Creating the Future of Publishing: Insiders vs Outsiders

Will the future of publishing come from an established publishing company? Or, will it come from innovators outside of the publishing word? Apple has already proven that the future of the music industry will be innovated by outsiders, and that they will find revenue in the process that the music industry itself could not find. As book, magazine and newspaper publishers try to maintain a steady course, they are confronted by new competitors, powerful innovators, and changing expectations & behaviors from their customers.

Before we dive in, a story:

Dan Blank In the early 1980’s, John Lasseter had landed his dream job at Disney Studios. He was a respected up and coming talent, whose passion was digital animation. He was asked to work on an experimental project: to develop a short movie of The Brave Little Toaster, that blended traditional and digital animation. This would push the boundaries of what was possible at the time.

Eight months later, John presented his team’s work to management. After his film ended, he was asked “How much is this going to cost?” John answered “It will be no more money than to do a regular animated film.” The executive wasn’t happy, telling him: “The only reason to do computer animation is if we can do it faster or cheaper.”

John left the meeting, and five minutes later he received a phone call. He was told that his employment with Disney Studios was now terminated.

Disney clearly didn’t care about the long-term value of this medium, they didn’t care about the quality and rarity of John’s animation and storytelling abilities. They cared about a short-term scalable revenue generating or cost-savings process. This is during the dark ages of Disney animation, when the richness of story and imagery was “budgeted out” of many features.

John went on to be a founding member of Pixar, which Disney bought for $7.4 billion 25 years later. John is now Chief Creative Officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and the Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. He reports directly to the Disney CEO, and has the power to green-light films, with Roy E. Disney’s consent.

It’s incredible to consider that Disney had Lasseter happily working for them, but they didn’t know what to do with his talent. It didn’t fit into their narrowly defined goals. And now, a quarter century later, he and his fellow Pixar founders are running much of Disney.

Which brings us back to publishing…

Are publishers working so hard to “keep the lights on” to support their existing structures, products and processes, that they have no room for the future? That they need to keep up their headcount and resources for existing channels, roles, campaigns, products and processes, that they feel there is more value in focusing on what worked in the past, instead of what will work in the future?

To their credit, every single publishing company has people working on new products – on some exciting new things. A lot of it is really interesting stuff being run by really smart and passionate people. But do these people have the resources they need? Are they being judged by the proper measures and timeframes? Do they have the ability to innovate in ways that challenge core principals and processes that the existing publishing structure adheres to?

In other words, are they allowed to color outside of the lines?

This is where the door is left open for outsiders to innovate in some key areas that will clearly be a big part of the future of publishing:

  • Apps
    One area I am spending a lot of time researching is apps for the iPad, iPhone, and other devices. So far, this field is still wide open. There are loads of upstarts getting in the game.

  • Self-Publishing
    With digital books becoming more and more accepted, the concept of “self publishing” is starting to sound appealing to some writers and creators. The stigma is not what it once was. This does not mean that the value of being published by a big house is less valued. That remains INCREDIBLY valuable. But it simple means that many writers may begin to feel that they have a choice. How will this evolve over the next 20 years?

  • Transmedia
    The very nature of how traditional publishers work with writers is being rethought – the idea of “transmedia” is being talked about a lot. That companies need to partner with creators not just for a book, but the entire intellectual property rights around the ideas in book. The easy example is JK Rowling and the Harry Potter universe, a juggernaut of merchandising, movies, and even a theme park.

  • Social Media
    And of course, then there are the ways that online communities and social media is changing many sides of publishing. These may be subtle shifts, but they are powerful and unpredictable.

Publishers are clearly experimenting in all of these areas. And that is REALLY great to see. But I do wonder if these experiments are like the one described by Disney/Pixar above – a small, controlled experiment, being judged primarily by it’s affect on revenue/resources in the short-term, instead of potential long-term value.

Now, there is the flip side of this argument – that Disney didn’t need to develop these competencies around digital animation – which is time consuming, and expensive. They can simply buy a company like Pixar once the model is proven. And this is true.

But the cost is not just the $7.4 billion price tag of Pixar. It is the OPPORTUNITY VALUE that Disney missed for 25 years. What if John Lassetter had not been let go of Disney, what if he was a talent developed in-house. What if he was able to pull in fellow Pixar founder Ed Catmull to Disney. What could Disney have done in those 25 years? Not just what failures could have been avoided, but what could have been created? How could this have shaped everything that Disney touches – from theme parks to merchandising.

Disney CEO Bob Iger explained why he bought Pixar: he went to the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland and watched the parade down main street. He noticed that most of the characters that the kids reacted to were all from previous decades. Disney still made movies, some worked, some didn’t. But they weren’t creating long-term value, they were missing the opportunity value that went beyond quarterly profits.

So he bought Pixar, a company that created beloved characters that kids adore. And these are characters that will be adored for decades.

How is the publishing world doing the same – not just worrying about eBook pricing and quarterly revenue numbers, but truly creating value that will expand the industry for the next century?

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

(The stories about Pixar in this article were sourced from a GREAT documentary about the company: The Pixar Story.)

Publishing Success: Niche Communities vs a Broad Audience

Would you tear down a 14 bedroom mansion to build a 4 bedroom house? That’s what Steve Jobs is doing, and this serves as a great example of focus: why some businesses grow not because of what they choose to do, but what they choose NOT to do. That something bigger is not always better.

I’ve spent most of my career (and personal life) focused on niche communities, and how publishing and media companies serve and enable those communities.

With the advent of the web, publishers and media brands are empowered with more data and access to those they are serving, what they need most, and how well current products and efforts are doing. And yet, I keep seeing a common theme: focusing more on growth to a wider audience, at the detriment to the original community they were tasked to serve. Now, I’m human, I understand the inherent desire to always grow – in power, in scope, in revenue, in influence. But what I become concerned about is the adverse effects to the community, when a single entity focuses more on their own growth. In a true community, power lies with the whole, not the few.

I chatted about this the other week with Scott Gould. He runs an event/community called “Like Minds.” I asked him a question about the pressure he feels to not just put his efforts to serving his existing community, but the drive that most have to expand that community. That, someone like him must feel the pressure to grow and grow and grow until Like Minds is as big as the TED conference/community.

This question really challenged him, as it challenges all of us. How much of our sense of personal success is wrapped up in this? That it’s not good enough to serve a small existing community, that sometimes ego prompts event/community organizers to look past them, increasing their own influence. That somehow, more power, that a larger audience, will mean that this SMALL good thing will become a LARGE good thing. But I can’t help but see parallels to modern day politics, where every candidate feels the world would be a better place if only THEY were in power – and elected officials spend too much of their term in office campaigning for the next election, instead of serving those they were elected to help.

This is the problem I see with some companies:

They have no vision, they have only desire.

Tons of publishing companies passed on Harry Potter when JK Rowling was shopping it around. But, after it’s success, many publishers tried to replicate that success with similar themes in books, aimed at the same audience. It was all wizards until Stephenie Meyer came around and then it was all vampires.

It’s the McMansionification of media. To be large, and desirable. To be all things to all people.

Why are some media companies and publishers struggling? Sometimes it’s because they look at their audience from too far away, and through a hazy lens. They see a wide landscape of potential audiences, and aim to please as many of them as possible. The temptation to scale, to find mass market success is too much to pass up.

Look at many niche media websites: their homepages have dozens and dozens and dozens of links. There are blinking things everywhere, too many categories, and a page that scrolls through 4 or more screens. And this, for even small niche brands that are serving a limited community.

It’s like they have an inability to focus – to determine who they are serving, what is most important to them, and how to connect that to a business model that makes everyone happy. So they put everything on the same level of being “critically important,” hoping that something takes, hoping no one is offended that something was left out.

In many ways, the web is antithetical to most of how mass media worked in the 20th century.

The web does an incredible job of organizing and engaging small groups. What’s more, it gives a business data to measure how well they are serving that community; tools to research what their community needs; the ability to improve their product offering quickly and easily; and it removes boundaries for profitability by allowing businesses to run leaner and serve community members anywhere in the world.

But the flip side of this is the traditional media model: The desire for more more more. This is why the term “viral” is so enticing to big businesses. And that’s fine for those larger businesses and media companies. The danger is when niche media brands look beyond their niche community, when they try to scale up, at the detriment of their original audience and mission.

What is wrong with merely engaging a devoted audience of limited size? An expert, passionate audience who holds you in the highest regard because you helped make their lives better.

The web has brought so many challenges for traditional publishers and media companies. Yet, I can’t help but feel that this is a positive change – that digital media and social media is your chance to shine – to engage – to shape – to innovate – to build – to matter.

But mostly, it’s your chance to care. To channel the energy and passion and expertise of your audience for positive changes to the community you serve.

-Dan

Profit Is Not the Best Measure of Serving a Community

“Without community, none of us feel accountable to anyone else.”
-Colin Beavan

I found that to be a compelling line of dialogue from the movie No Impact Man.

This has me considering the current state of publishing and media. As I watch companies look for sustainable revenue streams that ensure their survival, I often wonder if decisions are made in order to be accountable to shareholders (profit) or the communities they serve.

Dan Blank
I do not mean this in any sweeping anti-corporate manner, nor that anyone at any publishing or media company is intending to do harm within their market or business. I consider it more in terms of how do we measure and value the effects of our actions. And how often does profit overshadow other benefits at a company, within a community, and within our culture. Is that how one becomes a part of the fabric of a community, because they drive more dollars through it than anyone else?

Every day, we read headlines about big negotiations over ebook pricing, partnerships and acquisitions, new product launches, and the like. And often, they are framed in business jargon.

“Community” has become a catch phrase in media and marketing. I discussed this the other day in a post titled You Don’t Sell To A Community. You Support A Community. It is always tempting to believe that revenue equals properly serving a community. That if dollars are flowing, if product is moving, that the community must be happy, and the company must be a linchpin in that market. But I think that’s a dangerous measure.

Cartoon Breakfast

That’s why we have 20 kinds of Pop-Tarts, 60 kinds of cartoon branded fruit snacks, and hundreds of sugary cereals available as breakfast food in a single aisle of my local supermarket. NONE of these products are adequate nutrition for a breakfast, and yet they are marketed and sold as if they are.

So, are the companies producing these sugary treats best serving their market? From a revenue standpoint, I suppose. But from a health standpoint, from a community standpoint of working parents trying to feed their kids nutritional items on a budget? Nope. They are failing by that measure.

Without a doubt, the kids won’t complain. They sugary treats are tasty AND they have Dora on them. What’s not to love? And shareholders at the food companies are happy because revenue is up.

Who complains? No one does until the cumulative effect of consuming this junk catches up with people in 30 years. But then it’s not a cartoon breakfast problem, it’s a health care issue. As if one has no relation to the other.

What does this have to do with media and publishing? Simply illustrating a point – because product moves, because revenue is up, it does not always equate the best way to serve a market and the communities within it.

Not All Cartoons Are Marketing Machines

Why did Bill Watterson never license his Calvin & Hobbes comic strip into products such as stuffed animals, bumper stickers and t-shirts? In the 80s and 90s it was a very popular strip, fans would have loved the merchandise, and Mr. Watterson would have made millions. Consider how much the Garfield creator must have made off of those suction cupped stuffed animals in everyone’s car windows back in the day, in the cartoon revenue, and in the 27 categories of merchandise for Garfield products on Amazon.com.

Why didn’t Bill Watterson follow this route? Because he knew it served the marketing machine, but not his fans. Because a market is not a community. That producing millions of products made in factories didn’t extend the Calvin brand, didn’t better serve his community, but merely lead to taking money from these fans, and filling our landfills with more plastic junk.

Sure, he would have profited, but he seemed to feel there is more to life than money. As Mr. Watterson states in a 1987 interview:

“With a lot of the marketing stuff, the incentive is just to cash in. It’s not understanding what makes the strip work. The motivation is the work itself and having a job I’ve aspired to since I was a kid. I wouldn’t be doing this if I were just in it for the money.”

Do publishers and media companies need products to sell? Absolutely.
Do they need to scale these sales across enormous markets? Absolutely.
Should revenue be the only way we measure how we serve our communities? No, they shouldn’t be.

Revenue is awesome. I have nothing against it, and am not an advocate of the “everything should be free” meme. I believe in paid content, in digital products, in the App economy. I believe publishers and media companies should diversify their product offerings and expand into being service providers as well. I think they would do well to expand the definitions of what their role is, the types of products they offer, and the markets they serve. And yes, publishers and media companies should strive to be VERY profitable.

But they should not confuse this with serving a community, and should consider what metrics do measure their effect within the communities they serve. These companies are a part of a complex ecosystem, one whose needs and health can’t be measured by profit alone.

Let me know if you think I can help you better serve your community.

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

Fear, Comfort, and the Future of Your Business

Do you need to change? Does your business need to change? Is success just slightly out of your reach because you are unwilling to question the basic assumptions of how you serve your market?

Often in business, we try to predict the future by looking at the past. And this is why established companies sometimes miss out on innovations. There was a great quote in this week’s episode of Mad Men:

Dan Blank

“A new idea is something they [the customer] don’t know yet, so of course, it’s not going to come up as an option. You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.”

For example, researchers studying the Class of 2014 say that students don’t use email because it is too slow. How could this present day behavior of these students change how we communicate in the future? Companies banking their future on email as the primary communication tool of their market may miss an opportunity because they didn’t even consider that email is “slow.”

Seth Godin talks about how we deal with fear by surrounding ourselves with what is already known:

“A lot of entrepreneurs get an MBA because they are afraid to go out into world without one. They are seeking the reassurance a credential will bring them, even though the cost is huge and there’s no data to indicate that they’ll be more successful as an entrepreneur as a result.”

How much does fear drive your career and business? How many decisions are based on an existing comfort level with the products or services, the sales process, the customer segment? Are new ideas rejected because they are bad ideas, or because they ask uncomfortable questions?

If you wait until you realize you need to change, it may be too late. The New York Times explored this with Netflix:

“Netflix tries to avoid creative destruction by experimenting with new models well before they need to, and well before the old model has lost steam.”

And Mike Masnick picked up on the theme:

“This is, of course, the typical Innovator’s Dilemma, but it helps explain why so few companies are able to survive the innovator’s dilemma. Even if they know about it, they think they can wait. They think that they shouldn’t invest heavily in those new technologies and new markets until there’s a clear path to profitability, or a clear plan for how it “replaces” what’s already there. The problem is that by the time they have the answers to those questions, it’s too late.”

As the media landscape continues to shift, each company, each employee will have to confront their own comfort level with new ideas, with whether the future will look anything like the past.

Let me know if you think I can help.

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

Are Books, Magazines & Newspapers Dying? That’s Up To You. And Me.

Every day, we choose the future of media, be it books, magazines, newspapers, television, music and the like. Why? Because we vote for it with our actions, behaviors, and purchases.

We are empowered to save media.

Dan Blank Consider this exchange from a recent episode of the TV show Mad Men:

Man: “I’m in advertising.”

Woman: “You’re kidding. It’s pollution.”

Man: “So stop buying things.”

Likewise, the movie Food, Inc described the surprisingly complex system that our food industry has become. The movie concluded with a simple message: that we get to choose the future of our food, because we vote every day with the items we buy at the food store. Do you want food free of pesticides? Simply buy organic. Do you want food that isn’t made by a huge multinational conglomerate? Simply buy food from smaller companies whose practices you prefer.

I spend my days considering how media is changing, how these changes are empowering, and what they changes are destroying. When I wonder if the media is dying, I merely look around my home. I look at my behaviors and actions. Because my life, like all of our lives, are a petri dish of state of media. This is how I interacted with media in the past week:

  • I purchased more than 20 children’s books at a yard sale for $5.
  • I intently read most of the long articles in the most recent issues of The New Yorker and Rolling Stone.
  • I put the most recent issue of Runners World – a tip driven magazine – onto the magazine pile without even scanning through it. (Not a good sign. That pile is a black hole)
  • I returned four books to the library, two were half read, two I didn’t have time to open.
  • I dusted my “need to read” book pile, which currently has about 10 books in it.
  • I checked Twitter, Facebook, and Techmeme.com about 10 times each day. Maybe 20.
  • I reached for my iPad when getting into bed instead of the two books on my nightstand.
  • I spent hours browsing around YouTube on my iPad, sometimes sharing videos with my wife.
  • I downloaded the most recent episode of Mad Men on iTunes ($1.99)
  • I downloaded about 6 Apps to my iPad and iPhone. (all free)
  • I watched one movie on DVD via Netflix and started watching two others via their online streaming service.
  • I bought five used CD’s at a local music store.
  • I downloaded the new Arcade Fire album from Amazon.com for a mere $3.99.
  • I streamed BBC Radio 6 on my computer every day.

What does this say about the future of media that I am building? A few things:

  • Media is interwoven into many aspects of my life.
  • I consume a broad range of media, from digital to print.
  • I create and consume media.
  • The traditional media I consumed was largely free. For the items I did purchase, dollars mostly didn’t flow directly through to content creators or owners.

When I consider the future of books that I am creating, there is a simple fact I need to accept: if my primary source of obtaining books is the library and the second-hand market, then I can’t be surprised if the book industry changes. Because while I have done a lot to embrace books themselves, I have done little to support the organizations that sustain them in my consumption habits. I am not justifying this conclusion, I am simply observing my own behaviors and actions, and trying to understand what they may mean; the effect they have on the world, even if unintentional.

How are you creating the future of media?

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com