O’Leary give a presentation Context First in which he coined the phrase: “context not containers”. O'Leary is a work flow expert and Harvard MBA who came to publishing from a magazine background, and who understands that publishers getting their digital work flow right will enable them to effectively use and monetise content in multiple channels. He proposes that in order to survive and prosper, publishers must understand the contexts in which consumers wish to obtain and utilise information and content. The context of the interaction with the content then takes primacy over the container in which that content is delivered. Brian’s thesis, in a nutshell goes: hire people and partners who know about creating content components, selling them directly and accepting micro payments. A theme he developed further later on in 2011 with a presentation titled Opportunity in Abundance. Both are available at the Magellan Media Partners web site.

Brian’s thoughts ought to threaten the distributor in me because at face value they further liberate content from physical books. But in fact they chime with mine on the fact that the publisher has got to get a whole lot more interested in the customer – and in particular how consumers want to access content, and where, when and how they are prepared to pay for it (or someone else is prepared to pay for it on their behalf). Publishers are going to have to get interested in customer service. At the moment, distributors are at the front line of customer interactions, and even in the context of new work flows and delivery, distributors' experience of customers has immense value, and needs to be both retained and built on, not eroded through aggressive downward commission negotiations and short-term cost analysis.

Tomorrow I’ll round up this series of posts with a list of five things I believe we- as an industry - need to be doing urgently.


  1. Thanks for the mention. Your original text (captured in this series) for the Book Industry Communication seminar was a guiding light in the development of "abundance", which you reference.

    Thinking about the interdependent relationships of publishers, intermediaries and the ultimate customer is critical to do not as independent entities, but as a collaborative set of supply-chain participants. There will be winners and losers in this transition to a blended model of physical and digital goods and services. If we ignore that reality, we risk (and perhaps guarantee) supply-chain skirmishes that will take our eye off the real challenges.

    1. Thank you, Brian. I've found revisiting this very interesting, and I've certainly moved on in some of my thinking since. I 100% agree about avoiding supply chain skirmishes - but I fear that there is still a lack of reality about the ongoing cost of keeping the physical supply chain performing well at the same time as working on the future...