12 May 08 | Chad W. Post

Last week, Idea Logical posted a speech that founder Mike Shatzkin (really, you should read his bio, it’s incredible) gave to the Danish Book Trade. The article, entitled The Future of Books for Publishers and Booksellers is one of the best I’ve ever read about the current publishing situation and what’s to come. It’s that perfect blend of insider publishing talk, theoretical statements about the future, and business analysis that I’ve come to really love . . .

It’s almost impossible to summarize and excerpt from this—the whole essay is so good—but it is incredibly long, so here are a few highlights . . .

Shatzkin starts off making an incredibly useful distinction between horizontal and vertical organizations:

he 20th century consumer media were horizontal in their subject matter — that is, very broad — and format-specific. In the States, that means entities like CBS or NBC in television, The New York Times, or Random House. All of these companies provide content across the full range of human subject interests, but they pretty much stick to their formats: broadcast, newspapers, and institutions that have traditionally relied on other horizontal institutions (like newspapers, magazines, etc.) to get the word out about their books.

Leaving this idea aside for a moment, Shatzkin then runs through the list of things that are changing/developing in the publishing industry, including ebooks, print-on-demand, audiofiles, etc. And he doesn’t just recap the technology or the concept, rather he explains how the distribution system is currently set-up, what major players are influencing the different segments, how this might evolve, etc.

He also looks at the ways these technologies are/will influence publishers and booksellers. Especially worth mentioning is this piece on the Espresso Book Machine:

The Espresso prints and binds one book at a time — one-color and paperback only, although with a full-color cover — and is intended for in-store use. There are only a handful of them in place, but they offer the entrepreneurial bookstore some very intriguing opportunities to expand their business. We have encountered a very entrepreneurial bookseller at the University of Alberta in Canada who has made one work profitably in his store within months.

Last month, Espresso announced a deal with Ingram by which the Lightning repository of files will be made available for delivery on Espresso. That suddenly makes the Espresso proposition a lot more likely to succeed.

I’ve been making fun of the EBM for a while now (seriously though, just look at this thing) but this agreement changes the entire game. Now if it only looked a little more like a Mac product instead of a contraption built out of spare parts in someone’s garage . . .

He also covers some of the implications of social networking sites and the way that data is being tagged and categorized these days:

My hunch is that we’ll see vertical “portals” for every conceivable subject: an overall organization that serves as a guide to every topic of interest. Think of wikipedia entries turned into entire web worlds. [. . .]

The taxonomies by which information is organized in each niche will be constantly evolving. The standards experts of the future will be much more concerned with reconciling taxonomies across niches. Some obvious ones will need to be rationalized, like farming and gardening, cooking and dining, business travel and pleasure travel and adventure travel.

Leaving the horizontal media of the 20th century behind will mean that multi-niche successes, what today we call mass market successes, will become relatively rare. As people find it easier and easier to delve deeply into what interests them most, they will spend less and less time exposed to things that interest large numbers of people. Word-of-mouth requires that people be speaking to each other to work.

And to leave no concept untouched, he gets a bit into the “long tail” idea of Chris Anderson’s:

The concept is simple. In the days before the Internet, the choice of products available — let’s say, books — was pretty much limited by retail shelf space. If a book wasn’t in a store, the barriers to discovery and purchase were very high and the book essentially left the field of commerce.

Amazon.com, of course, changed that overnight. On the net, shelf space is unlimited. By using Ingram and Baker & Taylor, America’s two large wholesalers, to start, Amazon offered many times more books than any terrestrial bookstore. [. . .]

What this means is Amazon can sell a copy or two of a nearly unlimited number of books, which, taken cumulatively, far exceeds the number of copies sold of the 10-20 uber-bestsellers that are everywhere at any given moment. Basically this theory rewrites the business model that supports the major chains, arguing that in the long-run, it’s better to sell a few copies of an infinite amount of books than to sell a ton of copies of a handful of titles. There are problems with this idea though . . .

What this says to me is that the long tail Anderson has identified is great for consumers and great for the retailers that can sell the long tail books, which primarily means Amazon. It’s great for Lightning. But the long tail is not a good thing for publishers or authors. From their perspective, the primary impact of the long tail is to bring them competition that 10 or 20 years ago would not have been on the field with them.

Anyway, going back to the original point about horizontal vs. vertical organization and how this is impacted by all these techno-social changes, Shatzkin echoes something I’ve been thinking for a while: thanks to the combination of a fragmented culture and the digital revolution, smaller presses with more specific publishing interests (in contrast to a press that does fiction, cookbooks, travel guides, and biographies) stand to gain a lot more from changes in technology and the marketplace than large, “legacy” (to steal Shatzkin’s term) publishers.

Shatzkin actually lists some of the challenges these big presses face, which seem pretty daunting:

It’s not an accident that the biggest trade publishers have been slow to move in the direction of change. The speedboats can zip around the harbor; the supertanker has a devil of a time trying to turn around. That’s a generalization which masks the very specific reasons big publishers remain stuck in old models.

First of all, the horizontality of their history leaves them a legacy list that reflects the randomness of mind by which it was acquired: there are few niches with any critical mass of content. [. . .]

The second big problem of the big houses is that their brands, which were built over a long time and are perceived to have great value, have only business-to-business, or what we call B2B, value. Consumers don’t know who published the last book they read, and they pretty much don’t care. [. . .]

(He does go on to indicate that there’s a very big difference between Chelsea Green branding itself and HarperCollins—something that I completely and totally agree with. I’m 99% sure I’ll love a NYRB or New Directions book and make my purchases based on “loyalty” to their “brand,” but with Random House, I buy on a book-by-book basis, rarely taking chances on purchases, since their books are all over the place.)

The third challenge for big companies is the requirement to keep making money with their current models, which are horizontal and which are book-specific. Smaller, owner-managed companies can more nimbly make decisions about experimentation with their future direction than big companies that report to investors about the value of their holdings.

The fourth challenge for big companies is that they are, of necessity, more highly structured than smaller ones. In the Internet age, when editorial, marketing, and sales functions get harder to divide neatly, structure and hierarchy can be the enemy of constructive change.

I strongly encourage anyone who’s made it to this point to go read the whole article. It’s much more illuminating and interesting that I can convey . . .

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