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Now That the Revolution Is Over: Action Items for Today and Tomorrow

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Now That the Revolution Is Over: Action Items for Today and Tomorrow

June 2013

by Joseph J. Esposito


No industry is without its tricksters, but the media businesses, and publishing in particular, have seen more than their share. This is because of the inherent nature of information, which can be reduced to ones and zeroes and easily transmitted over the Internet. Unlike companies that produce and distribute snowshoes or refrigerators, which will always have to emerge from the virtual world at some point, place a box on a truck, and ship it, publishing companies are easy marks for the trickster pacing the stage at a tech conference and shown on huge video screens in full stride while preaching about the gospel of the inevitable domination of digital tools over all.

Preaching is a good word for this, as the trickster’s talk is really about the inner life of the audience, how they feel, how they can align their inner state with the technological torrent that is sweeping over them. “Do not be afraid,” the trickster says. “Put away your fears. Embrace the empowerment of new technology.” Don’t try to assert control; go with the Force.

One might reasonably ask what fear has to do with this. Well, there is fear of change, of course, but the real issue here is the psychologizing of what is essentially a business issue. Unemotional business types will note that passion may get things started, but detachment is the real builder. Fear helps the trickster pitch an opportunity that is vague in design and uncertain in outcome

Such pitches are or should be less convincing today, since we now operate under revolutionary assumptions. No publishing organization espouses a print-centric strategy any more, not even those whose revenues derive overwhelmingly from print, or those whose legal departments chase down alleged pirates and whose corporate affairs staffs lobby Washington for stricter enforcement of copyright.

Print and all that comes with it (litigation, legislation) is a tactic, not a strategy, and the companies that pursue this tactic know it. There will be a bloody mess while the final vestiges of the Old Order are rooted out, but a new parliament is already convening. The digital publishing revolution is over.


Consolidating Changes

It may seem strange to proclaim that the revolution is over when people’s houses are filled with bookshelves and publishers’ creaky Websites are hard to find and difficult to navigate, when it is not possible to purchase an e-book on one device and read it on another, and when rigid PDFs, faithfully mimicking the printed page, are passed around like currency. But this has more to do with a misunderstanding of the word revolution than with any backsliding among the citizenry.

A revolution is realized not when all practices conform to the principles of a new order, but when the principles take hold to influence and guide future actions. First the revolution, then the consolidation. This is where we are now, in post-revolutionary publishing: consolidating the alterations and innovations built on the microprocessor. What new markets will a digital text be able to reach? What is a text anyway, and how can we reconfigure it to add new value to readers and authors alike?

This argument is not merely about rhetoric, however. Words matter. Indeed, this was the argument of a trickster I happened to see recently. In an entertaining but mostly uninformative presentation, the self-described futurist commented that if you can change the way people think about the future, you can change the future.

This is not itself a radical idea. Outside the sanctum of a high-technology conference, it is what is known as marketing; someone with a darker disposition might call it Orwellian. Activists for an ongoing publishing revolution (as distinct from those who work for consolidation) put people on the defensive rather than engage them with new projects, new plans. But it’s time to send our tricksters packing, time to build new practices on a practical foundation.

The general acceptance of the revolutionary spirit was brought home to me about a year ago in a conversation with the director of a university press. She proudly boasted that her organization now published e-books—specifically, Kindle editions with Amazon—and that she was working to get her books onto the other digital platforms. I made no comment, as there is a lot more to digital publishing than the Kindle, but she went on.

She had money in her budget to build a complete digital workflow, she told me. Now all books would be produced in XML, and various specific formats (EPUB, Mobi, PDF, etc.) would be generated at the end of the process, as market circumstances required, with print simply one output among many. This was getting interesting. But she didn’t stop there.

The move to XML, she said, was part of her strategy to maintain as flexible a program as possible so that her press could pounce on new opportunities as they appeared, as (she said) they inevitably would.

So even the head of a small academic publisher, whose revenue derived almost entirely from print and whose organization sits in the slow-moving environment of a bureaucratic research university, was endorsing the recommendations of technologists: flexibility, ongoing disruption, experimentation, and probing for new opportunities. What does the trickster have to offer her now?

What the trickster could offer is a new way to think about the game. Instead of railing about the “fear” of piracy and the horrors of DRM, the trickster could create models for demonstrating, for example, how much money can be earned using DRM and how much can be earned without it. This is not a quick analysis to do, as revenue in a networked environment can derive from multiple, even indirect sources (you give away the bacon, but charge for the eggs).

But changing the argument—focusing on the specific economic opportunity—is all that is needed to speed up the pace of technology adoption. Does anyone doubt that the publishers committed to DRM would drop it in a minute if presented with a credible, testable model for how that would make more money?


Building Business Solutions

This program can and should go far beyond DRM, however. What is the economic value of a tweet? If social media are now a new form of currency, how many “Likes” on Facebook equal one dollar? How can the adoption of altmetrics increase the penetration of library markets? What is the value of file-sharing, expressed in dollars and cents, and how does that value vary over time, when mapped against different content types, and within the context of a product’s life cycle? And while we are at it, what is “life-cycle publishing” anyway, and how can a publisher profit from it?

We have gone beyond revolution; now it is time to provide solutions. And solutions are not technical in nature; they are not about bits and bytes, production workflows, or file formats. They are about business. The kinds of questions we need to answer today—ignoring the trickster’s broad-scale fear-mongering—are:

● Now that my organization is digital-first, what is the most profitable way to manage the legacy business, extend our market reach, and create new products?

● What will the landscape look like in five years?

● How do I lead my organization to benefit from it?

Joseph J. Esposito is president of Processed Media, an independent management consultancy providing strategic advice, operating analysis, and interim management in the area of digital media to publishing and software companies in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. He writes extensively on digital media and has been awarded research grants from the Hewlett, MacArthur, and Mellon Foundations.

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