Saving books

At the annual American Book Expo, Mike Schatzkin delivered the wake-up call to the venerable paper-pushers there (the same annoying electronic buzzing sound I’ve been trying to make for sometime). It’s a helluva (long) speech but filled with good perspective, so I’ll quote lots of good bits. He leads off with an elegant summation of the strategic situation facing all media (my emphasis):

We can see that “format-specific”, as opposed to “audience-specific”, is not the right strategy for media going forward. And that leads us to conclude that the general trade publishing model — by which we mean publishing across subjects on very much a title-by-title basis and with the organizing principle being that books are produced for general audiences — will, mostly, not survive the changes of the next 15 or 20 years.

We are not saying that general trade bookstores will disappear, although we think there will be fewer of them and the consolidation in that sector will continue.

We are not saying that everybody will read on screens and paper books will disappear, although we already know that certain kinds of information formerly best housed in books is now better delivered through electronic media.

We are not saying that novels will be replaced by multi-media interactive adventures, although we think those will continue to grow and thrive. They are more likely to cut into movies and today’s games than they are into books.

And we are definitely not saying that long form reading is doomed over the next two decades, although we don’t think anybody really knows how much it will be reduced by changes in attention spans and information absorption habits of the generations that are kids today and those that will follow them. We don’t see any indications that long form reading will increase, but, given the unpredictable ways that change works on the human psyche, we wouldn’t rule it out.

But we are definitely saying that every general trade publisher of 2007 must have a plan to change over the next decade or two if they want to survive.

Things moving slower in the book trade, they should consider a decade a great luxury. Other media do not have nearly that much time to act or die.

He goes on to summarize the state of technology and media — again, nothing new, but well-stated:

We all see what’s happening in today’s increasingly online an gadgetized world. People are spending more and more of their time interacting with the internet through more and more different means: desktops, laptops, cell phones, and PDAs. Internet 2.0 tools are making it easier and easier for each of us to contribute our experience and insight into collective knowledge. Things are easier to find, to tag, to collect in logical piles, to link. Nothing ever is truly “lost”, the relevant commentary for any subject is increasingly easy to both aggregate and to filter, and members of the community are increasingly able to stay in touch with each other.

The lines between author and editor and aggregator and audience are blurring, with people shifting roles as they like, or as is convenient or useful in any particular conversation. All sorts of formerly free-standing intellectual creations are now being wikied, sliced and diced, and mashed up with IP that came from somewhere else. It’s sometimes hard to tell who owns what or how people are getting paid. Rules about copyright and fair use that were formerly almost exclusively the province of professionals are now being flouted through ignorance or disdain by the masses. . . .
* There will be vast amounts of content available to everybody.
* It will be highly organized — tagged and rated — by communities that will form around it.
* The communities will self-create and mix and merge and re-form as people participate.
* And the mass media that has been competing with them that has been advertising supported and mass-audience supported will become progressively less competitive, as its economic base erodes.

When I filled in my Facebook profile, under “favorite books” I said simply, “the internet.”

Schatzkin scolds his industry, saying that “books will be among the last” media to be seen on screens, thanks to “a consumer-unfriendly combination of formats, proprietary offerings cut off from normal book retailing channels, klunky merchandising, and anti-viral DRM have prevented book reading from being among the first things besides email to be read on devices.” And he adds, “That’s not something for us to be proud of as an industry.”

When discussing the topic that always comes up in these discussions — the trust in established brands — Schatzkin has a different perspective because, I think, he is in an industry that is already used to individual brands adding up to a whole: a bunch of authors, a flock of bloggers, each with individual relationships and reputations (as opposed to newspapers, say, that were preeminently umbrella brands that rubbed off on all the bylines therein — a relationship that is flipping). Says Schatzkin:

We’re close to a tipping point, or maybe we’re past it — nichiest subjects first — where web-based branding will have more credibility than print, because print, needing more horizontal reach to be viable, won’t deliver the attention of the real experts and megaphones in each field.

Now to the future of book publishing:

The “publishers” in this niche will be members of the community. Marketing will be through them. In a digital world, much of the distribution will be through them. You either own the tollgate or you pay at it. That doesn’t leave no room for today’s general trade publisher, but it doesn’t leave much. . . .

You really won’t want to be a general trade publisher in the world we’re heading toward. Even if people are still reading long forms in book packages, it will no longer be possible to push book after book through a similar drill and achieve financial success. General trade publishers have to change.

They need to move from “general” to “niche”. Multiple niches, of course, but niche.

The need to stop thinking about publishing one book at a time and think about the aggregate value of their intellectual property to their niche audiences. . . .

Publishers will not be alone trying to grab brand share — by which we mean fame, credibility, and trust — within subject niches. Everybody will be there: magazines, manufacturers, service providers, radio and TV stations, entreprenurial bloggers.

It’s not all bad news for publishers, he contends:

Publishers also have a couple of softer advantages, based on the way they’re trained to think. Publishers instinctively understand the taxonomy of niches. They think about beginners and experts, geography-specific markets, and age- or wealth-driven distinctions in interest.

And successful trade publishers have always been spotters of trends, able to move fast on opportunities where they see public interest. Of course, the whole definition of “moving fast” is changed in a web world, but greater speed makes that skill set more valuable, not less.

The summary picture is that the ecosystem of “general trade books” — enabled by literary agents, general book review media, general trade bookstores, and widespread book distribution through public libraries — is disappearing. A world of niched internet communities is springing up. For today’s general trade publisher the question is: what’s the migration path? How can the business assets of today be turned into an organization that will succeed in the world of tomorrow? . . .

Every trade publisher who does this exercise will, we’re sure, find themselves spread too thin. They will find many niches for which they have two books or six across their backlist, or one on their current list. That’s not tenable. To succeed in the future, you will have to make commitments to communities: commitments to publish a critical mass of content and commitments to be a presence in the communities’ conversations. This will require choices that were never contemplated when the interested parties were PW, The New York Times, and the buyers at major trade customers. . . .

evenue and expense, particularly marketing expense, need now to be recognized by niche, not just by title. The niche must become the main unit of management attention.

Now here’s a new idea for publishers: not just trafficking in content and interest but owning both. Schatzkin suggests that publishers buy blogs:

The successful publisher’s base will be as a recognized community leader in a niche. . . .

There are many content creators out there who are not book publishers. Many high-profile web sites in niches can be extremely revenue-challenged operations, particularly now, before all the monetization opportunities of the net have been realized. We believe we’ll see niche plays by publishers bolstered by acquiring web sites in the niche; publishers would be wise to be pursuing that strategy to grab content and niche presence in the same motion.

Interesting. But I’m not sure what acquiring them means — the people, the content, employees? — and I’m not sure they will want to be acquired. I’d say the broader question is how you can make them not revenue-challenged through content, advertising, speaking, and other deals. I’m reminded of Dina Kaplan, head of, talking at VON about her role as a manager and nurturer of talent.

Schatzkin goes on to make a number of suggestions for publishers. His first starts with the wrong premise, I believe: “Ownership of content is a big advantage book publishers have moving into the digital future.” They never fully owned the content (including the conversation and reputation around it) and own it less now. Even so, he comes to the right end, I think, telling publishers to think of their books in chunks (or ideas … or posts, I’d say):

The most valuable chunks on the web are those that give real value as a stand-alone. Non-fiction books which are aggregates of information or advice are loaded with these.

When you feature a chunk on the web, on your site or somebody else’s, first highlight the utility of the information, not the book. Let the discovery that there is a book be a secondary element of the user experience. Most people encountering a chunk of content on the web were looking for that chunk, particularly if they found it through “search”. It is perfectly okay to reveal that it comes from a book and to offer a “buy the book” link, but it’s not the point to lead with.

Content can also attract audience and participation if it is “wiki’d.” I think we all know what that means: making the content open for addition, modification, or linking. This technique could add enormous value to lots of content: how-to or travel information or restaurant reviews could all benefit from additional perspectives and information.

Web sites run by other-than-publishers will often be content-starved. Participation in a community-of-the-interested can also result in opportunities to license content for other people’s web sites for the currency we all like best: “money”.

Chunking is actually very easily accomplished. Permalinks do it. If we can all link directly to ideas within books, which I’ve argued before, then the books will reach a wider public. This also assumes that they are digital, online, and searchable, too. And it would only help the author’s cause if the book were written online with a community of information and interest built around it. These are the things I think Schatzkin gives short shrift to: how a book should be published on the internet.

Still, it’s a helluva speech. [via Infotaining]