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Overcoming the Page Metaphor

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PUBLISHED APRIL 2016

by Brian O’Leary, Principal, Magellan Media Consulting


Brian O’Leary

Publishers and authors seeking sales across multiple platforms face a widely recognized challenge: discovery. More than ever, content abundance makes helping readers find a book a marketing priority.

But publishers and authors face a less visible but equally significant challenge: demonstrating relevance to audiences that may be looking for something other than a book. To demonstrate that relevance, publishers need to become better at creating content that is distribution-ready, adaptable for a wide range of formats and uses within evolving markets.

Most publishing activities remain focused on the development and dissemination of “containers,” mostly in print, sometimes as e-books. Whether the containers are physical or digital, they remain publisher-determined, relatively immutable, and almost always one-way.

Clay Christensen

Clay Christensen

Clay Christensen, the person most closely associated with disruptive innovation, has explored the idea that consumers “hire” products and services to fulfill an identified need. In Christensen’s view, consumers look to products and services for the jobs they want done, their problems to be solved, or needs to be filled.

This solutions-based approach to creating and delivering results breaks apart prevailing container-driven business models. Offering e-books as a digital defense won’t carry the day. It’s not enough to act as if digital is just another channel. Digital access and discovery open up possibilities that one-way containers fail to address.

That gap leaves us vulnerable to continued and escalating disruption. A colleague, Liza Daly, summarized things this way: The people we want to reach are “growing up with media that is almost universally participatory.” As publishers, we need to develop more engaging alternatives.

Lisa Daly

Lisa Daly

Embedding content in a networked environment gives publishers and authors a new and wholly transformative opportunity to meet the needs of markets that aren’t always fully formed. Publishers must become more outcomes-based. Continuing to create and distribute static formats is a strategy that is likely to result in declining prices, lower margins, and less income to reinvest.

How do we organize our work in a networked era? Let’s start with the three primary functions that underpin any sort of publishing: authoring, repository, and distribution.

Although there are plenty of new tools available for authors to use, “authoring” itself is not that much changed. An idea must at some point be turned into a work of interest, suitable for distribution. But in publishing, barriers to entry are now lower, and authoring has been increasingly democratized. This is not a bad thing.

“Repository” once meant things like plates, then film, then files. Old economics dictated that the “minimum viable product,” a book, was the package that could be created and sold. Now, the “minimum viable product” can be just about anything: a chapter, a picture, a collection of pictures, a compilation, a component, an extract, a snippet—anything that can be monetized, as well as some things that can’t, or won’t.

The key thing is this: “Authoring” and “repository” must be organized to deliver content that is distribution-ready. Competition for reader attention and commerce now takes place at the level of use. The “minimum viable product” may not be a book. In many cases, it won’t be.

The purchased solution will be whatever the end user— a reader—values enough to pay for. For publishers whose trade relationships once created a relatively high barrier to entry, this new order potentially undermines the value of scale.

Creating and maintaining distribution-ready content represents a sea change from an era that ended in the last decade. New skills are required to manage content at a much different level. Knowledge of things like HTML, search-engine optimization, and best practices in content marketing has become mandatory.

Also mandatory: content workflows that support multiple pathways to purchase or monetization. Distribution-ready content increasingly must be native to the web, mobile-friendly, and adaptable in real time. Traditional content-management systems will have to be overhauled or scrapped altogether.

Fortunately, tools already exist that offer flexibility to create distribution-ready content. As a platform, Wattpad has pioneered a new approach to encouraging authors and refining content.

Hugh McGuire

Hugh McGuire

Authoring tools like Pressbooks, created by my colleague Hugh McGuire, started with seamless distribution in mind. Publishers and authors can learn from and use these tools and others, so that we can gain the experience we require to compete in an increasingly diverse marketplace for published work.

The specific solutions may vary by publisher, but the general pattern will hold: Consumers are looking for more than a book. We need to adopt distribution-ready models to better serve them.


Brian F. O’Leary is principal with Magellan Media Consulting, which works with publishers on issues related to workflows and cross-platform publishing.

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