Looking back, the worst part about the New Think panel at South by Southwest was not the lack of new thinking. It was the sense that the panelists didn’t have a plan for executing on the audience comments. There was no discussion, no follow-up questions, no suggestion that something would come from the audience-as-focus-group approach.
So with a bit of my eternal “once more with feeling” optimism, I’m going to lay out some of the issues and my thoughts on them. This is in no way an all-encompassing list, so feel free to add your own ideas. You may be helping to build the publishing company of the future.
Think Customer Service: From this moment forward, make every business decision with your end customers in mind. Every decision. Pricing. Format. DRM. Release strategy. Windows. Ask yourselves if what you’re doing is going to make it harder on people who buy and read books. When we talk about the competition, one thing you’ll note is that they are always innovating with the end customer in mind.
Understand the Competition: In this instance, I am going to focus narrowly on your online competition. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that the companies giving you the biggest headaches are not your fellow publishers. No, you’re grinding your teeth over businesses like Google and Amazon and Apple. Heck, probably even Twitter.
These technology companies understand something basic: it’s all about the end user. They do crazy little things like open up their APIs to allow other businesses to add their own innovations, create better ways to use data, combine efforts rather than zealously guarding doors that would be better left wide open.
Stop Making It So Hard to Help You: You want my theory about why Apple didn’t move into the book business? Because they didn’t want the hassle of working with publishers. Trying to provide services that benefit the publishing business is hard work. You create enough hoops, and you’ll be bypassed in favor of companies and industries that embrace new ideas. Companies and industries that understand the importance of working with smart technologies. Companies and industries that see the benefit of working together rather than in silos.
Online Marketing Strategy: There are some great minds in publishing houses big and small, and those minds understand how marketing works in today’s media. Let that staff lead the way when it comes to interacting online. Banish anyone with the title of VP or above from room (unless three people can vouch for that person’s savvy). Kick out anyone who says “No”, “But that’s not how we do things”, or “That sounds like a lot of work.”
Make bold moves. Instead of sending press releases, create actionable information. Embrace digital ARCs and make them portable enough that reviewers can actually read the things (one of those lovely service companies I mentioned above, NetGalley) already exists and wants to make a system like this usable for everyone. I figure you all could buy everyone on your reviewer lists an ereader, drop the endless shipments of papers books, and still save money.
Research. Development.: Start it, do it, come up with something beautiful.
Throw It All Out, Start From Scratch: In some ways the institution that is the publishing business is too entrenched to change. You’re fighting history, and history is kicking it. I think everybody in the food chain is going to have to accept change. It will be painful. But I don’t see how you can position for an even rockier, more uncertain future if you remain locked into past practices.
It is a given that what we know today — from the bestselling authors to how bookstores are run to devices like the Kindle — will be different a few years from now. And different again a few years from then. Predicting the next hundred years is near-impossible. Those best positioned to change and innovate will survive. Those who aren’t will likely find themselves cut up and sold or limping along the fringes.
It won’t always be pretty and the things you try may not always work. But if you do the business of the future with the mindset of the past, well, we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.