Isn’t it curious that the most profitable aspect of the publishing business is also the hardest to control? Backlist, especially those lovely older titles with lower associated costs, prop up the houses — much like the catalog of motion picture studios. It is this evergreen product that keeps the lights burning and air conditioning cooling.
For years now, the smarter studios have been digitizing their backlist. This is an expensive — extremely expensive — and time-consuming process. Yet the industry has been moving toward digital with grim determination. They don’t like the free-wheelin’ ways of the Internet, but the lure of digital distribution, satellites and fast wires and sometimes no wires at all, is irresistible. Even now, as they step warily into new media markets via services like CinemaNow and Movielink, and even now, as the dollars are relatively small compared to the initial investment, they worry about piracy.
Possibly one of the most inadvertently candid comments I head last week came from an executive at a publishing house who said (and I paraphrase), “We’re just throwing a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.” Fair enough. The way people access entertainment is changing rapidly, and it’s better to try and fail than to sit on the sidelines and wonder how you missed the Next Big Thing.
Failure is hard, I know, so I have a little advice:
- Keep It Simple – Don’t invest large dollars in a complex projects that take years to launch. Services like iTunes work when they’re easy-to-use. They fail when they grow overly complex or illogical (note to iTunes: time to rethink the basic navigation!). Build your technology in a way that encourages modularity and expansion.
- Keep It Free – When I wrote about consumers being nickle-and-dimed to death with new media offerings, I wasn’t joking. Think about what consumers are paying and determine if what you’re offering is worth another buck or two a month. Consumers are already paying for cable, broadband, phone service, extra phone services, fees and surcharges, and regular entertainment. At some point, there’s going to be a backlash against all these fees.
- Keep It Open – Don’t lock your business into a single service provider. Don’t hook up with Verizon to the exclusion of Cingular. Don’t lock in to iTunes and ignore other services. Don’t assume that everyone knows that your website is the only place to access “your” content. Likewise, don’t assume that everyone is using the same media player or, gasp!, a Windows customer. Embrace diversity like you never have before.
- Keep It Social – Do not fear your customers. Let them talk back to you. Let them talk to each other. Keep the barrier for interaction low – and make sure you have someone on staff who is smart enough to judge the difference between healthy debate and outright destruction. Allowing a little dissent creates a level of authenticity largely missing from corporate new media offerings.
- Keep It Moving – Don’t assume that you’ve met the demands of the market with your latest killer app. After everyone else steals your idea (and you know they will), you’ll need something just as cool as a follow-up.
Finally, make sure that you and customers are having fun.
Right now, the various motion picture studios are debating the various issues surrounding mobile and digital media. They are trying to slot new distribution streams into existing boxes. At first glance, this is a fairly simple process. It’s not. Trust me. The New Media Wars are just starting to heat up in Hollywood and they’re going to be very expensive for the studios, but I think there’s another war a’ brewin': consumers versus content providers.
What? You’re saying this is an old war? Au contraire, mon frere. The consumer wars have barely begun.
Kevin Kelly’s recent New York Times article, “Scan This” (link via the Updike article below), really struck a nerve. While the publishing industry has dismissed most of the article in public — the dismissal that both rallied the industry and showed its naivete was John Updike’s BEA speech, the literary equivalent of “bring ’em on” — behind the scenes, there’s been a lot of soul-searching and slow, literary-style reaction.
Ah, the publishing industry. Even its outrage comes at its own pace.
After a delightful weekend away from the keyboard, I’d planned to return, refreshed and ready to talk about something other than publishing. But even as I was shopping and cooking and pretending to clean, something kept nagging at me. It became more insistent as I parked myself in my the backyard yesterday, book in hand.
When it comes to new media, it’s not paper-versus-bytes argument. For those who have a “passion for paper”, as Inside Higher Ed’s Alex Golub does, there is no issue. Except that of the cost of paper increasing while the cost of bytes decreases, but I think we’ll still be at the very affordable level for the foreseeable future.